David rescued me from failing maths in high school after my mum convinced him to give me private lessons. Having always struggled with maths, David somehow made the complicated seem easy and I eventually ended up with a half-decent grade. In maths. I found it remarkable. Ever since it’s been my go-to example to illustrating the impact a good teacher can have. So, I’m happy report that he became one. We spoke in November, he in his house in Karlstad, and I in my London flat.
David is a so called “1st teacher”, which means that in addition to teaching high school students, he also has an active role in developing the curriculum and represents the school at various teacher forums. The Nobel high school is the largest of its kind in the Värmland province, and David teaches students in the construction programme.
Teaching maths to students with their eyes set on a career in construction doesn’t sound like the easiest task in the world, but David has always enjoyed teaching those who might not necessarily find things easy.
“Before my current role I taught students who failed to make it to high school but got another chance to pass the subjects they needed. Before that I spent four years teaching asylum seekers and students from across the world who wanted to access the Swedish education system.”
How to manage schools following the Covid-19 outbreak has been at the top of the news agenda in many countries, with most reverting to some form of remote teaching on very short notice. In David’s case, in March 2020.
“Between March and June I ran lessons from the classroom but the students were all at home. There were one or two who really struggled and were in the classroom with me as well. We even did some exams digitally, although the national exam was eventually cancelled. It actually saved a few students since it gave me some more time to work with those who were struggling.”
Teaching is traditionally a very physical experience when you have a larger class, but David has been surprised by how well the move to remote teaching has gone.
“It’s easier to encourage and engage students when you meet them face to face, but I noticed that I wasn’t as tired at the end of the day as before. I had to keep track of things on my computer but there were fewer impressions than before. I still think it’s better to have students in the classroom as some don’t apply themselves in the same way at home. It’s also more difficult to notice those who struggle.”
Pretty much everyone in a role where remote working is possible has had to adapt. For David it’s meant trying out how to use technology to keep lessons effective and focused.
“We use Microsoft Teams in our classes. Initially I used another program that had a chat function since I thought it would be calmer if the students were not able to see each other. I thought it worked pretty well, but after a few weeks the students started saying that it was so boring, so now we use Teams and it actually works really well.”
I’m interested in understanding what David sees as key to be a good teacher. He explains that it is important to encourage students to work hard, but that a teacher also needs to show a willingness to put the time in themselves.
“I normally go to the classroom early and prepare what we will cover on the board so I can present it and they can get to work. You need to use the time in the best possible way by having clear structures and clarity on what needs to be achieved. I think it’s fun to try and make them feel that they are doing well. You need to recognise the small achievements; instead of setting out task 4-10, you talk about task 4, 5, 6, 7 etc. Then they can cross things off along the way and feel like they have achieved something. That’s when they grow and feel like they can get into a flow.”
According to David, one of the secrets to being a successful teacher is helping students realise that things are not as difficult that they might seem.
“The key is to put in the time and focus; when they spend time doing it they often realise that it wasn’t as difficult as they thought. I think I’m good at explaining things with few words, by removing the noise, sorting methods and by focusing on what is relevant for a particular problem. Sometimes you need to fight, some of my students might not think that they have the energy needed to put in the work, but they do.
So how do you convince someone to fight?
“You need to have a strong relationship, so they don’t fight back but go along with it. The relationship, and the feeling in the classroom, is important; I try and have fun, be spontaneous and improvise, while keeping the structure. I also encourage my students to help each other.”
We discuss the time when David helped me with my maths and how something that had seemed so difficult suddenly made sense to me. It was as if he had already mastered the art of teaching, long before he completed his degree. Does he think he had a natural ability that made him particularly suitable for the profession?
“A good teacher needs to understand the person they are trying to teach, what they are thinking. Some people might find that easier than others. You need to understand what skills they have and use that as a starting point. So you start with what a person knows, and then you take one step forward. Maths has always been easy for me, and my father was a maths teacher, and I think I know what is difficult when people are learning something new. There are some keys, and I think I’m good at finding those and presenting them in a clear way. When I’ve learned something, I think I’m good at seeing what was easy and what was difficult.”
So how important is the teacher for a student's achievements, is it even possible to say?
“Some people don’t need much support at all, they manage on their own as long as I’m clear on what they need to do. Other people need help to get started or to keep the focus. But even those who manage well on their own benefit from the overview and the structure I provide at the start of a lesson.”
David is not only an excellent teacher; he is also a musician and you can listen to his music on Spotify and a writer of some truly creative stories for children, which you can listen to on YouTube and Facebook.