Review by Heidi Marke

13 Nov 2016, 5:00

The Slightly Awesome Teacher

This hugely ambitious and passionate book attempts to distil educational research into simple practical tools to help every teacher achieve brilliant results without working any harder. All with a comforting, rather English, self-deprecating title and quotes from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It claims to be the “love child” of four hugely influential books by Doug Lemov, John Hattie, Jim Smith and Phil Beadle, but more accessible and practical. A tall order and one that unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Dominic Salles fails to pull off.

A practical book to improve teaching needs to be easy to digest and result in impact during term time. I read this during the beginning of the school year and found it to be neither. It reads more like a series of opinionated blogs rather than a practical book with a coherent structure. Salles suggests you dip in and out, but the book builds on previous chapters so this doesn’t always work.

I found it took a determined effort to find a small practical step to try out in my classroom. I’m really not convinced that writing entire revision guides, restructuring how a year group is entered for GCSE, changing the way pupil premium money is used and firing all your teaching assistants count.

So, should you read it? If you love a good old highly opinionated rant, then go for it.

Although Salles makes some valid points and has some great and refreshingly controversial ideas, they are beyond the scope of a book written to make educational research accessible to classroom teachers.

Eventually, in a discussion of Hattie’s concept of teacher “with-it-ness”, he suggests using a colleague’s technique of ignoring the worst two high-level disruptees and focusing your efforts on the most ambivalent four. This isn’t new but a good practical reminder of the importance of building the critical mass towards focused learning. On my way to work the next day the technique has morphed into the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

In this particular, rather tricky, class there are three, not two, high-level disruptees that I affectionately refer to (in private obviously) as “The Evil Triad”. The students are professionals; they have developed and honed their craft well.

Next lesson, I’ve identified my four. I invite the pupils in and get them settled doing Numeracy Ninjas in silence. The Evil Triad arrive fashionably late, as usual announcing their excuses and personal needs. I do my best to use non-verbal cues to get them settled without disturbing the other students, keeping an encouraging eye on the Four Horsemen.

I ignore the usual deflective stream about pens/toilet/drink/book and scan the room to check the behaviour of the Four only to find I’ve lost them – they’ve morphed and four others have taken their place – agh!! This repeats itself over the next couple of weeks until I can no longer remember using the technique.

Maybe the technique didn’t stand a chance with this particular class. Will I use it again? Maybe, but mainly I’m looking forward to refocusing on my original plan for my teaching this year – implementing techniques from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion.

Furthermore, the Four Horsemen Technique is not actually from this book. It’s something my mind invented whilst mulling over the chapter on classroom management. It’s what I expected to find here, but is what I actually find (more easily) in the books that Salles claims to be influenced by.

Disappointed, I flick to the end only to find a useful list that would have helped signpost and structure the book into the useful guide it purports to be.

So, should you read it? If you’ve never read any blogs or books on educational research, love a good old highly opinionated rant, then go for it.

Otherwise, to read a practical guide on using research and cognitive science, try stuff from a chapter of Hattie and Yates Visible Learning & the Science of How We Learn; for an easily accessible and thought-provoking introduction to using cognitive science, read Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?; for a coherent list of clearly described practical techniques used by top teachers read Lemov and, if you want more easy to implement ideas than you can ever have time to try out, read Jim Smith’s Outstanding Lazy Teaching.

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  1. Dominic Salles

    Hello Heidi,

    Thank you so much for buying the book and taking time to review it. Your advice to put the checklist at the beginning is great – if I ever get to a reprint, I’ll definitely do that. Obviously I would have preferred that you like it enough to read it all! Ho hum.

    For anyone still curious to read the book, I will say it has little to say about behaviour, other than it is no where near as important as people think.

    The structure of the book is intended to build techniques that have ever increasing impact. Students just keep doing better because teachers make small tweaks based on the research. You suggest that you skipped to the end quickly, thereby missing most of the high impact suggestions.

    The books you mention are indeed awesome – however, they don’t tell you what will have the biggest impact with your finite effort. My book tries to navigate this choice. There are also lots of research and evidence based suggestions for senior leaders, which other teaching books tend not to do.

    I don’t suggest sacking TAs – but I do suggest that you would teach 4-6 students in a maths intervention far better than a full time TA will, seeing them in ones and twos. (I imagine any teacher would be insulted if I suggested otherwise). Yes, replacing TAs with intervention teachers, when TAs leave, really would transform your school.

    Ditto the curriculum, working out how students revise, spending pupil premium money differently.

    The main techniques in my book concern modelling and direct instruction by the way. They have a very high impact, cost nothing, and all revolve around getting the curriculum right.

    Finally, The Slightly Awesome Teacher always relies on evidence, so no matter how opinionated they may be (and I am a teacher, therefore very opinionated), they have to back it up with evidence, evidence, evidence.

    Chipping Campden’s Progress 8 is 0.4 (top 12% in the country) and our English top 5%, and English disadvantaged top 2%. What we do seems to be working.

    Gillingham School’s progress 8 is -0.05.

    Lemov will definitely move you on. 62 techniques. But which ones to prioritise for your staff? That’s why I wrote the book.It really may be worth another look.