Fingers and Toes

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I guess I won’t be telling anybody anything new when I start this post by saying that teaching is difficult. It’s not an easy thing to do, whatever subject or whatever level you’re doing it at. Is it worth while? Definitely! But there are going to be days when you feel that it isn’t, days when you feel like all you’ve done is bang your head against a brick wall again and again. I’ve had those, and I’m guessing you might have done as well. As terrible as those days can feel, hang in there! Because at the end of the day, the truth is that your love and enthusiasm for teaching will help you through. And if you’re as lucky as I am, you also have a flotilla of friends, family and classmates looking out for you as well. This post is about one of those people:my wonderful partner, who has helped me through my blackest days with little tricks like the one I’m about to tell you about.

I’d had an awful day. One of my classes had been particularly difficult and it was all I could think about. My partner came home from work and found me slumped on the sofa in a terrible state. After I’d bawled on him for a minute (or, err, fifteen!) he asked me to tell him why I was so upset. I told him about my difficult class and everything that had happened that I couldn’t get out of my head. He then asked me to tell him about the good things that had happened in the day. I’d had other classes that had gone much better, so I told him about those as well. It was mainly full of little things; my first years had done well with their essays, I’d gotten some good feedback from another teacher on my third years, a pupil had told me she liked my dress, things like that. After I’d told him everything, my partner said ‘I’ve been keeping count of everything you told me. Do you know how many bad things you told me about?’

I shook my head, but I knew it had to have been hundreds to have upset me so badly. He showed me four fingers and said ‘Four bad things. And do you know how many good things you told me?’ I guessed maybe seven. And my wonderful partner bent over, pulled off his socks and slippers, wiggled all his fingers and toes at me and said with a massive smile on his face ‘Twenty! Twenty good things about today!’

The effect was instantaneous;it put a smile on my face as big as his and I felt immediately better about the day. Sure, it hadn’t been perfect – but twenty good things was phenomenal! It really put things into perspective and made me see how easy it was to let a handful of bad things throw off your entire perception of one day. I’d given so much attention to the things that hadn’t gone well and had completely written off the things that had made it a good day. For whatever reason, my brain will always cling to the negatives over the positives, and that’s what upsets me. (Does your brain do that too? Please feel free to comment, I’m curious!)

I won’t advise you to completely disregard things that go wrong – you won’t learn how to be better if you do – but nor can you let those things beat you up and upset you. Constructive reflection is how you do that; be as objective as you can about what happened, work out why it may not have been as effective as you were hoping, and then come up with a plan to make it better. As my partner has told me, you’ve only failed if you haven’t learnt from your mistakes. And you will make them, I’m sorry to say; it’s part of the job. But that’s not a bad thing, as long as you use your mistakes to adjust your practice and become better.

So don’t let a handful of bad things ruin your mood; constructively reflect, make a plan, and then let them go. Because the chances are that there have been plenty of positives that you may have forgotten about!

Ditching the Pass/Fail Mindset

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If you went/go to a university where the teaching qualification is taught in a similar way to the way mine did, you may experience the same shivers that I did when The Observed Lesson is mentioned.At my university, your tutor would observe you teach two lessons and it was on a pass/fail basis.Let me tell you how that would go –

First, you prayed like crazy that your tutor would choose your best class, your favourites – you know, the ones who listen to you and follow your instructions without telling you to shut up. Then, once you found that out, you started work on your lesson plan. You submitted a masterpiece of a lesson plan that had been pimped and critiqued and sweated over like no other lesson plan you’d ever made before. Then there’s The Day. And before you’d even started, the bees are suspicious. Your class knows that something is different. There’s a Someone they don’t know in the back of their classroom. You can see the cogs in their minds spinning. Do you introduce your tutor? Do you ignore the whirling cogs and begin? Whatever you chose, it doesn’t change the fact that your lovingly planned lesson with all its bells and whistles is done and dusted in less than an hour. Which doesn’t seem fair considering the length of time you spent planning it.  And all the time, the only thing in your mind is that this observation is pass/fail. Sure, it’s not the end of the world if you fail – you’re still going to get valuable feedback –  but that’s the overriding goal.  The feedback is marginalised because all you want to know during that blood freezing chat you have with your tutor afterwards to discuss the lesson is whether you’ve passed or failed.

Now, my university only observed two of the many lessons I taught as a student teacher. And while I have my issues with that system of assessment, it was only two lessons. But it wasn’t until my mentor at my probationary school asked me which class I wanted to be observed with for the first of my numerous observed lessons that I realised the impact of those two lessons on me. ‘Which class would you like to be observed with?’ she asked.

‘My first years.’ I immediately replied, instinctively going for my favourite class.They behave, they respect me, I haven’t had a dud lesson with them so far.

‘Ok,’ my mentor said after I’d explained my choice, ‘but what do you think you’ll learn from an observation with that class?’

And my whole perspective on observation changed. This observation wasn’t designed as a test to trip me up or as a potential barrier to my teaching education. My feedback wasn’t going to be framed as a pass/fail assessment, it was all there to help me become a better teacher. It had probably always been like that, but the pass/fail aspect of my university observations had made me afraid of it. Once that idea was removed, so was my fear of observation. I’ve had two observations now and have a third in a fortnight. I’ve deliberately chosen my worst classes, the ones I need help with, because I know that the observation is another source of help that I can use in a positive way.

So if you have a university observation coming up, try not to let the pass/fail aspect of it bother you; it’ll stress you out and that won’t do you any good. Prioritise the feedback because feedback is only going to help you get better at what you do. Good luck, and remember; you’ve got this!