Becoming a Teacher



September 2016

What should I really be doing when I am observing a lesson?

By now you will have been in a range of lessons, observing different teachers and pupils. Even with the structured tasks we have set you, I am guessing there will have been times when you are watching what is happening when you are not sure what you are supposed to be seeing and what you are supposed to gain from observing as oppose to just getting stuck in and teaching lessons straightaway.

Observation is important at any stage of a teacher’s career and we will be encouraging you to observe experienced practitioners (and each other where you can) throughout the year. Teachers’ lessons are so often observed now as part of a means of collecting evidence to judge teaching, and an individual teacher (Ofsted, performance management,…), yet, non-judgemental observation of lessons offers a rich means of making sense of teaching and learning and developing practice.

You may recall this quote which I showed you when the PGCE course started:


I think this emphasises the approach we take to learning to teach – the need to examine what is happening in a classroom and make sense of it in order to develop and not just keep repeating practices that may, or may not, support learning.

Drawing from international practices, it is interesting to consider the principles of lesson study in areas of Asia where large groups of teachers observe the same lesson scrutinizing the learning that is taking place. At points there can be hundreds of teachers observing, and then discussing, one lesson!


Lesson Study is a growing practice in the UK and as a university we are leading the way in this area with several projects that draw on the Japanese model. I have been lucky enough to be involved in some of this work and it is fascinating to really unpick a lesson and make sense of what is happening. The thing that I find most powerful is the idea that you are not looking at the teacher, or judging them, you are focusing solely on the pupils’ work (responses to questions, written answers) and the structuring of the knowledge in the lesson. Whilst, at your stage, I think it is important to observe the teacher as well as the pupils the key here is the lack of judgement of the teacher – instead it is about observing how their decisions and actions impact on learning.

So where does this leave you?

Well, lesson observation for professional development is a skill that can be developed and practised, here are two suggestions for you to try out in the coming weeks. Both could be done alongside an observation focus you may already have but the point is to really dig down into what you see, either by focusing on one particular ‘spot’ (a pupil or two) or one particular teacher attribute. Be very careful not to judge what you see, don’t think about what you would do or decide there is a ‘better way’, simply notice and pose questions. Have a go and see how you get on!

Concentrate on just the body language of the teacher and how they position themselves in the classroom:

Where do they position themselves at the start of the lesson? What impact does this have on how the lesson begins?

When pupils are working independently where is the teacher? When do they intervene? When do they observe? What impact does this have on the pupils?

What do they do with their hands when they are talking? When they are listening?

Watch a teacher that is good at getting the complete attention of the class. How do they get silence? Look at what they do with their eyes, body position, hands, …. When they ask for silence, count in your head or look on a watch and note down how long they stand and say nothing. Does it surprise you? After the lesson try standing still for the same amount of time. Notice how it goes beyond when you feel like you would like to say something and you feel very aware of the silence, it’s that awkward silence you want to spot.

Decide on some questions to ask the teacher about how they used their body language and position in the room during the lesson – when you talk to them you might frame your question along the lines of ‘I noticed you …, did you consciously choose to do this? Why?’

Focus on a group of one or two pupils. Throughout the lesson, look only at their work and think about what they might be learning:

What do they do when the teacher asks a question?

If they answer a question what happens? Examine the full sequence of questions and answers – can you see how learning has developed through this sequence?

When working independently what happens – can they do the work? What happens if they are stuck? What happens if they finish?

Look carefully at exactly what work the pupils do – can you spot the learning that is taking place? What makes you think there is learning happening?

Ask permission to take a copy or photo of their work – examine it and think about what it tells you about what they have learnt in the lesson.

Decide on some questions to ask the teacher. Focus your questions on what you think the pupils have learnt not on how they behaved.



Redefining ‘perfect’

As you come to the end of this week and look ahead to next week it is highly likely that many of you will be feeling apprehensive. We have thrown a huge amount at you in these two weeks – lots of information, ideas and challenges to think about. Next week you will be going into school and spending more time there than with us and this can feel quite frightening. You don’t know what to expect, you want to do well and be liked and you want everything to go right and be perfect – this fear of the unknown, alongside a desire to do everything right can be hard to handle.

I would imagine another problem many of you might be grappling with is the feeling of not being in control and not being given easy answers to your questions. We have had a lot of conversations with you about the fact that you will need to develop into your own teacher and learn what is right for you and, whilst this is absolutely correct, at this moment in time many of you might just want simple answers!

With these thoughts in mind here are a few suggestions that might help you think about things differently:

Take time to notice that you are feeling scared or anxious. If you are aware of your feelings you can spot the thoughts you are having that are irrational. Keep reminding yourself that a primitive part of your brain is trying to be in charge and tell yourself that the sensible part of your brain is not going to let this happen!

It might be that you are worried that you won’t get on with your mentor – force yourself to think about this sensibly:

Is there a real reason to worry about why you might not get on? Was there anything to suggest you wouldn’t get on when you met last week? In the vast majority of cases the answers will be no. Even if something small happened last week that does make you a little nervous, remember that your fears are based on your perception of things. Your mentor is much more likely to have a positive impression of you and not noticed the thing you are fretting about!

Give your brain a positive thought to focus on. As your brain wanders into the territory of thinking about everything you don’t know, or all the things you don’t have control over, focus on something you do know or can control – however small.

When thinking about everything that you don’t know about your placement school and what will happen next week, focus on something positive you do know, however small. This might be a class you were with last week that you liked, a friendly teacher, even the fact that the logistics of getting to your school are easy to manage. Similarly, when worrying about what you have no control over, think positively about what you can control – arriving nice and early, looking professional, smiling and being friendly, getting involved in lessons … all these things are in your gift.

Genuinely identify what you do and don’t know. By sitting down and really thinking about what you do and don’t know you might realise you know a lot more than you think and that no-one is expecting you to know what you don’t know!

You know that there is lots of structure to your upcoming placement, you know that the school and University know exactly what you need to do over the next few months and they have, and will, plan tasks, activities and teaching that make sense for each step of the way. You already know lots about the school in terms of practicalities – the timings of the day, how to get there, who key people are. You know that no one is expecting you to teach straightaway next week. What might you not know? Exactly when you are going to start teaching, whether the pupils will like you, how to plan a lesson, … be kind to yourself and remind yourself that no one is expecting you to know these things at the moment.

Accept that you can’t be in control. No likes being out of control but I think to be successful at managing the scary moments on a teacher training course is to accept you can’t be in control. As teachers we can never be fully in control, however experienced we are, because every day something unexpected happens (pupils react badly to a task, a fire alarm goes off in the middle of the lesson, you suddenly have to cover someone else’s lesson, a pupil is sick in your lesson, a pupil tells you something that needs urgently dealing with, a member of department is off ill and you are asked to pick up some of their work, … the list could go on). Realise that learning not to be in control of everything is part of the journey.

Don’t seek perfection. You can’t be perfect as a teacher so see learning not to be as just another challenge or target for you moving forward. Perhaps another way of thinking about it is to accept that you like to be perfect and redefine what ‘perfect’ is in relation to being a teacher – perhaps ‘perfect’ is coping with not being in control, being able to be flexible and being able to learn from mistakes. Now you can still tell your head you want to be perfect but what that looks like is something different!

Thoughts and challenges for Beginning Teachers

Welcome to this blog which will run right the way through this year, hopefully supporting you on your journey to becoming a great teacher.

I am the PGCE Course Leader at the University of Nottingham and am really interested in the journey beginning teachers take and how they can be best supported through a challenging year.

In the early days of student teachers being with us we talk a lot about the complexities of learning to teach, the different types of knowledge you will be developing and the many expectations that will be placed on you over the coming months. What we know is that, right from the outset, we are asking you to: juggle ideas; work hard every day (and many evenings); gradually increase your teaching and, at the same time, step outside of the day to day and reflect and think about how your teacher identity and thoughts about teaching and learning are developing. Not an easy task.

At the end of the 2014-15 PGCE year, chatting to some students as they finished our PGCE course, I mused about whether it might be helpful to have some sort of ongoing dialogue, sitting apart from the day to day demands and inputs of teachers, schools, pupils and university tutors, that could drip feed ideas and thoughts throughout the year; a space beginning teachers could visit on a weekly basis that would support them to reflect on their week, identify things that they have learnt and plan for the next steps they need to take. The response from these students was a resounding yes so the idea was trialled last year. Feedback was positive so this year I am doing it officially and a blog has been born.

My aim is to offer thoughts, ideas and challenges for you to mull over. When it feels appropriate, I might draw your attention to things you can look at or read but I will be careful not to overdo this as I know you are already bombarded with enough on that front!

I hope you enjoy the weekly insights and challenges and that this helps you as you navigate the coming year and develop as a teacher.

Featured post

What’s niggling you?

I am sure the start to your year feels quite dramatic and I know from speaking to some of you that your heads are spinning with everything that has been thrown at you. So, let’s keep it simple. A key thing we have talked about this week is reflection and the need for you to develop your skills in this area. Many of you will already see yourself as reflective and will find yourself constantly thinking about your experiences and what you have learnt from them. I want to suggest you need to take this a step further and be able to not just think back on an event and decide what you have learnt, but to be able to gradually question and develop a thought, however small, so that your philosophy and personal theories about teaching and learning can crystallise. What follows is a suggestion of how you might do this:

What is niggling at you?

What is a key ‘issue’ that has stood out for you this week? This might be an idea that has been offered to you by a tutor or teacher in school or it might be a thought that has started to develop in your mind based on this week’s experiences and conversations. Pick something that is niggling at you, perhaps something that has never crossed your mind before about teaching or something you thought you were certain of and now are less so.

What are you doing with your idea? 

To me, the answer to this second question is crucial and establishing ways that work for you to mull over and develop ideas will be a real key to your success over the year. So, what might work?

Firstly, I would recommend trying to find some way of formalising your idea on paper. This might only be a few words at this stage or a basic question. For example:

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The next thing to think about is how to avoid the idea getting lost amongst everything else we are expecting you to engage with and the many notes you have probably already made. Try selecting just one key idea and put that somewhere different – on a post-it on your mirror, a separate page in a notebook, a note on your phone… Simply separating out this one idea gives you space to keep returning to it. If you recall, we talked about the need to shape and reshape your ideas and this is part of that process.

Once you have identified your idea, explore it: talk to others ~ tutors, your peers, teachers… and pupils; read about it; have it in the back of your mind when you observe a lesson. Try to return to your idea at regular intervals ~ have your views changed? Have you got more questions? What do you need to know to develop your thinking further? Do you reach a point where you feel pretty confident that you are certain of your views? If yes, then leave the idea alone for a few weeks, make a note in a diary or on your phone to return to it in a month’s time and see if you are still sure of your position.

Then find your next idea!

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