Becoming a Teacher



January 2017

How do you handle ‘negative’ comments?

This week I have been thinking about you as your teaching commitments increase and you are back in the place of getting feedback from colleagues on a daily basis.

Whilst getting, and responding, to advice is crucial for your continued progress, it can sometimes be very hard to constantly take on board what can feel like criticism and have a positive approach to reacting to it! It gets worse if you are someone who is also constantly reflecting for yourself – again, something we actively encourage – and finding your own ‘faults’. It is quite easy to reach a point where you feel like the road ahead is insurmountable!

Using the concept of ‘polarities’

The idea of ‘polarities’ can be found in literature around mentoring, coaching and organisational change.

A polarity is a relationship between two things that are opposite but not opposing, like night and day, sweet and sour, … .Their differences may be interesting but how they co-exist with their differences is more interesting. They are complementary opposites. … an awareness of … polarities can enhance the effectiveness of development work’ (Barefoot Collective)

Belinda Harris (2016) considers the concept of polarities from a Gestalt coaching and mentoring perspective suggesting ‘what is termed ‘problematic behaviour’ is not so much the behaviour, as it is being limited to that behaviour.’

So how can this help you?

Imagine you are spending hours planning lessons and both you and your mentor think this ‘over-planning’ is actually creating problems for you when you get in the classroom. I would guess your immediate feelings about this are ones of frustration and a wish to be able to plan a lesson in much less time and be flexible in the classroom.

What would the opposite of over-planning be?polarity

As soon as you identify the complete opposite to the behaviour it enables you to see the positives in your current behaviour. These might be:

  • Thinking carefully about the lesson
  • Considering the different things that could happen
  • Selecting exactly the right resources

This is a way of forcing yourself to see potential strengths when you are feeling there aren’t any.

The next step is to then think about the spectrum of behaviours between the two opposites and start to make choices. For example:

  • Selecting the lessons that need more time devoted to them than others (because it is a new topic, because you want to do a creative, different lesson, because you want to show an observer something specific …)
  • Deciding on lessons where you are going to put a time limit on yourself and say ‘that’s good enough’
  • Deciding on lessons where you don’t need resources other than questions in a textbook giving pupils the opportunity to practise

Stages which you could go through using polarities:

  1. Identify the polar opposite behaviour – this will take some time, don’t settle for where you would ‘like to be’, but push yourself to the other end of the spectrum. This will help you identify behaviours that would be as unhelpful as the ones currently identified by you or a colleague as ‘problematic’ if they were the only behaviour you adopted

  2. Use this identification to recognise potential strengths in your current behaviour

  3. Consider what the spectrum between the two behaviours looks like

  4. Consider particular contexts and think about the point on the spectrum you would like to reach for this context

Let’s consider one more example:

Imagine you are receiving this feedback/criticism – ‘you are spending too much time focusing on individuals and not the whole class’

You could go through the stages like this:

  1. The polar opposite could be seen to be ‘you are not noticing individuals and you are treating the whole class the same’
  2. So, what strengths does this potentially highlight in my current behaviour?
    • I care about individuals
    • I notice, and am interested, in individuals
    • I can differentiate work to support pupils who are struggling/finishing quickly
  3. The spectrum can then be thought of in terms of noticing individuals/keeping the whole class together/offering differentiated work/responding to pupils who are stuck at appropriate times in a lesson
  4. Now I can think about situations where I could make a certain choice to be at a point on the spectrum – e.g. before pupils start on an independent task I need to be considering the whole class to ensure everyone knows what they are doing.

This can then help me plan particular strategies or activities for different contexts. For example, taking the situation outlined above, I could use mini-whiteboards to ensure all pupils have understood what we have covered.

Once the pupils are settled into a task it may then be appropriate to swing to the end of the spectrum and think about individuals. After a certain period of time, I will want to swing in the other direction and refocus on the class as a whole.

What other ideas can you add to the exploration of this issue?

With the knowledge of the polarities and the spectrum between them, I can plan for what I will do in a lesson and react to situations.

So, set yourself a tasktake one behaviour/problem that you are currently focusing on. Can you go through the stages above? If you are struggling see if a friend can help you!

Why thinking about questioning in advance is so important…

This week I would like to focus on questioning. I don’t intend to go over what you have already had offered to you about questioning on the course (Bloom’s taxonomy, higher order questions, how to get different pupils answering, …) though I would encourage you to revisit these ideas if they don’t leap straight into your head. Instead, I would like you to think about what your current practice is in relation to creating sequences of questions and what you might add to this.

Whilst not a great fan of Wikipedia, this quote jumps out if you google ‘questioning’:

‘Questioning is a major form of human thought and interpersonal communication. The thinker employs a series of questions to explore an issue, an idea or something intriguing. Questioning is the process of forming and wielding that series to develop answers and insight.’


Whilst this refers to an individual thinker posing their own questions, doesn’t the ‘forming and wielding’ make you think about what your role could be as a teacher?

Many times student teachers have said to me they think of questions on the spot enabling them to react to a situation, and that is why the questions aren’t written into their plans in detail. Whilst a laudable rationale, I would like to challenge this – I would suggest that it is only with a lot of experience of teaching any given topic or concept that this might really be possible!

To be able to ask sequences of high quality questions, that drill down into conceptual understanding, I need an in-depth teacher knowledge in relation to the topic I am teaching. However strong my personal subject knowledge is, I don’t think this teacher knowledge can just appear at exactly the right moment for me to form a good sequence of questions without a great deal of experience in teaching that given topic.

With your tutors you will have had many discussions by now of what a teacher’s knowledge might be and how this is different to purely knowing your subject well. Remember Shulman’s idea of a teacher’s knowledge base:

  • content knowledge
  • general pedagogical knowledge
  • curriculum knowledge
  • pedagogical content knowledge
  • knowledge about the learners
  • knowledge of educational contexts
  • knowledge of educational ends, purposes, values

(Shulman, 1987, p1-22)

I would suggest that, without this knowledge firmly in place, I am going to struggle to ask good questions, and in particular a series of good questions, without planning them first.

So, where do you go from here?

At the planning stage, you really need to think about the purpose of a sequence of questions and then decide what you need to plan to enable you to ‘form and wield’.

What do you want the end point to be? Try working backwards from there – instead of asking one ‘end point’ question that lots of pupils, incorrectly, try and answer (and it turns into ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’), try and create a series of questions that build up to the end point. At each stage think about what answers/partial answer/words you are looking out for that will enable you to move on to the next question.

For example, if I was planning a question and answer session with a group of trainee teachers where I wanted to develop their understanding of scaffolding and contingency (if this rings no bells, look at David Wood’s work which we introduced you to last term!) then my opening question might be:

Can anyone explain to me what they understand by the term ‘scaffolding’?

The sorts of answers I might get could be:

‘the teacher provides successive levels of support’

‘it’s what teachers do when a pupil is in the zone of proximal development’

‘the teacher simplifies something then gradually builds up the difficulty’

The words in bold highlight the things I might be hoping to hear and then build upon.

Having decided what I want to hear, I can now plan more than one route through my series of questions that enable me to reach my planned end point.

For example, I can have a plan for what to ask next if someone mentions the ‘zone of proximal development’ and this route take a slightly different direction to if I used the response ‘successive levels of support’.

What might those routes look like? Can you think of what my next question might be? What words would I then be looking out for?

The key point I am making is the teacher needs to decide how they want to structure the knowledge they are hoping pupils will engage with in a lesson and thinking about questioning is a key way in which you can do this. Knowing my purpose (and end point) of a sequence of questions and planning a route, or routes to it, will enable me to make decisions within my lesson based on pupils’ responses and ensure my questions are of a high quality.

Still not sure about how you might go about planning a good sequence of questioning?

Observe an experienced teacher and focus purely on sequences of questions:

  • What question does the teacher ask?
  • What responses do they take?
  • Which responses do they use?
  • How do they use the response?
  • What do they do next?

Record the sequences (perhaps create a form to do this on?) then take some time to look at what you have observed and try and work out how the teacher has structured the knowledge and what decisions they have made along the way.

How have they formed and wielded the series of questions to ‘develop answers and insight’?

Revisiting behaviour for learning

As you come to the end of your first week in your new school, you will be thinking ahead to the lessons you are going to start teaching and so it seems a good time to revisit behaviour for learning and think about how you are going to approach your very first lessons with new classes.

Pre-emption – learning from last term

In an entry last term I talked about the idea of pre-emption and avoiding poor behaviour happening in the first place.

If you reflect on School Experience, I am sure there will be some classes where, by the end of term, things were going really well but there will also have been other classes (or individual pupils) where you felt you ‘got it wrong’ at the beginning and this had an impact on the remainder of your time working with them!

Applying the notion of pre-emption means that you should be looking ahead to these early lessons and focusing on avoiding this happening again.

To do this really successfully you need to know why things went wrong last term. I am sure you will have discussed situations with experienced teachers, peers and University tutors, but it is worth taking a moment to remember the key things you took away from these discussions and ensure you have thought about them when planning your upcoming lessons.

Having done this, let’s look forward and think about a couple of things you might choose to prioritise in these early lessons:

Rules of engagement

Since September, we have asked you to develop your ideas about classroom management and keep a portfolio, or journal, of your exploration of this. One thing tutors will have been asking you to do is to identify your ground rules for your classroom and develop your own answers to questions such as:

  • What is appropriate behaviour?
  • What is unacceptable?
  • What might be tolerated in some circumstances but not others?

By the end of School Experience you might have reached a point where you had a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ for your classroom and a common question at this stage is ‘shall I tell my new classes my rules right from the start?’

Some people may say this is a good idea and, on the surface, you can see why. Personally I would be wary of doing this; to me it presents two immediate dangers:

  • If you tell a class your rules but then don’t fully abide by them they immediately become worthless and the class will feel they don’t need to behave for you
  • You will have a big impact on the culture you create in the classroom, giving a message that you are ‘the one with all the power’ – this may not fit with what you are trying to achieve in the long run

I would suggest there is a more powerful way of ensuring your rules are clearly understood by the pupils from the outset and this is by enacting them consistently in everything you do.

To plan for this you need to know what your rules are and then you need to notice opportunities throughout your early lessons to ‘point them out’ to pupils:

A pupil shouts an answer out:

‘Chitra, please don’t shout answers out… I want to give people a bit of time to think then pick someone to answer my question …’

A pupil is talking when you, or another pupil, are talking:

‘Ben, when someone is talking everyone else needs to listen carefully … I might ask you to respond to what you hear!’

A pupil listens to another pupil’s answer and responds to it:

‘Before I say anything about your answer, I just want to point out that the way you listened to Anna’s answer first and built on it is was great, well done!’

The noise level is perfect when pupils are working on a task:

‘This is exactly the level of noise that I like in my classroom as it allows everyone to concentrate. Well done!’

The examples could go on but hopefully you can see what I mean. Gradually I am pointing out my rules and making them explicit to pupils, without commanding things to be done my way or setting myself up in opposition to my pupils.

Use your eyes …

Eye contact is a crucial tool and, whilst this may seem common sense, it is worth thinking about the different ways you can use your eyes to convey key messages to your classes and pupils. Thinking particularly about classroom management in these early lessons, consider how to make eye contact when:

  • talking to the class as a whole (it is important to have direct contact with your listeners but if your eyes only focus on one or two pupils, others will stop paying attention and individual pupils might feel uncomfortable);
  • talking to individual pupils (how do you show the pupil you are listening and interested in them? How do you show the pupil you are displeased? How do you ensure you are not infringing on cultural beliefs in the way you are using eye contact?)

Developing the teacher gaze:

Holding eye contact with pupils when I notice them doing something I don’t want in my classroom is very powerful. Catching their eye and not looking away until the inappropriate behaviour has stopped can have a much more lasting effect than verbally telling them. You will have seen experienced teachers do this, gradually leading pupils to believe that inappropriate behaviour will always be noticed. You need to practise this from the outset and notice when you do it well …



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