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!