Five years ago, I did not possess the skills needed of a good teacher. Standing frightened in the headlights of such a realisation led to some behaviour I’m not proud of: I got easily cross with students and staff, I ignored feedback from my mentor, I gossiped about those I felt weren’t being supportive, and I believed some of my colleagues were willing me to fail.
But that’s not the worst part. To feel better I then unconsciously invented clever stories explaining to myself why I did this. These fell into three categories:
The Victim Story. I made myself out to be an innocent sufferer where I left out the role I played in the problem. I told myself that I was being punished for my virtues, not my vices. I exaggerated my own innocence.
The Villain Story. I overemphasised other people’s guilt or mistakes.
The Helpless Story. I thought of myself as someone who was powerless to do anything helpful. I felt convinced that there was no healthy alternative to dealing with the problem, and I felt justified in the action I was about to take.
In order to improve my relationships at work, to feel better about myself and to get better at teaching, I needed to recognise when I was telling these stories so that I could stop. I needed to flip them on their head to tell more useful stories instead; ones that led to a healthy action more in line with the results I wanted. These healthier stories looked like this:
You’re not a victim, you’re an actor
Are you pretending not to notice the role you played in the situation? Face up to the fact that maybe you did something to help cause the problem. Perhaps you were thoughtless? Stop being selective with your perception of yourself.
They’re not a villain, they’re a person
Ask yourself why a reasonable person might do what this person is doing. Replace your judgement with empathy. What if that person was just trying to give you a hand?
You’re not helpless, you’re able
What do you really want? What would you do if that was your true goal? You’d probably openly and honestly discuss the problem rather than gossip. When you refuse to think of yourself as helpless you begin to hold yourself more accountable.
If you can master the stories that you tell yourself, you’ll free yourself of the unhealthy emotions that come with them and will be able to get on with the business of getting better.
As a teacher, you’ll sometimes need to hold difficult one-on-one conversations with students who are not meeting expectations. This could be for ongoing bad behaviour, a bad attitude or poor quality work. For the inexperienced, this can lead to unfortunate arguments which are exhausting and leave you both feeling sour. In order to avoid flared tempers, here are some steps I’ve learnt that have helped me speak to students with more curiosity and patience:
Step 1: Share the facts
Facts are persuasive because they’re undeniable and are unlikely to prove controversial.
Step 2: Tell your story
Your story is your interpretation of the facts. It’s important to make sure that this is presented as a possible story and not a concrete fact. For example: ‘In my opinion…’ or I’m not sure whether you intend to mean this, but I’m beginning to wonder if….’ Or ‘Maybe you think…’. Afterwards you can ask them to clarify: ‘Is that what’s going on?’
Step 3: Contrast
Make your view clearer with contrasting statements. You could say words to the effect of ‘I know you care about…’ etc. ‘My only issue is…’. Be careful here not to apologise for offering your point of view.
Step 4: Ask for their facts and story
Ask the student to share their view. Make it clear you really want to hear what they have to say: ‘What am I missing?’ ‘Do you see it differently?’ or ‘Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I really want to hear your thoughts.’
Step 5: Encourage testing
If they seem hesitant, play devil’s advocate. Model by disagreeing with your own view: ‘Maybe I’m wrong here’.
Step 6: Mirror
If they seem hesitant, play devil’s advocate. Model what this sounds like by disagreeing with your own view: ‘Maybe I’m wrong here’.
Step 7: Paraphrase
Re-phrase, without repeating word-for-word, what they’ve told you to acknowledge that you have listened to them. Do this is in a tone that validates their point and doesn’t not ridicule it.
Step 8: Agree or disagree
Say that you agree when you do. Add any details that have been left out. Compare where you differ. This might sound like: ‘I think I see things differently. Let me describe how.’
Step 9: Decide and assign
It’s best when a consensus is reached where you both support one decision, phrased something like ‘Moving forward I need you to… and I will…’. Make sure you’ve answered: Who? Does what? By when? And how will I follow up? Write these down to show that you’re committed.
Step 10: Hold them accountable
Refer back to your notes. If either the student (or yourself) has failed to live up to the promise they made earlier you’ll need to have another conversation, repeating the steps above.
What might this look like?
Let’s say a student of yours, Stephen, has failed to submit three homework tasks in a row. You’ve used the school behaviour policy of setting a detention each time (which they attended), but their behaviour is not changing and they seem to have become resentful resulting in a few small arguments during lessons. It’s time to have a difficult conversation:
Teacher:Stephen, you haven’t handed in the past three homework tasks [sharing the facts]. It seems that you’re struggling with the topic. Is that what’s going on? [telling your story]
Stephen: No, I get the topic. I don’t know why I don’t do the homework.
Teacher: I know you care about your GCSEs. My only issue is that you might not get the grade you need to do what you want to do next. What am I missing here? Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I want to hear your thoughts. [asking for their facts and story]
Stephen: I dunno. I’m just lazy, I guess. What’s the problem? I come to the detentions, don’t I?
Teacher: Look, maybe I’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Maybe you are motivated to do the work, but there’s another issue stopping you from doing it? [Encouraging testing]
Stephen: I just find it boring. It’s not your fault, it’s just the subject. I don’t really care that much about Macbeth to be honest.
Teacher: You seem unhappy about that. [Mirroring]
Stephen:Well, I know English is important. I’m worried that I’m going to get bad results.
Teacher: So you’re feeling anxious about doing well in English? [Paraphrasing]
Stephen:Yeah, I suppose.
Teacher: Year 11 is a difficult year, certainly. Everyone in the class feels under pressure to perform. [Agreeing] Not doing the homework is only going to make your feeling of anxiety worse [Disagreeing]. You have a homework task due for next week. You know that homework is non-negotiable so I expect that to be attempted. [Deciding] You’ll need to do the task by next Monday. [assigning]
(next Monday) Teacher: Stephen, can I see your homework? [Holding him accountable]
Stephen: Sir, I did the first two questions, but I didn’t do the last one.
Teacher: The homework task was to attempt all the questions. That’s what it says on Show My Homework. [sharing the facts] (Notice how this is the beginning of another difficult conversation and the steps should begin again. Although the situation hasn’t been perfectly resolved in the first instance, progress has been made, which is what you should be aiming for).
Ten steps may seem like a lot to remember in what will probably be a three-minute conversation. To begin with, you could have the steps printed off in front of your to refer to, but the more you do this, the more natural it will be. And the more you engage students in these difficult conversations, the better your relationships will be.
Most new teachers know the horrible sinking feeling that comes with being ignored by students. And while there could be a number of causes, I found that the source of my problem lay in my lack of what the Ancients called ‘gravitas’, meaning a speaker’s perceived weight or seriousness (think of David Attenborough in any of his nature documentaries – knowledgeable, passionate and calm).
We’ve all met memorable and interesting people who have gravitas and while they appear to have accrued this charm naturally, the good news is that gravitas is a learnable trait, some parts of which you might already excel at.
Caroline Goyder in her book Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority sums it up with The Gravitas Equation:
I can recall teaching too many lessons where I simply did not know the topic well enough. I was clearly not the expert in the room so why on earth did I expect the students to listen? These days, whenever I demonstrate that I know something the students don’t and am then able to explain it clearly to them, they listen. Invest your time in knowing inside out what you intend to teach and how to deliver it in a clear and compelling manner. A teacher who knows their subject well:
stands still with both feet pressed into the ground
expresses clear thoughts in a logical and well-paced manner
uses vocabulary that is their own (they know what it means and how to pronounce it correctly)
What matters to you? Whether it’s a love for the subject, the quality of your students’ work or simply a respect for the school’s ethos, show that these are important in your tone of voice and in your eyes. You could:
make eye contact with individual students as you give instructions or explain concepts, rather than broadcasting to the class as a homogenous mass.
speak in a positive, playful voice most of the time. Keep it light and encouraging. Relax and smile to impart a positive tone.
show students’ kindness, compassion and empathy to form a trusting bond that is more likely to move them to action as opposed to simple ‘do as I say’ authority.
Being your passionate self
Your students will figure out if you’re trying to be someone you’re not, so don’t put on a flashy performance or speak in an obviously scripted way as it will give the impression you don’t appear to care about what you’re teaching.
If you truly care you will engage them when you talk about your subject. But if you don’t care, it will scream a lack of confidence and you’ll lack authority. Besides, putting on a façade will make you tense and nervous. Not only is this unpleasant for yourself, the students will feel this tension too. Remember: what you feel, they feel. If you’re tense and holding your breath, so will they.
In order to engage hearts as well as minds you’ll need to be yourself and not someone dryly reading from a Powerpoint slide. Your lesson materials are not the lesson itself. They are there to enhance what you’re teaching, but the students leaving the lesson should think ‘great lesson’. They should not be thinking ‘great resources’.
The students have turned up to see you so don’t pretend. You are enough, flaws and all. Besides, perfection is dull so stop trying to appear so. And when you’re not worrying so much about yourself, you’ll have a greater capacity to help them. And isn’t that why we’re there in the first place?
Letting go of anxiety
Nerves and feelings of self-consciousness stem from a fear of not measuring-up or fitting-in. As a new teacher, we obsess about what we’re not, rather than what we are.
Concentrate on how you are already valuable, not on how you can strive to become so. You need to be able to manage yourself before you can manage a classroom.
Being able to stay calm and confident under pressure will give you gravitas as you won’t feel tempted to get drawn into arguments. You’ll be calm and aware of yourself and others and able to bring yourself back to calm quickly in anxious moments, treating students as your equals and showing interest in them. You’ll be able to accept their perspectives even if you don’t agree with them.
While you may not develop David Attenborough’s charm overnight, with the Gravitas equation you can at least get a few more kids looking at you when you speak.
 Goyder, Caroline, Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority, Vermilion (6 Mar. 2014)
Although it was years ago, I can still recall the observer’s face when I close my eyes at night. His head shaking as he scribbled down comments, eyes rolling each time I opened my mouth.
Despite quality training and expert guidance, my learning curve as a new teacher had dwindled to a flatline, and I had little idea why.
Since then I think I’ve figured out what I should have known then: the 25 mistakes I made when I started teaching.
Being lazy. I’d had jobs before, but I was not prepared for the relentlessness of a school day nor the workload expected of teachers. I simply had not been in the right environment to develop the good habits that would enable me to make the most of my time and I quickly became overwhelmed.
Working too much. It turned out that working as hard as I could was not the answer either. I slept less and less which made it hard to concentrate and manage my mood.
Thinking I could do it alone. Help was everywhere, but I was too cynical to see it and too proud to seek it out. I felt too ashamed to admit I was struggling so I tried to endure it alone.
Asking too much of others. There is a fine line between getting help and having someone do it for you. I tended to lean a little too heavily on the latter, asking my mentors for things I should have taken upon myself.
Overthinking. I’d go to bed looping over in my mind the worst moments of the day and then wake up imagining all that could possibly go wrong in the day to come. It was no way to live.
Resorting to anger. My main feeling throughout those first few years was the fear that I would fail. When I was put under stress that fear would sometimes manifest in outbursts of anger.
Managing my time poorly. I wasted a lot of time: chatting with colleagues, getting cups of coffee, wandering the school corridors. It was nice, but none of it helped me become a better teacher.
Not drinking enough water. Using my voice a lot in a stuffy classroom without having a water bottle to hand meant I ended many a day severely dehydrated. Not only was this bad for my health, it compounded my feelings of stress and tiredness.
Drinking too much caffeine. I was already nervous. Adding caffeine into the equation meant I was usually tense; I would unconsciously clench my jaw and hold my breath. This in turn put the students on edge and as a result my classroom often had the atmosphere of a tinderbox.
Not sharing. I would spend hours creating lesson resources, but through a fear of judgement I rarely bothered to share these with my colleagues.
Having an ‘Us and Them’ mentality. I’d somehow got it into my head that students and colleagues were opponents, rather than allies. If I was going to succeed at teaching it would be despite them, not because of them.
Looking a mess. I got the not-so-bright idea that I could be more efficient with my time if I cut out any chores I thought were unnecessary – I stopped polishing my shoes, ironing my shirts and even getting regular haircuts.
Taking everything personally. I took feedback to heart and allowed it to upset me.
Taking everything too seriously. Have a sense of humour. Don’t let anyone make you angry or bitter or mean. Take the slings and arrows lightly and keep going.
Blaming others. Most of the problems I had in the classroom were my fault, but it was very tempting to tell myself otherwise: that I was a victim, someone else was a villain, or that I was in a helpless situation. None of which were true.
Hoping for the best. When planning lessons, it was comforting to simply hope for the best, that somehow the lesson would by chance work, and I’d be positively surprised. Having a well-thought-out plan always worked much better.
Being selfish. By concentrating too much on my own problems, I lost sight of the students’, whose problems I should have been trying to solve in the first place.
Forgetting why I wanted to teach in the first place. Losing sight of the reason for starting meant I didn’t have the comfort of the bigger picture. Remembering why I chose teaching made the struggle worth it when it got tough.
Not getting out enough. My problems always felt enormous because I’d stay sat in one place, my worry expanding to the size of the room until it seemed overwhelming.
Doing the hard work for them. Desperate for students to put pen to paper, I’d end up taking the challenge out of the work, lightening the load anyway I could. Eventually, my students avoided challenge at all costs.
Looking for greener pastures. I let myself believe that I’d ‘fallen into’ teaching, which really wasn’t the case. Becoming a teacher was a choice, but when the going got tough I questioned it, wasting my time daydreaming of other places I could be.
Gossiping. I’m ashamed to admit I would talk about colleagues and students behind their back, feeding feelings of resentment and wasting my time and energy.
Running away from feedback. I hated criticism and sometimes ignored it to my detriment. I failed to see the wisdom that could have helped me.
Not giving back to my mentor. By not offering anything of value to my mentor, he only offered me the bare minimum in support. The rare moments I managed to help my mentor, he often reciprocated in kind.
Ignoring family and friends. I neglected the people I love. Sometimes that meant not making the effort to see friends. Other times, although I was with people physically, I was too caught up in my own thoughts and anxieties to really be present with them. Further still, I didn’t seek their perspective on the problems in my head to get a true gauge of how serious (or not) they really were.
Perhaps you’ve recognised some of these in yourself. If so, take comfort knowing that you’re not the only one. And by spotting your mistake, you’ve taken the first step in getting better. Who knows, maybe you’ll even get your observer to crack a smile?