Two important lessons from early in my teaching career were that we are learning all the time and that often we learn most from the mistakes we have made or problems we have overcome.
In terms of the former, even now I don’t think a week goes by in which I don’t learn something new. It might be an aspect of English that I haven’t thought about before, or it could be something about classroom management or new pedagogic techniques.
In terms of ‘lessons learnt the hard way’, I have been an English teacher for over thirty years, and I have made my fair share of mistakes! I now recognise that some of the fundamental strengths I have developed as a teacher stem from things that didn’t go well at first. These days I often have the opportunity to observe other teachers at work and I fully admit I also learn a lot from their own mistakes and their successes. Like all good teachers, I try to adopt any good practice or ideas that encounter and try to avoid making the same errors I see other people make.
This is the first in a short series of articles in which I invite you to learn from my mistakes! I will discuss some of the experiences that helped me to become a better teacher and share what I learned from them. You may even spot some learning opportunities that I didn’t see myself.
I originally trained as a Middle School Teacher and graduated with an honour’s degree in 1991. My final result was good, and my dissertation was recommended for publication, but there had been some serious bumps along the way. My first teaching practise was a disaster!
After almost a year of theory with only occasional days working in real schools, I had to spend a month teaching a class of ten- and eleven-year-olds. It was a horrible experience. The idea was that I would progressively teach more of the timetable until in the fourth week I would be largely left in control of the class on my own. I was dreading it! The students were of mixed ability and were generally very loud and boisterous. There didn’t seem to be much of a connection between them and their class teacher. They were often difficult and badly behaved with him, so I didn’t have much hope! I think the class teacher had only volunteered to have a student because he thought it would give him the opportunity to get on with some marking. The students saw me as an easy target.
As time went by the class teacher left me alone with the class more and more often. I don’t think this was because he was confident that I could handle the class, but simply because he had other things to do.
I was rather shy and had a very quiet voice. I did what I could with the class on my own, but the students were progressively taking over. Finally, one afternoon I realised they just weren’t taking any notice of me at all. It made me angry. My anger triggered something in my voice, and I found myself shouting loudly at the class. It wasn’t nice! However, the students were so shocked that they were stunned into silence. The class teacher came running back into the room looking more concerned than I had ever seen him. Apparently, they had heard me shouting at the students from the staffroom on the other side of the school!
I was mortified. I knew I had lost control and lost my temper, and I was convinced that my teaching days were already over. I had a long discussion with my supervisor a few days later and was sure he would ask me to change courses or leave university altogether. But he didn’t. I think I was saved because I had good marks in other parts of my course and because my supervisor blamed the class teacher for not supporting me more. Anyhow, I continued and about six months later I was due to start my next major teaching practice. This would be a longer practice of six weeks with slightly younger students. I would be expected to do a lot more things unsupervised. I was of course, quietly terrified at the prospect.
My first impressions walking into the new classroom couldn’t have been more different to my previous experience. I had briefly met the class teacher, Clair, shortly before lessons were due to commence. She was not much older than me and seemed very relaxed. As we walked into the class the children were talking amongst themselves, but without Clair seeming to say anything they gathered on a matted area of the classroom, sat down and stopped talking. Clair and I took seats and she introduced me to the class.
I wasn’t called on to do much except observe for the first few days. The first day went by like a dream… really, a dream, a little bit magical… Clair seemed to have a supernatural power over the students. They just did what she asked without complaint. She never once raised her voice. When she had something to say they listened with rapt attention. She used a few hand signals and occasionally counted down from ten to one when she wanted to tell them something important or transition from one activity to the next. Whenever they were given a task to do, they just did it and seemed fully engaged. Of course, some of them were livelier than others, some displayed greater understanding and ability than others. But there was no seriously bad conduct, no rudeness, no fighting or disruptive behaviour. They were happy and they were clearly learning things. Clair and I were able to spend time sitting down with individuals, discussing the activity with them and giving help when needed.
By the end of the day, I was in awe of Clair. In just six hours she had transformed my idea of what was possible within a class. She made time to meet with me and give me feedback every day. I’m sure my praise for how she managed the class that first day was a bit gushing. She seemed embarrassed. To my surprise, she confided that she had been extremely nervous about having a student teacher in the class. She was in only her second year after completing her probation as a teacher. Normally she wouldn’t have been given a student-teacher to supervise but for logistical reasons within the school she was the only person who could ‘take me on.’ (I also came to believe that the headmistress of the school must have realised that Clair was a bit special and put her name forward to supervise me for that reason).
Clair herself was keen to point out that there was nothing magical about what she was doing. The class ran smoothly because of two basic things. The first was a lot of forward planning. The second was a lot of classroom management techniques she had herself picked up from other teachers. One of those was her ‘Hand Up Rule’ which was so stunningly effective that I asked her if I could use it when I was running the class. She said ‘of course.’
As the days went by and we got to know each other better, I told Clair about my previous teaching practice, and I admitted that I was afraid of losing control and shouting at the students. She told me to practice with the hands up rule and not to worry. Then she added, ‘Get the children on your side and they will help you.’ I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that.
A few days later I had the class to myself for a couple of hours for the first time. Clair left the room, she said it would be easier for me that way, but I knew where she was if I needed her. I began tentatively by putting my hand up to get the class’s attention. Gradually most of the students stopped talking and I started to speak. A few of the students exchanged glances and one girl raised her hand urgently. “Sir, you shouldn’t speak yet.”
“Oh,” I asked, genuinely puzzled (she was not normally a girl who spoke out much) “Why is that?”
“Well, some people are still moving around.”
I looked around and sure enough, a few of the children were still getting books out of their bags and fiddling with things on their desks. I should have waited a few moments longer.
“Oh dear,” I said, “Either I’m too fast or they are too slow. Which do you think it is?”
The students looked sheepish. Nobody wanted to speak.
“The problem is,” I went on, “If I understand the rules correctly, there has to be a consequence. So, I either have to write my name on the board or their names.”
The students who had been moving about looked worried.
I went to the board and wrote my name, together with a little line drawing of me looking sad.
“I will let you all decide if I can take my name off the board before we finish the lesson. Of course, I don’t want to have to write anybody else’s name up there as well… now, is everybody listening?”
The rest of the lesson progressed smoothly and without incident. Towards the end I let them vote on whether I could take my name off the board. I feigned a sad and worried expression and they giggled about it but voted unanimously to take my name off the board.
I discussed it with Clair later. I realised I had been obsessing about keeping control but in fact had more control when I was prepared to give a little of it away. A touch of humour and acting helped. And in a strange way, I had underlined and reinforced the existing rules by playing with them a little bit.
I’m pleased to report that the rest of that teaching practice was equally successful. I came away from it confident that I could teach.
There was one more thing Clair taught me. Towards the end of my practice, she arranged to swap classes for one morning. She would teach and I would observe and help out a bit. We went to a class of 11- and 12-year-olds that had a reputation for being the most difficult class in the school. They were less familiar with Clair’s rules or methods, and while they largely behaved and engaged in the required tasks, they were a lot more boisterous and difficult to manage. At one point Clair suddenly raised her voice and spoke severely to them. I can’t remember what she said, but there was a stunned silence in the room for a few seconds. Everybody knew that Clair almost never raised her voice. The students immediately got on with their work very quietly.
She laughed when she was explaining the incident to me later. “It was an act. I knew that class would give me the excuse I needed. Of course, I raise my voice from time to time. There’s a bit of an art to it really which you will pick up as you go along. Hopefully, you noticed that I didn’t actually shout; I just projected my voice differently. I would never do it if I was actually angry, but it doesn’t hurt to act out once in a while! If I was really angry, well… then there would be different things I would do…”
As I began writing about this little anecdote, I thought the main lessons I learnt from these incidents during my early teaching practices were about the ‘Hands Up Rule’ and other classroom management techniques I learned from Clair. Well, it’s true I do still use all of those techniques and find them useful. But I’m now realising that this little story is about something more. It is about the impact we have on each other as teachers. It’s about how important the support and mentoring of each other is, and how far-reaching the consequences can be.
I would like to be somebody’s ‘Clair’. Hopefully, I have come close from time to time.
Oh dear… this was supposed to be the first in a short series about lessons I have learnt from mistakes made during my thirty-year teaching career. So far, I haven’t even finished university! This series could end up being longer than intended!
Meanwhile, you might like to download more details about the ‘Hands Up’ rule I described earlier.