'How a change in mindset saved me from a career as a truly awful teacher'

29th October 2014 at 10:00

Paul Staveley, an English teacher and blogger at mrstaveley.wordpress.com, writes

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment that I realised I was a truly awful teacher. I don’t know just what it was that infused the spark into that idea but pretty soon into my NQT +1 year, I knew I was bad at this job. Funnily enough, by the end of the week, I knew I was brilliant at it. But soon enough, I knew I was awful again.

Why? Simple: I was determined to be the finished article. I saw teachers who, I presumed, could just “do” teaching (easily, it seemed); I thought they were the finished article and I decided I wanted to be that as well. Sadly, and crucially, I never bothered to define or examine that concept. I judged myself against my most recent lesson, rather than seeing my career as a long path onto which I had just made tentative early steps. I had a vision of who I wanted to be as a teacher, and so when a lesson met those expectations, as they sometimes did, I patted myself on the back and felt secure that I had cracked this teaching game.

But then a lesson would go off kilter. The kids wouldn’t behave. The pace was wrong. The activities weren’t challenging enough. Then they were too challenging. Then I lost track of my learning objectives. Then the class led the lesson, not me. All was lost. I was a failure. I sat in my classroom afterwards feeling emotionally and physically drained. What had happened to me?

It turned out that my mindset was totally wrong. Despite always having believed in the ideas that Carol Dweck sets out in her books on growth mindset, I was firmly in the fixed mindset camp without even knowing it. My worth as a teacher became inextricably linked to my ability to do everything well all the time. No wonder I failed. So every time I had a bad lesson, I decided I was a failure; I had wanted to help the students, and I had let them, myself, my HoD, my parents, their parents, your parents and the entire world down. Confused at how quickly I could swing from being a brilliant leader of learning to a drooling mess, I lost all self-confidence, sense of place and sense of role. In a moment that I would later realise came at the perfect time – although when it happened it felt like the worst possible timing – I was observed and utterly garrotted by my leadership team for failing to deliver a lesson that resembled any kind of learning experience. It hurt me, badly. Already beginning to feel that I was just some fly-by-night blind squirrel teacher who occasionally found a nut, I imploded. Trying to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic, I asked for another observation, planned the living daylights out of it and delivered a successful lesson; but it couldn’t mask the fact that it was too little, too late. Following this, I asked my wife to help me figure out what I was going to do after I left teaching, which seemed the only sensible thing to do.

Here’s the problem – I wasn’t learning anything. I was congratulating myself on my successes, which was a complete waste of time, and I was beating myself up for my failures, which is equally pointless. What I needed was to become a more self-reflective practitioner, and realise that teaching isn’t something you can just “do” – it’s something at which you have to improve. When things went well, I needed to be pleased, but also to take note of what it was that went well, and do it again. More importantly, I needed to look at what could have gone better. When things didn’t go to plan, I needed to remember that I’m only human, and that rather than use that lesson as a club with which to beat myself, I could use it as a chisel to help shape a better teacher.

It was hard to do. Really hard. My confidence was rocked, and I had spent most of my life Andy-Murraying myself for every little mistake, so I was building on slightly shaky ground, but (eventually) I got there. I now approach my lessons with a different mindset, and evaluate my day using different criteria. What’s more, I go to sleep at night no longer dreading the next day, but eagerly anticipating its challenge. Mostly.

It’s important to mention that I don’t just shrug off lessons that don’t go well. I plan carefully to try and ensure that they stretch, challenge and support the students in the class. I spend a lot of time on resources that will actually aid the students’ learning and I am not happy when lessons are anything less than excellent. I hold my students to the highest possible standards; I demand their best at all times, and my expectations of myself are no lower. But it does happen. The reasons are many and varied, and ultimately of course it all comes down to me and how I handle and lead my classroom, but when the lessons threaten to come off their hinges (which, of course, they do) I believe in myself enough to handle it, and I am comfortable enough in my new mindset to consider it an experience from which I can learn for future reference. I mentioned holding myself to the same standard as my students, and I need to remember that that standard isn’t perfection. I expect their best efforts, but I don’t expect them to be flawless; I expect them to make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes so that they can improve.

Funnily enough, since I’ve begun to approach my job in this way, the number of lessons that leave me less than pleased with myself has reduced considerably. It’s not zero of course, but now I’m relatively comfortable with the fact that it never will be. I have to remember that I’m a human being at the front of a room filled with human beings – not only that, but teenage human beings. Of course, it doesn’t always go to plan, but it always serves a purpose, which is to make me better at my job, which is to help those teenage human beings navigate their lives through the study of the best subject in the world. I used to be a teacher constantly in stasis, now I’m excited to be a teacher constantly in transition.

I don’t know where this road ends, or even if it does, but since my lowest moment, I’ve improved my relationships with my classes, my colleagues, my SLT and the students’ parents. I’ve taught A-level literature and language to both Year 12 and Year 13, been made head of house and I’ve recently been promoted to head of department. I was going to leave this job less than 30 months ago. Now, I’m off to bed and I can’t wait to get up and start planning. There’s work to be done.

This blog has been adapted, with permission, from an original post on Paul's blog.



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