A point comes in every teacher’s career when you think you’ve cracked it; the classes you found daunting become controllable, the marking workload becomes manageable and there is a grudging acceptance that the senior management team is not the enemy. Unfortunately, experienced practitioners then have a new problem to deal with: the dangers of fixed thinking.
Sometimes experience comes with a jaded mindset that can bring lazy assumptions to our work. Here is a list of five pitfalls experienced teachers can fall into with some solutions on how to keep your mental approach to the job fresh.
1. Confirmation bias
Otherwise known as only believing what we already think. It is easy, after many years of practice, to believe that what you have always done is the right way of doing it. We tend to have trouble believing evidence that challenges this. Yet we have to force ourselves to get out of this mode of thinking. Ensure that you surround yourself with teachers with different approaches to your own, challenge yourself to use their approach at least once. Always sound ideas off that diverse group, too. Avoid doing anything automatically.
2. Hierarchical thinking
This means we blithely pass responsibility of a problem further up the hierarchy, assuming a solution will be forthcoming, rather than considering that a senior position does not equate with an ability to resolve everything. Next time you are about to pass a problem up the chain, stop yourself and try and work out a solution first. You could even converse with students to see if they have any ideas to help.
3. Fixation Error
This is where we keep following the same process even though it is evidently not working. It is easy as a confident teacher to blame the kids rather than yourself when something goes wrong and stick rigidly to favourite lesson plans. You need to always keep in mind that students are all individuals and that if something goes awry it is likely your fault, not theirs.
4. Outcome bias
A favourite: we ignore small issues as long as the result is successful. I know of an established teacher in another school who has taught exactly the same novel, play and poems to his senior class for more than a decade, dictating the same notes to the pupils. His notes are great and he teaches these texts really well with good results, but what could he achieve if he catered more to the changes in young people and our greater knowledge about how people learn? He gets great results, but he could get exceptional ones. If this sounds like you, challenge yourself to change things up.
5. Default mode
During quiet days, am I alone in sometimes thinking it would be good if the pupils’ started acting up? Nothing too serious - just a little to break the monotony? It happens when my mind has slipped into default mode – which could be called daydreaming mode. This can have serious consequences for car drivers and airline pilots and is not ideal for educators either, as a daydreaming teacher can’t be good for the active minds in front of us. If you catch yourself thinking this way, it is time to change your approach to freshen things up.
Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher in Glasgow