Why are teachers their own worst critics?

Teachers have always had capacity for self-reflection – but often it turns into self-flagellation, says Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Teacher CPD: School staff need support with their self-relection - because they tend to be their own worst critics, says Yvonne Williams

How often are the first days of term wrecked by your inner critic? 

You are desperate to start afresh. But your inner critic is absolutely determined to remind you of the many things that you didn’t manage to do over the holidays, all the things you said last term that you wish you hadn’t and, worst of all, all the things you didn’t say and didn’t do that you wish you had. Heads it wins, tails you lose.

Now, I’m not against reflection and honesty. Both of these are vital to teachers. 

And doubt is indispensable. To be in two minds about the content and direction of a lesson is to put yourself in a highly creative position – if, that is, you can handle the indecision and turn it into a wide-ranging lesson. 

There are many times when we ought to question the moral intent and the reactions we might get if we introduce something controversial, both before and after the lesson.

Teachers and self-reflection

But teachers have reflection and honesty in bucketloads. How many teachers leave a lesson without a list of 10 things that could have gone better? Ask any teacher about how their observed lesson went, and they will give you any number of perceived faults before seeing any positives. 

The official advice to line managers is to leave time between the observed lesson and the feedback meeting. This may serve the purpose of allowing time for the observer to consider their judgements. 

But the observer isn’t the only one chewing over what happened: the inner critic can more than fill that void with unproductive blame. 

The weight of responsibility doesn’t just come from within. No teacher lives in a vacuum when it comes to what other stakeholders think of their work. 

The pressure of Ofsted school inspection

Surely the Department for Education’s worst recruitment slogan has to be “Every lesson shapes a life”. It gives the inner critic an absolute field day, not just with the technicalities of teaching at that moment. What about the longer-term life implications?

The greater frequency of monitoring, from pupil voice to book scrutiny (a harsh word, “scrutiny”, implying that no fault will be overlooked), increases the scope for inner flagellation.

Has every mistake been corrected? Is there the right balance of encouragement and advice, let alone a satisfying balance of tasks that cumulatively show that progress is being made?

Undoubtedly the cruellest development of the past two decades has to be self-evaluation for schools. It’s efficient for inspection teams who arrive at schools with their job already three-quarters done: leadership teams have amassed all the evidence to show that monitoring has been constant and rigorous. 

Teachers are more rigorous than any inspection team’s spot checks or interviews – or even “deep dives” – can be. Senior leaders work with highly conscientious people who know themselves at their worst.

The value of CPD 

It amazes me constantly that new teachers are so open to criticism, and even welcome it. The best beginners are able to take on advice and make improvements. 

Over time, the external coach becomes an inner director. This development is healthy when the inner director comes up with useful strategies, and leaves the blame outside the home. But constant exposure to ever deeper and wider monitoring, to satisfy external stakeholders, flips the inner director into the relentless critic.

In the next decade, we face increasing pressure on schools via the new Ofsted inspection framework, which purports to inspect absolutely every part of the curriculum, from intent through to implementation and impact. 

Each of the new "I"s will become a separate entity, to be gold-plated over time. The one to watch will be “impact”. As schools construct the machinery to evaluate historic as well as recent actions, the inner critic’s memory will take on new dimensions.

Trust in teachers

Teachers have always had a strong moral compass and professional inner dialogue. In the right setting, these are undeniable assets. 

But self-reflection and high moral purpose are being turned inward, with implosive effect. 

How many teachers departing the classroom have been driven out by their inner demons?

Tackling workload in isolation might bring about small reductions of time spent on unproductive tasks. But even this enlightened development hasn’t tackled the unhealthy emotional burden that teachers have absorbed. 

A more open, trusting relationship between teachers, leaders, inspectors and government would be a start. Restricting the accountability framework would make a huge difference to teachers’ working lives and individual happiness. But more is needed. 

Mentoring support

Everything teachers do and experience contributes to their own self-development, as well as to their pupils’ education. Teaching is always personal, which is why self-evaluation slips so easily into self-criticism.

So we need an individualised process to help teachers to address crippling self-doubt, to help teachers believe in their capacity to make effective changes and, most of all, to believe that they are valued individuals.

Mentoring (as opposed to coaching, which is much more step-by-step and short-term goal-focused) seems very much the way forward. Helping teachers to see objectively what is happening – rather than what they fear is happening – is a vital first step towards containing the inner critic’s destructive tendencies. 

Convincing teachers that their mistakes are a necessary part of their development could take the pain out of self-evaluation. 

The inner critic isn’t going to disappear. But perhaps we can make it more productive in improving personal happiness and teaching.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a secondary school in the south of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)

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