Hello! Welcome to Teacher Training Unplugged Radio – my name is Anthony Gaughan.
(if you can’t see the podcast player above, click this link for the audio.)
There has been quite a long gap between episodes as Christmas and New Year got in the way. I had to do something to convince Father Christmas that I had been a good boy, however, so In the run-up to Christmas, I collaborated with Phil Wade and co-authored a short eBook on 5-minute self-reflection activities for teachers, which was a lot of fun and which you can get for free.
Now that we are well past the season to be jolly, I find myself back in the Hanseatic North of Germany, doing my day-job of working on Celta courses.
I’m working with a talented, thoughtful and enthusiastic group of beginning teachers at the moment, and they are making my job very easy in lots of ways.
We have just spent the past week getting to know the language learners who have signed up to participate in the Teaching Practice classes, and over the past few days, my trainees have dreamed up, designed and delivered some great lessons.
These lessons have focused on offering the students opportunities to listen to, or read, personal stories that the trainees were willing to share.
The teachers told stories ranging from losing a bunny out of a moving vehicle on the freeway, or seeing the Real Santa Claus doing his rounds, to the exquisite suffering brought on by not heeding a culinary warning.
This prompted the students to share wonderful stories of their own, my favorite being a childhood memory of a puppy running off with the Christmas goose.
No bunnies or puppies were harmed in the making of these lessons, by the way.
Though I’m afraid a goose was.
While I was watching these lessons, and while much was going well and was enjoyable to observe, I couldn’t help but notice something very small going on that was sometimes having quite a big impact on proceedings.
When I say “I saw something going on”, what I really ought to say is “I saw something not going on”, or at least, not when it really mattered.
Things are looking up
Let me take you into an imaginary classroom to show you what I mean.
Picture this: we are observing a teacher make the transition from their lead-in or warmer stage to the first of their listening tasks. It’s a simple, classic global understanding (or “gist”) type reason for listening, and it’s written on a handout that the teacher is about to give to the students. The teacher has checked in with the students and listened to what they got out of the warm-up task, and they decide now is the time to make the move to their story.
The teacher looks to their left, checks their notes, picks up their handouts, and starts to give their instruction. To save time, they get up, and start passing round their material, doing each student the courtesy of handing it to him or her personally. While the teacher is doing this, they continue to give their instruction, taking great care to pass out one handout to each student, and negotiating the crowded back end of the room, squeezing between the class table and their observing colleagues and me.
They get to the front of the room again and settle into starting their story. There is a mild disquiet in the room, and one of the less demure of the students gets the teacher’s attention and asks “what is it we should do?”
Now, you may be thinking: “if the teacher had only given the instruction before handing out the material, this would never have happened!”
And perhaps you are right.
It’s just that I have also seen the same outcome when materials followed instructions, so there must be something even more basic going on.
Or, as I say, not going on.
What was the teacher spending most of the time not looking at?
That’s right: the students.
“Keep an eye on the class” – but not for the reason you think
Eye contact is hugely important for all kinds of reasons in the classroom. Apart from helping in relationship building, which is important in itself, what I am noticing more and more is that were eye contact is lacking, class management problems increase.
When teachers give instructions without looking their students in the eye at the outset, and without maintaining this reasonably during the instruction-giving, then it makes no difference how otherwise clear, concise, comprehensive and concise the instruction was – students often don’t understand, or their attention was elsewhere and they missed it.
When teachers give instructions after getting everyone’s attention – and after they know that they have gotten everyone’s attention because they can see the group looking back at them – then even a sub-optimal instruction can do the job.
The importance of eye contact may be so obvious to those of you listening that you might think it is bizarre for me to make such a point of it.
But it is precisely because it is so obvious that it’s worth being reminded about.
Because when you are already heavily taxed by engaging in a new activity, managing a raft of paperwork and other strange artifacts like board-pens, with half a dozen people watching your every move in silence, insufficiently hidden behind the students you are determined not to let down or embarrass yourself in front of, then your ability to look out into the world and stare it in the face diminishes very quickly.
The unavoidable self-absorption of the novice – whether it be the novice teacher or the novice driver – leads to shortsightedness of very particular kinds.
For the driver, it starts with a difficulty to see much beyond the dashboard. Over time, peripheral vision opens up and something approaching safe, observant driving can occur.
For the teacher, it starts with a difficulty to lift our eyes from our lesson plan notes or other paperwork, and look the people with whom we are working in the eye. Over time, this channel of communication opens up and something approaching genuine, open communication can occur.
But given the importance of not only seeing the other people in the room, but really looking at them, what can we do in the mean time to help speed up the developmental process?
A second’s glance
One thing we can do is do one thing at a time – literally. The observed classroom is a very pressurized environment whatever we try to do to alleviate it, but precisely for this reason we need to focus on what we are doing, not on what is going on at the back of the room with our colleagues.
One way of doing this is to become willing to pay the price in time for focus.
Accept that each single step we take in the classroom may require our total focus and then give it that focus for the moment it requires.
So if we need to consult our notes, we consult our notes.
If the notes tell us to gather our task sheets and tell the students what to do next, we gather our task sheets.
Then we look up. And we make eye contact with the class.
And we move on from there.
That’s it for now on Teacher Training Unplugged Radio. If you liked what you heard, please share it, like it and leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you. For now, this is Anthony Gaughan, saying thank you for listening, and see you next time.
Your driving metaphor is spot on! First stage of teacher development: survive!! (ie. It’s all about me) Second stage: start to think about the students.
Thank you, Scott. And to extend the metaphor slightly, just as the more as drivers we look at other people and what they are doing, the safer we become (and thus serve our urge for survival by paying more attention to those around us), the more we as teachers pay attention to the other people in the room, the safer we become. So hard as it may be, our best survival strategy as beginning teachers may well be to pay more attention to others!