Why I miss teaching and the reasons many leave the profession is that their needs are not being met.
“It’s better than sliced bread” was my reply in September 1977 when my dad asked me about my first teaching job. I was at the ‘chalk face’ for almost 33 years, that was eight years ago, and a lot has changed about the ‘job’ of teaching but not the fundamental aspects of teaching.
I have considered making a list of the things that I miss and I may still do that but really it all comes down to relationships and needs. Two things most people will say they get from their job along with a sense of satisfaction, of doing something well or worthwhile.
There is something special about relationships in teaching that is different, let me try to explain.
I know that in many careers that are ‘front facing’, in contact with the customer or public, there is a relationship that needs to be built if you are to be successful and teaching is no different in that regard. What is different is the nature of that relationship and it is unique. I call it a ‘learning relationship’, one where over time you built trust in you as the teacher, you build confidence and self-esteem within your students, you set them challenges and support their efforts, you offer encouragement and praise, you guide their learning and you celebrate success together. Coaching or mentoring may offer the same relationship but not on the same scale or with the same degree of challenge.
Meeting a teacher’s needs
It is this teacher/learner relationship that is better than sliced bread and that I miss the most for it satisfied some of my needs too. So what of my needs and why does teaching satisfy these needs?
The job of a teacher is strange in that collectively we may plan, resource and review but as for the ‘doing’ bit we do this alone more often than not. It is a case of you, the professional teacher, and the pupils in your care in a room together, often with the door shut for single or multiple lessons or even whole school days at a time. Once with those pupils it is a ‘full-on’ job, hundreds of instinctive decisions to make, constant observations and assessments to make, strategies to weigh up and those learning relationships to build. When it goes well you bounce out of that session full of energy and when it does not you reflect in a more sombre mood wanting to know why. Either way you share what happened with your colleagues, telling them of your achievement or listening for advice that will guide you. It is within this ‘interpreted dance’ that I find my needs met.
My needs are best described as a set of characteristics and I am sure these are shared with many teachers.
- I am a learner, hard to be a teacher and not be,
- I am creative and love a challenge,
- I like responsibility and autonomy, and
- I thrive on the energy that comes of working with others.
Having your personal needs met is what draws you to a role, to a career, and so it is with me.
You may be wondering why I am no longer at the ‘chalk face’, why I did not continue with my career as a teacher since I loved it so much and continue to miss it. Well I am still a teacher, it’s hard not to be, but not in a school or employed as one.
There are many things that have changed about the role of a teacher since 1977 and for me those changes increasingly limited my opportunity to build learning relationships, limited my creativity and autonomy as well as drawing on my energy in a way that had a profound effect on my health.
You are not fulfilled if your needs are not being met.
What we need to ensure that we recruit and retain teachers is simple – we need to ensure that they are fulfilled. Anything that limits or hinders this should be removed from the ‘job’ of teaching.
Recruitment and retention is simple
In my opinion, if we are to recruit and retain teachers we need to address the environment that is ‘need’ limiting. Teachers leave the profession for a number of reasons but they are also willing to put up with a lot if they are able to build effective learning relationships and have their needs met. The debate is not about workload, pay or hours, it is about being able to build learning relationships and meeting needs on a deeply personal level.
It may appear simple to say that there has to be a beginning, middle and end but is important that we do not miss any of these stages and they must be in balance.
I have known lessons where the beginning went on too long, or where there is not enough time for the students to engage or immerse themselves in the learning or there was not enough time at the end of the lesson to conclude it in a meaningful way. Get it right and lessons are meaningful, full of learning and there is a great teacher/learner relationship. Get it wrong and lessons are often characterised by boredom or conflict and challenge.
The risk of poor lesson planning
I have experienced lesson planning pro-forma that seek to address these issues but become so prescriptive that they do not allow for the natural dynamics of a lesson and risk creating the same outcome they are trying to avoid.
There is a simple but effective way to ensure lesson planning creates the type of lesson we would ideally like in our teaching and that is to plan a lesson as a learner and not as a teacher. Think about how, as a learner, you would like the lesson structured and the pace or balance of the lesson. As a learner, you would like time to become familiar with the learning challenge, time to explore or practice and to establish your understanding and then to have an opportunity to consolidate the learning or perhaps ask questions to further your understanding. These stages should characterise the beginning, middle and end of a lesson. The ‘mindful’ teacher addresses these needs in their planning and delivery.
Power Belonging Choice and Fun in lesson planning
Planning lessons around subject material is only one aspect of the planning, we need to consider the learner needs too. I define these needs as power, belonging, choice and fun and suggest we ignore them at our peril. Teachers need to lead, to guide their students not push or regulate their behaviour and we can do this if we meet their learning needs for we can create effective learning relationships by doing so.
The beginning, middle and end
Meeting learning needs (power, belonging, choice and fun) is important at the start, during and at the end of all lessons. Addressing them in our planning will help us create the engagement we are looking for as well as creating effective relationships. A relationship that allows for that dynamic of being able to respond to the unexpected teaching and learning challenges in a meaningful way without disrupting the lesson flow. We may on such occasions leave the subject content planning path but by doing so we will better support our learners because we are meeting their needs.
The start of a lesson should include how we are going to meet the need for belonging. Perhaps the greeting and arrival are ideal opportunities to do so. Offering guided choice and listening to the ‘student voice’ can be included too during the lesson. Linking fun to achievement is our greatest challenge and we must include opportunities to celebrate learning at the end.
Please be child friendly
My way of remembering learning needs is simple and apt. “Please Be Child Friendly” when planning and teaching. The graphic is also something you can print off and keep at hand.
A different way of looking at teaching and learning
PBCF is part of an approach to teaching I refer to as “Learning Intelligence”, or “LQ” for short, and looks at how the learner and teacher can manage the learning environment to promote better learning. If you are interested in LQ or just PBCF then get in touch I am more than happy to talk you through how, with only small changes, the approach can make a significant impact on teaching and learning.
A couple of years ago I was sharing some of my ideas about LQ with a colleague and friend in the Netherlands when she offered me “feedforward”. This was not a mistake, a mistranslation of “feedback” from Dutch to English, this was a specific strategy.
The idea of feedforward has stayed with me and I use it often but does it make any difference if we call it feedback or feedforward? Well I think it does and this is why:
Feedback starts with what has been done or achieved, it is based in the past. There is an analysis of actions, strategies or the outcomes. Feedback is influenced by “hindsight” and can be accusatory if using “Why?” in the reviewing process. Often we naturally seek to defend what we have done and therefore may not listen to the comments or advice offered in the way it is intended or indeed recognise the meaning. Even if the feedback comes after a lesson observation we may seek to protect ourselves from the comments by inwardly suggesting they did not see everything and asking how a single observation can have any real merit. Feedback can result in a lack of respect or trust in those giving it. This is in part due to the conclusive nature of feedback. Regardless of the person giving the feedback using the “Even Better If” approach you may feel on opposite sides. Once the trigger point has occurred, the activity or whatever feedback will be given on, then there is clock ticking and with each moment the memory of what has occurred, what was meant by an action can diminish. Feedback needs to be timely to be most effective. Feedback can struggle to look forward because it means letting go of the past, something we are often reluctant to do.
Feedforward is about moving forward, it is based on future actions or behaviours; what can be done next working from where you are now. There needs to be a recognition of what has gone before or been produced and this needs to be agreed in the same way as feedback. The difference is that this is a starting point not the end point. It is not about what has happened so much about what can be done, there is a different focus that affects any dialogue. In a way it breaks the cycle of the feedback loop and strikes a forward path instead. The questions involved in feedforward are not so much about “Why?” but “How?”. This dialogue is reflected in the part played by the person offering the feedforward; they are on the journey with you. Feedforward involves both parties in being creative, of solving problems, together. This personal investment is a key characteristic of feedforward and supports the building of relationships that can lead on to trust and mutual respect. Feedforward involves planning; there is a different clock at work than the one in feedback and one that can be driven by opportunity and enthusiasm about trying something new. Feedforward encourages objectivity. The “Even better if” approach is more suited to feedforward since it builds on the past by requesting we let go and take from that only that which supports our learning.
Of course feedback is an excellent way to support learning if done correctly but I think there is more opportunity to do it poorly than there is of providing poor feedforward. I would argue that putting yourself in the feedforward mind frame can lead to a dialogue that involves greater objectivity and less defended ownership. The very nature of feedforward encourages you to think about the next step in the learning process. Consider these comments and see if you can see the influence of a feedforward thinking process.
- “Measure what you achieved against what you set out to achieve. How successful were you and how will you take what you have learnt forward into your planning?”
- “What message were you trying to get across? Okay, what I heard was …. . “Why do you think that maybe and how can you close the gap next time between what is meant or said and what is heard?”
- “Now you have reached this point where do you go from here? What resources or approach do you need to adopt in order to achieve greater progress?”
- “What you are saying is important. How do you ensure others get your message too?”
- “Knowing where you are is important but how about where you need to be and how to get there?”
I am not suggesting we replace feedback with feedforward but what I am suggesting is that we may avoid some of the issues of poor feedback if we adopt a feedforward approach to the process of feeding back.
Make sense? I hope so. If not how about offering me some feedforward!