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. Within a calm learning environment, a teacher needs to lead, to guide their students not to push them or over-regulate their behaviour and we can do this if we meet their learning needs. In doing so we can create effective learning relationships and improve learning outcomes.
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 and improve learning relationships. 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.
It is fair to say not all learners thrive in the educational environment of the school.
Do we though, instead of investigating and remedying this situation, allow ourselves to believe another cause for this shortcoming?
Reflecting on my time as a teacher there has always been those students who do well in school and those who don’t but then go on to have great success in learning once they leave. We may say, and many have, that they eventually wake up to the necessity of a good education and knuckle down to it. Whilst this may be true along with other reasons such as those below it does not change the outcome, some students don’t do well in the school environment.
Some of the reasons given by teachers for students not doing well at school include:-
- they were lazy at school
- they mixed with the wrong crowd
- too easily distracted
- had too much time off
Sometimes a change of school brings a change in the learner so we could ask is it really the school environment since all we have done is swap one for the other, it is still a school environment. There are more than likely many reasons why students suddenly start doing well after a period of languishing in the bottom percentages so to try to find a single one is questionable. I would agree unless that is you believe in the effect of the teacher-learner relationship.
Ask any student if they had a favourite teacher and the answer is more than likely “Yes”, even if overall they did not do well at school. Without doubt, a teacher makes a significant difference to the learning experience. I was once ‘tracked down’ by an ex-student who told me it was their experience with me as their teacher some 15 years earlier that was now their motivation to become a teacher. Wow!
Any student who leaves school without realising their potential is a wasted opportunity. I have come across too many adults who express this very sentiment for it not to be so, regrets abound. We can go on saying it’s the students fault or even blaming each other or the system or we can do something about it.
As teachers we do far more than teach subjects, we build relationships with learners. Where learners find the school environment ‘toxic’ we have the opportunity to build relationships that help them overcome such effects, or we could say they were lazy, mixed with the wrong crowd or were not very bright!
The key to helping students not only survive in school but thrive is in meeting their needs. I am not talking about learning styles or developing grit or even the psychology of a growth mindset. I am talking about the needs that are at the core of developing relationships. We all have them, we as teachers and as partners or as a member of a family all have them. Meet these needs and we have engagement and co-operation, don’t and we have excluded and disaffected individuals.
In teaching, it can be difficult not to focus on delivering the curriculum and assessing progress but this can overshadow meeting learner’s needs. Is this the real reason some students dot do well in the school environment I wonder. Luckily it is a simple matter to remember these needs and to include them in our interaction with others. I have developed a mnemonic to do just that and even the acronym that represents them is easy to remember too.
So “Please Be Child Friendly” in your teaching and “Please Be Colleague Friendly” in your working relationships.
Here is a quick overview of PBCF and a useful graphic
Power – having a voice, being acknowledged
Belonging – being recognised and remembered
Choice – offered choice and understanding the resulting consequences
Fun – enjoying what you do and celebrating success
Using PBCF in your own work.
If you would like a workshop on how to develop PBCF in your teaching or in leadership or management then please get in touch. Look out for the book “Understanding and Managing Learning Needs” too, its about to be published and it is a comprehensive guide to all the factors associated with developing PBCF in teaching.
It’s not often, unfortunately, that I find another teaching professional who writes a post that corroborates my work on LQ and PBCF but here is one by Jodie Jasmin
Jodie shares her first thoughts when students are not engaged in the learning.
“My first thoughts when I hear a student is consistently misbehaving are;
1. What’s happening at home?
2. Do you have a good teacher-student bond?
3. Does your teacher speak to you with respect?
4. Are the lesson activities engaging and tailored to your needs?”
Sound familiar? It will if you have been reading this blog.
Jodie’s list clearly points to the four learning needs of Power Belonging Choice and Fun that we all have and must fulfil to be engaged in the learning process.
It’s a great article, and I am not just saying that because it looks as though we are of similar mind. Jodie hits the nail on the head quite nicely. By meeting learning needs you will find learning behaviour the primary behaviour in your lesson. As Jodie sums up by saying
“It’s about taking simple ideas and seeing how we can deconstruct a basic task to recreate a better idea in support of all students learning – knowing them and what they need in order to focus, because they truly are all worth it.”
Jodie’s full article is hosted here on Te@cher Toolkit:
You can find my article on LQ and lesson planning here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-a6
My introduction to PBCF can be found here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-4
Is creativity important, and specifically is it so in teaching and learning?
My short answer, “Yes”.
I would argue that without creativity there is the danger of not challenging what we do and why we do it. Possibly to go blindly along with what we are told without question for we have no drive, no vision of how things could be different, no need even, to do anything different. Without creativity in our lives, we risk seeing the world only as a series of things we are directed to achieve in the way we are shown to achieve them. Should we forgo challenge and accept obedience? This may be fine when we want or need compliance[i] but do we want compliant learners or those who challenge us to explain or justify what it is we want them to learn?
What’s this thing called, love? (it’s all in the punctuation!)
It would appear that how to define creativity is a bit of a problem. My evidence for this is the number of texts that have set out to do just that, to put creativity into a box, to define it. A good review of the thinking on creativity is by Arthur J Cropley in “Creativity in education & learning a guide for teachers and educators”[ii] . It is one of those books I have to force myself to read lightly, to almost skim read, at first for there is so much to think about on each and every page. I would describe his work as a comprehensive review of almost every work on creativity up to that point. There are a staggering 17 pages of references to support his review and thinking.
In his book Cropley declared “Creativity is understood here as production of novelty”. You have to start somewhere! I cannot imagine the world where things remain the same, always. I like to think of creativity as an act of doing something differently. Either in the process or the outcome or even the approach can be different it does not matter, what matters is there was some purposeful thought or action that preceded it or that was involved that was different to how it was before. Looking at things in a different way, from a different perspective, and perhaps discovering new insights or ways of doing something.
The act of being creative is important to me. I find it is a driver, a force, an energy that pushes you to do things. I know when the opportunity to be creative is being withheld a form of stress builds within me. I have seen the same effect in others too. Without the opportunity to be creative in whatever we do or to have an outlet for our creativity people suffer. It does not matter how creativity is expressed only that it is allowed. For me, this may be through innovation, humour or in any form of problem-solving or making. I believe that by being creative, it helps in seeing the world and its challenges as a problem or series of problems to solve. Possibly and more importantly, as problems that can be solved.
Problem-solving or being creative is my approach to teaching and learning too. It is why I formed Advocating Creativity (also “4c3d”*); it is my way of promoting creativity in education as well as being creative myself. Creativity is not just as a subject but a way of thinking, a way to improve learning. Creativity is a way of changing “can’t do” to “how to do”. A way of doing what is needed and not just what is asked for. I see creativity as a way of making things happen rather than waiting for them to happen. Being creative also means taking an element of both control and responsibility for whatever it is we are involved in, this is because we will affect the outcome in some way.
Why I believe education systems are particularly poor at being creative is twofold. The first is because the process of becoming a teacher and of gaining mastery can inhibit creativity. Teachers need to master their subject, they need to know it so well they can explain it to others and guide them through knowledge to understanding. Teachers need to set challenges and assess progress all of which requires mastery. Teachers are not novices; they are practised masters. Traditionally teachers are not solving a problem when they teach but instead delivering a solution. Importantly it is a solution they have derived from their learning. Further, they are familiar with the material way beyond novice and may forgo in their teaching what may now appear to be a trivial and unimportant element. Cropley puts it this way “Working in same area over a long period of time leads to high levels of familiarity within the field but blunts acuteness of the vision or inhibits openness to the spark of inspiration.”
The second reason we may see limited or no creativity in the process of teaching and learning is the focus on reaching targets. To be more precise the single focus on reaching a target that prevents us doing something different. Doing only that which is already being or has been done (despite success or the lack of it) to achieve the target is a real problem.
Being creative means we could be taking a risk by doing something different in a risk aversion environment. A target driven focus often means doing things an approved or recognised way. We can quickly get bogged down in our thinking with doing things the “approved” way rather than exploring different approaches. In doing things differently, there is also the risk to the teacher of returning to the novice stage once again, to revert to being a learner. I think I saw this most in the 1980’sand 1990’s with the development of IT in schools. At the time many teachers had been taught without such a resource and struggled to include its use in their lessons or to adapt their lessons to make good use of it. Many were fearful of the technology because they felt like novices once again. Having learners know more than you do is frightening for some teachers, at least it was!
I would argue that an emphasis on “success” rather than learning results in the system being driven towards a “ready solution” focused mindset. This is one where any “recognised” theory (seen as having an academic backing or reputed to have worked in the past) or approach that offers a solution to improving learning is more often than not readily adopted. This is especially the case if the theory has a research or academic pedigree. It is my experience that theories with such a pedigree will outweigh practical experience every time. Creativity from practitioners, from teachers, rarely gets a look-in if there is an “expert” spouting a solution.
Adopting a creative approach to learning is tremendously powerful if you see learning as a problem-solving activity. Once you adopt this approach to learning and a creative mindset, then many more pieces of the learning jigsaw begin to fit together. We find by adopting a problem-solving approach a landscape occurs in which theories can be seen for what they are, attempts to explain how learning takes place.
More accurately by adopting a creative problem-solving approach we see the ways in which we attempt to explain why some people learn some things easier, better or even quicker than others. The danger is when we mandate or replicate ways without applying a degree of creativity in supporting a process of adopting the practice as opposed to just adoption. Adoption only is a form of pseudo-creativity for it is not a problem-solving approach but one of solving a problem.
We can try to adopt what some other institution or organisation does to solve what we perceive as the same issue only to find it does not work. In such circumstances, the lack of creativity in adapting the approach means it fails, but worse still it is not the approach that is blamed but more often those who implement it. People are asked to work harder and are monitored closely and more frequently to discover where the failing lies. What they are not doing is considering the unique nature of their situation and adapting the approach to suit. I have seen the stress and damage this creates in an organisation first hand, and it is to be avoided at all costs!
So why is creativity important in teaching and learning? Here are a few of my suggestions.
- It is because it causes us to look at processes and practices in an objective way and challenge them.
- It asks us to consider our unique situations and how we can best achieve our aims within them.
- It encourages us to think outside of the box, to take risks but confirms our sense of ownership and responsibility.
- It helps us see what works and why and what to avoid doing what does not no matter what the pressures are.
- It is a way of getting things done, to break the cycle of doing what has always been the practice before without considering the value.
- It helps us lose our fear of being wrong.
- It creates and sustains the energy of learning, of discovery and of challenge.
**”4c3d” is leetspeak for “ace-d”. I had to get creative as ace-d had already been taken on Twitter and WordPress!
[ii] Creativity in Education & Learning: A Guide for Teachers and Educators, A. J. Cropley
Psychology Press, 2001
In education it is more often than not that we treat the symptom and ignore the underlying cause. In life we will often hide the true cause of our distress by adopting or presenting the symptoms of a much lesser illness, perhaps a cold instead of stress or depression. It is no different in education where we may present a symptom rather than admit the cause.
Let me give you an example, that of attendance in schools. Interestingly when we want a day off school we are more likely to feign the symptoms of an illness rather than just come out and say “I need a day off”.
Attendance can be an issue in many schools and a symptom in itself that could signal underlying problems yet it is dealt with as if it is the primary issue. Our actions are to make the symptom go away, make students attend school.
The standard response to an issue is to adopt the two P’s strategy, praise and punish. Praise the behaviour we want and punish the behaviour we don’t want, the “carrot and stick” approach. This rather simplistic model will evolve to include praise in the form of rewards or certificates for levels of attendance that are acceptable or sought after and forms of punishment for those that fall short including detentions, letters home, and perhaps loss of privileges such as school trips. Sound familiar?
The trouble with the two P’s form of response is that it takes up a great deal of time, pits the offender against the teacher or school and only deals with suppressing the symptom and does not deal with the underlying cause. We are establishing compliance and not promoting learning.
A strategy I use when looking at behaviours as a symptom rather than a primary issue is to ask the question “Why would someone behave in this way?” After all why would somebody not want to come to school, unthinkable right!
Firstly school is a “learning environment” and one full of challenges, relationships, groups, rules, customs, expectations, etc. Indeed school is a complex environment and one that can be both nurturing and toxic depending on your disposition and experiences. We respond to our environment in ways that we have learnt “work” for us. Unfortunately nature has a significant influence when it comes to the environment and the “flight or fight” response so involved with survival can take over our thinking and behaviours.
If we find a certain learning environment more than mildly uncomfortable then without the right set of tools and strategies to deal with it we are likely to flee rather than stay and work out a solution. Thus a lack of attendance may be the only strategy a learner has developed to deal with finding themselves in, what is to them, a toxic environment. By dealing with the symptom we are doing nothing to help address the underlying cause. It is my experience that once the learner has been made aware of this and coached in developing at least the basic strategies then they can cope. Given more time and support they can even begin to master their environment.
This idea of understanding and mastering your learning environment is an underlying principle of the concept of Learning intelligence or “LQ” that I have developed. LQ is based on my experience as a teacher and accepted learning theories and forms a narrative for working with learners.
Returning to attendance then my advice is to explore it as if it is behaviour in response to a situation.
Find out what the situation is and you’re on your way to a solution. Better still develop in the learner an awareness of LQ and provide opportunities to develop skills and to have experiences of managing their learning environment to meet their needs in a constructive way that supports learning.
Take the “fight or flight” response and turn it into “fight to learn and learn to ignore flight”
As teachers we break a subject down into components or elements of knowledge and understanding, into learning steps if you like. We then find the “best” way to deliver these steps in a way learners will, with a measured degree of effort, assimilate. This process is influenced by our knowledge and understanding of pedagogy and our relationship with the learners. In short we “scaffold” learning. Fairly straightforward but have you thought about it from a learner’s perspective? No? – Well read on!
Using what we know to learn what we don’t know
I have come to believe that we learn by building on what we know. This to me is a sort of mental map of my knowledge and understanding, knowing and learning (yes there is a difference, see this article: http://wp.me/p2LphS-ba). The bigger and more detailed the map the more confident we are and easier we find learning something new. For example it has been shown that speaking more than one language helps in learning a new language. I have a way of visualising this process of building on what I already know and call it “anchoring”. I look to make sense of what it is I am trying to learn or understand by referencing it with what I already know or understand what I have already learnt. I make links between what I already know and what I need to learn.
Anchoring essentially involves problem solving, an important aspect of Learning Intelligence, LQ (download a leaflet here: about-lq-with-lq-graphic). This is how this approach works and how a teacher can use it effectively in their lessons.
From the learner’s perspective
1) As the topic or subject is introduced we have to look and listen for words or phrases we already recognise.
2) We cannot assume they mean the same thing in this scenario as they do in others so we need to seek clarification and check meaning and relevance.
3) We take enough time to reflect on how what we know fits in with what we are learning. This also involves asking questions to check the links are valid.
4) Next is a sort of consolidation phase, where we explore a little further trying to see where what we know already and what we are trying to learn may take us.
5) This leads to as a sort of prediction phase where the links are established and we are ready to embark on a new learning journey. We can make educated guesses or predictions if given certain pieces of information.
So learning starts by seeing learning as a problem to solve and a period of analysis and reflection.
From the teacher’s perspective
1) Ask yourself what students need to know or understand in order to make a start on this topic and prepare questions you can ask to check before starting the topic.
2) Don’t assume understanding. Often the same words or phrases can be learnt without understanding. Build in a check and reflection phase during the topic introduction. Acknowledge and praise where students show understanding or can make links with relevant knowledge.
3) Create an opportunity for students to identify what they already know and how it can be useful in the learning process.
4) Introduce risk taking in the learning process. Encourage students to make assumptions or predictions about the new topic. Here are some questions that can be used to initiate this process. “Knowing what we know already what might happen if…?” “How do you think this might link to…?” You are actually leading up to “Let’s find out”
5) Don’t underestimate how much effort this takes on the part of the learner. Allow for structured mental breaks and reflection periods. Build in activities that create opportunity for pair or small group work and class feedback sessions.
The proof is in the pudding
I have tried this out on myself in learning about path-finding algorithms used in game programming and after 50 minutes I was in need of a mental break despite being very interested. I went through all the steps I suggest a student goes through here. During the process I was not passive, there is no good sitting there and hoping you are on the same page as the teacher. Learning intelligence, LQ, is about managing your learning environment and that means interacting with it.
There are two other observations to make about this approach. Firstly I was able to contribute much sooner than if I had just listened. I was in an active learner state earlier. This is important if we as learners are going to maximise opportunities for learning. For teachers it means a greater rate of progress.
Secondly I have a deeper understanding of the topic in a much shorter period of time and anchors that can be used to recall the learning links later. These anchors can be thought of the start of trail of “bread crumbs” marking our thought and learning associations. In case of reviewing or revisiting what we have learnt, and possibly forgotten, we can pick up the trail again starting from an established anchor point. By following the same trail we reach the same understanding but importantly we can do this independently using our internal prompts. A simplified example is knowing that 12 x 12 is 144 so when asked what 24 x 12 is we can start at 12 x 12 and quickly recognise we are talking about twice as much.
I would be interested if you scaffold your teaching or learning in this way too.