Useful: teacher development days

At some point or another you will attend some form of staff development as a teacher. Some of this will be mandatory, uninspiring crud (pretty much anything which is policy driven and/or delivered online). Some of it will be uninspiring crud delivered through the time honoured medium of PowerPoint and poor attempts at humour and carefully sycophantic laughter. And some of it, very probably the smallest amount, will actually have a positive impact on your classroom practice. Some of the more experienced teachers out there may sneer at this, particularly after a long career of being droned at by SLT, or worse, a highly paid consultant, but I promise you it is out there, and it does happen. 
I’m one of the lucky ones. We regularly organise internal, department specific training based on aggregated observation feedback, suggestions from staff, and the occasionally “just for the sheer hell of it”. And these sessions are, by and large, well received with positive feedback. They also have impact: genuine, measurable impact as teachers go out and put some of the ideas into practice: if it wasn’t useful, it would be ignored, but it isn’t. 
So why do these things work? It’s easy to knock holes in standardised training: after all, “standardised” is pretty much a synonym for “one size fits all”. However, our departmental training works because of a number of factors.
For one, it’s almost always practical. Sure, there has to be a bit of information giving, but we’re lucky in having a department head who recognises that this needs to be kept short and to the point: we find out what we need to find out. There sometimes has to be standardisation of assessment or exam practices, but again, while not perhaps the most thrilling of activities, it’s still important and, crucially, useful. This is the crucial word: useful. For staff training to work it must be based around practical, useful stuff: more often than not, something which working teachers can take away and use, possibly in the next teaching week. Take our most recent event, for example: an introduction from the Head of Department, followed by three short, informative and useful sessions on pace and teacher talk, on assessment for learning and on stretch and challenge. Each of the sessions had something useful, whether those things were on your areas for development or not: a nifty PowerPoint task, ideas for planned and on the fly differentiation, whatever, all useful.  

It worked as well because while some of the impetus and content was top down, there was no sense of hierarchy. Ideas were shared by workshop leaders, of course, but there was a strong element of professional respect: of teachers sharing with pride but also recognising that the people you are sharing with are at least as good and as professional a teacher as you. 

There is also a sense of equality of content: rarely is there the imposition of “best practice” from above but rather just “what do you think will work?” Sometimes you simply had confirmation that your ideas are ok, other times you had new ideas or new twists on old ideas. 

This is a leadership issue: these events are generally conceived and developed by managers who are also teachers, rather than managers who are ex-teachers (if you have given up day to day teaching to become a manager, you are an ex-teacher. You have, after all, ceased to teach. You are pushing up the pedagogical daisies). 

The knock on effect of the focus on usefulness and equality is that the teachers involved want, by and large, to be there. Imagine, in teaching terms, you have students who want to be there, who want to get something from the session, and expect to get something from the session, and this is what is achieved. People come, and people learn. 

Trainers, consultants and the rest all too often forget that they are dealing with learning: somehow all the pedagogical principles that you get hauled over the coals for forgetting are conveniently abandoned. Ideas like being meaningful, having purpose, being relevant, valuable and, of course useful all get abandoned by the lazy trainer with a PowerPoint and a tacky YouTube video. If you want stuff development days to work, f you want to effect change and improvement, then you cannot afford to be a lazy teacher. You must make what you have to say have value, be applicable, be useful. And if you can’t do that you shouldn’t be telling other people how to teach, let alone observing them. 

Too much Teacher Talking Time

TTT vs STT: easily one of the great CELTA shibboleths, and excessive TTT is by far one of the most common problems for both new and experienced teachers of ESOL, and therefore it’s very easy to say “reduce TTT” as an action point. 

I’ve not written it as an action point for literally years, however, because, when you think about it, it’s really rather useless as an area to develop. 

The trouble is “reduce TTT” completely fails to get to the root of why the excessive teacher talk is happening, and therefore fails to address the actual problem. Far more useful is to think about why excessive, unnecessary or distracting teacher talk happens. 

The obvious one is explanations. This is particularly true of new teachers, or of teachers who have a background in first language medium education. I blame the reductive nature of Presentation-Practice-Production (PPP) as well, where the word “presentation” is inevitably interpreted as droning on about auxiliary verbs with some natty graphics via PowerPoint. The trouble is the limiting nature of this kind of “telling people stuff” – more often than not, ESOL classes are conducted in English, and with the exception of particularly high level classes, the students don’t always have the language to process the explanation. Even where students do have the language and the meta-language to cope with explanations, the input needs to be monitored and checked to make sure that the students are actually taking the language on board. Ten minutes of waffle followed by a gap fill is highly likely to be pretty ineffective. Ten minutes of clear presentation engaging students with questions and checking, however, is much more likely to improve the students’ language. Alternatively there might be some sort of carefully constructed guided practice task, allowing students to analyse language in context then make generalisations about that language, forming theories about language and structure and reformulating interlanguage. 

Then there are instructions. Even speaking the same language can make for mistakes in instructions, but again, giving instructions in English to students whose English is developing is far more likely to result in miscommunication. This tends to lead to a polite uncomprehending silence, which novice teachers like to fill with repeated instructions, rephrased usually just in the right way to add to the confusion. This, naturally leads to deep, horrible silence which only grows as the teacher gets frustrated and embarrassed. In the worst examples of this, the teacher gets cross with the students for not understanding, projecting their own frustrations on the students. Instruction checking questions rarely help, I think: a silly idea that does more harm than good. Teachers are usually better off by breaking the task down and explaining one step at a time, rather than explaining the whole task all at once. Even where students do understand the task, there is sometimes a brief pause while students process the instructions, and it takes a bit of skill and experience to resist the urge to fill in the time. And sometimes the silence occurs because the task is simply badly designed, or cognitively unfamiliar or complex: even a simple crossword takes some training, regardless of the simplicity of the vocabulary. 

The other TTT sin is filling gaps in speaking tasks, where the aim of a task is to practise speaking but the students don’t actually speak to each other. You don’t deal with this by reducing your teacher talking time, but rather by asking yourself why they aren’t speaking and making changes accordingly. It’s rarely because of excessive TTT but more often because of the quality of the task. Perhaps, and this is definitely a novice teacher mistake, the task lacks communicative structure and focus: “just talk to each other about [insert topic here]” rather than “find out 3 things about your partner”. The students aren’t talking because “just talk” is a dumb activity. 

The problem, then, is not reducing TTT, but rather lies in where the teacher talk restricts or limits the opportunities for student talk. If we say “reduce TTT” we need to consider what will replace this, and hopefully this is Student Talking Time, and developing opportunities to increase student talk time: instead of a teacher led presentation with individually targetted questioning, what about some sort of peer driven guided discovery task which allows students not only the chance to work out new language for themselves but also to interact using current language, consolidating that language and developing speaking  skills. Use calm clear instructions and, yes, wait a second to give the students chance to get on with the task. Devise practise activities that give students opportunity to speak communicatively, with a purpose to that speaking, and again (I will repeat this til I die) “just talk about X” is not purpose. Even in a dogme-ish unplugged setting, perhaps especially so talk has to have purpose, even if the language coming from the talk is not strictly planned. Include peer checking of practice activities as standard: it should be part of the routine, to the extent that you may not even have to give the instruction. 

“Reduce TTT” in and of itself remains a useless area for development. It suggests that if you shut up a bit, everything else will follow. But TTT is not all bad, and “too much” can be dangerously subjective: it shouldn’t be about the quantity of TTT, but rather the quality. It’s a fun developmental experiment to walk into class, sit down and reduce TTT to zero, and say nothing, but it isn’t going to automatically create lots of student talk (until the complaints start, of course…). We need to think about how our activities increase student talk, improve student talk by maximising those chances. Talk, as they say, is work in the ESOL classroom, and the more and better the students are talking, then the more likely you are to reduce your TTT to what is needed and nothing else. 

Can’t

“I want to ride my bicycle/I want to ride my bike” sang Freddie Mercury in 1978. I’m not sure how genuine his sentiment was, but I tell you now after four weeks of being off the bike, it’s a fairly accurate approximation of how I feel. 

Let’s be clear, I’m not a skinny whippet clocking up 100 miles each weekend, and neither am I prone to throwing a mountain bike around the trails. But I do like to ride my bike: I like the ease of travel, the happy speed/efficiency ratio, the schadenfreude of passing people in big expensive cars stuck in traffic, the satisfaction of climbing a really big hill, the joy of freewheeling down the other side, the contemplative meditative state you achieve, and the sweet open freedom of movement. 

You’ll excuse me for gushing. But I’ve come to enjoy riding, and now, owing to an accident a few weeks ago, I can’t. This is only temporary, thank goodness, but even so I quickly started to come up with a long list of the things I couldn’t do while my arm was in a sling. I couldn’t support myself on that side very well, I couldn’t open jars or get those plastic seals off the top of milk cartons, I couldn’t sleep in the way I liked, I couldn’t hold a book while lying down, I couldn’t pick up my children when they fell over, or wrestle (you need a small boy in your life to understand this), or give them big-two-arm hugs. There were wider consequences: family routines had to change to allow for the extra time it takes to get to work without a bike, I couldn’t go swimming with them, I couldn’t drive on family trips, I was limited in how I could help around the house. As a result of not riding, and the longer journeys, I have come to resent work quite a lot for being nearly 90 minutes away from home, resenting meetings that over-ran by five minutes, resenting stupid relocation of one building to a site on the other side of town to the railway station (a 10-15 minute walk, after all, is an easy two minute ride) . Then there is the loss of  freedom of movement, not the pretend freedom you get from car ownership (free to pollute, free to pay car tax, free to pay for maintenance, and free to sit wasting your life, fuming and frustrated in traffic jams) but actual freedom where it takes you the same amount of time regardless of traffic, regardless of delays, and with a journey, even at rush hour that is always exhilarating and usually fun.

It’s healing now, of course, and now only some of those things remain true. And none of them are the big profound things that might have faced me with a damaged spine, or a lost limb, for which I consider myself very lucky. I’m still alive, as well, which is a big bonus. And all this time I’ve been able to clothe myself (just), wash, eat, cook, clean, read, write, work (only two days off), and in fact do almost all the other things that make me happy. Even though the hugs have been one-armed but they have still been hugs. So it’s not been bad, but the sense of “can’t” has been consistent, and still frustrating. 

So it was I found myself wondering about what you do go through if something properly serious happens: if you know you are never going to be able to do all those things, how long does it take to get past that frustration? How quickly does wistful wishing become outright despair, and how much support do you need to cope with it?

I also found myself thinking of my students: out of all learners, the migrant learning the language of their host country is almost universally defined by what they cannot do. Sure, we mean well, but the very nature of what ESOL teachers do is defined by what or learners can’t. And this sense of can’t must surely be more profound than my shoulder-related niggle: not just in class but in day to day life. Students come to class because they can’t help their children, can’t talk to officials, can’t cope at the hospital, and even if they can find a job, they can’t find a job commensurate with their skills and qualifications.  ESOL students are so often defined by what they can’t

I know ESOL teachers celebrate our students, their abilities and achievements: of course we do, and we must. To offset the deficit frustrations of not being able to use a language, we learn what our students can do, what skills they have: it’s what makes the job interesting, after all. They’re not helpless babies to be pitied and petted, but adults with knowledge and experiences, often a world away from our own comfortable existences: knowledge and experiences which we celebrate, share and engage with. 

Which brings me back to the far less important matter of my arm, and enjoying and celebrating the many things which I can do. So I’d anyone wants me, I may be reading a book, writing a blog post, drinking, eating (probably too much), and, of course, hugging my children. 

Designing materials 

There’s an assignment on CELTA called authentic materials. Its main purpose is to get trainee teachers thninking about selecting materials and designing tasks to practice language skills, as well as developing their awareness of what language or skills practice could develop from a particular text. Now, I am pretty sure that none of my trainees are currently following my blog (but a big “Hi” to you if you are) so I reckon I can get away with essentially writing about 70% of an assignment for them. And if they are reading and having sneaky “late CELTA stressed and panicky” thoughts about plagiarism, it’s worth noting that you would have to be a complete purblind numpty to make serious, academic use of an unreferenced, informal blog post published on a free platform. Not to mention the small fact that the person who will be marking that assignment also has access to this blog.

So anyway, the text I have chosen is this one from the BBC. It would be for my evening class, and / or perhaps my Thursday morning class, and I’ve chosen it because it’s inherently quite interesting, if nothing else, to think above why people should ever care whether a cake is a biscuit or vice versa. It’s also got an interesting discussion in the second half around meaning and about how we categorise the world and a discussion raising important gender fluidity and transgender issues. This latter, as well as being interesting, is also going to challenge a few preconceptions, raise some eyebrows and very possibly some voices. All for the good, then. 

So the activities then. First up I’d probably take in some realia in the form of Jaffa cakes. Officially, at work, eating in the classroom is banned throughout college (because, apparently, working adults have the same behaviour issues as 16 year olds…) so the idea of an eminently justifiable bit of cake/biscuit scoffing is quite appealing to my polite middle-class rebel alter ego. After eating, or at least tasting and looking at a Jaffa cake, I might get the students to think of words to describe be taste or appearance of said Jaffa cake. I’d maybe also bring in some digestives or Rich Tea, to my mind that most archetypal of biscuits and compare them. Bit of plenary feedback, then to discuss “is it a cake or a biscuit?”

Then I’d ask them to read the text and tell me to answer the same question. Strictly speaking this isn’t what we might call gist reading: that would be much broader as a task (like “is the article about: cakes/biscuits/words” or something. However (and I’m sure there’s a reference somewhere for this) reading for gist is potentially quite hard to do, and actually what I want to do is get the students to have an idea of the shape of the article, so that when they come to the more comprehensive reading task shortly, they will find it a little easier. Gist reading is a skill in and of itself and should be taught distinctly: I know I have historically treated it as the poor cousin of the reading skills family, and I need to address this. 

So anyway, moving on. Next up: checking the answer, which is “legally it’s a cake, but who knows”. I know some students will be frustrated by the lack of clarity to the answer, but that’s sort of the point, and I would mollify them by pointing out the purpose of the task, as outlined above. The checking would take place as part of a standard routine I attempt to develop in this setting: check with your partner/monitor discussions/quick whole group discussion if necessary. 

Then the main reading. It’s a hefty article so I might do one of two things. I could chop it off halfway down, which would lose the interesting discussion around transgender identity. Alternatively, I might keep it whole and have two sets of questions, one for each half. I would then direct the whole group to do the first set, then have the second half (which is, I think, linguistically and cognitively more challenging) with two types of question: a couple of gist-y “what do you think?” type of questions, and some more challenging true/false questions for the stronger students in the class. 

The detailed reading might include scanning (what do these numbers refer to…?) and more intensive reading, like “name two qualities, according to the text, which distinguish cakes from biscuits.”

Again, checking would take the form of peer checking followed by whole group clarification of any answers which caused discussion, and a general reporting back of any interesting questions arising. 

Now, the CELTA activity asks for two possible follow up activities. I’d be tempted to do some vocab work, maybe a matching task to get students to look at how words are used metaphorically (3 columns: match, for example “cap/veneer/sibling” to its traditional meaning and to the meaning in the text). I might get the students to look at humour and tone: “most humans are not topped with chocolate”, “Wittgenstein..partial to a bun”, the use of hyperbole in “the greatest invention since…”, or perhaps the vein of confectionary and baking related vocabulary and analogy (a sweet result, trifling, reheated). 

There might be some grammatical work: it’s a long text but it doesn’t repeatedly use any specific structure repeatedly enough to justify. However I might ask students to find examples of structures they had recently studied, or with which they should already be familiar, as a kind of recap / assessment.

The other obvious follow up is a discussion task: linguistic archetypes, what do words mean, why do we think about transgender identity, and how is language gendered, perhaps. Id maybe get students to talk about their own languages as well. 

And that’s how it’s done. I’m 17 years into this, and I can do it without much thought as to structure of the tasks or the lesson. It’s easy to forget how hard this is for a novice teacher, but also what an achievement it is when they do design something successful. I wouldn’t pass the assignment, mind you. I’d have to go and read books, which would probably be no bad thing in terms of professional development. After all the last time I seriously looked into language teaching and learning research was probably four or five years back. But I don’t know if I would find much has changed in task design: perhaps I’ll go and find out….

Purposeful

Here’s a question for you. How do you go about making an ESOL lesson “purposeful”? ESOL lessons can, indeed should be wandering and tangential, building on opportunities that arise, but this doesn’t have to be at the expense of being purposeful 

As a starting point, let’s clarify what we mean. Oxford dictionaries give us three options

  1. Having or showing determination or resolve
  2. Having a useful purpose
  3. Intentional

It would be fun to discuss the first of these, but I think that would be semantic nitpicking of the most irritating kind, and we would end up talking about resilience or similar. 

And I don’t really think that the second meaning is terribly pertinent. Or rather it is pertinent but it is sort of the whole point of language learning in a second language environment: it’s the motivational wood we can’t see due to the trees. ESOL learning should have a useful purpose: it’s not academic study for the sake of it. ESOL students usually have a useful purpose behind their motivation for learning, and while humdrum daily reality shouldn’t be the only context for learning (although it’s a lazy quick win for an observation) it is, however, the main context in which students wil be using the language. 

No, I rather suspect that when you hear talk of purposeful learning, the meaning is the third: learning activities should be intentional. This suggests a couple of things: conscious engagement on the part of the students; and a clear something that the students can take away from the lesson. 

Conscious engagement, then. It’s becoming widely accepted, I think, that a lecture, if delivered interestingly with learning checked throughout, can be a damn good way of getting a stack of information across. No problems there, as long as what you are teaching can be taught using the same language as your students. But even for teachers who share a first language with all their students, then there is still a need for the students to make use of the language: theory and practical in one lesson, if you like. Engagement is crucial for production of language, that crucial stage of language learning which consolidates the learners’ understanding, tests it out, and provides you as a teacher some idea of how much or how well the students have learned. 

Which brings me to the second, and I think the most pertinent point: students taking something away from the lesson. I’m going to stick my neck right out on this one and say that in none of my lessons do I expect my students to come away with the target language or language skill fully developed. Not a single one. And neither should you. Students might be closer to full automatisation of the language point, be better able to apply a language skill, but I would be very surprised if I taught something in lesson A and the students were able to the reproduce exactly and in other contexts that language point in subsequent lessons. I was praised once because of apparent “deep learning” when a student had a lightbulb moment about relative clauses in an observed lesson, but despite this, the student was still unable to generalise and apply the thing she had apparently “deeply” learned. 

The problem is that we aren’t dealing with knowledge as discreet from application, but rather we are dealing with knowledge and application simultaneously. It’s of limited value to ask students to tell you the rule: it’s a start, and it does have value, but I’d genuinely question “explain the rule” as a sole learning outcome. I’d be looking at application of the language: what can students do with it?

But this then raises the big question: what are the learning outcomes? The usual “SMART” definition is of no help here: the S is fine, I think, but as soon as you go down the rest of the acronym you end up with a description of the activity. But if your outcome is simply “be better able to use passive voice”, then, how do you assess the learning taking place? Well, you listen to the students, you read their writing, you assess their performance in controlled and freer activities, all sorts. And different learners might demonstrate their skill in different ways, in an often unpredictable manner. And either way they will only be a bit better able to use the language, so why pretend to anyone that “use passive voice accurately and independently in six sentences or utterances” is at all meaningful. SMART outcomes limit and restrict learning in this context and dogged insistence on creating measurable performance is only going to lead to contextualised, limited and unrealistic performance. 

Assessment is part of the problem with this sort of atomising of language. I’ve taught enough higher level students who’ve “performed” at a particular level but have clearly not learned. I have had level 1 learners still struggling both conceptually and productively with first person present simple, and yet they and the system believe that they are “working at” entry 3. They’ve got a certificate and everything. This creates frustration all round: a student who believes they have achieved a level, a teacher who has to cope with managing that discontent. Summative and formative assessment based on tidy outcomes too easily reduces learning into neat observable tics, when proper formative assessment is complex and ongoing. It’s listening to students and correcting spoken language, reading what they have written and telling them what needs changing (and how).  Expressing these things as assessable outcomes, however, creates the false impression of achievement: take an outcome at face value and you have to say “so what?” So what if a student can use third person singular in six different sentences at entry 1: they’ll still be making mistakes with it three years later in a level 1 class. And if I say “oh it’s ok, what I really mean is “know a bit more about third person singular”, then what’s the benefit of the measurable outcome? None that I can see. What does a learner understand from that outcome? All of which assumes, of course, that we can set that outcome without teaching the language point first.

But saying, for example, a non-SMART intention like “today’s lesson will focus on passive voice, vocabulary to do with the environment, and practising reading for gist” is purposeful. For  one, students have a chance of understanding what this means. They can see how the activity they are doing is likely to lead to them knowing more about the language point, or developing that skill.  And as long as you are given the opportunity to listen to and carefully monitor what the students are saying and doing, and think about what they are likely to know about that language, then there should be no concerns with students being bored or lacking challenge. Setting the measurable outcome is well intentioned but deceptive at best, blatantly mendacious at worst. Purpose is perfectly achievable without specific outcomes, but it does involve being clear and honest with the students about what will be happening in the lesson. 

So, that technology thing again. 

I taught a lesson today, during which I used a cassette player. I also couldn’t switch the computer on as I needed the socket for the cassette recorder. So no interactive whiteboard either. 

And do you know what, it was ok as well. The world didn’t end. The listening task was nice, the work the students did was useful, engaging, all those things. Would it have been better with a digital rather than cassette recording? Marginally, perhaps, because instead of rewinding the cassette while students checked in pairs, I would have been able to monitor the conversations a bit, but even then, it wasn’t an onerous task, and I managed it pretty speedily. In to activity, the technology neither enhanced or transformed the act of listening. And neither should it. What about the board, though, did the lack of IWB make things worse? Not realky: if anything it made it better: with an interactive whiteboard I have more or less infinite pages of board, which makes me very sloppy in my boardwork: everything goes up there, uncurated and chaotic. With the limits of the regular one, you have to think carefully about how you are laying it out, which bits you keep, which bits you get rid of. Today I ended up with this, for example: 

It was a fairly organic board (yes, I know that’s a posh way of saying “unplanned”), but it captured everything from the lesson where an IWB would have sprawled across multiple pages. The list in the middle is the answers to the listening task (listen and say what type of relationship it was). The words in the top right and bottom left are the remnants of a discussion that we had at the beginning about different types of relationships (it was tempting to drill “I am in love with you” but propriety stopped me). The stuff at the top left is language that emerged during the final speaking task (tell your partner about three different relationships).  It’s not an award-winningly clear whiteboard, and it only made sense if you were there, but it captured it in one “screen”. 

And I do think this is a valuable skill. I worry with CELTA trainees, in a curmudgeonly kind of way, that they are all learning how to use an interactive whiteboard and PowerPoint before they have really learned how to use a whiteboard. I worry about this because there is a very real chance they may rock up at a job in a year or so and find themselves with nothing more than a few old coursebooks and a whiteboard and pens, and not know what to do with it. Or cassettes: standing there with the original Headway and some old cassettes, how will they cope? Ok, so that’s maybe a little OTT, but you know, I wonder. 

Then there also the sneaky, naughty, not-Best Practice thought that although things like IWBs and digital recordings bring a load of convenience to the classroom (and believe me, I’d miss them) another part of me wonders if  there’s something to be said for the discipline of a whiteboard and a cassette player which makes you think more concisely about what language is happening in the classroom. Or perhaps it’s just me, and perhaps I can think of ways of bringing across that focus and  concision into using an interactive whiteboard, so that all the other bonuses of the interactive whiteboard (printability, quick access to google images, that sort of thing) can be utilised as well. 

I realise, of course, that this is a well worn tread for this blog, and I should probably redress the balance and say something warm and cosy about how great technology is. Because it is and it can be, and to be fair, interactive whiteboards are, in and of themselves, pretty remarkable bits of technology, even if they tend to be overloaded with unintuitive, gimmick-heavy software. And a digitally controlled audio recording is damn useful. But there are plenty of blogs and articles out there doing the hard sell, so I’ll leave that job for now. So for now, just remember, using tech is fine, in its place, and so is not using tech. Just don’t be too much in awe of it. 

Fluster

SONY DSC

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

Frank Herbert, The Litany Against Fear in Dune.

I had my formal observation this week, and my feedback. It was, as has generally been the case, a pretty accurate evaluation of the lesson, and, as any observation should, picked up on a couple of bits that I missed, or perhaps was in denial about (like “do the differentiation which you planned.” which is an improvement on “plan differentiation”)

One of the other, less formal bits of feedback was an observation that I fluster, which is interesting because that’s something I’ve seen in other people and commented on as having a negative impact on the lesson. That same fluster and nerves was really the impetus behind my last post about planning as well: frustration, being unhappy with the ideas for the lesson, never mind anything else, all of which was compounded by nerves. The nerves beget fluster, the fluster begets mistakes, the mistakes beget more nerves: the little death becomes the total obliteration.

A bit of nervous energy is not always a bad thing, mind you. If I plan in too much detail, and too far in advance, for example, I get complacent about the lesson, and forget what it is I have planned, treating it as “done”. I plan more or less day by day because I find my brain works better that way, and part of that is nerves: a sense of pressure that acts as a motivator, and I have a hundred better ideas in the house before the lesson than I do in the preceding week.

However, when it comes to formal observation of lessons, why fluster?

A part of it is simple lack of confidence. I was reading the other day about “imposter syndrome” which is where despite being good at something, you lack confidence in that ability and as a result you are convinced that you are about to be outed as a fraud.

Sometimes the fluster cycle occurs simply because something goes wrong that you weren’t expecting: it’s why we get trainee teachers on CELTA to think about things that might go wrong. Mistakes beget nerves and suddenly we find ourselves trapped once more in the nerves-fluster-mistakes cycle.

In this particular case, a small part was to do with something outside the lesson: it would be indelicate of me to comment on what the was, but I was distracted by this and had dropped a bit of professional focus. Partly, I think, it was relief at being somewhere familiar for me, and settling into overly comfortable patterns, and really not following through on it.

But whatever. These things are all well and good. They’re  not the real problem with teacher fluster during observation. In another conversation this week, there was a sense of dismay that teachers should feel nervous at observation, or feel worried about the process.

This simply demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the process in which teachers are being involved. Teacher observation for quality assurance purposes is, essentially, a high stakes summative assessment, like a GCSE exam or a degree dissertation. Whether the lesson is graded or not, if there is the potential for punitive consequences for the individual, then there will be nerves. It’s ignorant and arrogant to suggest otherwise. Never mind the official “don’t forget it’s also developmental” cant, because if it all goes south, a quality assurance observation can be the little clatter of stones that precedes the landslide.

The irony, of course, is that this awareness is more likely to lead to it happening. Almost, I think, something like the rational meditative state implied in the less well known half of Frank Herbert quote is the only answer.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

A little dramatic maybe, but it gets to the point – you have to try, somehow, to get past it and work through the nerves. You have to consciously acknowledge the consequences, but also rationalise them. It may be the clatter of small stones, but the landslide may still not happen.  ‘ve only seen the landslide a few times, so to speak. As  awfully new-agey as it sounds, perhaps the answer does lie in some form of meditative reflection before the lesson, an opportunity to rationalise and clarify, and to focus on the important thing – the learning in the lesson. Don’t deny the negativity, or try to gee yourself up, forcing yourself into some manic pixie state of rabid positivity, just let it pass over and through you.

Teach the students, make them learn. Everything else can wait.