How self-aware are you? (Be the fly on your classroom wall…)

I use this slide in several of my talks – capturing some of the variables that I encounter working with teachers across the system.   Here, I want to focus on self awareness.

self awareness

With some teachers, you kick off a post-observation discussion with a simple question: (how do you think it’s going? ) and they will talk at length about their challenges, the imperfections in specific lesson sequences, their areas for further practice… you don’t have anything meaningful to add. Their own agenda gives them plenty to do already.

With some other teachers, it’s a different story altogether – you’re met with a wall of defensive delusion; all the problems lie with the kids, the system, the curriculum, the lack of resources and, other than that, they’re doing great. Nothing much more they could do.   But you’re thinking:  ‘oh gosh.. there is just SO much you could be doing if only  you could see it’.

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo covers this superbly in Leverage Leadership: some teachers just need a sounding board for their own self-evaluation whilst, at the other end of the scale, some teachers  will only improve if someone tells them directly and firmly, backed by evidence, that there are things they just have to change.

One of the challenges we need to face as teachers is that we might not be as self-aware as we’d like.  I remember when a former colleague had the courage to tell me that I spoke too much in our SLT meetings.  That led to me introducing the practice of rotating the chair each week: I was not good at chairing meetings where I wanted to have major input and her comments were a touch painful for a moment but ultimately hugely helpful.   Another colleague told me that when I addressed an audience I tended to look to my left.. I have a right-side blind spot.  She’d seen something I hadn’t thought about – but she was absolutely right; I need to make a deliberate effort to swivel round to my right to make eye contact and make sure that side of a room is getting my attention when I’m speaking.    Unless she’d told me, I’d have carried on with my left-sided bias.

Another time, during my PGCE back in the 80s, I was encouraged to video myself teaching a lesson on my teaching practice.   It was a bit of a shock but I’m glad I did it.  I set up the camera, did my thing and then, in the privacy of my flat, I watched it back.  I saw someone pacing up and down excessively, using way too many hand gestures and saying “Ok, right..” far too often.  I wanted to shout at myself: STAND STILL!!!  It was an eye-opener.  It reminded me of one of my old maths teachers who could fit ‘for example’ multiple times in a sentence, throughout the lessons. We used to count them, cruelly, with five-bar gates in our books: “So, for example, here, for example, what is happening to the y-intercept, for example?”  Aarghhh!

Now I spend my time working with teachers and observing lots of lessons, there are several common areas where I think a bit more self-awareness would go a long way.  Here’s a selection:

Reaching into the corners:  It’s all too common for teachers to have blind spots in their classrooms where students can sit undisturbed for entire lessons. Often it’s the back row (a cliché but true); sometimes it’s the front row; sometimes it’s pockets of students who just never get asked any questions.  A teacher can think they’re engaging in good interactive questioning – but what I see is that they’re only doing this with 3 students – leaving the other 25 undisturbed.  It’s worth checking: are you consciously scanning the room, making eye contact and deliberately involving all of your students in the discussions? Even the difficult or shy students who give you those negative vibes??

Filling the void; the collective response delusion:  Here the teacher undertakes what they think is a discussion or Q and A session – but is actually largely a teacher-dominated exposition punctuated with a few confirmatory responses from students.  It can feel tike a verbal ‘fill in the missing words’ activity:

  • Teacher:  Explain explain explain, tell, tell, tell,  blah, blah, blah….. and so, would that make it better or worse?
  • Student A:  Worse?
  • Teacher: Exactly, which means that explain explain explain, tell, tell, tell,  blah, blah, blah….. so, on the graph the line will… ?
  • Student B:  Go up?
  • Teacher:  That’s right, it goes up because, as you’ve correctly said, explain explain explain, tell, tell, tell,  blah, blah, blah….. which means that the better solution would be.?
  • Student C:  Option 1?
  • Teacher: Excellent. It’s option 1 as this will give us explain explain explain, tell, tell, tell,  blah, blah, blah…..Well done everyone.

I see this kind of exchange a lot.  Students are lulled into thinking they’ve learned things; the teacher creates their own delusion that students have understood when actually, the teacher has done 95% of the thinking, the talking, the work. They simply don’t expect enough of the students or check that they have understood well enough to give extended answers.

Auto-disrupt; one meander too many.  Sometimes teachers disrupt their own lessons.  Most teachers have a bit of ‘performer’ in them; they like to tell stories; they like to be at the centre of the action; they like to generate a bond with their students.  This can all be healthy and positive. Until it goes too far. I see this a lot: a teacher has finally got their class stuck into a task.. they’ve explained it, teed it up, set them off to do the work…  and then the teacher gets a bit bored.  They fill the silence of endeavour.. with another example, a personal anecdote, a bit of banter with the back row, a comment about last night’s match, a cheeky reference to John’s new haircut, a whispered chat about the pastoral issue that came up yesterday. ..  and it completely disrupts the learning. Own Goal!  Sometimes that bit of self-discipline, to be silent and let students get on – goes missing or just isn’t strong enough.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not being horribly judgemental here. I’ve done ALL of these things and far, far worse.  The point is that, unless you are aware or made aware of them, you keep doing them.  We either need to be open to feedback from observers or generate our own feedback by watching ourselves in action.

How self-aware are you?  How aware are you of the degree of your self-awareness?  It’s worth asking yourself the question. It’s definitely worth being open to the possibility that  you could benefit from some honest feedback…  In the short term, it’s usually a bit uncomfortable.. but, long term, it’s always a relief to know how others might see you so you have a chance to address things on your own terms.






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