Psycho-teaching

Definitely more Will Self than Alfred Hitchcock…

I’ve been hunting without success for a reference from some months ago on the need for organisations to focus on the psychological landscape of what they do. I’m not a fan of the phrase, but I suppose this is somewhat similar to Emotional Intelligence. Teachers need it – and so do the schools they work for.

In recent years, so much effort has gone into classroom mechanics that we have forgotten that much of being a teacher is not in what you do, but what you are. My impressions are that new teachers are coming out of training much better-equipped for the practicalities of the classroom than used to be the case, which is to be welcomed. However, on delving a little with some of this year’s crop of new arrivals, I was concerned to discover that not one of them had had any exposure whatsoever to Educational Psychology. Even in my P.G.C.E. time in the late ‘80’s this was on the way out, but I think it is retrograde  to abandon completely any coverage of the psychological aspects of education – even if the focus on theories of learning was narrow and discredited, there is plenty to replace them with. Apart from its own uses, it forms part of our theoretical underpinnings, something necessary to define any profession.

There has been much recent media discussion about the use of unqualified teachers in Free Schools. Instinctively, I oppose this, in the way that I would not wish to use an unqualified solicitor, surgeon or airline pilot. On the other hand, it’s no doubt true that the ability to teach is, if not exactly intuitive, then  as much personal as learned.

Part of the problem here is that teaching is not seen as ‘professional’ in the sense that Medicine, Law and so forth are. There is no clear set of defined knowledge or technical skills as there is with those other occupations, and this can give the impression that ‘anyone can do it’. This has been reinforced by relatively modest entry requirements.

The thing about teachers’ skills is that they are mostly ‘soft’. This was brought home to me by my wife, who some years ago watched me interacting with some local lads who had stopped to ask me about something in our front garden. They didn’t know I’m a teacher, and I on the other hand wanted gently to ensure that they were not angling for no-good later on. I was simply talking to them naturally, and it was only later that my wife mentioned the probing skill with which I had steered that situation, neither threatening nor apprehensive nor condescending,  dealing with their queries without deflating their somewhat coy teenage egos, creating openings for them to ask more and maintain the conversation. It was so instinctive that I hadn’t even noticed.

As my career has progressed, I have increasingly realised that everything we do is about building relationships, reading situations, empathising and adapting in real time to the dynamic of the classroom, which is never the same twice – I call it surfing the moment. If you can do this, then the to-the-letter lesson aims and teaching resources – while of course necessary – diminish in importance. Being able to read a class’ mood on a given day is essential, knowing when to cut them some slack, when to put your foot on the accelerator, when to change tack, when to permit a digression, when not. You also need to balance the short and long games – realising that relationships are like bank accounts – paid into on some occasions, drawn on in others, but hopefully staying in credit. And then of course, you do need the basic mechanics and a good helping of Knowledge.

All of this does constitute a discrete skill-set, but  possibly more than in any other profession, one that you become rather than simply practise. That is probably why friends sometimes pull me up for being ‘too teacherly’ with them…

Most of this skill set is indeed a matter of who you are rather than what bit of paper you own. It is reflective, and I have learned much from books like Obliquity, Drive, Affluenza, Nudge and others mentioned on my reading page. These are unlikely to feature in official teacher training or professional development programmes because they are not about classroom mechanics, indeed in many cases barely about teaching at all. Neither do they reflect official accountability-driven practice – but they do all bear on the psychological landscape of schools.  Perhaps it’s because they’re too much about who rather than what people are that they don’t gain favour – something not easily controlled by school managements…

Susan Cain’s book on introversion is clearly going to warrant a post or two of its own, once I have got further into it, but already it is making me think: many of the key cognitive skills that we aim to develop are more closely characterised by introvert behaviour, and yet we have moved teaching in an extrovert direction with more and more group work and practical activities, all stuff that above all else, relies on good mechanics. Maybe we actually need to be focussing on introspection which is where real learning and understanding actually take root in the mind. I have certainly found that most of my own developmental thinking has been done as a result of my introvert tendencies rather than my inclination to follow the directives of our decidedly-extrovert Learning & Teaching bod…

the thinker 1

Above: Lost in his own psycho-landscape: clearly an introvert…

The psychological landscape needs more attention from schools as institutions too. If teaching is so intimately connected with who teachers are, rather than what they do, schools need to read and respond to the psychological needs of their staff carefully. Pressurised, discontented people will be less able to deploy their strengths fully in the classroom. Teachers mostly need to be managed with light-touch sensitivity – if at all. The phrase ‘human resources’ depresses me immensely, as it suggests a lever-pulling, mechanistic approach to what are actually real people’s lives and experiences. Managers who fail to appreciate the basic human fallibility – let alone uniqueness – of those who work for them are asking for trouble in the morale stakes, no matter how hard they try to crack the whip. And bad morale leads to bad teaching.

This is why I’m unconvinced that removing teacher training from universities is a good thing: the tendency will be for schools to focus solely on the classroom mechanics that deliver exam results, and ignore the academic, intellectual or psychological aspects of teaching and being a teacher. It will also risk seeking short-term gains over the 10,000 or more hours needed for the foregoing to work fully. This risks having a negative impact on the profession over time, as new entrants pay less and less attention to the intellectual underpinnings of what we do, and the quick-win becomes all. We need to heighten a sense of deep professionalism, not trivialise it.

The deep anxiety that comes from the conflict where one’s considered professional and personal instinct is clashing head-on with the template being used by one’s employer is one that I have keenly felt. It didn’t exactly make me a better teacher. Schools need to create time and space where people can work in the ways that suit them best, reflect on what they are doing and plan accordingly, without the fear of disapproval or undue interference; there is no correlation between frenzied activity and good decision-making. It’s high time that schools (of all places) re-learned the fact that the life of the mind is at least as important as any amount of technical control.

It’s for this reason that I risk repeating what I know is being circulated on a number of other blogs, namely Sir Michael Wilshaw’s recent speech to the Royal Society of Arts. I think as many teachers need to see it as possible. May it give us hope that a more enlightened era is just round the corner.

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