A flash back to my place in the classroom as a teenager – creating a safe learning environment

Last week we had a teachers’ study day at school.  A day off for the pupils and a day to work together with colleagues without too many distractions.

The theme for the day was ‘Didactic coaching’, or put another way, improving the flow between pupil and teacher, clearer instruction, clearer feedback, and better understanding of the educational processes at work from both sides.

Photo: Wendy de Jong Thijssen

One particular aspect of the day has lodged in my mind in the intervening week.  It was related to the themes discussed I suppose, although didn´t get a specific time or place for debate.  It relates to the need for a `safe` classroom climate, a climate where all individuals feel secure in the knowledge that successes and failures are both part of the process.  Safe in feeling that getting a question wrong, or your work being used to illustrate a maybe less successful aspect than you may like, is acceptable, and as I said, all part of the group learning process.

Why did this point hit home for me last week?  Well, that has to do with the sensation I experienced when involved with a group discussion involving all 100 or so of my colleagues.  At this point our guest speaker was posing questions to us, his audience, and asking for us to reflect on and share our thoughts.  He was doing this in a perfectly reasonable way.

But here’s the thing, in such circumstances I find myself doubting, have I interpreted the question correctly?  Is my answer relevant?  I find myself wondering whether my mastery of the Dutch language (my second language) is going to let me down or has led me to misunderstand what is being asked (I should say that this is possible, but probably rather unlikely nowadays)?

With these doubts kicking around in my head I find myself sitting rather uncomfortably……just as I used to as a rather shy teenager in the classrooms of my secondary school.  It was quite a confronting flashback.

The experience has left me pondering how many of the pupils in my own classes might be experiencing something similar.  Are there children just waiting and hoping not to be chosen to join the discussion?  Or are the learning environments that I create more open and relaxed? 

I’ve asked small groups in my classes this week for their thoughts and views in this area.  The initial reactions are thankfully good.  But I’m only too aware that children often feel a pressure to give the socially acceptable answer and that, in effect, criticizing the teacher is probably as hard as it gets!  So, I’ll be probing again this week.  I like to think that everyone feels that I treat them equally and openly.  We spend time laughing together, sharing stories of what is going on inside and outside the classroom.  I think this all helps, but I’m not yet completely convinced and will be trying to speak some more to the quiet, shy ones this week.  The ones who I recognize parts of myself in!

A rarity in education

I have worked in mainstream education for 17 years and I have just participated in something of a unique experience, a three day, uninterrupted training course for the very first time. In fact, since qualifying to teach, I have never had any more than a single isolated day of training and more often than not, any specific extra input comes in the form of just an afternoon clamped on the end of a morning of teaching. The reasons for this restriction is either financial or, and this is more often the case where I work, the fact that lessons for our pupils are cancelled. I understand this reasoning up to a point.  However, really the question in the end is; is the hugely limited and disjointed scope of on the job training in education actually not a far bigger problem than that of a number of cancelled lessons?

As it happens I haven’t been on the receiving end of the training during the first three days of this week. I have been giving the course, together with Cathy, a colleague form New Zealand to a group of ten other teachers from our school who will be teaching in English as part of our bilingual team for the first time after the summer break. It’s been a fantastic three days.  Hard work for all of those involved, challenging for many, fun, engaging, thought provoking and certainly good for team building. The progress made by the group has been amazing to see, confidence has been built and there is a growing belief that they really can teach their classes of Dutch twelve year olds using a good level of English.

The space we have been given this time has allowed us to deliver information, to use numerous didactic approaches, allow discussions to take place, create space for actual lesson material to be developed and presented and above all work on the verbal presentation skills that are necessary for a teacher teaching in a second language. What you might call a ‘critical learning mass’ has been built up and will hopefully be carried forward into the next school year. Way more common in education are training sessions that are offered in an intensive two to three hour session that throw a series of ideas at participants that work as a flash in the pan creating momentary enthusiasm only for the input to largely disapate due to a lack of follow up as the teacher is once again left to their own devices to try and find a way of making use of the material.  I’m a pretty conscientious worker but I recognize this tendency for good input is simply lost because it is offered initially in such an isolated island of training. So what would I propose as an improvement on the current situation? Well, on the basis of the last three days I would definitely say that twice a year, a training session of  two or three days could be fantastic and actually have the chance of producing something truly effective. Yes, the pupils would miss five days of lessons, but if the quality of the education on offer was significantly improved might that ground not simply be made up in another way? Schools have significant pools of experts and examples of good practice, but if we are honest it is mostly only the pupils who happen to be in the right classes who are the beneficiaries. The spreading and sharing of ideas, material and teaching skills is something that all educational institutions probably have to work on.