How To Be A Teacher
and other difficulties with my life in
education so far
Educational Study by Richard Denny
PGCE Student and teacher researcher
Education is a fundamental aspect of the human condition.
The interplay between thought, language and social relationships is, in
my opinion, the act of education. The desire to learn and to share knowledge
is as compelling to the species as the drive to eat or to reproduce. Borne
on the shoulders of the evolutionary benefit in social inquisition, education
is virtually unique as a human performance in its being enacted
by every cultural group that the Earth has known: it is a defining characteristic
My interest in education stems from this belief. I see beauty
in the construction of ideas by people through discussion and action.
At a practical level I thoroughly enjoy building with children their understandings
of the world around them in science lessons. This education is not the
exclusive property of the youth; of equal interest to me are the things
which I am learning in school. I view this year as a project of my own
education, in which I have learned and am learning many things about my
own nature, and about the nature of learning.
I have seen and realised much around me this year which
has been perplexing. I have experienced many paradoxes, inevitable when
one considers that I have had to engage with so many different issues
and develop so many different values. That some of these issues and values
collide and raise conflict is of no surprise. However, this has led to
amounts of uncertainty; uncertainty as to how to behave, how to respond,
how to develop. Many of these uncertainties have been eased as my experience
has grown, many new ones have arisen. I have no doubt however that I could
not have engaged with issues surrounding my practice as a novice teacher
with sufficient intellectual clarity to continue had it not been for the
support of other novices.
There is a fascinating story to be told of how a group of
novice teachers engaged with our teaching over the winter. The story is
held not in formal records or evaluations but in the conversations and
arguments we had, and indeed still have. It is a story which at one and
the same time tells of how values develop and of how practice grows to
encompass seemingly irreconcilable issues. Like all good stories it leads
to no discernible concrete conclusions, but instead offers up descriptions
of experience and suggests some of the implications of that experience.
I have laid this essay out in four distinct sections. Each
section develops issues surrounding the lives in education of several
novice teachers, myself included. The first section is the shortest. It
deals with my methodology and offers justification of my work as both
a valid educational study and a challenging and accessible piece of teacher
research. I argue in the first section that this is the only way in which
I can write a true account of the development of my values as a teacher.
The remaining sections deal with the realities of being
a novice teacher. Interviews, questionnaires and conversations between
novices are used alongside education literature and the espoused values
of the PGCE partnership to discuss a variety of important issues. Each
section stands alone as an investigation of a single, important theme
in my professional life: evaluating lessons; defining oneself as a teacher;
and finally questioning the power structures of education.
Taken individually these pieces make interesting arguments,
but their presentation in such a way is of more purpose than mere clarity.
They each convey a sense of the chief difficulty of being a student teacher:
the conflicts we find between our values and reality, Alongside this,
each section describes the passion with which we engage with these conflicts.
The conclusion of this essay lays out how important that passion is to
my existence as a teacher
Is this a valid educational study?
This is a somewhat unconventional essay. I have conceived
it to be a representation of the struggle for understanding which has
been making my peers and I into teachers over the past months. It is built
around data gathered from novice teachers during a period lasting from
the middle of the block one practice to the middle of the block two practice.
This data consists of a questionnaire and several interviews taped and
typed up, along with my own reflective writing on these pieces. The questionnaire
data is presented as anonymous and I have changed the names of the three
novices with whom I conducted the interviews.
This is not quantitative research. I do not believe that
such a small scale study could possibly contain the depth of research
needed to make valuable statistical inferences. It can however indicate
trends in opinion, highlight points of interest and raise questions and
arguments. Admittedly this could be well done using minor statistical
studies (rather than proofs), but the issues I have been interested in
studying are better revealed by telling stories about their protagonists,
indeed the very telling of those stories allows me to consider and develop
aspects of my teaching. Does this make it valid research?
If a study does not address a problem and seek to solve
it then it is not research (Mallick K, and Verma G, 1999). On a more specific
level, Cohen and Manion have argued that research constitutes undertakings
and activities aimed at developing a science of behaviour for the
clarification of issues with a bearing on education. (Cohen L, and
Manion L, 1980, pp.43-4). As my work has been preoccupied with means of
developing my practice and clarifying issues in my education, it fits
quite neatly under these banners of research.
Suggesting that teachers transform their practices in an attempt to answer
questions about their situations, Jean McNiff (1990) plays with the idea
that a teacher adapting her or his practice is an act of research, that
theories are brought about by a teacher making external, through
the act of writing, what is internal. (McNiff J, 1990, p56).
The idea that teachers research education by writing about
their practices is shared by John Elliott who talks of a relationship
between developing and understanding teachers thinking. He argues
that encouraging teachers to inquire into their own practice, in order
to research how they perceive education, in fact becomes a form of teacher
development (Elliott J, 1992, p206). As this essay describes -in a sense-
the development of some trainee teachers perception of education,
I believe I can justifiably call it research. The reader is invited to
make her or his own judgement.
I have often found fascinating and liberating ideas in education
and other fields to be inaccessible, hidden away beneath a spurious mass
of academia and impenetrable text. Rather than hope to reproduce with
my essay the exacting standards of intellectualism deemed necessary to
make such research valid, I must look to tell my story in other ways,
ways accessible to me and, I hope, the reader. The following three discussions
and their concluding overview are intended therefore to be engaging and
accessible accounts of issues affecting student teachers, told through
the eyes of four such people; myself, Rachel, Hannah and John.
Issue one: Was that lesson any good?
It is springtime and I have taught well over a hundred lessons. I probably
have pieces of paperwork relating to every single one of them; Im
certainly supposed to have. I should be able to demonstrate that I am
committed to improving personal teaching practice through reflection
and collaboration. (UoB, 2002, p54). Naturally I will do everything
I can to meet this and other standards, but such targets do not motivate
me to develop. I want to improve my practice to be a great teacher, not
to meet the basic entry levels of the profession. A typical lesson for
me would end with a little personal reflection and some amount of feedback
from the class teacher. There is almost always an experienced teacher
to offer her or his opinion alongside my own. The two do not always concur
(I dont always point this out to the teacher, for obvious reasons),
so who is in the right?
My mentor is pretty honest. [In my review] he was quite formulaic.
What he was saying was Id achieved my objectives, Id kept
control of the classroom, so if he was ticking boxes then yes, it was
a successful lesson, but no, it wasnt the best one Id ever
done. But normally I get a feeling if a lesson is going well, and its
normally if Im having fun. If Im enjoying it, then normally
its going well and if I aint enjoying it then its usually
because its heading downhill.
Sometimes I can feel it when its going and I just know its
going well, other times, when Ive been in a bad mood about the lesson
before and Ive thought oh this isnt going well
but when Ive come back out and thought about it and the teachers
gone: that was a good lesson
Ive had that! Ive had lessons that I know are going
well, and lessons that I thought were shocking, and I was in a foul mood
when I stormed out, but the report Ive got back from it was quite
the opposite. Whether that was just to keep my spirits up
Interview, Jan 03
I dont think anyone would disagree that one of the most important
duties of tutors and mentors is to be supportive. It seemed in the early
days of the autumn that novices tended towards overly negative reviews
of their lessons; one colleague was so negative about herself that she
eventually left the course. This negativity left the tutor to take the
lead in reflecting on the positive points but this was not a problem as
in those days they seemed to be more aware of what had happened in the
class. I found their ability to review as a unit the entirety of my work
and effort in a lesson both useful and irritating.
Teachers are great to learn from because they are often masters of their
art and by their nature good teachers.
I cant fault my mentors, but
Teachers are awful to learn from because they are teachers and they cant
turn it off. The more detailed and intricate your actions are, the more
deeply and savagely they dissect them. The harder you try the more they
push you. They are never satisfied with your learning. Happy, yes. Satisfied,
Interview, Jan 03
This leaves novices in an interesting situation. Nobody likes to be criticised,
and teaching is such an emotionally exhausting job that the last thing
anyone wants at the end of a long day is to be told or to tell themselves
precisely what they have done incorrectly. However, although it may not
be possible for even the most reflective of novices to be entirely honest
with her or his self about the performance, reflective practice does not
have to be entirely about self flagellation. Reflection may well, as Day
(1999) points out, be initiated in other ways, for example curiosity or
escape from boredom. The danger, he points out is that teachers become
prisoners of our own intent and only see what we want to see (Day C, 1999,
p27+28). The role of the tutor and mentor may therefore be said to be
one of guidance; not necessarily expounding how she or he thinks the lesson
went, but overseeing the novices reflections, making sure they are
not too far from reality.
The need for some form of review is clear. Novice teachers surveyed had
some interesting suggestions as to how that review should come about.
* Evaluation needs to be reflective but should be done in a variety of
forms; interview, written, discussion. Should be in a form appropriate
to the teacher.
* Helps with some lessons but doing them for all lessons is time consuming
* Needs to be done with other teachers, novices and pupils. If I do them
myself then I miss a lot.
* find it helpful to evaluate my lessons but just by jotting down a few
notes about what was good, bad, and what to do next time. University evaluations
are tedious and pointless.
Questionnaire to Kingdown novices, Dec 02
I particularly appreciate the idea that evaluations should be appropriate
to the individual teacher and that they are collaborative. It is of no
surprise that novices resent the imposition upon their time of the university,
who often come across to us as abstracted from the realities of teaching.
It does seem an oversight however that there is little opportunity for
pupil evaluation of novice teachers. A normal part of the teacher pupil
relationship is one of feedback. If this feedback is missing from the
novice/pupil relationship then not only do we miss the most important
educational perspective of all, but we also make it that little bit harder
to define ourselves as teachers.
Rather than seeing evaluation as a bolt on attachment to my teaching,
I prefer to see it as an integral part of my practice as a teacher. If
I experience problems with some of my educational values then it is natural
for me to imagine a solution to the problem, act in the direction of the
solution and then evaluate the solution (McNiff J, 1990, p56). With good
guidance there is no reason why this cannot become a normal teaching habit
and not develop into a seething mass of standardised paperwork, something
which would aid my teaching no end.
Issue two: That there, thats not me
That thing at the front of the class doesnt even look like me.
Its in a suit and the rings and studs that adorn my eyebrows, ears
and tongue are no where to be seen. The children call it teacher and I
want to be a teacher, but if its not me then who the hell is it?
And the children ask well if its not a teacher then what the
hell is it doing at the front of our classroom?
Interview, Jan 03
Although I can say that I am now in my third year of teaching, having
spent two years as a VSO in Ethiopia prior to coming to Bath, its
fair to say that, within a UK context, none of us novices were teachers
in September. So what is it that makes me say now to people that I am
a teacher? That I work with children within a school is clear, but it
is considerably more difficult than this for me to identify myself as
Something has to come from us to assimilate and use tutors
advice. We have to have a certain mind set, we have to I suppose believe
that we are teachers.
That belief comes from experience. When we were just sitting in
lessons observing, watching teachers teach its very alien to you.
When you work alongside them and you share ideas about schemes of work
you become a part of it. I had to write my schemes of work and that gave
me the responsibility of a teacher. Not just getting up there and doing
what my mentor told me to do, but work on the same level as him professionally,
that made me more confident.
So its an ownership thing- you feel like a teacher when you
are doing your work, rather than going through the motions that someone
else has gone through,
Interview, Jan 03
Experience is the key to becoming an expert in any field. I honestly
believe that good theories develop from practice, not the other way around.
I have been caused some consternation however by the idea that I am following
someone elses work. Rachel and I agree that ownership is important,
but a student teacher does not really have ownership of a huge amount.
We work with other peoples classes in other peoples rooms
and plan our lessons in the style dictated by the university to meet the
objectives laid out in the national curriculum. Nothing is really ours;
neither the curriculum nor the responsibility.
In the nineteen seventies Lawrence Stenhouse proposed a system of curriculum
development which was based firmly within the domain of teachers. He was
of the opinion that no classroom was an island (Stenhouse L, 1975, p157)
and that by sharing their research teachers could generate enough data
for revisions of local curriculum policy to be considered. Now, a generation
after his ideas were put forward curriculum decisions are arguably even
farther removed from teachers in the UK than they were in the Seventies;
none of us really have a great deal of choice as to what we teach or,
increasingly even how we teach it. I cannot pretend that this problem
is the exclusive property of student teachers.
There is still, however, a feeling that we are somehow incomplete. Perhaps
it is the lack of responsibility which stops us saying fully we
are teachers. With responsibility comes respect, a point which John
is well aware of.
One of the things to come off working with my tutor group was that
Id go into the tutor room at the start and the kids would be up
and messing around with one kid at the window keeping watch for [the tutor].
They would pay no attention to me whatsoever! They were so unaffected
by my presence that theyd still keep their spy at the window waiting
for [the tutor]! When he was spotted theyd all sit down and straighten
their ties and everything. In the last two weeks I noticed that theyd
do it for me; Id walk towards the class and the face at the window
would disappear and Id go in and theyd be sorting themselves
out. Thats why I teach! Its not a power thing, its having
a positive effect. Taught is the wrong word, what youve given those
kids is a sense of respect.
Interview, Jan 03
It is interesting that John draws a distinction between having power
and having a positive effect; we shall study this in the next section.
This excerpt is intended to illustrate one way in which John has been
able to start defining himself as a teacher. His problem was that at the
start his pupils saw that he did not have the same responsibilities as
their regular tutor. They were absolutely correct in this assumption,
novices have not the responsibilities, hours, pay or rights of qualified
teachers. This sometimes makes it very difficult to believe we are teachers,
but it may have some advantages.
People say that the point of this year is that its the only year
when youll have the chance to experiment, to see what things will
work or not, but were going to have to experiment with taking full
control next year because weve never done it.
I dont like the idea of there being a time of experimenting and
then that stops and then we become teachers. Id have hoped that
teachers always experimented. Id have hoped that they never became
stagnant, especially not as soon as they reach QTS.
But we do have a far easier time than teachers at the moment.
Interview, Feb 03
Hannah has not let this problem of definition trouble her as much as
I have. Instead of acting as though definition was a problem only novices
face, she believes -and has helped me realise- that other teachers may
have the same problems. We have no idea what it is like to assume full
responsibility for a class and we will not get a full idea of this until
September. We can have some idea from our experiences but we dont
yet see the complete picture of what it is to be a teacher.
When youve got responsibility and control over your input,
then you feel like a teacher.
So are you a teacher?
I feel more responsible for other peoples learning. I feel
very possessive of MY children.
You used the word possession to describe something
thats missing from your classes and Im intrigued by the idea.
Do you think you posses your classes, and if you do is that a two way
thing? Can they posses you?
Exactly. Im not there yet, but I hope to be one day. How can you
get kids to work for you unless they belong to you and you belong to them?
Interview, Feb 03
I feel that this statement sums up wonderfully what it is to be a teacher.
Defining oneself is difficult and it is greatly aided by the support of
ones peers. The ultimate definition of teaching status must surely come
not from any piece of paper, but from the pupils themselves. I thoroughly
look forward to belonging to a class in the near future.
Issue three: Power and structure, and why I hate them both
Whilst working in Ethiopia I was confronted by issues in education involving
human rights and social conditioning. In dealing with these issues I was
inspired by the work of the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Friere. He
wrote that education is the act of freedom (Friere P, 1974, p147) and
that educators must believe that people are capable of participating in
their own pursuit of liberation (Friere P, 1972, p150). I am motivated
to teach by a belief that education is an act of emancipation, but at
the same time I am concerned because it is also an act of control.
Education is control because we are conditioning children to think and
act in certain ways. These ways are those which we, society and the government
deem correct for the behaviour of citizens. This is not in itself a problem
as we each have a motivating belief that the majority of those behaviours
are desirable for us to impart to the youth.
I teach because it makes me feel like Im making a difference.
Do you think there is a difference between saying I want
to make a difference and saying I want to affect children,
because I think teachers affect children. Making a difference implies
that you are taking something thats set in stone and youre
changing it. I dont think any childs life is set in stone,
I think childrens lives are constantly changing. We can affect that
change but is our reason really to make a difference? Thats
a bit arrogant.
Yeah, its sort of implying that theres something really
bad in the kids life to start off with, and that youve got
to make that different. If you say youre affecting a child then
youre not giving people something to perceive as negative. Youre
not saying that you are going to take something bad and make it better
for the child.
Interview, Feb 03
In order to teach effectively I have to accept that I am bringing about
small changes or developments in a childs life, and I have to understand
this as a good thing. My difficulty is in ensuring that children have
a voice in that change. School is the one institution that is inflicted
on everybody (Postman N + Weingartner C, 1969, p12) and so there
is little opportunity for children to opt out of this imposition of change,
a situation which Im sure is manifest in some of the behavioural
difficulties Ive had with older pupils. Postman and Weingartner
go on in their engaging manifesto for radical education Teaching
as a subversive activity to point out that school conditions children
to think that passive acceptance is more desirable than active criticism
I decided it would be helpful to gauge the opinions of other novices
on this point.
* I want pupils to develop in their own way, Im just helping some
to develop [their] ability.
* Teachers need to maintain an image that they are always correct
* School is also about how to behave, manners and discipline as well as
education. We must see the bigger picture they need this to survive
* I dont impose views so much as teach pupils to be valuable members
of society. They are learning to rebel against authority and [novice teachers]
are learning to impose authority.
Questionnaire to Kingdown novices, Dec 02
Whilst I make every effort not to appear correct on every issue of science
(having been caught out on this by an astute pupil early on), I do take
on board that children need guidance on how to act and about what is important.
Advice on the reconciliation of emancipation and control came to me from
a work on the ideas of Foulcault: For projects of emancipation and
to be educated means to be committed to social justice
(Fendler L, 1998, p58). I am happy to impart my ideas on social justice
-and the role of science within them- to pupils as part of my project
of education. It is often difficult, however, to engage in this project
within the structures of education in the UK.
Its the whole system of education. What is so special about an
hour? What is so special about writing things down in exercise books in
blue ink? What is so special about doing five or six subjects in a day?
We can vary what we do but its always within a structure. You cant
get out of it. Structure is education. We have a responsibility to deliver
the curriculum of our subject in a way that parents, the school and everyone
You cant think like that! If youre thinking weve got
to do this subject, this subject, this subject, its too rigid. Were
stuck within a pattern, but within that pattern weve got to make
I would like to be a true radical. I would like to do things differently,
forget about the system and concentrate on the education.
As soon as you turn those wonderfully poetic, abstract ideas into practice
you set up a whole new system of structures. Its reinventing the
Interview, Feb 03
Postman and Weingartner have been attacked for their promotion of subversion
of uncritical acceptance of the status quo, because their status quo is
an incomplete stereotype (Barrow R, 1978, pp155-157). In a similar way,
Rachel has pointed out to me that much of the structures which I feel
restrict good teaching are useful, and that I may be rebelling for the
sake of rebellion. This argument has been used to reason against radicals
for some time I am at least as motivated to rebel against authority
out of sheer bloody mindedness as of social idealism.
Fortunately for my ideals, I am coming to terms with this conflict in
my practice. Radical thought, for all its flaws and contradictions,
is a liberating reaction to the current political and social post-modern
apathy (Shapiro S, 1991). In other words I can accept that I am not ultimately
altruistic in my desire to teach because I bring to these soundbite times
my passion and enthusiasm for social justice. If we did not routinely
question our environment we would not be human, and we would not be enacting
democracy surely a good practice with which to engage children.
I cannot, therefore, say that there is anything wrong with my questioning
why, for instance, I insist on smart school uniform before I start teaching,
or why I threaten punishment if pupils do not acquiesce to my decisions.
To question my practice is, as Ive already discussed, the foundation
of my drive to become a better teacher.
Conclusions: Escaping my confusion
I have discovered with this essay that I can tell stories of my existence
with my practice as a teacher, but they are stories without end. I can
use my profession to examine the realities of my life, but I discover
new confusions at every turn. Concluding his book Mythologies,
Roland Barthes offers empathy and hope for me with this dilemma:
The fact that we cannot manage to achieve more than an unstable
grasp of reality doubtless gives the measure of our present alienation:
we constantly drift between the object and its demystification, powerless
to render its wholeness. For if we penetrate the object, we liberate it
but we destroy it; and if we acknowledge its full weight, we respect it,
but we restore it to a state which is still mystified.
(Barthes R, 1957, p159)
The fluid interplay of knowledge, freedom, power and human emotion within
education fascinates me. I havent sought to categorically define
this interplay in telling my stories, I have sought to highlight through
my descriptions the ways in which groups of people can seek to better
themselves with an awareness of the world with which they engage.
That I cannot hope and do not desire to resolve or avoid all the difficulties
I may face in teaching does not mean that I am dispassionate about my
practice. My passion for education is what motivates me to be a teacher
and it is natural for me to exist as a living contradiction, [holding]
certain values whilst at the same time experiencing their denial in practice
(Whitehead J, 1993, p98). It is this paradigm of experiencing practice
as a contradiction which my essay has intended to highlight.
Firstly, I often find it difficult to synthesise what I am feeling about
lessons and my motivations for teaching lessons, with the judgements of
those who monitor those lessons. I can still, however, appreciate the
importance to my teaching of evaluating my lessons.
Secondly, I live as a shadow of full time teachers, aspiring to join
their ranks and imitating their performances. At the same time I fully
believe that I am a teacher because this is the only way that I can engage
with my work this year, and exercise my passion for education.
Finally, I wanted to be a teacher because education is one of the few
things that binds all societies together. I have seen first hand how education
is at the root of personal emancipation and yet I still recognise that
I must take control and impose my own and other peoples will upon
children in order to be an effective teacher.
My hope is that I can, through practising democracy and equality within
my classroom, and by advocating the quest for knowledge as an essential
human behaviour, be an accessible and engaging teacher whilst still assuming
responsibility for some of the moral and social orientation of pupils.
By telling stories of how I go about this I hope that my practice can
be validated and justified. Freedom, knowledge and power all come with
responsibility. The enactment of these values with young minds is, for
me, the very essence of education.
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