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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

April 2003


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 it’s being enacted by every cultural group that the Earth has known: it is a defining characteristic of mankind.

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; I’m 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 don’t 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 I’d achieved my objectives, I’d kept control of the classroom, so if he was ticking boxes then yes, it was a successful lesson, but no, it wasn’t the best one I’d ever done. But normally I get a feeling if a lesson is going well, and it’s normally if I’m having fun. If I’m enjoying it, then normally it’s going well and if I ain’t enjoying it then it’s usually because it’s heading downhill.”


“Sometimes I can feel it when it’s going and I just know it’s going well, other times, when I’ve been in a bad mood about the lesson before and I’ve thought ‘oh this isn’t going well’ but when I’ve come back out and thought about it and the teacher’s gone: ’that was a good lesson’”


“I’ve had that! I’ve 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 I’ve got back from it was quite the opposite. Whether that was just to keep my spirits up…”
Interview, Jan 03

I don’t 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 can’t fault my mentors, but…


Teachers are awful to learn from because they are teachers and they can’t 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, no.


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 novice’s 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 and repetitive.
* 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, that’s not me


That thing at the front of the class doesn’t even look like me. It’s 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 it’s not me then who the hell is it? And the children ask “well if it’s 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, it’s 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 a teacher.


“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 it’s 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 it’s 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 else’s 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 people’s classes in other people’s 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 I’d 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 they’d still keep their spy at the window waiting for [the tutor]! When he was spotted they’d all sit down and straighten their ties and everything. In the last two weeks I noticed that they’d do it for me; I’d walk towards the class and the face at the window would disappear and I’d go in and they’d be sorting themselves out. That’s why I teach! It’s not a power thing, it’s having a positive effect. Taught is the wrong word, what you’ve 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 it’s the only year when you’ll have the chance to experiment, to see what things will work or not, but we’re going to have to experiment with taking full control next year because we’ve never done it.


I don’t like the idea of there being a time of experimenting and then that stops and then we become teachers. I’d have hoped that teachers always experimented. I’d 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 don’t yet see the complete picture of what it is to be a teacher.


“When you’ve got responsibility and control over your input, then you feel like a teacher.”


“So are you a teacher?”


“I feel more responsible for other people’s learning. I feel very possessive of MY children.”


“You used the word ‘possession’ to describe something that’s missing from your classes and I’m 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. I’m 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 I’m 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 that’s set in stone and you’re changing it. I don’t think any child’s life is set in stone, I think children’s lives are constantly changing. We can affect that change but is our reason really to ‘make a difference’? That’s a bit arrogant.”


“Yeah, it’s sort of implying that there’s something really bad in the kid’s life to start off with, and that you’ve got to make that different. If you say you’re affecting a child then you’re not giving people something to perceive as negative. You’re 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 child’s 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 I’m sure is manifest in some of the behavioural difficulties I’ve 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 (ibid. p31).

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, I’m 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 after school.
* I don’t 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 empowerment… 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.


It’s 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 it’s always within a structure. You can’t 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 wants.


You can’t think like that! If you’re thinking we’ve got to do this subject, this subject, this subject, it’s too rigid. We’re stuck within a pattern, but within that pattern we’ve got to make it ours.


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. It’s reinventing the wheel.

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 it’s 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 I’ve 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 haven’t 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 people’s 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.


Barthes R, 1993, Mythologies (Translation), Vintage Press
Barrow R, 1978, Radical education, Robertson and Company
Cohen L, and Manion L, 1980, Research Methods in Education London, Croom Helm
Day C, 1999, Developing teachers; The challenges of lifelong learning. Falmer Press
Elliott J, 1992, Reconstructing Teacher Education, Journal unknown
Friere P, 1972 Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin Books
Friere P, 1974, Education: The practice of Freedom, WRP Co-operative
Fendler L, in Popkewitz T and Brennan M, Foucault’s Challenge, Teacher’s College Press
Mallick K, and Verma, G. (1999) Research Education- Perspectives and Techniques, London and Philadelphia: Falmer Press
McNiff, J. in Lomax P, 1990 Managing Staff Development in Schools, BERA
Postman N and Weingartner C, 1969, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Penguin Education
Shapiro S, 1991, The End of Radical Hope? Postmodernism and the Challenge to Critical Pedagogy, Education and Society, Vol.9 No.2
Stenhouse L, 1975, An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, London, Heinemann
University of Bath, 2002, PGCE in Partnership –Course Handbook, Unpublished



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