NQT Special: Classroom hypnosis

Written by: Martin Matthews | Published:
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It can be too easy to procrastinate over every single detail of our lessons, especially when we are new to teaching. Martin Matthews urges NQTs to trust their instincts. He explains why we should let ourselves switch off in order to switch on...

You’re behind the wheel of a car, driving down a road – or at least you were. You are now somewhere else in your mind, in the middle of a conversation with a colleague, talking to a family member about something you should have spoken to them about last week, or thinking about how you’re going to mend the hole in the kitchen roof.

Suddenly you realise you’re back in the car and you’ve no memory of driving along the previous two miles. It’s a route you often take. It’s a road you’ve driven before. It’s not dangerous, as such, if you had needed to “wake up” you would have easily done so at the sight of a brake light ahead, a wayward pedestrian or an escaped farmyard animal.

You’re in a sort of driving sleep; the motorway has mesmerised you, the winding curves of the B road have sent you into a sort of dream state or the brake lights of despair ahead have guided you into a traffic jam dream – a highway hypnosis...

Classroom dreams

How often do we “drive” our classrooms like this? Have you ever been teaching and found yourself stepping outside of yourself for a moment and hearing your voice talking about a topic – “hey, that sounds alright”, you think, “I actually sound like I know what I am talking about”, then you realise that you better get back inside your mind again quickly before you forget what you were saying?

Or, have you ever looked at a fully timetabled day in the morning and then found yourself at the end of the day with no solid recollection of how you got there?

You know that lessons took place as you have the battle scars of board marker pen on your hand, a half-drunk cup of coffee on your desk and detritus of battle piled up in the form of left over worksheets and a stack of marking the size of Ben Nevis for you to work through. Were you asleep? Did you dream it all, or were you just caught in the flow of a teaching day?

It’s an age-old analogy, but teaching is like driving a car. When you learn to drive you have to remember so many things. The need to check your mirrors at the correct times, timing the clutch and gear changes correctly and ensuring your hands are always at “10 and two”.

Many people report that when they learn to drive they are tense and they can’t relax; the mind is focused on the new things it has to learn and implement and you are very aware that you are being watched and judged.

In time, when we pass our driving tests, we start to relax. We do things more naturally. We don’t worry about every single detail all of the time. Some people may argue that this makes us worse drivers. Perhaps, but we are at least more experienced – we are able to switch off and let our experience take over. Is teaching and working in a school that dissimilar?

Learner teachers

First of all, I am not advocating not planning lessons, or not thinking about the path you are taking your students down. It is clear that all departments need carefully thought-out long-term plans that take into account the key skills and general areas of focus that need to be covered across the school year.

With that, there is clearly need to think about medium-term planning in regards to how you will support students to meet the goals and address the new skills outlined in the long-term plan. Finally, there obviously needs to be short-term planning that considers how you will deploy the various resources in order to teach your lessons and reach your medium and long-term goals.

Teachers are also well aware of the need to demonstrate pupil progress, employing understanding of the various data available alongside key information in terms of students’ educational needs. However, once we have done this, how do we deliver our lessons and how do we function during the school day to better serve both our wellbeing and the progress of students?

When you learn to teach it is like learning to drive, you have to remember to do so many things at once – create your lesson plan, differentiate, clearly outline learning parameters, and ensure all of your students are making progress through well-thought-out feedback.

As such, many trainee teachers and NQTs I have mentored report that, like learner drivers, they are often tense and can’t relax in the classroom or around the school. Even though they are “driving” their lessons perfectly, they are not at ease. In schools, there seems to be so many things to manage all at once that many teachers, from NQTs to experienced colleagues, feel they are always on a driving test.

Is there some worth in finding a sort of school hypnosis? Do we need to switch off, in order to switch on?

Trust your instincts

Picture the scene: you have got your long-term, medium-term and short-term plans in place. You have your seating plan ready, with key information about each young person clearly labelled. You’ve got your plan to differentiate and have considered mixed self, peer and teacher-led assessment and/or feedback.

All of that matters, but what matters most is thinking about the little things that will allow you to journey through the lesson and beyond. To cut down planning time, ask yourself:

  • What key skills do I want young people to learn?
  • What do I want them to complete by the end of the lesson?
  • How will I make students part of the learning journey?

Try to keep focus on these key issues and trust in your planning ability. Although we might plan a journey in the car, we don’t plan every single turn – we trust in our driving ability. The more we drive a route, the more we enter highway hypnosis – we don’t forget the important aspects of driving and every journey throws up potential hazards that we must respond to, but we allow our experience to take over in order to make the journey easier.Both in and out of work, remember to try to relax. Take time to greet the students at the start of a lesson. Whether they’re lined up outside or drifting into the room in dribs and drabs, ask them how they are and find out a bit about their day.

There may well be a starter activity on the desk for them, but take time to start with some pleasantries. It’s nice to be nice. In a sea of data, stats and progress measures it can sometimes become muddied as to what you’re there to do.

There are a number of targets to hit every lesson, but fundamentally you are there to teach and work with human beings. If students are relaxed and you are relaxed, then the mind should be better ready to learn and take in new information. I appreciate that there’s an argument for not letting your students to become too relaxed, but stress doesn’t help anyone.

Take the time to read

I once suggested this to an NQT and he gave me a look that simply said “when?!”

But don’t make reading a special event, incorporate it into your daily life. Carry a book around with you. Take five to 10 minutes to switch off and focus on something else (the book can be education-based or not). This time can sometimes be found in those few minutes when you might be waiting for something – i.e. a meeting to start, a student to arrive for a detention, or your computer to reboot for the fifth time in a row. When you mentally “come back” into the school space, you will likely feel better.

Taking a moment to enjoy a spot of fresh air can have the same effect. Could you walk into the school building from your car a slightly longer way? Do you get the train or bus into work for once and enjoy the opportunity to see something different?

There is nothing wrong with giving your mind a break and allowing your mind and body a chance to slow down.

Take time to exercise. It’s well documented that one of the best ways to combat stress, or to relax, is to undertake regular exercise. This can be anything from running to a brisk walk after work. If you go from a busy teaching day to busy home life (possibly with further school work to complete) with no “escape” or release, then this can contribute to greater stress levels.

As you take a walk, go for a run or ride your unicycle down the street, let your mind take in the sights and sounds around you. If you start to think about work, put your thoughts straight back on your surroundings – what sights and sounds can you take in and notice? Try not to let the weather put you off! Maybe the rain will do you some good. If you practise this regularly you will find that your mind is then better focused to finish off the work you have left, get a good night’s sleep or enjoy time with friends and family.

Breathe

You might have a pile of work on the desk. You know you have a number of emails to respond to. Remember to breathe. A relaxed individual breathes between six and eight times a minute. If you focus on slowing your breathing for a moment, you will relax and be better prepared to prioritise what needs doing first and to decide what can be completed later or the next day. If you are having trouble slowing breathing, try the following:

  • Breathe in and count to five.
  • Hold your breath for about two seconds.
  • Let the breath out slowly for roughly seven seconds.
  • Repeat.

The pile of work will not have disappeared, but you might be in a better state of mind to address it.

Acceptance

Try not to judge people, be it your colleagues or students. Sometimes we just have to let things go and accept that they are

the way they are. We can fix many things as teachers (indeed, we are expected to sometimes fix what seems unfixable), but some things just need to be left alone.

Alongside that we must consider how we come across to others. We know this is particularly important in our role as we communicate with young people and their parents every day, but this needs to be extended to colleagues. Make sure you concentrate on engaging and listening – stay in that moment, try not to worry about the rest of the lesson, the meeting or parent phone call.

Ride the worry waves

Sometimes our worries can seem like they are the most important thing in the world. The reality is that most likely they will not last forever. Imagine riding on the top of a wave and then drifting down the other side. We sometimes need to ride our worries and concerns and go with the flow.

In terms of balancing up workload, staying in school every day until 6pm or working at home until 11pm does not make you a better teacher. A wise person once said to me: “When faced with what seems like a big task, it’s not really a big task, it’s just lots of little jobs.” Sometimes it’s about finding the first little job and focusing on that.

At the end of the school day it’s important that you take stock of what you’ve done. As you walk out of the school building, try to list three things that have gone well that day, or that you are pleased about. Sometimes these could be big things, such as a student achieving an improved grade, or a class that you teach making significant progress.

However, there is as much worth in thinking about the little things that have gone well, this is especially important on a difficult day. There is always something that has gone well in day – seriously, even if that was that cup of coffee and chat with a colleague, or the student who held a door open for you. Find something positive in every day.

Conclusion

We need to trust in our ability to “drive” our school life while keeping in mind the various aspects of the teacher highway code. Teaching is a busy and difficult career, but it is also a rewarding one. We know we have to work hard for our students, but sometimes to get the best out of ourselves we need to switch off in order to switch on.

  • Martin Matthews is an experienced secondary school teacher in Cheshire. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2Fi0G15

NQT Special Edition: Free download

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NQT Special Edition – eight pages of best practice advice aimed at NQTs and trainee teachers as they come to the end of their first term. All eight pages, published in November 2018, can be downloaded as a free pdf via http://bit.ly/2FGrF77


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