Great teaching and learning? It’s a habit!

Our habits are like an automatic pilot that helps us do everything without too much thinking. We know what we are doing and how to do it. Then a pandemic hits and changes everything.

Habits help make it easy to get things done quickly, efficiently – and unconsciously. This means we don’t have to think too hard about how to carry out tasks – we simply do them habitually because it works. New ways of doing things, like social distancing, challenge us but begin to be habitual instincts in time. How strange it is to see crowds throbbing together now on television. The new normal is embedding! Getting more conscious of the way we do things however will help us be as adaptable and flexible as we can be… and also prevent us slipping into any unhelpful habits in challenging times.

Do you remember the conscious incompetence you felt when first driving a car or teaching a lesson? That feeling of being unsure, panicky even, all too aware of every instruction and mistake? After much practice though you eventually moved to conscious competence, still learning, and eventually through to unconscious competence. Life got so much easier – you learned the habits!

But did you learn good or bad habits? Bad teaching habits can develop, often unconsciously – too much teacher talk, ignoring the invisible child, favouritism, ignoring bad behaviour, tick and flick marking, arriving late to lessons, spelling mistakes, late reports etc. etc. I mention these because I have done them all at some time – but they can become routine, characteristic, habitual behaviours. I know this, because when these bad habits are mentioned in performance management meetings, there can often be a genuine lack of awareness of them. These bad habits are easy to solve though, through feedback – providing the recipient is open to change!

More worrying though are the unconscious habits of thinking that hold some teachers, and therefore their pupils, back. Amongst these are the ‘victim’ mentality, believing the world is against them or the cynical hyper-rational, fixed mindset teacher who finds training of any kind a massive waste of time. Think of your staffroom and those whose demeanour and conversation habitually, unconsciously drain you of any optimism for the future. Think also of those others who lift our mood with their optimism and sense of humour. Which one are you? How can you find out? Becoming aware of our own habits of thinking is the first step towards self-awareness.

Here are the 7 useful habits for great teachers outlined in my book ‘Teaching and Learning’

Habit 1: Great self-management

Rate yourself out of ten as you read the descriptors below:

  • Reframing struggle or failure as an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Use stress management strategies like mindfulness techniques
  • Develop resilient thinking so you can bounce back after being given critical feedback from a lesson observation.
  • Make sure that everything you do relates to learning and progress for your students.
  • Take care of your mind and body by eating healthy foods, exercising and growing your knowledge of how learning works.
  • Be professional in appearance and behaviour – and prompt with reports and deadlines.
  • Switch off and relax at home. Put the stresses of the day into a box to be retrieved tomorrow and enjoy time with your partner, children, pets, TV, garden, hobbies…

Schools can promote a self-management culture through having a powerful and embedded coaching programme, internal and external training events, celebrations of individual achievements, consistent leadership and lots of staffroom cream cakes, laughs and social events.

Habit 2: Reflective practice

  • Give and, more importantly, take feedback.
  • Ask your students how you are doing as their teacher. Tell your leader how they are doing as your leader (gently!).
  • Use metacognition to stand back and analyse why you respond in certain ways to situations.
  • Constantly review how you can improve your teaching and therefore the learning in your class
  • You can’t be curious and angry at the same time – so get curious about behaviour!

This habit means you’ll become much more flexible and more responsive to pupil’s needs.

Habit 3: Cognitive Flexibility

Adapting to a changing world and ever-changing expectations is an essential habit for pupils and teachers. How many of these have you done?

  • Find new ways of working – every week.
  • Teach a different subject.
  • Be on the lookout for new roles and opportunities.
  • Talk to new/different people in the staffroom.
  • Use the internet and social media to extend your contacts and find new ideas to try in the classroom.
  • Visit other schools and lessons regularly – just for fun.
  • Team up with other departments or year groups to work together on a theme.
  • Take part in as many extra-curricular activities as you can – especially staff pantos and karaoke!
  • Draw, paint, sing, dance – at whatever level, as often as possible.
  • Coach others and self-coach to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Habit 4: Optimism

Teachers must believe that all their pupils can succeed in something. Children must believe they can improve in anything and be filled with hope and the expectation that they can make progress. Toddlers wake up every morning believing that they can and will learn new things. They show a relentless optimism and determination to learn to walk, talk and find out about the world. We, and our pupils, need to rediscover this ‘inner baby’ curiosity and confidence. and put aside comparison with others and doubt about themselves and their abilities.

There is a four-letter word that is much more important for learning than ‘exam’ and that is ‘hope’.

Try to:

  • Think of your very best moment of teaching this week. Relive it over and over and enhance the good bits to make it even better.
  • Reflect on a negative moment and reframe it by asking ‘What can I learn from this?’
  • Make a list of all the good things about your class, job or team.
  • Keep a ‘victory log’1 which tracks all the good things that happen in your class.
  • Challenge negative generalisations such as ‘I never get on with Year 8’ with ‘Which lessons work well with Year 8?’
  • Rehearse your dreaded lesson by imagining it going brilliantly as many times as you can.
  • Use mantras that focus on success, such as ‘If you think you can or if you think you can’t you are right’ and ‘there’s no such thing as failure – only feedback’
  • Have an optimistic goal to work towards. Adapt and adjust it over time.

Habit 5: Empathy

Empathy is part of our natural ability to reflect other people’s emotions and thereby understand their perspective on the world. MRI scanning can now detect mirror neurons in our brains that light up when we respond to other people’s feelings.

Teachers who have high levels of empathy can get kids on-side and spread the culture of allies that is needed to create an ‘outstanding’ school community. They:

  • Listen closely to feedback so they can connect and calibrate and adapt their communication.
  • Tune in to the people/pupils in front of them by listening to everything they say and understanding their map of the world.
  • Don’t take bad behaviour personally but try to understand what is motivating pupils to do it.
  • Go to leaders with ideas and solutions – not moans and problems.

Habit 6: Courage and resilience

We all have our comfort zones, and these mould some of our habitual behaviours – like sitting in the same seat in the staffroom, using the same coffee cup, teaching the same scheme of work and talking to the same colleagues. Being ambitious for your classes means having to try new ways of working – particularly for groups of children that don’t learn easily.

Courageous, resilient teachers:

  • Feed their self-confidence through self-disclosure – are honest about struggling and seek out help.
  • Do the things that scare them the most – public speaking, parachuting, taking assembly, running in the teachers’ race…
  • Are brave when trying out new strategies – they know they may not work straight away so there will be some scary moments.
  • Seek out feedback from leaders, pupils and parents because that’s how they know how they are doing. They regularly ask their classes ‘How am I doing – is this working for you?’
  • Have high expectations of themselves but forgive themselves when things go wrong and learn from it.
  • Always admit when they are wrong and work out how they will put it right.
  • Never give up on the most challenging pupils or situations.

Habit 7: Collaboration and connection

Human beings were born to collaborate and learn from one another. The very best teachers love to share ideas and resources and find a synergy in the cross-fertilisation of ideas across departments and schools. Whether through informal chats, a Twitter forum or attending conferences and subject workshops, being a good collaborator will enhance your teaching.

We can never underestimate the influence of the ‘movers and shakers’ on the staff who are good collaborators who love being teachers. They:

  • Network in person as often as possible – with different departments, schools, businesses and colleagues in the staffroom and at events.
  • Network electronically through social media formally and informally.
  • Work with different departments on INSET day, whenever possible.
  • Work closely with support staff, governors and business links.
  • Mentor new teachers or coach a colleague – learning much about themselves in the process.
  • Help with sports day, productions and events for parents.
  • Share resources and ideas. Support each other and are proud of the school.

Developing the seven habits is a journey. We will all still have those moments of weakness…

What happens when you wake up at 3 a.m. on August 31st thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore’. We’ve all done it – no one is a hero at 3 a.m. The most important thing to remember if you track through your career, is that there always were (and will be) moments of crisis, of success, periods of excitement and anticipation, and long weeks of exhaustion. You have made and will continue to make mistakes and experience failure.

Remember, the best teachers constantly learn from these and support each other and see their job as a lifelong learning experience. At your best, you are an inspiration, modelling the habits of good learners. At your worst, you are still a learner, acting on feedback. You are a work in progress! No great teacher has not had moments of sheer despair!

As a trainer of teachers at all stages of their careers, I am constantly in awe of their dedication and passion, and of their determination to make a difference to the young people they work with. Beyond the next government initiative, change in curriculum or exam syllabus, what really matters is what teachers say and do in classrooms to help learners grow into creative, adaptable, industrious and caring people.

The most important habit is to love your job, love the kids and never give up trying to make a difference… and in a pandemic the very best habit to model for your children is optimism for a better future.

Jackie Beere

This article includes ideas from: Beere, J. (2020). ‘Teaching and Learning – supporting independent thinking for teachers and learners.’ Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.