Intent Blog

The Teacher’s Intent

Inauthenticity casts its shadow over most lesson observations. Soon after she was informed that one of our lessons was going to be observed, one of my most cerebral learners made an insightful comment. “We don’t normally behave like this, you don’t normally teach like this, and the observer doesn’t usually act like that. It changes everything.”

Observations are rarely an enjoyable experience for learners or teachers. The feeling of being judged is terrifying, and the shift of focus from the growth of the learners to the performance of the teacher inverts the purpose of education, resulting in lessons that have a distinctly ‘plastic’ feel. The unspoken expectations of an observation lesson are understood by the learners, who participate to the required extent without too much enthusiasm, while focusing far more on the evaluation of the observer than the content of the lesson.

The teacher is anxious, the learners are caught between skepticism and apprehension, and the activities are usually ‘safe’, so to avoid the risk of embarrassing failure. The increasing dependence on technology evident in the contemporary classroom creates further potential for mayhem, and by the law of the sod, the annual projector explosion or electricity failure usually happens on the day of the observation. The diligent teacher will always have a back-up plan, especially for observed lessons, but no amount of anticipation or flexi-stages to compensate for unexpected events can prepare one for the tragedy of technological failure, which often sends even the most experienced teachers into a spin.

In Turkey, the university at which I teach has recognised that it is prone to power cuts, and has installed a highly effective automated back-up system which, as soon as it senses that the mains power has failed, falls back on a number of generators located outside the building, restoring power within a matter of seconds. Despite the unquestionable efficacy of the system, those few seconds without power are enough to shut down the overhead projector, switch off the lights, disturb the internet connection, and, as if they were themselves hooked up to the mains, disconnect learner attention.

When this happened to me during one of the observations that formed part of my annual performance review, I resembled a man who stands in the midst of a raging fire, urging people to keep calm. I attempted to give instructions while simultaneously standing on a chair, exposing my increasingly sweaty armpits as I reached for the projector’s on button, all the while attempting to smile through my anxiety. It was a deeply unpleasant experience.

However, when the shoe is on the other foot, I have observed some teachers who do not melt like ice cream when their lesson does not unfold as they planned. These teachers share a sense of serene detachment from what is happening in their classrooms. This does not equate to heedlessness or a lack of concern for the welfare of the learners, but an internal acknowledgement that there are aspects of the unfolding classroom drama that can be controlled, and some that cannot. In psychological terms, these super-teachers demonstrate an internal locus of control, which results in them paying close attention to their own role, their words, the atmosphere they are creating, and the way that they respond to the stimuli that rain down upon them during the course of a lesson.

They do not focus on factors that they have no influence over, as these are, by definition, beyond their control. They are neither reactive nor turbulent, and have a deeply embedded understanding of the inherent unpredictability of life in general and the classroom in particular. Their disposition seems to be one of curiosity rather than judgement, and their reaction to Jimmy throwing his shoe at Lisa is more likely to be “well well! Would you look at that!” than “How could you do that you little rodent!”

These teachers fascinate me, primarily because I hope one day to be like them. But what can I do to emulate their cucumber coolness? Teacher education has traditionally focused on developing instructor level attributes, which focus on how to most effectively present content and help learners develop relevant academic skills. While this is both admirable and entirely necessary, the character and worldview of the teacher is frequently overlooked, perhaps due to the popular perception that it is inappropriate to enforce a particular worldview on others. However, educators are not (yet) robots, and the way in which the teacher understands the universe and her role in it will inevitably impact on the kind of classroom atmosphere she generates, and ultimately in my view, the effectiveness of the educational experience she provides her learners with.

This is not to demand that educators understand their role in a particular manner, but rather to raise the importance of introspection on behalf of educators, an introspection that extends beyond the effectiveness of particular activities or classroom management strategies, into the realm of metaphysics and intent. In recent years, the increasing popularity of ‘mindfulness’ combined with the re-emergence in the public sphere of philosophical systems such as Stoicism have impacted upon education, and practices such as meditation are far more likely to be found in educational institutions today than they would have been even ten years ago.

This is indicative of a growing awareness that the mere presentation of information combined with a resulting qualification does not constitute an education in the truest sense, and that while the modern man has access to more facts than ever before, he has focused on the ‘how’ to the detriment of the ‘why’. The same is true of educators. Teacher education programmes focus primarily upon teaching strategies and learning styles, and are designed to make educators effective instructors. However, they rarely focus upon the inner nature of the teacher, which exerts a profound impact upon the learners’ experiences in her class, and contributes to the learners’ evolving understanding of how to engage with the universe. The teacher who is at war with her students produces students who are at war with the world. The teacher who is overly protective and spoils her students produces students who are weak and vulnerable. The teacher who acts appropriately with her students, always acting in their interests but not always doing as they please, produces students who are independent, moral, and balanced.

Educators frequently voice complaints about the syllabus, the institution, the assessment criteria, the frequency of exams, and the attitude of the students themselves. However, research has demonstrated time and again that the single most significant factor in the success (or lack of) of a learner’s educational experience is the effectiveness of the teacher, which overrides the myriad other influences that shape a learner’s education. Teaching is an inherently altruistic endeavour. The teaching profession has traditionally attracted generous, benevolent souls who believe deeply in the growth and development of humankind. It is by harnessing this benevolence and encouraging educators to carefully consider their inner landscape, the role they play in the lives of the young people they stand before, the residual impression their positive and negative character traits leave on the not yet ripened beings whom they interact with, and above all else, the intent that lies behind their being in the classroom, that the teacher moves from being an instructor whose impact is limited to the realm of information, to a mentor, a source of inspiration that young people not only look up to and respect, but feel deep love for.

My dream as an educator is to facilitate the growth of strong, noble hearts and inquisitive, sharp minds. But one can only give of what one has. In order to be as effective as I possibly can be in the classroom, there is no doubt that I must stay abreast of the latest developments in cognitive psychology and pedagogy. However, of far greater importance for the quality of my teaching is the type of man I am, my character, my manner, and my understanding of my role in the universe. The best teachers are servants of their students, whose every word and deed, whether bitter or sweet, is motivated by a desire for the growth of their learners. This is a tall task. But by means of inner work, introspection, and careful monitoring of our reactions, feelings, and emotions, we can begin to become more mature and ultimately more effective educators.

Education is an ethical problem. In order to be as effective as I possibly can be in the classroom, there is no doubt that I must stay abreast of the latest developments in cognitive psychology and pedagogy. However, of far greater importance for the quality of my teaching is the type of man I am, my character, my manner, and my understanding of my role in the universe.