Plan your lesson then prepare your mind to teach.

Cognitive Paperwork: Get your Mind Right

The personal, professional and even financial benefits of preparing your mind to teach.

A Teacher is a Risk Manager.

Like learning, teaching is an anxiety provoking endeavor. In most cases the teacher is the sole adult in a room of over 20 children. Although aided by the constraints of the culture of ‘school’, you still have to convince those souls in front of you that you are willing and able to guide them through the risky unknown to safety.  The more you are able to demonstrate this, the more they will trust you and the higher the risk they will want to take.

It’s a highly skilled, intuitive job.

Learning requires the learner to step beyond what he ‘knows’ into what is currently unknown. Maya Angelou famously said that we do not see the world as it is, we see it as we are.  In other words, we can only ever see the world as we perceive it in the moment.  However, when we are anxious and under pressure, our perceptions can become distorted and we can lose sight of our objectivity.

Anxiety is a brilliant device.  It acts like our built-in radar. Low levels tell us that we are safe and that we can relax and enjoy ourselves and higher levels signify that we might need to stay vigilant in order to avoid danger.

S0, learning is risky.  That’s one of the reasons it’s fun. For many students taking that risk is exciting. For more risk-averse students, risk is well, just too risky and rather than relax and enjoy the process, they remain vigilant and alert and will do anything to resist or avoid the threat of the unknown.  Hence, an important part of a teacher’s role is that of risk manager.

It’s a highly skilled, intuitive job.

Before teachers can be trusted, they may first have to pass a test.

Early learning relationships are replicated in the classroom

Before teachers can be trusted, they may first have to pass a test.  It’s a test of resilience and endurance and it will take all of your mental resourcefulness and stamina to get through it.  But when you do, the rewards are worth it.

Psychology tells us that there is a time in the life of the young infant when it unconsciously tests the parameters of the carers ability to contain its undeveloped and frightened self.  It is the stage at which parents often say that nothing they do will comfort the child. However, the mere fact that the parent is willing to keep on caring for the infant, to sustain it, to feed it, to hold it, is evidence enough for the young child that the external world is not the same as the world it internally imagines.  The adult, through his or her actions demonstrates that no matter what, there is always somewhere that feels safe. The infant internalizes(introjects) this feeling and uses it as a reference as he or she goes through life.

Although It may feel vindictive to many new teachers, for many students, this trial is the only mechanism they have of dropping their emotional barricades and embracing learning.

Educational Psychology tells us that this is an unconscious process and, importantly, that a similar dynamic is repeated in a classroom when a new teacher enters the lives of the students and plays out in their off-task behavior.

Although It may feel vindictive to many new teachers, for many students, this trial is the only mechanism they have of dropping their emotional barricades and embracing learning. So, as a new teacher, you are checked for safety.

For example, any question asked by a student who doesn’t understand your lesson is being posed on two levels.  One part asks for intellectual clarity on the subject in hand.  The other question is unspoken but emotionally audible and is something like “What will this teacher do with my vulnerability?”   Each student is asking more than the intellectual question, they are checking out your emotional connection, your ability and willingness to care, your resilience and ultimately whether you can be trusted.

It can be tough – for everyone.

Some classes will have children in them for whom learning is veryrisky indeed. Because the proposition of failure for some students is too much to bear, they will avoid taking on any challenges until they are absolutely sure that you to be trusted. So, they will continue to test you and try to lead others into the same cul-de-sac.  Some students, who are from home environments where they have never found an adult able to help them, will possibly never believe you. For these children, you will have to just keep showing up and hope that they learn something from you that they should have learned much earlier in their development.

This difficulty is compounded by the fact that many teachers aren’t prepared for and don’t understand what is happening.  They are preparing well, planning their lessons meticulously, nothing seems to change.

One key lesson I learned from psychology is that anxiety that remains unacknowledged becomes all pervasive

Take care of your Intuition

Teachers are often very intuitive people. They can sense how others are feeling and respond without being ‘told’ when someone is upset or needs help.  But it is these same sensitive intuitive teachers who fall prey to students who sense this vulnerability yet expose it as weakness. Teachers, in these cases, can feel bullied.  Even though they are ‘grown ups’, what is reawakened in them is their own childhood and they are filled with feelings of helplessness and at worst, shame.  No wonder many new teachers flee the profession so quickly.

Risk averse teaching means learning dries up

Understandably, these teachers can become risk averse. They stay safe, plan for safety and fill the hour with activities that mean that they can feel as safe as possible. Their job becomes confined and restricted by their anxiety. Understandably. Because of the psychic tests set   by their students, these teachers begin to perceive the classroom as a battleground, as a place of failure and their students as a brutal enemy.

The obvious truth is, teachers, especially those being trained for work in state schools, need help.  They need help understanding the interpersonal dynamics in a classroom. They need help decluttering their minds so that they can see clearly and act appropriately.

Planning to take it personally

The phrase ‘planning a lesson’ brings to mind images of forms and boxes and slides, of learning objectives, seating plans and differentiation. It is thought of as an intellectual pursuit.  The learning is, logically mapped out in chunks, ready to be fed to the students. Fine, good, that’s right. As far as it goes.  But what this set of documents and boxes does not allow for is how you. the teacher, is planning and preparing yourself to meet and teach this class on a personal level.

Well planned and delivered lessons are key to success as a teacher. Of course. But, where we fall down, is that we turn away from properly planning how to meet students personally and emotionally.  To do that effectively, we need to understand and prepare our emotional selves for the challenge.  We need to be skilled in looking after ourselves so that we really help students thrive by being courageous in our classrooms and manage the risk.

Planning for a greater connection and sense of well-being

When anxieties are ‘realized’ in this way, their threat is ameliorated.

One key lesson I learned from psychology is that anxiety that remains unacknowledged becomes all pervasive. In other words, we can be so troubled by a thought that trying not to think about it dominates out thinking! Better, psychology tells us, to acknowledge it. How? By speaking it to someone or writing it down so that it can be attended to, rationalized and thought through calmly.  When anxieties are ‘realized’ in this way, their threat is ameliorated. One reason psychoanalysis works is that is allows the patient to get his worries out on the table, see them clearly and decide the level of response they demand.

For me, this developed into a practice or ritual that went through before my more challenging classes.  I’ve called it “Putting your mind to teaching in 10 steps” . I believe it is a practice that step by step revolutionized my approach to teaching and one that I not only want to share but, that I believe is life-saving.

 For you as a teacher, this practice could be enough to get you over the hump of your first few months of teaching. I used it throughout my time in secondary education and I still use it all the time. When I prepare for any situation where I think my subjectivity could overwhelm me due to anxiety, I run through the exercise below.

 Financial Benefits: Do the Maths.

But there is a potential financial benefit to this. Let’s say this approach helped prevent 1 in ten teachers leaving the profession. With 40,000 quitting in the UK alone each year, that might result in nearly 4000 teachers remaining in the classroom.  Every new teacher represents a substantial investment on both a personal level and institutional level that runs into many thousands of pounds. Nationally, this figure runs into millions.  Just a thought.

With 40,000 quitting in the UK alone each year, that might result in nearly 4000 teachers remaining in the classroom.

There were many times in my teaching career when I just didn’t feel like taking on another class, another hour, another challenge.  And, as a member of the senior team, I witnessed too many good teachers just slowly abdicating from their role due to a build-up of stress and anxiety. Often this resulted in illness or stress-related days off. If each day lost per teacher results in a £200 bill per day, then schools could potentially be saving thousands of pounds per year by helping their teaching staff add this tool to their classroom preparation.

Putting Your Mind to Teaching in 10 steps

Step 1 [Express Subjective Emotions]:   The first job is to empty out the trash and pick through it. In practical terms this meant that I would write out everything that was worrying me about the lesson in a notebook.     I knew, as you should, that these were my ‘subjective emotional responses to what was going round in my head. Even so, I wouldn’t try to self-edit or judge myself, I would just express the anxieties that I felt.

Step 2 [Redefine with Objective Intellect]:I would look at what I had written and work through it testing it against reality. In other words, I would apply my intellect to what was written. This does not mean dismissing my concerns as ‘silly’. More, it meant acknowledging my worries and considering how much validity they had. Seeing the concerns there in black and white took away their power and helped me to declutter my mind before going to meet the class. The result of this forensic analysis was that I could and would let go of any pre-perceptions of the class. I let go of the idea that I could control what would happen next and just went towards it in charge of myself.  It was all I could really ever do.

Step 3 [Recognize potential Hotspots]: Rationalize my anxieties meant that I was able to think more clearly about any hotspots that might be a challenge; the beginning of the lesson perhaps, or certain students who would notoriously arrive late. Seeing things as they are rather than how you imagine they are or how you believe they should be, is key to successful classroom management because it allows you to be in the moment and bring all of your skills, empathy and creativity to help you in your task.

Step 4 [Strategize]:Acknowledging and analysing my anxieties was often enough to take away their hold over me. This meant that I could creatively plan what I needed to do to meet realchallenges of the class rather than the imagined ones.

Step 5 [Align to Purpose]: Psychological research into the power of purpose concludes that those who know ‘why’ they are doing something can bear almost any ‘how’ in terms of the way it gets done. Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and at the same time leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the self and has a profoundly positive effect on well-being.

Step 6 [Have a Mantra]: Minds are busy organisms and anxious minds are often fixed on finding ‘ways out’ of the present moment. A simple mantra or phrase can bring you back into focus and help you stay with what you are there to achieve.

 Step 7 [Be clear about goals: Minimum and Ideal progress]:None of this is any good unless you have a clear and well defined lesson objective. By that I mean what you want to achieve in the lesson, really. Define what you would accept as the minimum you want to get to and the ideal.  It’s really important to build a sense that you are ‘winning’.  Building productive teaching and learning relationships with students takes time and effort and resilience so you need a measure of how well you are doing. Make your goals achievable and congratulate yourself and the class when you get there. The more they trust you, the more consistent you are, the more they will open up.

 Step 8 [Take in Psychic support: My Allies]: Being one person at the front of a class can be a lonely business. Of course, you also get to be the one everyone is listening to so, it’s not all bad. However, I always used to think of people in my life who wanted the best for me and I would write down their name or initials to remind myself that I had some great relationships in my life and was capable of creating more. Troubled and anxious students can sometimes revert to desperate tactics when asked to step into the unknown and learn. One brutal tactic is to try and make the teacher feel like they don’t know what they are doing. Classes can even be felt to be ganging up on the teacher. These moments are hard to deal with and we need our allies in our heads to stand by our sides to help.

 Step 9 [See the End: What’s Up Next?]: A lesson with a class that you are settling in and getting to know can take all of your attention.  Before a lesson, I would sometimes just dread going into the room. It was tough. One thing that helped was remembering that time will move on, that the lesson will be over and that, whatever happens, you will live to teach another day.  Again, this is dealing with the reality of what you are doing rather than with what you imagine.

 Step 10 [If you need support of colleagues: On call]: Finally, just have the number or person or method of calling for help to hand. You probably won’t need it but you are not alone. There is a system in place to help you. Use it.

It won’t take long for things to change

Although I still use this practice in new or challenging contexts, in school, I only ever had to do this for a few weeks at the beginning of my relationship with a new cohort. After that, the class trusted that I was there to help them, that I was able and willing to withstand their anxieties and that I was truly interested in helping them learn. There were always tricky moments and some students are less engaged than others. All of these practices meant that I was able to go towards my classes mentally decluttered and focused on what needed to be done.

Essential paperwork to bring self-knowledge to meet student and subject knowledge

Try it for a month and see if it makes any difference.

Good luck. Go well. You’re doing a great job!

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Steve Carr

Good Relationships equal Great Progress When students (and teachers) feel safe they will risk everything in the service of their education. These ideas and theories are grounded in 6 great years of MA research into the link between child development and life-long learning and many years creating great relationships with literally thousands of students. The greatest complement I ever heard from many of those students was that my classrooms were the 'safest place to be'. I now run accredited professional development workshops for teachers, teams and school leaders to help them create safety and put the power of positive human relationships at the heart of progress. To find out more email: or subscribe to this blog

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