For Beginners: Get to Work…on yourself

“After doing the course, I now find  in my teaching, the more I am aware of my anxieties and feelings in the classroom, the easier it has become to channel them more positively, rather than let them take over”

Shalini (Science Teacher 5 years)



Exercise 1: Use Your Journal Pupils Know More Than Me

If you don’t have a personal/professional journal, you need to get one. Your journal is not a place just to record your lesson plans but a place where you prepare yourself to teach.

We have managed to get ourselves into a mess with teaching.  Somehow, teachers are only to be thought about as ‘professionals’. Of course we are professionals but we are not machines.  The work of a teacher is, at its absolute essential roots, is incredibly personal. A teacher makes relationships before he does anything else. If you are not prepared to put your self into teaching, you will struggle to succeed or even reap the enormous personal reward that the job offers.  The important this is to recognise its personal nature and deal with it professionally rather than deny its personal nature altogether.

You are a work in progress. So, get to work.

You…not some neutral a.n. other is the teacher so get a journal and start working out who you are in the room, with the pupils; what works, what doesn’t; how you respond to pupil a and how pupil be makes you feel. You are a work in progress. So, get to work.

What is teaching? What is a ‘teacher’?

Think again about yourself as a teacher.  What does that mean? I have begun a list of very basic questions that I believe are important for all teachers, new or experienced, to ask themselves.  Can you answer them? Can you think of any others?

  1. What are the expectations that pupils have of teachers?
  2. What is the difference between a ‘teacher’ and a ‘pupil’?
  3. In what capacity does the teacher exist in the pupils mind?
  4. What is ‘teaching’?
  5. What emotions are ‘in the room’ before the teacher arrives?
  6. ….
  7. ….
  8. ….


Common Anxieties:  Divide a piece of paper in half.

Exercise 2:


At the top of one half write “My anxieties in the classroom”.  On the other side of the paper write “Pupils anxieties in a classroom”.  Fold the piece of paper in half and deal with one side at a time.  Write down your anxieties. One might be:  I haven’t prepared well enough or I don’t know everything about this topic or This is too simple a subject for them or Any minute X is going to disrupt and I won’t know what to do. Whatever your anxiety write it down.  You may have a long list or a short list.  When you have done that, turn the paper over and write down all the anxieties you think the pupils might be holding on to.

When you have done that, unfold the paper and see if you can match any of your anxieties to theirs.  They don’t have to be the same words but the same idea.  For example you might be worried that you haven’t prepared for every eventuality and that something will go wrong, they might express the same anxiety in a different way; maybe they are worried that you are going to ask them something where they won’t know the answer and they will be humiliated in front of their peers.

How many can you match?

In past workshops, some teachers have been surprised, as I was when I first tried it, at how many anxieties we share with the pupils and how many they share with us.

No more me versus them

To my mind, the moment you realise that – or I realised that, things began to change. My classroom became a place a place of mutuality, a place of ‘us’.  It moved away from the binary, me versus them, splitting and projection model and took on a more empathetic character. It was a fundamental part of my job to help lessen not only their anxiety but my own. More importantly, pupils wanted me to do that.

We were, as a group, reduced to the simple human exchange that is fundamental to teaching, a drive for security and growth through an atmosphere of mutual safety.  My classroom management strategy was clear, it was only about creating an environment safe enough for knowledge to be exchanged. It was the task that faced us all.

Bion called this state, where baby(pupils) and carer (you) feel safe enough to exchange what each has to offer, a state of ‘containment’.

Common Worries

Certain items that nearly ways appear on teacher’s lists and it might be worth looking at those in the light of how they permeate both teachers and pupils.

Recently, at a whole school inset I began with the same exercise with a group of staff members and the results were more or less the same.  Everyone often shares the same worries.

In my sessions I stand before the group and write down first of all what I am worried about as I stand there.   The list is something like this:


I am going to be boring.

You will know more than me – I don’t know enough – I’m a fraud and you’ll see through that.

I’ll forget what I’m saying and it won’t make sense

The session is long – I don’t have enough material to fill the time

Some people in here don’t look interested – they will cause disruption

I haven’t planned well enough – what if someone asks a question I can’t answer?

I’m going to look like a fool…

I won’t be able to control the group if things go wrong

They won’t listen to me…

X is here…they don’t like me. If things go wrong they might pick on me.

Looking at this list now I feel embarrassed.  I don’t really want you to know that part of me feels this way in front of a group.  In fact I don’t want you to know this about me at all – and yet it is informing what I do.  If I don’t accept that I feel this way I will be undermined by those feelings. I will be wasting energy focusing on dealing with these worries.  Energy that could be devoted to reciprocal teaching and learning.

Worst still, if I don’t make those feelings ‘available for thought’ then I might begin to project them onto you, onto the class.  So, my worries about being boring become projections – it is not me who is boring but the class who is unable to concentrate for ‘more than five minutes’.  My worry about not having planned well enough can become a projection – “they are not clever enough to understand what I’m saying”, “they are just a disruptive class”,  “they’re impossible to teach”.


The list of ANXIETIES for PUPILS might look like this:

I hope he can control the class

I don’t know anything compared to him

I hope he’s not too nervous

I hope he doesn’t ask me a question in front of everyone

This lesson is too difficult

I’ve forgotten my book.

I don’t know what he’s talking about

I hope he doesn’t tell me off for…

The same deal exists for the pupils. You will be to blame for ‘making’ them learn. You will be the one who is ‘boring’ You will be the one who is making them feel unintelligent.  But, like you, these anxieties are part of who they are and they don’t want to face the fact that, in the end, they have to accept that these anxieties exist and that they have to contain them in order to progress.

Earlier we said that acknowledging that both parties are feeling anxious is possibly the biggest lesson of this chapter.  It helps you to rethink your role in the room.  You are someone who has come to take charge of the room, to help all with their feelings of anxiety and most importantly, rather than resisting that in you, they WANT YOU TO DO THAT.  In this scenario, you are a welcome presence.

That does not mean you will be welcomed by everyone because anxiety makes people behave or act in ways that can sometimes  seem to protect them from their own needs. However, if Klein and Winnicott are to be believed, then you, as the person come to wrangle with anxieties, are the most welcome person in the room.  This, in itself, is a fundamental shift in attitude to the classroom. You are welcome there.  Just think about that for a moment or two. It’s radical and revolutionary, oblique and obvious, it’s small yet the most seismic lesson anyone ever taught me.

Key Question:  If everyone is sharing the same or similar anxieties, what does that mean for your role as a teacher?

Write down any ‘answers’ you may come up with.

Some useful theory, conclusions and final reflections

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