This piece of reflexion is based on David Tripp’s analysis of a critical incident (Tripp 1993) illustrated by a YouTube video by Cheryl Reynolds. For Tripp, “commonplace events” in the classroom can form the basis for effective reflection. Tripp argues that seemingly mundane can tell you a lot about your habits as a teacher and their source. By looking below the surface, we can work out if we are living our professional values in each moment we teach.
To do this, we need to ask three key questions:
- Why did it happen?
- What does it mean?
- What should be done about it?
The example Tripp uses an occasion where he reacted sharply with a learner who commented on a previous discussion, during a different part of the lesson. Tripp reflected that the root was probably down to how his teachers reacted to similar situations when he was in school and decided his response didn’t sit well with his values. From that point, Tripp became more conscious of how he interacted with his learners and responded to those who were out of step with the lesson.
This reminded me of an incident where I was teaching a group of young male learners, early in my teaching experience. The lesson had been relatively light hearted and we had built some rapport; we were having fun. The learners asked me a few questions about my job and what I did and if I had been to university. Suddenly, out of the blue, one learner asked me if I had a boyfriend. The question completely threw me. I snapped back at the learner “I’m a professional at work and you shouldn’t ask me those kinds of questions. Let’s get on with this.” The atmosphere changed immediately and the learner became hostile because he felt I had overreacted and I had probably embarrassed him. The lesson fell flat immediately and the learners became disengaged and restless.
At the time I felt justified in the response I gave and how I gave it. Looking back though after gaining a bit of experience, I understand I did overreact. Both my response and the tone I used with the learner were unnecessary. My response also didn’t sit well with my values. My teaching values include openness and good humour, neither of which I was able to show. Democratic approaches to the classroom appeal to me and I value equality, yet I metaphorically slapped the learner down and dismissed his question.
Why did it happen?
I lacked experience with the age group I was working with and I didn’t appreciate the curiosity of young people in relationships. I think the question rattled me less because of what the question was in itself and more because I was afraid of where it may lead so I panicked and tried to shut the learner down. There was a big focus on maintaining professional boundaries at the college at that time and I wasn’t too sure where those boundaries were. I just knew I couldn’t cross them. I was fairly new and had just had my safeguarding training. The two-hour session had focused almost exclusively on safeguarding us against accusations of inappropriate behaviour, rather than the welfare of our learners. One message was very clear: don’t compromise yourself in any way. I think this fed into my panic about not being able to control the conversation once it turned too personal.
What does it mean?
On reflection, I do think that if I had given a simple answer of yes, the conversation would not have developed in a problematic way. Recently, I was asked the same question and replied yes. The only follow up comment or question was what did he do for a living: they correctly guessed it was something well-paid and intelligent! End of conversation. I can’t obviously guarantee the previous incident would have ended the same way but I feel there is a very good chance it would have ended better than it actually did!
What should be done?
Although I feel much more confident and comfortable working with learners, having difficult conversations development work would be really useful. As part of my PGCE, looking at professionalism in an in-depth way will be another useful way of thinking about my response to situations like this. I have also been hearing and reading a lot about approaches to challenging either inappropriate behaviour or language, through calling-in rather than calling-out. This is something I would like to explore.