Image: Trey Ratcliff
Of all the measures of 'good teaching ability', the one I personally find most intriguing is the notion of perceptiveness.
Really effective teachers seem to have an almost uncanny ability to see all sorts of things at multiple levels in any given classroom ecosphere. They can see how one change in seating arrangements has changed the whole potential dynamic of a lesson. They can see, well before the material comes off the page or screen, how receptive the learners of the moment are going to be to it. They can see that Bob in the back row is pretending to listen and write notes (while actually recruiting a gang of lesson assassins) without once glancing at him directly, and without losing their train of thought as they manage a demanding question from Sally on the opposite side of the classroom.
Really good teachers can see the effects of things like bullying almost as if they are super subtle ripples drifting over the surface of the group.
They can also see that Harry, when he abruptly blows up at the teacher in class one day, is not actually indicating that he is rejecting the teacher and the teaching. They know there is much more to it, in advance or not long afterwards (and quite possibly as a result of the combination of both before and after awareness).
At the other end of the spectrum are the teachers who appear to see very little, almost like they have walked into the classroom with blinkers the size of pillows attached to their heads. It's a common (and very understandable) trait for very inexperienced teachers in difficult contexts, but relative blindness doesn't automatically disappear over time or through the accrual of experience. In some cases, those blinker-pillows actually seem to grow until they become the size of mattresses.
The blinkered and blind teacher has no idea what a change in seating does (or will do) and is apparently stubbornly unaware how particular learning content will be received. He hasn't even noticed Bob is there, much less that he is not paying attention and is quite successfully facilitating the educational equivalent of the Great Train Robbery with half a dozen learners on one side of the room. He shows complete shock when the effects of the bullying (having gone on and festered over time) are revealed through some tragic event. And as for Harry... well he has a bad attitude and doesn't deserve any more of the teacher's time or consideration.
Now I've said that this intrigues me. While acknowledging that some people are just naturally very perceptive on multiple levels (including social awareness), I don't think it's all that fair to assume that less observant teachers are doomed to a career of blissful but eventually tragic fog. Over time I've become more and more interested in how blinkered teachers can be helped out of their pillows before they turn into mattresses.
Here are some thoughts...
A lot of classroom awareness can be developed through classroom observation. It's amazing what you notice about a group of learners and a lesson when you can watch it all without having to teach. When you help someone to observe well, more and more patterns and signs become easier to spot more quickly. As a sort of automaticity develops with this perceptiveness, it can then be combined with the teaching role, and the mentor can then observe and compare with the teacher what has or hasn't been noticed through the course of their lesson.
But this process really needs to be targeted and facilitated. Just having a teacher 'observe' other classes is no guarantee they will pick up on the things that really count.
Similarly, teachers video recording their own classes to watch later (alone or with a more experienced colleague) can be very powerful stuff, especially in combination with some reasonably disciplined reflective teaching journal work.
I think a really crucial skill for teachers is the habit of pausing and checking. Remembering to look around the whole group at both regular and irregular intervals can help expose Bob at some point. Remembering to not react too hastily to Harry (and not automatically take it personally) and then calmly check what's going on in his life in the corridor or after class can help to avert an unfortunate assumption about his attitude. Noticing odd patterns of behaviour in the classroom and then checking with previous or more experienced teachers might shed very precious information about a bullying issue before it becomes (more) venomous.
It's not a sin to not notice things. But often you won't see anything if you're not willing to check.
What if, despite all kind and reasonable attempts to help a teacher increase their perceptiveness, and despite a fair amount of experience, it just isn't happening?
Let's say, despite all of our very best efforts, it is turning out to be one or a rather tragic combination of two things: complete lack of awareness and/or denial on the scale of an unpassable mountain range. And let's say the learning is starting (or continuing) to genuinely suffer as a result...
I mean, there are people out there who don't seem to notice anything amiss when a giraffe with hand grenades tied around its neck attempts to enter a fairy penguins only nightclub, and others who -- having just limped away from a car accident clutching the twisted remains of the steering wheel from their own vehicle -- will stubbornly continue to deny they were in any way shape or form involved (or responsible) until non-existant cows come home.
What do we do then?
Is it fair to place basic classroom perceptiveness on the 'must have or develop' list of criteria in determining 'to be (a teacher) or not to be'?