Helping teachers to ‘create a supportive environment’

By Chris Runeckles

The Durrington Research School team are writing a series of eight blogs about The Great Teaching Toolkit Evidence Review recently published by Evidence Based Education.  The report is the first step in the development of the organisation’s ‘Great Teaching Toolkit’. The aim of this project is to transform teacher professional development by creating a feedback system that encourages continual improvement. This first report lays out a model of teaching learning; it will be followed later by a set of tools that will help provide teachers with diagnostic feedback as they work towards specific goals; it will culminate in the development of networks of educators who will generate, share and apply the evidence. 

Half of our blogs, published on our Durrington Research School sister site, will be examining the evidence reviews included at the end of each chapter, while the blogs on Class Teaching will be more focused on interpreting the advice for teachers. 

This week we will be considering the implications of chapter two, ‘creating a supportive environment’, for teachers’ professional learning.  The review divides this chapter into four elements:

2.1 Promoting interactions and relationships with all students that are
based on mutual respect, care, empathy and warmth; avoiding
negative emotions in interactions with students; being sensitive to the
individual needs, emotions, culture and beliefs of students

2.2 Promoting a positive climate of student-student relationships,
characterised by respect, trust, cooperation and care

2.3 Promoting learner motivation through feelings of competence,
autonomy and relatedness

2.4 Creating a climate of high expectations, with high challenge and
high trust, so learners feel it is okay to have a go; encouraging
learners to attribute their success or failure to things they can change

This is a highly complex area of teacher practice.  This is made patently clear by highlighting just some of the language included in the elements above, including: relationships, respect, empathy, cultural beliefs, trust and motivation.

To effectively intervene in, and positively influence these areas of pupil-teacher and pupil-pupil relationships and interactions is notoriously difficult, and filled with subtlety and nuance.  So much emotion is at play here as is the personal bias we, and our students, all carry into the classroom.

In fact, the report itself raises the possibility that teaching skills and behaviours in this area should belong in the more advanced end of the teacher development curriculum.  Even going as far as to say that it may be possible for competent teachers to be quite effective in promoting learning for most students without really paying much attention to this dimension.

However, as someone who regularly leads teacher training and CPD in a diverse number of areas, relationships, and in particular student motivation, is something that is continually discussed as a barrier to successfully implementing teaching strategies.  Therefore, we must not shy away from engaging with this dimension, as it is one of the combination of elements that makes up great teaching.  Yes, it is difficult and nuanced but we are in a profession that is all about human interaction, so we ignore it at our peril.

What is also very difficult is to give teachers tangible actions or CPD activities in this area.  I have myself used Deci and Ryan’s (2008) self-determination theory in training, but in contrast to something like Sweller’s (1994) cognitive load theory, there are far fewer easy take-aways to give teachers to incorporate into their practice.  What ends up happening is a bit like this blog, a discussion of the issues and a recognition of the problems.  This is why I am particularly excited to see the toolkit that goes with this dimension.  To have some activities for teachers to engage with that will give them diagnostic feedback in this area and strategies to make improvements to their practice is really exciting.

I certainly do not want to preempt these tools, and so would instead suggest a good starting point would be for some self reflection in each of these areas, through a series of potentially quite challenging questions.  These are challenging because we all want to feel that the environment we create is supportive, so to consider the alternative is uncomfortable.  The following questions do not represent everything in this dimension, and would be best considered after reading the report in order to gain the necessary context.

  • How well do you know the specific SEND needs of your students?
  • Do you know, and take account of, the cultural identities of your students?
  • Do you ever use sarcasm when talking to students during a lesson?
  • Do students pay attention to, and respect each others’ thoughts expressed in your classroom?
  • On an average day, in an average lesson what are the motivation levels like amongst your students?
  • Do you ever lower your expectations of students based them being part of a particular subgroup (for example students in receipt of free school meals)?
  • Do you avoid asking challenging questions to students who seem less confident?
  • Do students feel safe to take risks and accept failure in your classroom?

Inevitably these questions will lead to further questions and equally not necessarily any easy answers.  However, an awareness of an issue is essential to addressing it and so the thinking that goes with them should provide a useful starting point to what comes next.  Hopefully, this next phase will be supported by the ‘Great Teaching Toolkit’.  If the initial report is anything to go by then we can’t wait to see it.

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