Really Human Problem Solving

The children that need the most love are often the hardest to like. Adults are no different. It’s lunchtime and, in staffrooms up and down the country, teachers have gathered. Cathartic conversations about the little sod that ruined today’s lesson begin…

…“I can’t believe she gave me detention for looking at my phone!” If teachers listen out of the window, they may hear discussions about how pupils are going to fail history, how their geography teacher hates them or about how much they hate miss for stopping them checking their phone.

One of the hardest things to do as a human is to look from the perspective of another Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 14.45.06person. You’ve got a mountain of work to do, a pile of undone dishes in the sink. You’ve got to get your small child to ballet lesson by 6pm and your husband is once again working late. It does not matter how many images you see of dying children in Africa, your life is the hardest life anyone has ever had to live. That’s because you are living it. You are feeling the overwhelming emotions crippling your existence. When you saw that kid with his phone out in class, this ignorance of your rules caused your camel’s back to, not only break, but explode into rage. The detention you set was fair. The phone call home was fair. Unleashing your frustration in the staff room at lunch was absolutely fair…Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 14.46.11

…This morning was tough. The first thing you saw on Facebook was a man beheaded by a religious group. War seems to be everywhere. Your mother is in hospital today. She has had a few scans. She promises everything is okay and that she will text you when she is out. Your maths teacher tells you that you need to know algebra for the exam and you can’t help but wonder if teachers have Facebook. They can’t… If they did, they would realise that the world is at war with itself and no amount of maths can stop that. Your French teacher is trying to get you to pretend to buy some apples. You quickly check your phone to see if your mother has text, when boom! The nutter hits the ceiling. Phone taken and your sick mother is stressed out by the phone call. It’s not fair!

Coaching Perspectives

As a coach, you must learn to look from the eyes of others. Currently, I am working with four members of staff at Hetton School, preparing them to be staff coaches, Much of the first part of their training centres around perspectives. The coaching programme has been written up in explicit detail and shared with all involved. They have been given bespoke journals and further reading to support their reflective journey. Intended outcomes and impact have also been published. However, as is the nature of life, this is all subject to change as the weeks go on. What will not change is our intention of improving learning experiences for all at Hetton School.


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In weeks one to three, they went through one coaching cycle. Firstly, meeting as a group to explain the process, individual lessons were then observed before we engaged in one to one coaching sessions. The goal is to get them to feel what it is like to be coached, to look from the perspective of the person they must support.

Following the first few steps (observation/ feedback), we took part in another full group session. Here, they unpicked my approach. This was scary! What if they thought I was no good? If they had been unhappy, what would I have done? Reacting in self-defence, I may have argued I know best and demanded they listen. Self-defence when getting feedback, is a natural reaction. It is good to feel the fear yourself from time to time, to put yourself in the shoes of those you are working with. If they are stubborn, inflexible or appear to know it all, they are likely to be reacting out of fear. Feel this from their perspective and control this reaction with questions.

As a staff coach, knowledge, empathy and humility are essential tools. If my coaches in training had felt my approach was wrong, asking why and listening to their response (without the knee jerk reaction of self-preservation) could allow us to move forward together. As a teacher geek, teaching and learning is my passion, my hobby…my life but that does not make me the expert on everything. To claim I know it all would be a huge mistake. Knowledge helps me to analyse learning and offer ideas but when coaching, you must be careful how your knowledge is presented. You must respect the human you are working with have their own experiences.

Luckily, the review of their experience was very positive. As part of our group meeting, we agreed that telling people what to do, without any understanding of the world from their eyes, is not the best approach to improving learning. Teachers also noted that their observations had felt safe, non-threatening and purposeful as a result of the pre observation meeting. This meeting took only half an hour of our time and allowed the collaboration to begin.

Questions Pre Observation

The pre observation meeting does not have to be formal or take a great deal of time; it is the start of a collaborative relationship. Having an understanding of the context will help you to engage in the lesson you are about to observe. What does the teacher hope to get their pupils to understand/ do/ know by the end of this lesson? What are the difficulties they face in their subject? What are the cultural issues in the classroom/ community? What has the teacher tried before?

Questions During the Observation

Use the knowledge that you have gained pre observation and your understanding of learning to place yourself in the seat of a pupil. Question WHAT am I learning? What SHOULD I be learning? What COULD I be learning? Try to view the class from the eyes of the pupils, while also looking from the eyes of the teacher. Question how learning could be improved through changes to approach, delivery or content. Remember that time is an issue. Look for opportunities that would create maximum benefit to learning without demanding hours of preparation. Do not judge the lesson; question the learning with a view to collaborating with the teacher to improve it.


From the observation (and hopefully a solid and varied knowledge of a range of teaching and learning approaches/ ideas/ tools) you will identify how learning could be improved in this classroom. Perhaps the class may benefit from engagement, better behaviour or tools to understand abstract concepts. Be clear what learning improvements could be made and on the positive outcomes you expect to occur for both pupil and teacher. To engage the teacher, you must have a purpose for your suggestions. Overwhelm their fears with the anticipation of reward (see Andrew Curran’s book for the science behind this). 

From the questions asked in the observation, make a list of questions to spark discussion towards the goals for learning improvement. What if we used the pupils’ enthusiasm to start the lesson with questions for positive talk rather than trying to get them to be instantly silent? What if we used several concrete examples to make this difficult concept clear? By questioning and not telling, they are more likely to take responsibility for the answer.

Remember to look from the eyes of the teacher. If you suggest a teacher spends hours laminating to improve learning (especially if you’re SLT and they’ve seen you laminating in your many frees) they may jump to self-preservation mode and assume you can never understand their circumstances. Plan the next observation lesson together and get ready to observe a second time with a focussed, open mind. Our second observation takes place on Thursday 25th and each teacher has created a target for learning improvement. However, as we are dealing with humans… anything could happen.

Sowing Seeds

Through open discussion and dissection of every step of the coaching process, our goal is to enable staff to grow a culture of collaborative professional development. The impact of this process should not remain isolated within individual classrooms but be replicated through growing new coaches throughout their own coaching experiences. Having a coach to bounce ideas off is wonderful. However, the above steps can be followed alone. A culture of empathetic, reflective practitioners, Stepping out of themselves and questioning learning is a practice that can continue, long after the coaching has ended or before the process has even started.

The children that need the most love are often the hardest to like. Adults are no different. However, by stepping out of ourselves and looking beyond our own minds can we learn to understand even the most difficult of human beings.

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