Tag Archives: anxiety

Teacher development: looking for solutions outside the teaching world

 Part 1: Don’t let graded observations get you down! 

‘’Why do managers in education fall back on graded observations as their main default management tool?’’

‘‘Are there better approaches to supporting frontline teachers?’’

‘’Can a manager nurture and develop a teacher’s classroom resilience skills, or does it have to come from hard-earned experience?’’


These questions are different ways of looking at the same root challenge: can managers in education and academia truly inspire teachers? Or does the traditional ‘command and control’ approach get results?

 From the supervision of staff through to the problematic aspects of classroom management, both teachers and middle managers in education are often left to develop coping skills as they go.


Who develops you?

In the teaching world we have become more and more focused on a learner-centred approach, and while this is no bad thing, I sense that we are often left with a gap:  we develop our method through numerous INSETS, but do we develop ourselves as teachers? Terms such as ‘good teacher’ or ‘outstanding teacher’ have been hi-jacked (certainly in the UK) by regulation and inspectors. And the whole debate appears to have shifted into measuring the process over the impact.

 If you’ve ever stayed up late writing long lesson plans for an observation that you feel is simply a process-driven exercise, then you might well agree.

 Taking the lead: 3 approaches

 In this series of posts I look outside the sector for ideas and inspiration. If you’re currently struggling – either in the staffroom or the classroom – then, first of all, it is good to know you are not alone. In a survey of just under 4,000 adult education tutors three quarters disagreed that graded observations had helped them to improve as classroom practioners’[1]. Matt O’Leary[2], Educational Researcher and Principal Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, says there is an increasing consensus among those working in further education (post-16) ‘that graded lessons are no longer fit for purpose’[3].

 In this first post I look at how not to let graded observations de-motivate you, especially if you are looking for genuine solutions or practical ways to improve.

 In posts 2 and 3, I look at completely different approaches to developing yourself: systems thinking, positive enquiry and solution focused approach in leadership, tried and tested by business leaders. Can we adapt these models for teachers, in their role as ‘leaders’ of their classroom?

Developing ourselves

 I want to propose ideas that don’t necessarily originate from educational research but from business management theories. They have proved invaluable in my own personal survival guide to teaching and stem from my pre-teaching management career.

 The weakness of the current observation approach in improving teachers as leaders

One of the most surprising things about my career change into teaching was the lack of investment in me as a teacher, in effect as ‘leader of my classroom’. Where corporate managers and leaders can often go on expensive training, in-house coaching or mentoring throughout their career, teachers seem to learn this critical aspect ad hoc. Even worse, someone then comes and ‘’observes’’ you as the leader of your classroom. Somewhere along the way, observations have become the main management tool. If time was prioritised for supervision, one-to-ones, mentoring and peer observations, I am convinced that teachers, especially those new to the profession, would flourish far more than they would under current practices.

 Measuring quality

Of course, all teachers need to be observed. We need to know that bad things aren’t happening in the classroom. But I’m convinced that observations should be just one method of many that we use to develop teachers. Matt O’Leary, author of ‘Classroom Observations’ (Routledge, 2014), has come up with a range of more sophisticated approaches to assessing teaching[4].


Why the current observation culture is not a replacement for real management and coaching

 Process V impact

Observation culture has become the default practice, replacing real management and mentoring


  • Have you ever had an observation that left you feeling unclear, despondent or demotivated?
  • Have you ever had an observation where the final piece of work produced by your students in follow up lessons was requested by an observer?


You may be surprised to know that feeling demotivated after an observation is not ‘your fault’. Something has gone wrong with the feedback process. Even where real improvement is required, the feedback process should leave you feeling ready to take steps to change, or should inspire to try something new. It certainly should not leave you with sleepless nights.


But I know that observation stress is a common feeling among teachers. It has led me to question two things:

  1. Are observers trained to genuinely look for impact? Many seem trained only to look for process. I know observers look at student work during the observation. But to my mind, that’s really just a snapshot of impact. What about student work produced subsequently, maybe as homework or in the follow up lessons, when the cognitive learning has really embedded itself? Now that really would be impact over process.


  1. What can be done to improve observation feedback? In many non-teaching professions, learning how to give inspiring or difficult feedback is something that is core to any management training. Even when giving bad messages, management feedback training focuses on leaving the recipient positive and clear about the next steps. My management training embedded in me the rule that no serious feedback must come as a total surprise to a recipient. I reeled when I got my first observation feedback as a newly qualified teacher in FE. I hadn’t realised that the deficit model was still alive and well!

 The lost potential of the observation culture

Of course, it’s probably because academic managers/teacher trainers in turn often don’t know how to really enable staff development (back to a management style that values process over impact again). It’s such a missed opportunity to create trust or to inspire change. On a personal note, the most beneficial observations I have had are from managers who came in to the classroom to support me; to be an ‘extra pair of eyes’ and help me figure out a particular problem. I learnt so much from their years of experience.

I’m convinced that process over impact predominantly creates a tick-box approach. In response, the teacher creates excessively long lesson plans to meet the criteria of those boxes. And that chance to truly learn or benefit from a senior practioner is lost. Jim Scrivener, author of ‘Learning Teaching’[5], believes that ‘the act of teaching is essentially a constant processing of options. At every point in each lesson, a teacher has a number of options available; he or she can decide to do something, or to do something else, or not to do anything at all.’ Lesson plans are important but they are a guide. If a short-planned activity turns into a learning point that the students want to expand, should we go with it if we are being observed?

Side-stepping the victim teacher trap

There is so much excellent leadership training and strategies out there – all being used in other sectors. In my follow up posts, I look at how you can stop feeling like a victim teacher or a victim manager, and instead teach yourself these leadership techniques.

 The teacher as a leader

Because, what is a teacher, if not a leader of the classroom? We direct, we plan, we prepare the strategy of each lesson and the wider scheme of work. We aim to motivate, to improve results, deal with performance problems……..perhaps even inspire. You don’t need to be an NLP expert to see how much the language of leadership overlaps with the language of teaching.

 Borrowing ideas from outside the sector

This series of posts looks at why personal development and supportive management skills are currently under-valued in education.

 Does a solution lie outside the teaching world? I believe it does.

40% of new teachers are leaving within 5 years

Last year, OFSTED (the UK education regulator) released statistics showing that 40% of new teachers in the UK are leaving the profession within five years of training[6].

 Ofsted Chief Michael Wilmshaw rightly calls this a ‘national scandal’ and says new recruits ‘are left to flounder without support from more senior staff’. He lists the reasons why the numbers are so high: poor teacher training, inadequate support once in the classroom, a lack of on-going mentoring from leaders within the school and an ‘infantilising’ of the profession, where teachers are encouraged to think like ‘victims’.

We could go round and round looking for the causes: government targets create downward pressure on regulators, Ofsted create a command and control approach………That in turn creates the backdrop to graded lessons being adopted by colleges and schools as a draconian tool. But the result is that it has left the teaching world far behind other professions when it comes to genuine coaching and nurturing of new entrants into the profession.

 While some teachers in the world of private education may not have quite the same rigorous approach to being performance managed, there can still be a sense that a wider knowledge and implementation of educational coaching and management could pay real dividends (two years of my own teaching experience has been in private education).

Are we long overdue a change?

 I would very much appreciate hearing from any teacher, student or educational manager who would like to respond, particularly teachers and lecturers who have experienced a positive type of assessment, professional coaching and collaboration. 

In the next posts I want to share tips on how business leadership training can be applied in the classroom and to your own development. I’ve tried them myself. I’m going to look at three recognised theories: systems thinking, positive enquiry and solution focused leadership.


[3] http://www.niace.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/adults-learning/2014-spring/AL-Spring-2014-Vol25-pg38-41.pdf

[4] Author of ‘Classroom Observation’, Routledge 2014

[5] Macmillan Books for Teachers

[6] http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jan/15/ofsted-chief-teachers-quitting-scandal

Empowering your students: Managing exam stress

By Fiona Deane

athlete pose 2Exams make many of us feel stressed.  For some students, stress helps them to achieve a higher mark.  For others, it turns into “distress” (Stanton, 1983) and  this negative stress on their mind (and body) can have an adverse effect on their exam performance, and equally importantly on their day to day life. Unfortunately, some teachers may not be given much training or guidance on how to support students whose stress has got out of control.

This post will:

1) Explain why your students might be experiencing exam stress

3) Discuss academic theory on the relationship between cognition and affect

3) Offer six different activities to help your students get to grips with their nerves

Young people and stress

In 2009,  the Guardian released alarming statistics from the Prince´s Trust regarding the wellbeing of young people in the UK.  Inargh! this report polled by the charity for its Youth Index Study, it reported that “more than a quarter (27%) said they were always or often down or depressed. Almost half of all those surveyed (47%) said they were regularly stressed.”  This is clearly not only a British phenomenon.  In the context of my sector, teaching English as a foreign language, I have witnessed young people experiencing stress as they grapple with living away from home, with managing their money, with establishing and developing new relationships and, in the context of this post, with preparing for international English exams such as CAE, TOEFL, IELTS or TOIEC.

Why do EFL students suffer from exam stress?

  • Economic reality

inflationWith the backdrop of the recession looming large and the workplace becoming more and more competitive, young people are bent on acquiring as many qualifications as possible.  Having one degree may no longer be enough.  This “qualification inflation” or “academic inflation” puts pressure on non-native English speaking students not only to improve their chosen career qualifications but also to gain a high level qualification in English, such as IELTS 6.5 or above or CAE.

  • Expectations

Students may be coming from a family or culture where there are high expectations of young people.   I have witnessed this in students coming from Asian cultures.  Specifically looking at Korea, Daniel Tudor (2012) says that “Confucianism´s power can be felt in the realm of the national obsession, education.   South Korea is famous of its unhealthy preoccupation with exam results and the pursuit of admission to the best universities.  This is a legacy of Confucianism´s injunction to self-improvement through education…”.  He also adds that “every year there are suicides of third-year high school students at the time of …the university entrance exam”. (For more articles on this, see The Guardian Weekly and BBC articles).

  • Lack of life experience 

Just this week, I carried out tutorials with my CAE preparation group.  A conversation with one of the group, a Swiss 19 year old past and futureyoung woman, has stayed with me.  As we reflected on what she was doing differently that had lead to improved results, she interestingly commented that she felt that she was learning how to deal with stress better.   She openly admitted that her high school exams hadn´t been difficult.  Now, she was required to pass CAE in a short time frame in order to be accepted onto a Primary Teacher Training programme.  This was her first experience of dealing with heightened exam pressure.  At the start of the course, she simply had not had the life skills to know how to deal with this.

  • Unhealthy study-life balance

overwhelmedIf they come from highly competitive societies, our students may have developed unbalanced study-life behavior patterns.  Returning to the example of Korea, Daniel Tudor (2012) suggests that childhood in Korea is sacrificed in order to gain the necessary marks that they need.  “Children enjoy relatively few opportunities to play and socialize with their peers.  According to research undertaken by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Korean children are among the worst in the world at social interaction  (thirty-fifth out of thirty-six countries surveyed).  In school, children are constantly tested and ranked, rather than taught to work with one another.  After the final bell, most are sent to hakwons (private language schools) …When school vacations come, children are not free to relax but instead spend more time in hakwons.”

Academic theory and stress: The Affective Filter

Affective filterFollowing the ideas of Stephen Krashen (1982), the Affective Filter Hypothesis describes how affective (emotional) factors have an effect on learning a second language (as can be seen in the diagram on the left).  Arnold (2009) tells us that “an affectively positive environment puts the brain in the optimal state for learning:  minimal stress and maximum engagement with the material to be learned.”  Thus, there would seem to be a strong relationship between cognition and “affect”.  Neuro-scientist  Joseph LeDoux (1996) claims that “minds without emotions are not really minds at all”.  Indeed, as NLP guru Anthony Robbins believes “80% of success in life is psychology, 20% is mechanics”.


Activities to help students deal better with their stress

oprah and mick

So what can we as teachers do to help our students with stress?  Here are six activities.   They are activities which focus on students developing their own self-reflection and meta-cognition (see my earlier post about this – Empowering your students:  what makes me an effective learner?)


  • Speaking activity:  Are you a good friend?

adviceAt the beginning of the course, students are asked to discuss what makes a good friend.  In a brainstorm on the board, the teacher elicits “giving good advice” or “being a good listener”.  You then tell students that a friend of theirs is excited but worried about moving to another country to go on a language course .  The class brainstorms what the student might be worried about and come up with solutions and practical suggestions to ensure the student enjoys their language study programme to the max (inspired from the student book of Ready for CAE (2008, Macmillan Exams)  by Roy Norris and Amanda French

This activity covertly encourages your students to make predictions about a stressful experience and to come up with solutions for an unknown other (which may be more comfortable than finding solutions for themselves).  It is a great window for you to see whether they can relate to such stress before and what solutions (or not) they already may have in place for themselves.

  • Self-reflection and prediction:  How do you predict you will perform in the exam?  

This is a more inductive approach carried out just before the mid term mock exam.  Students are asked first of all to reflect on their own experience of exam stress in their own countries.  Here, pressures of their education culture may rise to the surface.  Then they are asked to discuss  whether they think their performance in an upcoming mock exam may be affected by nerves (positively or negatively).  Students share what possible solutions they know of to reduce stress on their mock exam day.   Previous students have come up with ideas such as Steiner exercises, breathing exercises and yoga (I will share more of these ideas in a future post.)   Once the students have taken their exam and have their results, I then ask them to recall this discussion and to see if their predictions were right.  If they were different, they are asked to say why they are different.

  • Understanding the chemistry and biology of stress:  “Amy Cuddy´s power poses” 

I often use TED Talks with my EFL learners to improve their listening skills, to widen their vocabulary and to develop their summary abilities.   So at a significant point in the term, I ask students for homework to watch Amy Cuddy´s talk “Your body language shapes who you are” which explains how stress can manifest itself in the body and how we can reverse the effects of stress.   As part of the homework, the students are asked to take notes, be ready to give a summary of the talk (using some of the vocabulary chunks that Amy uses) and be ready to discuss their views.  This is an excellent presentation, made powerful by the images, scientific fact and the personalized story telling technique so common to many TED talks.  Because the topic is relevant to the speaker herself, it is easy for the students (particularly the girls) to identify with her.  So far, all my students have taken an interest in Amy´s ideas.  We then tried out Amy´s power poses before the next exams.  Each time my students have done this, there have been astoundingly improved results (about 10 – 15% higher marks).

  • Deep listening in one to one tutorials

Giving our students the opportunity to voice how they are feeling is crucial when dealing with stress.  Tutorials can arise spontaneously, when you recognize that a student would benefit from emergency remedial action, or on a systematic basis throughout the course.  Understanding why they may be experiencing stress (which could include some of the reasons given above) is important and this will most probably emerge through “deep listening” (Arnold, 2009); that is, focused listening in a non-judgmental and objective manner.   Being sympathetic to their story will validate their emotions (instead of causing them to hide them through shame).  It is also worth considering whether you feel the student may benefit from your school´s in-house counseling system, should the stress seem to be out of hand.

  • Students share reflections about their stress management to the whole group

In my last round of tutorials, students came up with some really excellent reflections on reasons for their progression, which were related to their own stress management.  I took noteclass discussion of the most useful points and then (with their permission) asked some of the students to share their reflections with the whole group.  For example, one student reported how they chose to walk into school the day of the exam, revising points quietly in their head as they walked (as opposed to coming in on the bus, surrounded by chatter in rush hour).  Another said how they found studying together made them feel less isolated.  This discussion involved very fruitful student collaboration benefitting both the “sharer” and the students who took on their ideas.

  • The last day before the exam: Student created games

20131129_123739It´s always tricky to know what to do the day before an exam.  Exam practice can be inadvisable since low marks can frighten students.  On my previous exam course, students requested that we left the classroom space to be in a more relaxed atmosphere.  We decided to go to a café.  In this group, two Korean students were particularly anxious about the exam the next day.  I took coloured paper to the café and asked the Koreans to teach the other (non-Asian) students to make some origami objects.  All the students became completely enthralled and lost in this activity.  It was a great distraction for both the student “teachers” and for those students learning the art of origami for the first time.


Do write to me and share any experiences and successes you have with stressed students.  The life skill of dealing with stress is such an important one in modern life.  As one of current exam students said to me recently:  “I have learnt so much more than just language on this course”.


References & Recommended Reading

Arnold J Affect in L2 Learning and Teaching (2009) Estudios de Linguistica inglesa aplicada

Arnold J Coaching Skills for Leaders in the Workplace (2009) Howtobooks

Brown B The Power of Vulnerability (2010) TED Talks

Gregoire C American Teens are even more stressed than Adults (2014) The Huffington Post

Chakrabarti R South Korea´s schools: long days, high results (2013) BBC News

Cuddy A Your body language shapes who you are (2012) TED Talks

Harmer J The Practice of English Language Teaching (2001) Pearson Education Ltd

Kim K et al Students´stress in China, Japan and Korea: a transcultural study ( 1997) International Journal of Social Psychiatry

Krashen S Principles & Practice in Second Language Aquisition (1982) University of Southern California

LeDoux J The Emotional Brain (1996) Simon & Schuster

Lightbown P. & Spada N How Languages are learned  (2006) Oxford

Norris R with French A Ready for CAE (2008) Macmillan Exams

O´Hara M Depression amount the young at alarming level says charity (2009) The Guardian

Oxford R Language Learning Strategies: An Update (1994) http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/oxford01.html

Pert C Molecules of Emotion (1997) Simon & Schuster

Petty G Teaching Today A Practical Guide (1998) Nelson Thornes

Scharle A & Szabó A Learner Autonomy, A guide to developing learner responsibility (2000) Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers

Senior R Korean students silenced by exams (2009) The Guardian Weekly

Stanton H E The Stress Factor: A Guide to More Relaxed Living (1983) Optima

Tudor D Korea The Impossible Country (2012) Tuttle Publishing