Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better

Over the past 6 months I experienced my first teaching ‘slump’. Lessons weren’t going how I wanted them to, behaviour issues were getting away from me, I had mental blocks trying to plan lessons and most importantly I was getting angry with myself, unable to comprehend what was happening to me. This slump coincided with a move to a new school, making me question whether I’d spent too long at my previous school and become institutionalised in some way.

The slump ended 2 months ago and since then my lessons have been better than ever, planning is flowing and I feel in control again. The turning point came when I finally realised the reason for this slump and the answer was simpler than I ever could have thought- I was in a learning dip!

A learning dip occurs when we begin a new challenge (for me it was starting at a new school) and we have to take on a lot of new information and have to adapt our performance to account for this process. It’s a theory that we see in full flow everyday as teachers, but rarely recognise or acknowledge. The easiest example for me to give is the high jump. Pupils are initially taught the scissor kick and this works well for them until the bar hits a certain height, they must then remodel their technique into the Fosbury Flop. Initially results drop and the pupil gets frustrated (without teacher guidance they normally revert back to the scissor kick because this is where they experienced a relative level of success), but eventually, with time and practice, they learn to use the Fosbury Flop and their ability rises exponentially.

Once I’d realised what had happened to me I was determined to come through the learning dip. I’m going to share the steps I went through in order to survive the learning dip and come out the other end a better teacher.

The diagram below illustrates a typical learning dip:

                       

1. Allow for the dip

The first step was for me to stop getting frustrated and just accept that I was in a learning dip. This involved a lot of faith in the process (and hope that I’d diagnosed the problem properly!) and a genuine acceptance that once I was through it I would be a better teacher.

2. Acknowledge that things will take longer

By nature I am an impatient person, maybe influenced by the current impatient climate of education in the UK! One of the things I had to accept was that planning, data analysis, adapting the curriculum maps, etc would take longer and would involve mistakes that I would need to review and correct. This is a similar process to the one pupils go through when they are learning creative writing in English- the write a draft, which normally takes them a relatively long time, they get a partner to read their work and feedback to them and they keep adapting until they feel confident using this newly acquired skill.

3. Remind yourself that a learning dip isn’t a reflection on competency

There were times when I thought that I’d pressed the self destruct button on my teaching career by accepting a new job in a new school. Was I good enough to run a bigger department in a higher achieving school? Was I able to teach to a different cohort of pupils with the same passion and ability as I had before? Was I cut out for teaching? These are all questions that ran though my head (causing sleepless nights on the odd occasion!).

The answer to these is yes- I was ready for these challenges and I am (hopefully) able to achieve these things, but I had to keep reminding myself that a learning dip happens for a reason and that the benefits would be worth the stress and worry.

4. Focus on one thing at a time

One of the problems I had was that I was adapting my teaching to a new environment- different pupils, different expectations, different processes, meanwhile trying to get used to being Head of Department in a much bigger department in a new school. This was beginning to become overwhelming when I was trying to figure out all the things that weren’t happening how I wanted them to.

I decided to focus on one aspect of my teaching each week. I began with reviewing my resources and how I differentiated, then onto the pace of my lessons and so on until one by one these things began to come together and produce some really meaningful learning experiences for the pupils.

5. Celebrate when your performance begins to improve

My celebration was a simple affair- sitting on my sofa after a greatly improved week at school with a cup of tea and a smug feeling that I’d survived my learning dip! Feel free to celebrate however you want (maybe a bit more of a rock and roll fashion than me!) – it’s important to recognise the end of the process!

Moving forward I feel that this was a defining moment in my teaching career- the first (and definitely not the last!!) learning dip. I’d survived it and now feel more confident doing my job than ever.

@mikeharrowell

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