‘Reflecting on aspects of teaching practice is fairly instinctive to beginning teachers. You will focus mentally on particular problems or dilemmas that are to do with how a particular teaching session went’ (2008: 8).
Critical Incident 1 (Area 1)
As an NQT I found myself teaching a Year 1 class, my experience in Early Years and Key Stage 1 was very limited and I was overwhelmed by how demanding and chaotic the children where. Moving from Upper Key Stage 2 to Lower Key Stage 1 meant I had to drastically change my approach to teaching. The Year 1 classroom was not very large and struggled to cater for 30 children in addition to having the space for effective continuous provision. I had received no training about continuous provision and was unsure how to use it effectively. My limited experience had led me to believe that continuous provision was just ‘playing’ and I knew that I had to change the prejudgments I had made in order to be a successful Year 1 teacher. This was a dilemma I focused on for a long time and spent my NQT year reflecting on this one area more than any other. Harrison believes that,
‘Reflecting on aspects of teaching practice is fairly instinctive to beginning teachers. You will focus mentally on particular problems or dilemmas that are to do with how a particular teaching session went’ (2008: 8).
I remembered being told in University that continuous provision helped children to learn through playing. However I did not see the purpose in playing to learn in Year 1 when I had to move the children up two sub levels in reading, writing and numeracy. As someone who likes structure I felt that I was working in chaos. After carrying out my own research I was not surprised to find that countries with a good Early Years education were turning out more literate and numerate children by the age of 11.
My overall aim was to provide continuous provision which was effective and purposeful to the children’s learning. I wanted to succeed in this role and I felt pressured after gaining good observations as a student in the school and decided that I could achieve this myself without support through trial and error. During the first week I decided to try working with one group allowing the other children to explore the areas independently choosing where they would like to ‘play’, often placing the Teaching Assistant (TA) in one of the areas. I found that this resulted in a loud classroom and distracted the group I was working with and, furthermore, distracted me. As a class with several behavioural issues, when the children explored freely they would often argue and have disagreements. At this point I felt that I was overwhelmed and had not yet developed a good working relationship with my TA and felt unwilling to discuss my concerns with her. When evaluating my lessons, I felt that the children who were ‘playing’ in the areas had no purpose to their activity and was irrelevant to the lesson objectives. The idea that the children in my class might be underachieving, or may not be working as they should influenced my decision to ask for help from my NQT mentor. As someone who had been in a very similar situation, Miss Thompson* was eager to provide support and help with my dilemma. She made me aware that what might work for one teacher or one class may not work for another, a view also shared by Stronarch who wrote;
‘Sometimes it just doesn’t work like that, it depends on the class completely if it is going to work or if it is going to go completely out of the window. It depends on the personalities in the class which is totally something I have realised’ (2009: 105).
Drake states that ‘a focus is an activity or experience that is planned with a particular objective in mind’ (2009: 54). Through team teaching I was able to see how Miss Thompson used the areas successfully having a purposeful activity in each area which related in some way to the learning objective. For example, using doll’s clothes and a washing machine in the home corner to teach addition was something I did not think of. To further my understanding, I spent time observing in the Reception class and saw how the teacher used her large-scale continuous provision to enhance the learning of the children. After gaining experience, I found myself more confident and eager to try out different things in the areas; for example, using the Water Area to explore and learn about baptism in R.E or explore the capacity of different containers in Numeracy.
Although I had more understanding of how to use continuous provision, I was still left with the classroom management side to consider. In Reception I observed how the children moved from one area to the next, making it their choice where to play – which worked as it was a large space. However I felt more structure was needed in the smaller Year 1 class. The DfES states that ‘good planning is the key to making children’s learning effective varied and progressive’. (Cited in Drake, 2009: 53). Taking this into consideration I began planning for a specific group to work in a given area. At first the children struggled with the idea that they had to stay in one area and complete the set task or activity. In time however, the children knew what was expected of them and I found myself working in a much calmer environment where the children remained on task. Following this, I was pleased to receive comments on the success of the different areas in the classroom. Reflecting on the incident I feel I could have shared my concerns with friends who where in the same position as me, NQT’s in Year 1. Visiting their school and observing how they use their continuous provision may have inspired my use of the areas in a different way. Vgotsky also believed that play is in an important part in children’s development. However his Social Development Theory holds the belief that children learn more through child initiated play rather than teacher planned or led.
‘According to Vygotsky, humans use tools that develop from a culture, such as speech and writing, to mediate their social environments. Initially children develop these tools to serve solely as social functions, ways to communicate needs. Vygotsky believed that the internalization of these tools led to higher thinking skills. Vygotsky’s theory promotes learning contexts in which students play an active role in learning. Roles of the teacher and student are therefore shifted, as a teacher should collaborate with his or her students in order to help facilitate meaning construction in students’ (Learning Theories, 2008: 1).
As stated previously, every class is different and I aim to use continuous provision in the most effective way for each class. After a year of using the continuous provision in a more structured way, I feel that the experience has added greatly to my professional development and has enhanced my confidence when planning activities which match learning objectives, allowing children to play to learn. In order to make sure that it remains effective for the children’s learning I need to provide consistently challenging activities which are relevant to the lesson in hand and cater for the ability of the group of children. After an end of year CPD meeting with the Head Teacher we identified that one target on my CPD for the academic year 2010/2011should be to consolidate my understanding of teaching and learning in Year 1.
Working in Education means that teaching and learning is always changing. It, like reflection, is a continuous cycle as shown by Atkins and Murphy’s Model of Reflection. With this in mind it is likely that throughout my career as a teacher I will encounter a similar situation where again I feel completely overwhelmed. As stated by Tripp,
‘The analysis of critical incidents is not a once-off and final affair, then, but an on-going one in which new links can constantly be made, not only to current practice but to how we see ourselves in relation to current and past selves and practices’ (2004: 105).
Having reflected on similar incidents before, I believe I would seek out advice from colleagues at an earlier time using the knowledge of more experienced practitioners to my advantage and that of the children. I am aware what might be the perfect approach for one class, may not be right for another. Reflection is an everyday process and one I will continue going through as a teacher in order to develop as a professional.
* The name has been changed to protect the identity of the member of staff.
Critical Incident 2 (Area 2)
As a new teacher to Year 1 there were many areas of the curriculum that I was unfamiliar with, but after researching and familiarising myself with these areas I became more confident and used my prior knowledge of the subjects to plan productive lessons. However when I was informed that I would be teaching swimming to the class in the Summer Term, I was concerned as I had never taught swimming before and furthermore had received no training whilst in University. The idea that I would be responsible for 30 young children in a swimming pool felt very overwhelming. When I was young my parents had taken me to swimming lessons, so I initially thought that this may have been the case for several of the children in the class. After asking who had been to swimming lessons, only 2 out of 30 children said yes. What’s more is that a high number of the children had never been to a swimming pool at all.
My class was full of character with children who posed behavioural difficulties which added to my feelings of anxiousness. I began to consider different ideas; would I have to be in the pool with the children? Would I teach all 30 on my own? Would they be able to change and dry themselves? Most importantly I wondered; where do I start? I tried to remember the first thing I learned in swimming, but all I could remember was swimming length after length. I decided to speak to the previous Year 1 teacher to find out the type of activities she did with the children in the swimming pool. She suggested that I try different things to develop the children’s confidence in the water, as many of them would find it frightening. This was something I had not considered, I just assumed that the children would enjoy being in the water and splashing about. She shared that many of the children in her class had become upset during the first few weeks of lessons. The idea that this new environment might be frightening and overwhelming had not crossed my mind. The Amateur Swimming Association believes that;
‘Before the non-swimmers can begin to enjoy the water they must be happy with the pool building itself. For some beginners it is the noise, smell and the size of the building which may frighten them so that they are tense before entering the pool. This in itself may impair learning’ (1995: 23).
Taking this into consideration, it is clear how important it is to ensure the children feel confident and safe in the water. Playing games such as Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes is a suggested activity in addition to allowing the children to play independently. The Australian Council for the Teaching of Swimming states that ‘fun activities may lead to the development of basic swimming and water safety skills through play, exploration and encouragement’ (1998:2).
Additionally I was informed that I would not be teaching the children alone as I would have a qualified swimming teacher with me, who would work with the more able swimmers. Although this was a relief I still felt unconfident and believed I needed more ideas and support about how to work with new swimmers. Speaking with the P.E. co-ordinator I found that there was a course available to support teachers in teaching swimming. She booked me and my NQT mentor onto the ‘TOP Swimming’ Course prior to the Year 1 class going swimming.
The course took place in a Leisure Centre and began with a question and answer section. Teachers from various primary schools across the borough, both experienced and new teachers, shared their concerns and asked their questions. It was a relief to know that I was not the only one with worries. They asked the same questions I had asked myself and was relieved to finally get answers from an experienced teacher who specialised in teaching swimming. We were provided with a Delegate Resource Pack from ‘TOP Swimming’ which contained many different activities to use when teaching swimming. The activities varied from new swimmers to confident swimmers in need of a challenge. Working with another teacher, we had to plan a short swimming session including a warm up for a group of swimmers from Year 4. We were then informed that we would be teaching our lesson to this identified group in the afternoon. The children were from a nearby school who worked in collaboration with the Leisure Centre. This experience was exactly what I needed in order to develop my own confidence. I came away from the course with many great ideas, some of which came from the other teachers after sharing our ideas.
Using the new ideas I had gained, I purchased fun water toys for the children to use in the swimming pool. My research had shown that in order to develop and teach the children how to swim, they would need to be confident in the water. Playing with blow up beach balls and squeezable water toys was one way I aimed to do so. The first visit to the pool was exciting for the children and nerving for me. I was joined by two teaching assistants who helped to change and dress the children. The children surprised me greatly and the majority were able to dry and dress themselves after swimming. When entering the pool, I was pleased to find that only 2 of the children were slightly worried about getting in the water. The others took it in their stride and were eager to try and walk from one side of the pool to the other. The support I received from the Swimming Teacher was exceptional. She was there to answer any questions and furthermore was fantastic with the children (who all wanted to be in her group). After the 6 week block, the children had changed dramatically. Many of them were kicking their legs, ducking under the water and most importantly having fun. The 2 children who were apprehensive began to walk through the water without support and placing their nose into the water.
Cummings offers the idea that ‘the majority of teachers look at what they are doing, judge their effectiveness, and plan for future strategies based on their evaluation of past successes and failures’ (1994: 90). In the future it is very likely I will come across a similar incident and will now approach it in a different way. I have not taught in all years and anticipate that I will face teaching another challenging area in curriculum. In the event of this happening, I believe I would ask for support earlier as oppose to lingering on the issue and hoping it will be ok. I am aware that there are many areas of support, including colleagues and courses and will use these to my advantage in the future. Reflecting on the incident, I now feel that I became overly stressed about it, however I am pleased with the outcome. My knowledge bank of teaching swimming has improved, in addition to my developed confidence.
Critical Incident 3 (Area 3)
Prior to working with my Year 1 class, I spent time exchanging information about the children with the Reception teacher. She informed me about the needs of the class and the specific needs of the children working at a lower ability. In this particular class many of the children were identified as working below average and it became apparent to me that several of the children in the lower ability group may leave Year 1 working towards a Level 1. In order to assess the depth of their needs after the summer break, I began to observe the identified children. Along with the Teaching Assistant, I observed the children in a range of conditions. For example playing on the playground, working as a group completing an academic piece of work and exploring the continuous provision areas around the classroom. I found that one child in particular, (Child A) struggled to complete any written or academic work independently and had poor speaking skills. Reading over his previous School Report I found that Child A struggled to identify letters and numerals, had poor pencil control, was unable to place words on the page correctly and furthermore could not hear sounds in simple CVC words such as ‘cat’ or ‘mat’.
Tassoni identifies Special Education Needs (SEN) as ‘an all encompassing term to describe a child who needed some extra support.’ (2003: 4). It was clear that Child A would considerably require additional support. Despite having worked with several children with SEN on my training, I felt that this was now my sole responsibility and I had to carefully designate appropriate provision to help the child progress. Although Child A had been placed on an IEP whilst in Reception, his poor attendance and limited support from home meant that all indentified targets had not been achieved. Therefore targets including writing his first name accurately and knowing the names of the letters used in his name were carried over to his Year 1 IEP, using the school’s ‘Guidance for Completion of SEN documentation.’
One morning a week, Child A would work on each target with the teaching assistant and was also required to carry out specific tasks at home. It was clear that the support from home was not being received and therefore hindering Child A’s slow development. Additional support was offered to the parent of Child A, including Speech and Language therapy provided in school time. However after missing several appointments to sign the child up to the scheme, the offer was later retracted. On a positive note, Child A along with 5 other children from Year 1, would carry out fun writing activities one morning a week to develop letter formation and in Child A’s case, pencil control. The sessions proved to be very successful. Reflection on this issue has resulted in the ordering of handwriting books for all of Year 1 and will now become a class activity, differentiated for the needs of the children. Although Child A was showing more confidence when writing individual letters and had vastly improved his letter formation, he was still unable to hear sounds in words and thus write them down without a visual aid. It is my belief that his inability to hear sounds had a detrimental effect on his confidence and resulted in what seemed to be underachievement, as the targets that were set not being reached. Soan offers the opinion that,
‘Schools have to ensure they enable all children the opportunity to learn as much as they can, in a way that encourages independence, good self-esteem and positive social skills.’ (2005: 44)
After assessing the performance made by Child A, I considered the idea that maybe he was not underachieving, but the targets I had set for him were unachievable. His written work had drastically improved. The size and shape of his handwriting was more consistent, he was writing from left to right and in addition was able to write his first name independently with very few mistakes. Although he was not able to identify letters confidently he had progressed in many other ways. Muschamp states that ‘assessment requires clarity of purpose, aims and expectations and a careful analysis of performance in relation to these.’ (1994: 228). I know realise that my expectations of Child A at the beginning of the year were too high and unachievable. Harrison offers the opinion that ‘it is in its relationship with professional knowledge and practice that deeper reflection becomes such an important feature of the reflective practice.’ (2008:9). Having the opportunity to reflect on my practice made me consider the targets set for the rest of the lower ability group, resulting in the amendment of the group’s individual target for writing. Child A’s End of Year Report, explains how he has made progress throughout the year and where his weaknesses lie. Weaknesses include a lack of confidence when writing independently, due to his limited knowledge of letters and sounds. With an increased maturity it is more likely that Child A will be able to work independently and become more confident when recognising letters, making these both suitable targets for his writing in Year 2.
It is highly likely that as a teacher I will face very similar incidents again. Being able to set targets which are suitable and achievable is an area I intend to give more focus to in the next academic year. I will do so by sharing my suggested targets with the Reception teacher, as it is probable she will have a better understanding of their ability at that early stage of the year. I am pleased that I was able to identify the difficulties with Child A’s and the discussed groups targets and amend them to ensure they were suitable and will use what I have gathered from my reflection to inform my target setting and delivery of sessions for SEN and lower ability pupils.
Critical Incident 4 (Area 4)
When reflecting upon this particular incident I came across a quote which fits the dilemma I was in. According to Adelman,
‘To collaborate with some is often to shape up to confrontation with others. For collaboration is limited to those where good faith exits’ (Cited in Campbell, 2005: 156).
I know firsthand how good faith is an essential component of collaborative working. Prior to my employment in my current school, I was a teaching student completing my synoptic placement there. I had developed many successful relationships with the staff and felt part of the team. I was informed that I would be working in Year 1 with a Teaching Assistant (TA) who I had not yet had the chance to get to know. The school in which we work is full of big characters and humour. I am an animated teacher who enjoys teaching through drama and other art forms and my TA is a quiet and often shy member of the staff. As we were both around the same age I expected we would get along very well, however in the first half term it was apparent that this was not the case.
Snell and Janey define team work as ‘two or more people working together to achieve a common goal’ (Cited in Vincett, Cremin & Thomas, 2005: 22). Although we shared the same goal, we were not working together successfully to achieve it. I found it difficult to ask her to help with activities or for advice on areas I had little or no experience in. As a teacher new to Year 1, I was learning new things myself. Moving from Year 5 to Year 1 meant I had to change my approach to teaching, improve my knowledge of Letters and Sounds and develop my ability to use continuous provision effectively. Reflecting on this, I now know that things could have been less stressful, had I used the knowledge of my TA. The lack of communication on both sides resulted in the TA not participating during the whole class input part of each session. Previous experience with TA’s had led me to believe that they take an active part during whole class sessions and at the time I felt frustrated, with what seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm in general on her part.
One of Ofsted’s characteristics of effective TA work states;
‘The quality of teaching is improved when the TA interacts with the teacher to make the lesson more lively or to generate more challenging discussion’ (Ofsted: 2002).
Ofsted goes on to say that;
‘Teaching is of a better quality when the TA works in close partnership with the teacher who plans well for the teaching assistant’s role in the lesson’ (Ofsted: 2002).
I was concerned that our relationship would have a negative effect on the children as feedback from group work was often limited verbally. In order to enhance our communication, I made an additional planning file for the TA in which I put her own weekly plans and timetables. I felt that this was a successful idea. It upset me that at regular intervals the TA would go to the class of her previous co-worker, coincidently my NQT Mentor. I was fully aware that our working relationship was not working and was concerned that other members of staff would see this as a weakness on my part. Reflecting on this now, I know that I should have spoke up about the problem earlier as opposed to feeling weak. It was then brought to my attention that the matter had been taken to the Senior Management Team without my knowing so, leaving me feeling betrayed by my TA and Mentor. I was relieved to find out that the Senior Management Team were not too concerned about the issue and shared the opinion that we were two very different personalities who would, after time, learn to work collaboratively. Campbell shares a similar view;
‘Collaboration is not easy. It just takes time, thoughtfulness and skill from all participants. Collaboration does not just ‘happen’. As well as the ton of the interpersonal relationships, the environment ‘hidden curriculum’ send out messages’ (Campbell, 2005: 156).
Knowing that the issue had been taken so far made me realise how serious it was. I had tried to pretend that things would work themselves out, but without talking through the issues that would never happen. I decided to sit down and talk to my TA about the situation. I voiced my concerns and then gave her the opportunity to do so. We both said what we felt, which at the time was not the easiest thing to do, however it was the best thing that we did do. After time it became a lot easier to work together and we did develop our relationship making work life more enjoyable. Furthermore it reflected in my teaching and was identified during a lesson observation.
Harrison offers the opinion that,
‘Critical reflection on practice provides a freedom to the individual and to groups to change the operation of the social environment at the level of their personal experiences’ (Harrison, 2008: 38).
In this case I feel that the social environment has been changed and improved greatly and this has happened over time. I feel more relaxed about working with my TA in the next year as I feel we have reached that stage and work together to achieve a common goal. As before I will continue to plan for the TA in every session and provide her with the plans in advance in order for her to prepare.
Throughout my teaching career, it is likely that I will encounter a similar incident where I do not initially work well with an additional adult in the classroom. Alternatively if this situation did arise again I would be more assertive in helping to correct the situation as ‘communication has been identified as a vital ingredient of effective teamwork’ (Vincett, Cremin, Thomas, 2005: 26). Furthermore I would seek out advice from my co-workers who may have had to deal with similar incidents during their practice.
Being able to critically reflect on the four critical incidents has allowed me to not only identify what happened and what needed to change, but I was also able to identify the positive outcomes from these incidents. As a teacher I continually reflect on my practice. I evaluate each lesson in order to improve or change my teaching approach in addition to assessing the children. As a new teacher I am aware that I will want to do things differently the next time round.
Reflection allows me to develop new ideas and understand why certain ideas did not work. Cummings makes a valid argument, stating:
‘It obviously requires some degree of courage and an honest desire to look more closely at what happens in one’s classroom, to overcome the initial trepidation. The threat is probably greatest to those who feel most confident in their teaching; honest evaluation of what has actually taken place may provide some surprises and disappointments – it may shake confidence’ (1994: 89).
Reflection and analysing critically is an ongoing cycle, and although it can leave feelings of failure. I have no doubt that it will help me to develop as a professional.
Reflection is an everyday process and one I will continue going through as a teacher. It is now clear to me that holding back and waiting for a concern to fix itself or go away is not a professional or productive way to be. When dealing with future experiences I feel I will now be more assertive in fixing the problem in hand. The knowledge of those more experienced colleagues is a source of information I intend on using more regularly.
The skill of reflecting is one I intend to pass on to the children in my class. Being able to be reflective in a positive way is a skill I would want the children to have, as it is my belief that reflection inspires you to strive for the best.