“Don’t we learn to teach on the job? What’s the point of theory?” A post for my students

An introductory video

The story

‘Didn’t I ask you to read the paragraph and then respond to the stimulus question?’ I asked the blond-haired boy in desk at the back of the room.

This was my first year of teaching English, and this day (somewhere into week 3) was the first lesson with my Year 8 class when I’d felt that at least most of the class were engaged in the task I’d set them.

But not Andrew.

He slowly turned his head as I spoke, and looked calmly and challengingly at my face. He didn’t say anything.

‘Andrew, didn’t I ask everyone to read the paragraph and respond …’ For some reason, I could feel the confidence draining out of me.

‘Mmm. Let’s see,’ he finally said slowly. ‘Yes, I think you did say something along those lines.’

The casual way he tossed this back at me was confusing. So were the feelings of anger welling up inside me. How dare he speak to me like that! What was going on here?

‘So?’ I said.

‘So?’ he replied.

‘So do it!’ I said, struggling to stop myself from shouting.

He smiled and picked up his pen, then held it up as if saying, ‘Here’s the pen. See, I’ve picked it up, and I’m now going to write some meaningless words in order to show you what a pointless exercise this whole thing is.’

I walked away from the desk, feeling utterly defeated.  Why couldn’t he see that I didn’t want him to be doing meaningless work? What was going on in this exchange that had left me feeling so weak?

It’s now forty years since that exchange, yet I still remember the boy and I still remember the feelings of helplessness I felt on that day, and on subsequent days, as I struggled to control my urge to win the battle with Andrew.

Moments like this one help force us to examine our assumptions. I entered that Year 8 classroom with a number of assumptions about students, about my subject, and about teaching, and not all of them were helping.

My assumptions included:

  1. I’m young and enthusiastic, and my enthusiasm will infect my students.
  2. Students need a classroom environment that is relaxed and friendly, where they can express themselves freely and explore ideas without fear of ridicule.
  3. If a student is not responding to what I’m teaching, there’s a reason for it, and trying to see things from the student’s point of view is going to help.
  4. I need to be flexible and responsive in my teaching.
  5. Students like to succeed, and if I show them how, then they’ll work hard.
  6. Teachers generally talk too much.

Looking back now, I can see where some of these assumptions came from. When I was at school, I was bored by teachers who talked too much, and at university I fell asleep in lectures (until I stopped going to them). If I was given the freedom to explore things in my own way, I loved learning and worked hard.

There was another reason why I assumed that, if I took an interest in my student, then they would respond. At the age of 10 I was sent by my parents to boarding school. My father was a diplomat, he was regularly posted overseas, and my parents believed that I needed to be brought up in my native country and that my schooling needed ongoing stability. To begin with I hated it, and found the teachers distant and their teaching uninspiring. But then, as I entered my later secondary years at the boarding school, I was taught by teachers who seemed interested in my ideas and development, who loved their subjects, and who thought deeply about education. I responded immediately to these teachers, and assumed that all students would respond like this, given the right circumstances.

Of course I didn’t articulate these assumptions at the time. I was not really aware that I had them. It was only after my tangle with Andrew that I began to began to see that my asssumptions were inadequate.

Andrew’s quiet, successful rebellion continued, and it continued to get under my skin. I tried different tacks – chatting with him about things that had nothing to do with school, ignoring him, threatening him with school punishments, keeping him in at lunch time – but he continued to quietly undermine my confidence, my sense that I had any legitimate authority.

One day I wrote a long letter to my aunt, who was a teacher herself and was now working as a teacher trainer, telling her of my struggles with Andrew, and asking her advice. She sent me a book and suggested I read a chapter from it, and encouraged me to write or ring her to talk through the issue.

The book was by Rudolf Dreikurs, and was called Psychology in the Classroom. That night, I read the chapter recommended by my aunt.

Rudolf Dreikurs

Dreikurs suggested that all student behavior had a purpose, that it was all aimed at gaining some sense of belonging or connection, but that some students pursued this in irrational ways in the mistaken belief that their behaviour would result in them achieving the acceptance they yearned for.

At first, I found this confusing. If Andrew was wanting to belong, why was he going about it in ways that not only angered me but also seemed to alienate him from many of his classmates? But then I realized that in fact he had earned some kind of respect or recognition from those around him; his classmates could see that he held some kind of power, that he knew how to undermine authority.

I read on.

Dreikurs looked at those students whose behaviour was in some ways troubling, and suggested that these students fell into four categories. There were those students who attempted to achieve recognition by attention seeking. There were those who continually displayed feelings of inadequacy. There were those who were motivated by feelings of revenge. And there were those who challenged the teacher’s power.

I read the chapter several times. I did this not because I was going to be tested on it, not because I was going to do an academic assignment and needed to demonstrate that I was ‘keeping up to date with the research’.I did it because my previous thinking was inadequate and I was experienced distress as a result. I was reading it to help me to solve a real problem in the real world.

As I read, I kept looking to see what Dreikurs might say about a student like Andrew At first it seemed to me that Andrew fitted into at least three of the four categories. But the one that resonated the most was the last.

Andrew had sucked me into a power struggle.

I remember, still, the moment I read a sentence which said something like this:

The moment the teacher engages with the power struggle, the teacher has lost.

Dreikurs had concrete advice about what to do in situations like this one. I followed the advice, and my relationship with Andrew changed markedly. He did all right in that class, and I survived.


All of that happened in my first year of teaching, exactly forty years ago. I’ve still got the book, and my teaching was permanently affected by what I read in it, and by what happened with Andrew.

Dreikurs helped to free me from the limitations of some of my assumptions. His ideas helped me to survive the challenges of those early years, and gave me ways of being more effective with students like Andrew.

Dreikurs was no a panacea, of course. He helped then, but he didn’t help with other students and other situations. I continue to find aspects my assumptions about teaching and learning inadequate. I continue to have to learn and adjust.

But his theories helped, as do all good theories, whether they come in books, lectures, conversations with more experienced colleagues or our own flashes of insight.

No theory is universally true, always applicable, the solution to every problem. Yes, we learn on the job. But without theory, we remain relatively trapped by the inadequacy of our underdeveloped assumptions.

7 thoughts on ““Don’t we learn to teach on the job? What’s the point of theory?” A post for my students

  1. Steve, I really loved this post. It was perfect timing to read this after my first week teaching. I bring similar assumptions to yours to my first year of teaching, and no doubt these will be tested and challenged by my students, myself and the system over the year. I came to the point in my thinking examining this, that I needed to go back to my learning over the grad dip course and do things based on theory, pedagogical reasoning and objective observation from what I’m learning about each of my classes, and not projecting onto my classes assumptions made from my own time at college, and not delivering lessons hastily thrown together due to time constraints (which are still considered, but not as connected, assured and holistic as I’d like).
    I’ve also thought about that while you have many teachers around you at a school (and I do have lots of support and advice), teaching is essentially a personal and individual experience like learning (like you discovering Dreikurs). There are efforts to challenge this, team teaching, professional conversations about practice, PD and all that, but I haven’t been exposed to it (yet) and there aren’t the structures and resources for it (as far as I have observed so far). My professional life has always been in teams, and although one could argue my students are part of my “team” they’re still necessarily on a different level, and I have been feeling a little lonely as strange as that may sound. So the question I have been formulating (and now pondering) is: Is teaching, like learning, essentially an individual and deeply personal experience?
    Assignment One looks fantastic!

    • ‘Is teaching, like learning, essentially an individual and deeply personal experience?’
      This sounds to me like the Tenth Provocation! And a very fine one as well, Libby. It’s made me think.
      For years I would have said yes to both. And I think that both teaching and learning have a strong individual and deeply personal side to them.
      But then I think about the times when I’ve been most stimulated as a learner (working with my two supervisors on my PhD, joining an online course at Harvard, being part of a week-long intensive run by the Tavistock Institute, reading a difficult book with a colleague, etc), they’ve all got a collaborative aspect. And the times when I’ve been most stimulated as a teacher (working with the Strike Team here at UC, being part of a team of four primary teachers in an Open Plan classroom, writing an article with two of last year’s Grad Dip students (!) etc), they’ve all got collaborative aspects as well, and often a collaborative core.
      I think we’ve inherited this idea that teaching and learning is essentially private and personal, and that we haven’t yet come to terms with what you found in your other professional life, that the natural way of doing these things is often collaborative rather than individual.

  2. Pingback: Recognising some of my assumptions | K is for Kat

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  4. Pingback: Another naive assumption from a pre-service teacher. « Cools Teaches

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