Learning the art of stepping back

Graduating Teacher Standard 2.a

Graduating teachers have knowledge of a range of relevant theories and research about pedagogy, human development and learning.

Stepping over rocks in Colorado (Photo by me)

Possibly the most important lesson I have learned in my Teacher Education programme so far was actually way back during the application process.

Zuh you say?

Read on.

As part of the application most New Zealand teaching programmes require attendees to attend a group interview. Apart from being a way to assess prospective the character of prospective teachers these interviews are also way for institutions to assess applicants’ listening skills, communication skills, interpersonal skills, knowledge of education etc. I applied to two universities and thus attended two group interviews.

Concrete University was the first interview. Apart from introducing a fellow candidate to the interview panel, there was no more interaction with the other prospective students. The interviewers simply asked the same question of each applicant for the next 45 minutes starting off with the classic ‘why would you make a great teacher?’ The experience was basically the same as most job interviews except you got to hear the answers of several other candidates.

The next interview was for University on the Hill. At this interview we were allowed to introduce ourselves and then then we were given a task. My group was given a set of qualities that would make a great teacher and asked to rank them individually in 5 minutes. After we had come up with our own list, we had to work together as a group to come up with a group list in 20 minutes. Once the instructions were given, the interviewers left the students to it.

From applicant’s prospective the interviews couldn’t have been more different. The Concrete University interview was interviewer-centered while the University on the Hill was student-centered. The interview at Concrete University felt pressuring and confrontational, at the University on the Hill I felt a sense of camaraderie with the other applicants. At Concrete University I felt like I was just another brick in the wall patiently waiting to have my ‘turn,’ at the University on the Hill I felt like my voice was heard. At Concrete University I was counting down the minutes until I could leave, at the University on the Hill I was having such a good time I forgot I was in an interview.

What were factors that made University on the Hill’s interview so much better?

Firstly the students largely were in control of the interview process, we needed to moderate ourselves to ensure that we were both getting our points across but at the same time listening to other applicant’s points of view. Secondly students had choices. The interview at University on the Hill wasn’t about me giving the answer I thought the interviewer wanted to hear it was about the process our group took to get there. Finally the University on the Hill had created an environment where students were free to make mistakes and change our minds because  achieving success on our task wasn’t about having the ‘best’ answer. Instead communicating, listening and the ability to compromise were the key ingredients for success. Another words our group had to use all those interpersonal skills I mentioned earlier. Something that didn’t happen at Concrete University where the interviewer kept control of the task.

But perhaps the most valuable part of the exercise for me was that I learned how important it is for a teacher to know when to step back and let the students get on with learning. By handing control over to the students and stepping back, the interviewers at University on the Hill enabled us to create a far better environment.

The incident made me realize what conservative beasts some teaching programmes are. How are tomorrow’s teachers going to respond to the learning challenges of today if even the very sorting mechanisms for teaching programmes are still very much mired in the old-school mindset of teacher=fountain of all that is knowledge.

How would I apply this in a classroom? I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting that I resign from teaching before I graduate but it has certainly made me think a lot about overusing direct instruction as a method in the classroom. I need to remember that learning isn’t about me opening up my students heads and throwing knowledge in, learning needs to be meaningful and relevant to them otherwise I’m just wasting my time. I suppose my question is when do you know when to step back and let the students do their thing?

It seems that wonderful things can happen when you do.

3 thoughts on “Learning the art of stepping back

Add yours

  1. There is a new online community for teachers to share ideas, thoughts, and funny stories. It’s also a great way for bloggers to find other like minded teachers to follow their blogs. Check it out today at AnonymousApple.com


  2. Hi there,
    Have stumbled across you on twitter & found my way to your blog. Really enjoyed reading this. I attended the University “on the Hill” last year doing the Grad Diploma of Primary Teaching. I completely agree with your thoughts about the interview process and what you take from it for your own teaching! Best of luck with your studies this year, it’s a pressure cooker of a course, my advice: remember to breathe!!


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