How can we improve teacher radar?

We’ve all met those teachers who appear to have eyes in the back of their head. No matter what they are doing, they seem capable of spotting even the slightest off-task behaviour. They can notice and stop a student who is about to talk before they’ve said their first syllable, or correct the student about to look out of the window just as she begins to move her head to do so. Unsurprisingly, behaviour in their classroom is immaculate.

We call this ‘ability’ our radar. Having a good radar is fundamental to effective behaviour management. After all, if you don’t see the misbehaviour, you’re not going to be able to correct it. This is at its most obvious when we are observing trainees or early career teachers who don’t appear to have an effective radar. It’s easy to sit at the back of the classroom wondering how on earth our trainee hasn’t seen that Alex is staring out of the window, and that Sarah is trying to attract the attention of her friend in the corridor. 

It’s tempting in such situations to set our trainees a target to ‘work on their radar’. We do, after all, want them to become like those expert teachers who are able to notice and respond to the slightest distraction. But a target this vague isn’t at all helpful – we might as well ask them to ‘become better at seeing things’.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that we can’t easily explain how it is that we maintain our own radar. It seems to be something innate, something that we can’t remember not having. So how can we actually help our trainees improve theirs?

What can we do?

Although there’s no point setting a target as vague as ‘improve your radar’, there are a few things we can ask our trainees to do that might help them notice off-task behaviour in their classroom. In particular, we can get them thinking more carefully about how they position themselves so that they can better see their students. In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov talks about using ‘Pastore’s Perch’ to position yourself effectively in the classroom. The idea is that it’s much easier to see all of your students if you position yourself in the corner of the room rather than the centre.

Radar diagram

Standing in this position will reduce the number of students outside of your field of vision at any one time, making it much easier to see – and therefore stop – any off-task behaviour. This can be further refined by getting our trainees to stand still so that they spend minimal time looking away from the class.

Unfortunately, however, this does not entirely solve the problem. Whilst better positioning increases the likelihood that our trainees will see off-task behaviour, it doesn’t actually improve their ‘ability’ to notice and respond to it. So what next?

Can we actually improve a teacher’s radar?

Because it seems such a difficult thing to improve, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of dismissing teacher radar as something that you either have or you don’t. I don’t think this is the case. Those expert practitioners who can maintain a hyper-vigilant radar are able to do so because they are experts. They can maintain an effective radar because they need to think less about the other processes involved in teaching.

Think about the number of things that a trainee teacher will be trying to hold in their working memory in a lesson. At any given moment, they could be thinking about:

  • The names of the students sat in front of them
  • The substantive knowledge required to teach a given lesson
  • How to draw connections with previous learning
  • How to lay the foundations of the next lesson
  • Whether there is enough time left for the lesson
  • How to support the SEN students in the room
  • Why Alicia has developed a particular misconception
  • How to phrase their next question
  • How to improve their lesson the next time they teach it
  • What notes their observer is making

All of this is before our trainee begins to think about looking at what their students are doing. It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, when they find it difficult to maintain an effective radar. Our expert teachers have automatised many of these other processes, so it’s unsurprising that they are able to give the impression of having eyes in the back of their head. They don’t need to think about their explanation as much because they have developed a mental script for explaining electrolysis. Nor do they need to think about the names of their students – they have taught them for years. This frees up their working memory, giving them a much greater capacity to keep an eye on what their students are up to.

In order to help early career teachers develop an effective radar, then, we are be better off focusing our efforts on helping them to automatise the other processes that are a crucial part of teaching. That means setting targets that will make a help them move towards greater fluency in these tasks. This might include supporting them in developing their subject knowledge, or their understanding of the broader narrative of the curriculum. Or it could mean helping them to script questions in advance, and sharing our expertise in how to explain a particularly tricky concept. It doesn’t mean telling trainees to ‘work on their radar’.

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