Tricks of the teaching trade…

If you’re due to start your teacher training or NQT year in September, this is for you…

I bought a Border Collie pup recently and, at eight weeks, have just begun training her. I don’t want to sound disparaging but the experience has reminded me a lot of my teacher-training.

I’ve christened my dog Meg in the sheep farmer’s tradition of using a mono-syllabic name that lends itself to constant repetition. Besides, I wanted a name I could shout around the village without being embarrassed.

The very first Border Collie, Old Hemp, had a mother called Meg so the name has a rich heritage. But it’s already wearing thin. I use her name so many times a day – a crescendo rising from loving come-hither to firm command to angry chastisement – that the sound of it is beginning to lose all meaning for me.

Meg is, as I say, a Border Collie – a breed well known for their social skills, eagerness to please, intelligence and boundless energy. But every coin has a flip-side and Meg’s propensity to be social also means she doesn’t like being left alone and cries through the night keeping me awake, her eagerness to please can translate as an over-zealous tendency to bite the children, chase the cats and herd the rabbits, her intelligence means she is quick-witted, often one step ahead of me as she sneaks into the food cupboard, and her boundless energy makes her tireless but me exhausted as I try to keep up.

Our training regime started by using Meg’s name as often as possible – always “Meg”, just “Meg” (no silly nicknames like the rest of our pets and children acquire) and always enunciated clearly followed by a pregnant pause to gain her attention before a command is given.

Next, I taught her to “sit” using a simple one-word command accompanied by a hand gesture, plus a treat as a reward the first few times she succeeded. The real secret to this obedience trick was repetition and then positive reinforcement. I kept doing it and whenever she got it right, I gave her a treat and made a fuss of her so she knew she’d done what I wanted her to do and to do it again next time. It took patience and determination but it worked.

I had drafted a list of one-word commands and their accompanying hand gestures before Meg had arrived and shared them with my family so we were consistent in the words and body language we used with our puppy the moment she crossed the threshold, thereby avoiding any confusion or mixed messages. Again, simplicity, consistency and repetition were key – plus plenty of praise – much like teaching.

On the morning of day two of our training she had learnt to “sit”, “stay” and “come”. I was over the moon with her progress and considered myself the natural heir to Barbara Woodhouse. On the afternoon of day two she learnt to wee on the carpet, chew the legs off the sofa, and bite the legs of my daughter. I considered myself the natural heir to Barbara Windsor, screaming: “Get outta my house!” It was a game of two halves, shall we say.

And that is why training my dog reminds me of my NQT year: it is full of highs and lows. Sometimes the good advice I read in books and online works, sometimes it does not. Sometimes things go my way, sometimes they do not. Sometimes I am the very picture of patience and calm, sometimes I bop her on the nose and shout at her and then feel utterly remorseful when she stares at me with her puppy-dog eyes (never has that phrase meant so much).

Sometimes Meg is obedient and attentive, quick to pick things up and respond; sometimes she is tired, hungry, naughty, bored, distracted, incontinent, and noisy. Sometimes I am the best teacher and she is the best student, sometimes we are neither of us these things.

Sound familiar? I think I may just have described life, love and teacher-training. Meg and I live and breathe, we think and feel. We get tired and hungry, we get bored and irritable.

Thus is life. And that is what being an NQT and – for that matter, a qualified teacher – is like. Get used to it and get over it.

That might sound harsh but consider it a bit of well-intentioned tough love: as you come to the end of your NQT year, don’t be too hard on yourself for the times when it didn’t go your way – just learn from it. This advice, and much of the advice below, is just as pertinent for trainee teachers too, as you think about your NQT year ahead.

Either way, the one thing I can guarantee about next year is that you will continue to make mistakes and you will continue to learn from them – and isn’t that just great? Life’s a lesson!

We all make mistakes and sometimes the mistakes are not yours to make anyway. Sometimes they are not even mistakes. Sometimes, your students are being disobedient because they are tired or hungry. Sometimes the advice you followed that didn’t work was bad advice or not appropriate for the context.

As you embark on your first year as a qualified teacher, don’t expect perfection, don’t expect a summer transformation whereby all your NQT follies and foibles will fall away and you emerge from your chrysalis a beautiful butterfly unrecognisable from the caterpillar you were in July.

Rome – to coin a cliché – wasn’t built in a day and nor will be your teaching practice. It will, hence the name teaching practice, take years of trial and error and even then you will never perfect it. You will have to keep on trying to get better at teaching until you retire or die (to paraphrase the Eliza Doolittle-like Professor Dylan Wiliam).

Teaching is a physically and emotionally demanding job that involves hours of standing and listening and talking. It is intellectually demanding because you have to plan to meet the needs of students with a wide range of starting points and from a wide range of backgrounds, and you have to look afresh at a subject you know inside out but from a novice student’s point of view. Teaching can involve working with vulnerable and distressed students, as well as calming angry and uncooperative ones; it can involve challenging complacent students and encouraging insecure ones. And then there’s the parents.

So here are some things to practise as you complete your training or NQT year and start life as a qualified teacher…

Just say no

Your colleagues may still regard you as a keen newbie – especially if you are staying at the same school you trained in – and they may look to you as a natural volunteer whenever something needs doing.
But you need to manage your workload and strike some semblance of work/life balance if you are to be effective and survive. You mustn’t spread yourself too thinly or try to conquer the world overnight, no matter how much you wish to please or impress and no matter how eager you are to learn new things and add to your CV. It’s not a sign of weakness to say no.

Manage your marking

Written feedback is important and it does make a difference. But it is not a panacea and must not take over your life. As with all things, moderation is the key. Try to keep your written feedback succinct and meaningful – perhaps establish some form of shorthand, maybe symbols, and consider using stamps or stickers for this. Manage the amount of work you mark – perhaps marking one piece of work every five lessons with students engaging in self and peer-assessment in-between. You could set tasks for students to respond to your feedback so that the time you do spend marking is time well spent.

Be discerning

I have written before about teachers’ tendency to be a magpie and I would caution again about trying to adopt every new pedagogic fad in your classroom during your first year. You should read and research widely and be willing to take risks and try new things.

But you should always approach new ideas with an open mind and test them with a class before adopting them as your new default teaching style. Also, you must be careful that trying new strategies doesn’t cause you additional stress or add to your workload, or indeed confuse your students thus hampering the learning environment and their outcomes.

Know your school

You are part of a school community – a cohort of students, parents, staff, governors and others who have a stake in your school’s success. You should get to know your school as soon as possible – and all aspects of it.

The more you know and the more active you are, the easier you will find your job. Your colleagues will come to know and respect you better and your students and parents will come to regard you as a part of their school with an investment in its future, not just someone passing through. To do this, you should get involved in events outside your own subject and in after-school activities and open evenings. Another easy way to “fit in” is simply to spend time in the staffroom talking to colleagues over coffee. Don’t work in a silo – as tempting as it is to stay in your classroom at break and lunchtime preparing for your next lesson, it’s important to get out and talk to staff about students and to switch off and socialise. Talking of which…

Ask for help

If you need help then ask for it – you are not alone. Your headteacher, head of department and other colleagues are there to support you so use them. You are part of a teaching profession and it is so called because it is a collective enterprise. Invite colleagues into your classroom to see you teach and ask for their feedback.

Ask your colleagues if you can observe them, too, so you can learn from their practice. You will have a wealth of skills and experience in your own school and won’t always need to go on training courses to develop your knowledge. What’s more, rather than listening to generic theory, you can go sit at the back of a class to watch how another teacher manages the same students you actually teach.

Develop yourself

One of the Teachers’ Standards requires that NQTs and recently qualified teachers can show a commitment to improving their practice through appropriate professional development. This emphasis on taking responsibility for your own professional development is a key element of the expectations of teachers as professionals.

It is implied that you should: care about your own professional growth and development, have objectives and plan for the professional skills you need now and in the future to do your job well, have expectations that the school you work for will facilitate and enhance your professional development, and demonstrate a positive attitude to your professional future in teaching.

So make sure you and your school honour your rights – take care to develop yourself. You will be busy and it is all too easy to get stuck in a vicious cycle of lesson planning, delivery and marking, but don’t neglect your professional development. Make sure you are given time and space to reflect on your professional needs and to learn new skills and knowledge.

Look after yourself

Perhaps more important than developing yourself, though, is looking after yourself. Nurturing your body, mind and soul is vital if you are to get the most out of your first year – not to mention survive it right to the bitter end! If you look after your health and wellbeing, you are more likely to be an effective, happy teacher. So don’t give up on sport and exercise and don’t stop socialising. As well as helping you to switch off, it will defuse your anxiety.

Another good tip for relieving stress is to make time for eating sensibly and to get plenty of sleep. In short, don’t let teaching absorb all of your time. Be realistic – you are not a superhero and you are not the only teacher in the school so don’t expect to be the one to help every single student.

Similarly, don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself when you break for the holidays – as tempting as it is to promise yourself you’ll catch up on all the housework. You need to set aside quality time to relax and unwind.

Finally, good is good enough

I know this might sound like the soft bigotry of low expectations, but while having high expectations of yourself and your teaching is clearly admirable, there’s a fine line between high expectations and unrealistic expectations.

NQTs and teachers in new schools often make the mistake of thinking that every lesson has to be akin to a New Year’s Eve firework extravaganza and as a consequence each lesson takes 10 times longer to plan than it does to teach. What’s more, the quality of learning is compromised because students are over-excited by the engaging and interactive activities – which often detract from the learning or are divorced from real learning – before you’ve fully established the foundations, the rules and routines that will foster a positive learning environment. Plus, students come to expect whizz-bang lessons all year round and you simply can’t sustain that.

This approach invariably leads to bad behaviour or, at the very least, slower rates of progress. So try to plan and teach”‘good” rather than “outstanding” lessons while you build some solid foundations and save the fireworks for New Year’s Eve.

Make your explanations quick and clear, don’t let anyone talk over you. Don’t use too many unnecessary questions if you don’t care about the answers – questioning should be used for assessment, it won’t make your teaching any more interesting but it might slow it down.

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself if you think somebody isn’t listening. Remember you are passing on information or giving an explanation – you are not performing on stage at the Comedy Store. Try not to plan activities that rely on students’ goodwill or compliance until you know them well enough to know you can count on it. Good luck!

This is an edited extract from The New Teacher Survival Kit which is available in paperback and ebook.  The Kindle edition is currently discounted to £4.99.

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