Are you about to start teaching for the first time? If so, you may be feeling the same mix of excitement and nerves that I felt only 12 months ago. You may have frantically read whatever you can lay your hands on about “What to do if a fight breaks out in your class?” or “How to handle parents’ evening”, but for me, I didn’t know what I would need to know until I began teaching. I’m only an NQT, but here are 10 things I wish I had known before I started teaching last September. This list is by no means exhaustive, and these are borne out of experience rather than research; I hope you find it useful.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Micah King and published with kind permission.
The original post can be found here.
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1) How to get started
It’s approaching your first week in the classroom. You have so many things to think about and your to do list is endless (I’ll come back to that!) – what should you make your number one priority in your first week?
In teaching, planning and marking will always top your to-do list, but to any teacher starting in September, I would say that the single most important thing you can do in your first week that will have the biggest impact on your teaching would be this: learn your students’ names.
As a new teacher, your planning and marking will get better over time, but learning your students’ names quickly will transform your practice. The faster you learn students names, behaviour for learning will improve, your questioning will improve, your ability to encourage students will improve because you are nurturing the essential professional relationship that is the bedrock of every classroom.
But wait, I hear you say, how can I learn 100+ names quickly. If you, like me, are hopeless at learning names, then here’s some advice about how to do it quickly.
2) How to quickly improve your subject knowledge
As a starting point, I would strongly recommend looking at the published revision guides for the topics you’ll be teaching. These guides will include a lot of the subject knowledge you will need to be proficient in, and often signpost exam technique and requirements.
Also, websites such as BBC Bitesize and Sparknotes are great places to begin your research. If you’re an English teacher, I also recommend CyberGrammar as a source to improve your grammatical knowledge.
Subject knowledge takes time to build up. You will surprise yourself by how much you will pick up over time. Colleagues may be able to signpost you to useful sources of information – and remember: you will know more than your students.
3) How to make marking work for you
I can recall with painful clarity the late nights in my first few weeks of teaching. Planning lessons can take an age in the beginning, and with everything else we’re required to do, it can be tempting to let marking take the backseat. Especially as marking can consume a huge amount of your time. If you teach a subject where students are required to write at length, you may need to start buying tea bags en masse to cope with the late nights.
However, while every school has different marking policies, here are some simple things you can do from day one to keep on top of marking.
First, start marking in your first week. Don’t imagine you can ignore marking until you’ve got to grips with planning and classroom management. Planning without marking is like planning in the dark; if you don’t look at your students’ books, how can you know if students are learning what you’re teaching them and how can you plan to plug these gaps?
Marking will also help with behaviour for learning. Students put more effort into their work if they know they will receive feedback on it. You will also get to know your students better as you familiarise yourself with the fruits of their labour, which is also key for great classroom management.
Also, plan your marking in advance. I try to avoid asking all of my classes to write big assignments at the same time, else marking becomes a nightmare. If I know my Year 9s are going to write an essay on Monday, I might postpone Year 8’s essay until the end of the week so I don’t have to deep mark multiple classes at the same time.
Finally, mark little and often. Marking feels more manageable when you look at books regularly, which is why I recommend you start early, rather than letting it pile up. You can also do some marking during lessons while students are writing; circulate the classroom with your marking pen.
Before long, you won’t leave home without your phone, keys, your wallet and a marking pen.
4) How to improve your teaching quickly
One of my biggest regrets from my first year of teaching is that I did not take full advantage of expertise surrounding me at school. You will have teachers in your school who excel in the areas you want to develop. Go and observe them! Even better, go and plan with them.
Throughout this last year, I was fortunate enough to work with an inspirational colleague who wanted to co-plan Year 8 lessons together. We both taught top set Year 8, so we would regularly plan these lessons together. This was brilliant for so many reasons: the subject knowledge was deeper as we were able to pool together our research; we were much better at anticipating barriers to learning while we talked through our ideas and on a practical level, a task shared is a task halved, so it shortened the time it took to plan lessons. I know I am a better teacher because of this colleague. Find teachers who are teaching similar classes to you and ask to co-plan lessons together.
I was also hopeless at observing my colleagues, even though my school has a brilliant open door policy. Colleagues would regularly invite me to observe them, and my response rate was poor. In your first year of teaching, you may feel too busy to go and observe colleagues. You don’t have to observe them for a whole hour; find a colleague who is brilliant at live modelling and go and watch that part of a lesson, or find the school expert in starters and pop into the first 20 minutes of their class. I know that observing colleagues is one of my top priorities as I go into the next academic year.
5) How to get students to help you
Before you start teaching in September, it may be worth asking yourself the following question: what routines do I want to establish in my classroom?
Could you train students to hand books out for you at the start of lessons? Could you ask students to take responsibility for checking that the Dictionaries are put away neatly?
As one of my mentors once told me, “you shouldn’t have to do everything alone”. Take advantage of the fact that some students enjoy responsibility and like to help out. If this means you have a slightly smaller to-do list, make it work for you.
6) How to deliver key lesson content
There are a lot of OFSTED myths out there. One is that teachers shouldn’t stand at the front of a classroom and use excessive teacher talk to deliver key content. Instead, students should discover key knowledge for themselves through interactive tasks with minimal guidance. This latter idea is called discovery based learning.
For this reason, I was reluctant to stand at the front of class and simply communicate key information for more than a few minutes at a time. There always had to be an exercise or an activity, else I feared being branded a bad teacher by OFSTED.
There is a lot of new research to suggest, simply, that I was an idiot.
Firstly, you are an expert in your subject. Don’t be afraid to insist on silence for a few minutes and simply explain a key concept. If it makes you feel better, explicitly teach students how to take good notes and ask students to practice note taking while you explain why King James I was demonised by witches.
Second, the Sutton Trust Report states there is little research supporting the effectiveness of discovery based learning. Yes, students should complete interactive and independent tasks, but through these we should be guiding students to understand key concepts, rather than letting them flounder around and hoping they stumble across the correct answers.
Finally, when OFSTED visited our school, the Chief Inspector said that it’s not as important how you teach a lesson, it’s more important that students are learning. He told the story about two teachers, both of whom were Outstanding teachers: one teacher taught a market place activity lesson where students were encouraged to research and communicate key knowledge to their peers, the other stood at the front of the class and clearly and effectively explained how to solve quadratic equations.
So as long as students are learning, don’t be afraid to stand up and be a teacher.
7) How to work with parents
We only see students for 25% of their waking hours. If we are serious about educating children, then it’s so important that we work with parents to help students succeed.
The prospect of phoning home to parents can seem like a daunting task. It can also feel like one of those jobs we just don’t have time for. As ever, teaching is a juggling act, but making time to speak to parents should be one of the balls you should keep juggling into your schedule. So how should you do it?
Your school may have a behaviour policy which means you have to phone home if you want to set a sanction. Yet, even if you are not required by your school to phone home for behaviour concerns, these conversations can be useful. Remember, you might be the subject specialist, but parents are the experts when it comes to their children. If you are concerned about a child’s focus, behaviour, or attitude, approach a parent as an expert and ask them if they have any ideas how you can respond to these problems.
However, some parents only get negative phone calls. This is where positive phone calls are immensely important. Try to catch students being good and reward them with positive phone calls. For one thing, this will help construct a positive dialogue between yourself and your students’ parents, which is invaluable. For another, many of my students are more motivated to receive a positive phone call home than any other reward I can offer.
If you are worried about a particular student’s behaviour and anticipate that you may need make a few negative phone calls throughout the year, it is especially useful to find a (genuine) excuse to make a positive phone call home early in the year. You can then use this phone conversation to prove to the student that they can earn positive rewards in the classroom. It will also show the parent that you do not have a vendetta against a particular child if you are setting multiple detentions, but that you are fair and give credit when credit is due.
8) How to cope with the workload
One of the things that surprised me when I started teaching about teaching was how little I would sit down. One of the other skills I had to develop pronto was the art of stitching together unfinished conversations. The school environment can be so busy that it can be rare to finish a conversation, a cup of tea, even a thought, before you need to move onto the next thing.
There are many skills needed to be a good teacher, but one of the important ones is the ability to be organised. Yet even the most organised virtuoso may still struggle to keep up with everything we need to do. Here are some tips I’ve found useful to cope with the workload:
First, you can’t make every lesson an Outstanding lesson. Students need to make progress every lesson. Students need to learn every lesson. But not every single lesson can be an all bells singing, card-sort, market place activity, interactive whiteboard mixed with 30 differentiated worksheets. I say this because these are the lessons that take the longest to prepare. Set realistic expectations of yourself. I heard a well known educator say that he aims to make one lesson in every four outstanding. Sometimes, students need to listen to you share some content, practice it together in pairs, and then write in silence. In fact, this can be an outstanding lesson. My point is, plan for progress, don’t plan to be bells and whistles all the time, or else you will go mad with the effort.
Second, prioritise. The two priorities at the top of my to do list are always planning and marking. In my mind, I always have a must do, should do and will do list. I have notes on my laptop’s desktop which I use to organise myself. My must dos usually include making sure all of my lessons for the next day are ready, that I am on top of my marking, and any other urgent deadlines did not get done when they were in the should do section of my list. I do not go to bed until my must do list is complete. On my should do list, I have tasks that need to be done but can be postponed, such as the data input due next week or positive phone calls owed to parents of my tutor group. If I complete my must do list in good time, I might try to tick off some items on my should do list. The will do tasks only get done if I have made progress on my previous two lists. Things on this list typically include things such as make progress on the scheme of learning I am drafting over the half term, or investigate school trip opportunities. Tasks might start on one list, but move to a different list as deadlines and priorities change.
Finally, resist the temptation to stay awake until the small hours of the morning. The law of diminishing returns means that there comes a point when you will stop benefiting from continued work because of the lack of sleep you are suffering. For instance, it’s midnight, and you have the skeleton of a lesson plan. But you also wanted to make a card sort activity for tomorrow’s lesson. You need to ask yourself, what will your students gain greater benefit from: a 5-minute card sort activity, or a teacher who’s slightly more alert because they had an extra hour of sleep?
In teaching, the to-do list never ends. You will always feel like you could do more. But the reality is, we’re only human. Make the most of your time, by setting reasonable limits on your time. There is evidence to suggest that if you set limits on your time, you will accomplish more. Let yourself sleep and let yourself have reasonable breaks. It will make you more effective when doing the tasks that need to be done.
9) How to cope with stress
I have written this as a separate topic to the one above, because teaching is an incredibly emotional job. You invest your time, energy and passion into a lesson, so it can be incredibly emotional when a lesson goes badly. You care about your students, so of course it can be upsetting when students misbehave or worse, suggest that they don’t care about their education. Schools can be high pressure environments, so one of my top tips for new teachers is to find ways to cope with the emotional stress of teaching.
Firstly, find people you can emotionally offload to. This may be a colleague, but remember they are under the same stresses as you. It may be better to find a friend or family remember that you can safely emotionally offload to. It’s better to talk through the stress than bottle it up and bring it back to work. If you’re not sure who to talk to, charities such as Samaritans can be a great source of confidential emotional support.
Also, you may want to consider contacting the Education Support Partnership. They also offer emotional support and advice for teachers.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you feel like you’re struggling, then ask for support. If you don’t want to admit you’re struggling, don’t let that stop you asking for specific help and advice. At the end of the day, we can only be effective teachers if we look after ourselves emotionally. Every teacher struggles with the pressure of the job. Don’t feel alone if you are finding things hard. Remember, we’ve all been there; ask for help.
10) How to thrive as a teacher
One of the most important pieces of advice I have been given as a new teacher can be summed up in one word: smile. When I started teaching, I was so stressed, one of my mentors said I looked like a robot.
If you smile, you will create a positive classroom environment. If you smile, you make yourself more approachable as a teacher. If you smile, you look like you’re enjoying your subject, which gives permission and a reason for students to share your passion. Yes, teaching can be hard. And there will be days where you have to smile even when you don’t feel like it.
Even when it’s hard, remember: you’ve joined a profession where you can make a significant and dramatic impact on a child’s life. So enjoy it. And if you feel nervous, fake it till you make it.
Good luck joining one of the best professions in the world.