Education, Essays, Teaching Strategies

The first year of teaching: Five things I wish I’d known…

Over September and October I will be publishing weekly articles on effective teaching strategies for trainee teachers and NQTs. This first entry is an broad overview based on my own experience in the profession, but subsequent articles will offer brief (and, I hope, useful and practical!) examples of lessons, ideas, and resources that saved my bacon on more than one occasion! 

Click here for the next article in the series: “Quick and Effective Lesson Ideas #1 – Post-it Pass The Parcel”

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The teacher training year can be, to put it mildly, a shock to even the most robust of systems. To be sure, the joys of teaching are unlike those found in other profession, and working in schools can be – and frequently is – an immensely rewarding experience. There is nothing naive or bright-eyed in the assertion that the humble classroom teacher occupies a position of immense worth, and can make a real, palpable difference to hundreds of lives in the course of a single day. It is a job that matters. Nevertheless, newcomers to the profession are beset with challenges great and small, many of which fall well outside of the remit of day-to-day classroom teaching. On top of learning the myriad skills required to practise effective pedagogy, trainees must navigate a host of extracurricular duties and responsibilities, school idiosyncrasies, and strict personal and professional expectations.

There are, however, a couple of simple steps one can take to make the first year of teaching – and every other year, come to that – more manageable (and, dare I say it, enjoyable). All of the tips outlined below are easy to implement and have the potential to make an immediate positive impact on your training experience, regardless of your specialist subject or the kinds of students with whom you work. Some are, admittedly, commonsensical, but I speak from bitter experience when I say that common sense can become a strained resource in the push-and-pull of the average academic term. With that in mind, here are five things I know now that I very much wish I’d known as a trainee – I hope that they make your own journey a little smoother!

1) It’s who you know…

Your fellow teachers may be a lovely, supportive bunch, but there will inevitably come a time when you run into a problem the likes of which your colleagues’ collective knowledge of assessment strategies and behaviour management techniques is, to put it mildly, a fat lot of good. You may, for example, find yourself locked out of your classroom on a Friday evening, staring forlornly in through the window at the stack of mock examination papers sitting on your desk which must be marked in time for Monday Period 1. Your computer may suffer, and I quote, a “catastrophic operational failure” five minutes before a lesson observation. You may find yourself tested by the slings and arrows of outrageous last-minute room changes, surprise cover lessons, or malfunctioning radiators in the bleak midwinter.

If, like me, you are particularly unfortunate, these things may all occur within the space of a single week.

Fortunately, schools are full of wonderful, helpful people who can make the life of a fledgling teacher easier in hundreds of small but significant ways, and help to salvage even the most hopeless of situations. These people are often referred to as “support staff”, although such a phrase feels wholly inadequate given the vital work they carry out on a daily basis. A more accurate term might be “on-site superheroes” and – and I cannot emphasise this strongly enough – you should make friends with them as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.

Useful people to know include:

  • The Caretaker/s or Premises Team
    The keepers of keys; the menders of things; the transporters of tables and chairs and whiteboards; blessed with encyclopaedic knowledge of the school and its ways.
  • The Receptionist/s
    If you ever need a room booked at the last minute, a student located, or a date checked, these veritable magicians will have the answer at their fingertips. Also usually in possession of a first aid kit or two. Will let you into the building when you inevitably forget your means of identification.
  • The Canteen Staff
    One day, you will forget your lunch, need an edible prize for a classroom competition, or need to appropriate the dining hall for an ad hoc drama lesson. When you do, you will be very glad to know the canteen staff.
  • The Cleaners
    The Cleaner can open doors for you in a pinch, and will also be your first port of call for every instance of lost property. Excellent company during late-night marking sessions as well.
  • The Librarian
    The school Librarian has saved my bacon on more than one occasion. Sometimes by allowing me to bring in an entire class for a “research on the computers” lesson, sometimes by helping me track down resources in a hurry, sometimes by offering valuable conversation and a shoulder to cry on. It is also a truth universally acknowledged that Librarians possess all the best biscuits…
  • The ICT Technicians
    Another such truth goes as follows: any projector or photocopier desperately required for an important lesson, presentation or assembly will, without warning, give up the ghost just as your students are filing through the door. For this reason and many more, your friendly neighbourhood ICT Technicians may end up being the people on whom you call the most. Buy them a very big box of chocolates at Christmas.

2) Learn names (and prioritise that seating plan!)

Knowledge, so goes the adage, is power. The most important knowledge that you can accrue when joining a new school is that of names. Make it your mission to learn the name of everyone you meet, staff and student alike.

As it relates to your colleagues, it pays to be the kind of person who shows everyone the same common decency and treats everyone as worthy of your time and attention, regardless of their professional relationship to you. It’s a marvellous trait to refine as a teacher, and will help you to avoid having to refer awkwardly to someone as simply “sir” or “miss” (a pet peeve of mine – you will be surprised at how often it happens).

The same logic applies to learning the names of your students: “Always use the student’s first name”, writes behavioural expert Dr Bill Rogers, “or ask for their name when giving individual direction” (Behaviour Management: A Whole-School Approach, 104). It’s simple advice, but when it comes to promoting positive behaviour for learning – be it in the context of praising or sanctioning – there is simply no substitute for the tactical deployment of a name. The rugby lads mucking around in the corner might not respond to an uncertain “hey, you two over there” (and in all honesty, can you blame them?), but they have no choice but to acknowledge a clear, firm, “Toby. Eric. *Pause, give them time to react, make eye contact.* Listen up, thanks”. Equally, if Toby or Eric produce a sparkling piece of work that deserves to be sung to the heavens, using of their names is a great way to enhance praise and reinforce their positive behaviour – especially when connecting the dots between student responses: “that’s a great point, Katherine – can you relate that to what Eric told us earlier on?”

Here, the importance of the humble seating plan cannot be overstated. Make one for every class, keep these precious documents safe (I found crafting seating plans on a slideshow to be the best way of managing them), and refer to them during lessons as often as you need to. If you’re taking a cover lesson full of faces you don’t know, go around to each student and take note of who they are and where they’re sitting. Make a show of it – let them know that you’re in control of the lesson, and know who they are.

Lastly, don’t limit yourself to the classes you teach. In my first half-term at a new school I set out to learn the names of five students every day, whether I taught them or not, and used occasions where students were grouped together in assemblies, in the canteen, or on the playground as opportunities to test myself. As a teacher, I prided myself on the fact that I could stroll down any corridor in the building and greet each student I encountered with a smile and their name. That kind of interaction is priceless. Students, like any of us, want to feel acknowledged and respected, and names are an important part of building the kind of positive relationship in which the best learning happens.

3) Plan sequences of lessons  

One of the first things that any teacher learns upon entering the profession is just how difficult it can be to plan effective lessons. This is particularly the case for those who, like me, entered the profession via the Teach First route (a route which, for all of its benefits, may best be likened to being flung out of an aeroplane at 35,000 feet with nothing but a pat on the back and a copy of Parachuting for Beginners with half the pages missing). Between striving to meet and evidence rigorous QTS standards, typing every section of every lesson up in full for the benefit of examiners who may or may not ever read them, and getting one’s head around a frankly daunting weight of course content, the simple-sounding act of “planning lessons” can swiftly eat up entire evenings and weekends – time which would be better spent taking care of oneself. I fell into this trap all too often, and spent far longer planning individual lessons than they would take to deliver in the classroom.

However, the task would have been a lot simpler if someone had told me how to shape my planning to the best effect. In her excellent article, “Effective Planning: Tips for ITT and NQTs”, Mrs Duffy writes:

it’s really hard to break the habit of ‘fire fighting planning’; planning individual lessons the night before and spending longer planning than it takes to deliver the lesson. […] [T]ry to see learning as happening in a sequence that might span more than one lesson.

Mrs Duffy’s article goes on to explain means the means by which this kind of mid-term planning can be implemented within the constraints of specific school policies and day-to-day teaching, and her advice is must-read. As for why this is so important, the answer is twofold:

Firstly, planning sequences of lessons allows you, and by extension your students, to better appreciate the connections between topics and ideas. This is about more than just giving your lessons a comforting shape (although that’s important), it’s about narrowing your focus to develop one key idea per lesson while giving students a sense that they are actively building on their knowledge – something that will make all the difference if your lessons are leading up to an assessment of some kind.

Secondly (and – for the purposes a trainee teacher trying to keep their head above water – even more importantly), sequential planning ultimately results in far less work. The slideshow that you create for the first lesson in a sequence can become the basis for the second and third; you can cut-and-paste information from lesson 3 to create a quiz at the start of lesson 4. Work that your students produce at the end of lesson 4 can be peer-assessed and then improved in lesson 5. And as you build on previous work every lesson rather than trying to reinvent the proverbial wheel each time, the lesson write-ups, reflections, and planning proformas become that much more manageable.

For example, if I need to teach a class to write an essay on Macbeth with a focus on historical context and analysis of language, I might begin with the following week’s worth of lessons:

Lesson 1: Begin with an overview of the coming weeks, then spend the whole lesson learning relevant aspects of historical context. (Planning this will be a little top-heavy, but will pay off before long).

Lesson 2: A quiz based on the facts learnt last lesson. For the main activity, we will read three or four brief passages from Macbeth and identify how they connect to historical context. For homework, students might identify historical connections in one more previously unseen passage, and make a few notes about how these contextual factors influence our understanding of the characters. (And here, dear reader, note how this lesson doesn’t really require me to create any resources that I hadn’t already produced for the previous lesson!).

Lesson 3: Students take out their homeworks and arrange the notes they made in order of relevance to a question on, for example, Lady Macbeth. After some class discussion, we turn to one of the four or five passages that we have now read, and start to analyse the language in relation to the question on Lady Macbeth. I direct students to specific words and techniques, and we decide what they tell us about her character. For the second half of the lesson, students work through one of the other passages and look for the same techniques in pairs.

Lesson 4: A quick test to start – one line is put on the board from a passage we looked at previously. Students must say as much as possible about that line in 3 minutes, referring to language and context. Main task: students are give two essay-style paragraphs about a passage that they’ve read, and asked to assess them based on the marking criteria. Which is better? Why? (I needed to produce these myself, but ten minutes of writing two paragraphs of mixed quality is infinitely preferable to creating another slideshow!) For homework, students will replicate the style of the better paragraph by producing one of their own about a different passage / technique / line…

By now, you get the gist! Subsequent lessons would involve peer assessment of homeworks based on the same marking criteria by which my students judged the exemplar essays, followed by improvement in response to that peer assessment, followed by another quiz, leading up, perhaps, to this very lucky class writing an essay under timed conditions in lesson 6 or 7. In the meantime, I’ve saved time, conserved energy, and caught up on The Great British Bake-Off.

4) Use the resources at your disposal 

This one requires little in the way of explanation. As mentioned above, it’s very easy to find yourself piecing together every single lesson from scratch – especially in your first year or two when you will be teaching a lot of content for the first time without the benefit of previous experience to fall back on. In my own training year, the problem was compounded by an unhelpful training supervisor who insisted that I create my own resources for every lesson, and outright refused to share his own. I would like to think that this kind of “baptism of fire” practice is the exception rather than the rule, not least of all because it in no way reflects the day-to-day business of teaching at all. Experienced teachers share ideas, borrow resources and adapt them, and shape existing lessons to suit their needs (and those of their students). If they can do it, you can too!

Never be afraid to ask for help from anyone who can make your life easier. Ask your fellow teachers if you can borrow slideshows and worksheets to tailor for your own purposes. If you see a particularly effective strategy used during a lesson observation, take it and make it your own! Remember: you are not training to be a designer of endless slideshows and hand-outs; you are training to use the resources at your disposal and teach.

In that vein, here are some superb, useful resource-sharing websites that will make your lesson planning a lot easier:

There are also subject-specific Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags full of teachers willing to share advice, lesson plans and resources. These academic communities are invaluable, and you deserve to be part of them.

There is also plenty of literature available to support you in planning lessons, all of which offer ideas and strategies that you can start to use straight away. I recommend starting with these books by the fantastic Ross Morrison McGill (@TeacherToolkit on Twitter)!

5) Hold the Door

Lastly, the most important lesson I learnt as a teacher is this: teaching, at heart, is all about holding the door, literally and figuratively.

Be the kind of teacher who greets every student as they enter the class, and who says goodbye at the end of the lesson. Be the kind of teacher who gives students the time of day in the corridor. Be the kind of teacher who holds open the door.

Model that kind of simple positivity, because the small things make a huge difference.

5 thoughts on “The first year of teaching: Five things I wish I’d known…”

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