Notes from the Classroom

I’ve now been teaching for three months. They have flown by, but at the same time, I feel like I’ve been teaching forever. I can barely remember my old life as an office drudge; those days of sneaky gossips with the girls in the kitchen, endless cups of tea at my desk while tearing my hair out trying to get bottom lines to balance and spending hours in pointless banging-head-against-wall meetings are long gone. Instead, my days are filled with endless activity that leaves me with barely any time to breathe, let alone have a cup of tea. From the minute I step onto the school premises in the morning, I am besieged. ‘Miss, my locker’s broken! Can you fix it?’ ‘Miss, I forgot my PE kit, can you call my mum and ask her to bring it in?’ ‘Miss, I thought today was yesterday and I’ve brought all the wrong books, what should I do?!’ ‘Miss, I’ve lost my bus pass! Can you help me find it?’…and this is before the bell to signal the start of the school day has even rung!

Over the last month, my main areas of focus have been around organisation and engagement. I was really struggling with making sure that my lessons actually started when the students entered the room. This is easier said than done. When you have handouts to pass around, a register to take and children clambering to tell you that they haven’t done their homework for such and such a reason but they promise they’ll hand it in tomorrow, it’s very difficult to get everyone settled, calm and started on the topic within the first couple of minutes of walking into the classroom. I wasn’t really sure what to do about it, so I observed other teachers to see how they managed. This was a real eye opener for me; no one else seemed to be having the same issue! The students came in, stood behind their desks, waited to be told to be seated, and then got started straight away on the lesson, while the teacher did the register visually rather than calling their names out. There was no chaos, no disorganisation, no wasted time; all of this was just going on in my classroom!

I realised straight away where I had gone wrong; I had failed to instigate a routine. I hadn’t set any expectations, so how were my students supposed to know what to do? Secondly, I hadn’t been preparing the classroom properly. Other teachers had their first slide up on the whiteboard, clearly setting out the plan for the lesson, before the students came in. Resources were laid out ready, preventing the need to spend time handing out loads of paper or distracting students by having them hand it out themselves. As a not particularly organised person, I had not really thought much beyond getting my lesson plan sorted and enough copies of everything printed off. Since those observations, I am now 100% more organised and have copied the trick of having everything set up before the start of the lesson. When the bell rings, I open the door for my students and wish them all a good morning/afternoon as they enter, and then stand at the front of the room smiling inanely until they get the picture and stand quietly behind their chairs. I then refer them to the whiteboard, which has their lesson objective and their starter activity on it, and get them cracking on the lesson while I take the register. So, now, from about 60 seconds into the lesson, I have my students working towards their lesson objective rather than still having them talking and faffing around six minutes later. I feel much more calm and in control, and I know that my students are getting more from their lessons. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t realise how important all of this pre-organisation and expectation setting was! However, because I was so busy focusing on making sure I had planned a three part lesson, was secure on the topic of what I was teaching, had come up with exciting activities for the students to do, and had made my behavioural expectations clear, the issue of getting the start of a lesson focused and productive had slipped my notice completely. The more things I become proficient in, the more I realise how many things I am still useless at, but it’s all part of the learning process!

My other main focus has been working on making lessons more engaging. The more confident I become, the more willing I am to experiment with activities that are potentially chaos-ensuing. I am a huge fan of creativity; I have had great plans from the start of my training to introduce music, art and drama into English lessons, but I’ve felt the need to play it safe in these first few months. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been slowly introducing drama and debate into my classes, and it has worked brilliantly. My younger students loved the debate lesson we had, and as they haven’t yet lost their inhibitions, they were practically jumping up and down when I said we could act out some of the book we are studying. Heartened by this, I tried doing some drama with my older students, but they hid behind their hair and were very shifty about it, so I’m going to have to come up with a new tack for them. I think they will enjoy doing drama eventually, but I need to consider perhaps doing it in small groups rather than having a few students perform in front of everyone. I’ll have plenty of opportunities to try this over the next term, and I’m looking forward to experimenting until I get the formula right. This week I am pushing the boat out and am planning to use music and art to help my younger students interpret and express their feelings about the novel we are studying. I can’t wait to see what their response is; I’m hoping they’ll love it, but I can never really tell – some lessons that I’ve thought were going to be incredibly boring have turned out to be brilliant, and others that I’ve spent ages coming up with really ingenious activities for have fallen totally flat. The unpredictability certainly keeps me on my toes!

So, it’s all going swimmingly; I’m having enormous fun, I’m learning more about myself every day, and I’m able to see my skills improving with every lesson I teach. It’s so gratifying to feel that you’ve achieved something at the end of every day; even if things haven’t gone to plan, I’ve still learned from them and have a strategy in place to improve next time. This constant reflection and evaluation is not something I am used to having to do at work, and I know plenty of other trainee teachers find it frustrating and disheartening, but I actually think it’s brilliant. Taking the time to think about what you do, why you do it and how you can do it better is not practiced enough in the workplace, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with striving to be the best professional, and the best person, you can be. I had always laughed about how rubbish I was at organisation when I worked in an office, and never felt compelled to do anything about it. I just accepted the fact that I was disorganised, relied on other people to remind me of things, and spent many a panicked night working late when I realised I’d inadvertently forgotten a deadline. However, now I am actually being forced to address my laziness in this area, it’s doing me the world of good. It’s no longer an option for me to turn up to work unprepared for the day ahead, and so I have become a machine of precision practically overnight. I keep a diary. I have post it notes everywhere. I have a running to do list that gets updated every night. I wake up at 2am and dive for my notepad with the latest idea I’ve had. I set reminders on my phone. I am ON TOP OF THINGS for the first time in my life and it feels amazing. No longer am I the friend who forgets everyone’s birthdays and is half an hour late to everything. I am a whole new me! Who knows what changes the next month will bring?!

35 comments

  1. Teaching was the hardest job in the world, but I loved it. Even after being retired for 10 years, I still miss my students. They were always one step away from being adults OR being elementary students! Keep the faith!

  2. This post warms my heart, Rachel. Both because you sound so excited about what you are doing and because you have embraced the miraculous efficiency of the perpetually organized. In a life as busy as yours, I am sure your fresh organizational skills will help you carve at least a bit of calm out of the chaos! As always, it is wonderful to hear how you’re doing in the classroom. I always look forward to these updates!

    1. Thanks Claire! Organisation is the key to a stress free life! No longer do I have to constantly worry about forgetting things – I love it! The irony is I am a very tidy – some might say anally so – person, but organising my schedule is a different matter altogether!🙂 Glad you’re enjoying the updates – I love writing them as they make me think about how far I’ve come. Especially on days where I feel like I’ve only gone backwards!

  3. I so enjoyed reading this. It’s interesting to get “behind the scenes” in your classroom, but even more interesting — an exciting — to see how you are growing through the experience. Well done, Rachel!

  4. I haven’t commented lately but I’m still reading. I really enjoy your updates on the classroom. I’m so glad you are enjoying it! I had to laugh at your new found organisation skills! Will I have to stop using the excuse that some people are ‘naturally’ more organised? I just read a really great piece on Anna Karenina on the New Yorker website and thought you might be interested. It is thought provoking and written by a man who teaches the book to students. I know you had put it aside. Can’t wait to read more posts! Lisa

  5. I was inspired to get a copy of DW’s Someone at a Distance after reading your posts.And I am really enjoying it.Just love the way Persephone books look aswell.Thank you.Sue

  6. I taught for 30 years and I always had ideas at 2am and worries at 3am and I had to get up and write them down. Teaching is a job that you never escape from and I still think Should I have done that or Why didn’t I do that. Enjoy your teaching you sound like a wonderful teacher but never get bogged down. Always recreate yourself and try new things !!!!!

  7. Thank you Rachel….this was a terrific post. They all are. I have been following you from the beginning and find it great fun to watch you grow and mature with your ventures. Keep up the terrific job you are doing and enjoy every minute. I wish I could be a student in the back of the room. Continue to write. Question? Would it be possible to write in your post the titles of the books that you are using in the classroom? I would be most interested.
    Sincerely,
    Margo Boylan in Old Forge, NY USA

    1. Thanks so much, Margo – what a lovely lot of things to say. I so appreciate your enthusiasm and support for my writing! Yes – we’re currently doing To Kill a Mockingbird which is brilliant – I won’t be tackling any more novels until after Christmas, so watch this space!

  8. The unpredictability of how a lesson goes never stops as the group you’re teaching always changes.
    Some how I haven’t managed to make the organisation, time keeping & tidiness of school life impact on the rest of life.
    Enjoy December in all it’s end of term manic glory.

    1. The unpredictability never ceases to amaze me!!
      I am doing my best to become more organised…it’s slowly but surely at the moment!
      Thanks – counting down the days!🙂

  9. Ha, Rachel! How I enjoyed reading this, as a fellow trainee-teacher (I haven’t been let loose on children yet although I have been doing terrible things to an adult class) (terrible things in terms of crimes against education, not actual torture or anything). I can definitely relate to the need to be organised. Also having what you think is a brilliant idea, working it all out and then – as last week – it being utterly awful. It sounds as if you’re doing wonderfully, am most impressed at how quickly you learn from your mistakes, I tend to hang on to mine!

    1. Hahaha! Welcome to the club, Helen!🙂 I’m glad the same thing happens to you – it’s pretty disheartening, but all you can do is pick yourself up and try again next time! It’s taken me a good three months to start the automatic processes kicking in and for the same mistakes to stop working their way in to lessons. It does come with time!

  10. It sounds as if you are doing wonderfully well, and you are so enthusiastic and willing to try new things and to learn from others – but your students ‘excuses’ made me laugh because throughout her school days our scatty elder daughter was hopelessly disorganised, and never remembered her PE kit, never handed her homework in on time, and rarely managed to turn up for a lesson with the correct books. What made it even worse was that my husband teaches!

    1. Thanks so much Christine!🙂 Ha! No excuse is a good excuse in my book!! I am always saying to my students…’Does that sound like a good excuse to you?’ most of the time they have to admit that it’s a rubbish one!!

  11. Love reading these updates – they give me hope for the future generations. Kudos to you for giving so much effort for your students!

  12. I so enjoy your posts on school life. Make sure you keep them for posterity, because I know you will be reading them in years to come and noticing a difference. I can even see a book in the future.

    Well done for addressing a weak area and actually changing it. You obviously needed the challenge of teaching to get to the organising that a job in an office was not providing you. Speaks me who is so organised in my office, I know if someone has moved a piece of paper!

    I look forward to your next note!

    1. Thanks so much Jo – I certainly will be keeping them! A book! Well, we’ll see about that!!

      Thank you – yes indeed. I have wanted to tackle my disorganisation for years, but even a short stint as a PA didn’t cure me! The need to be ready when a class comes in has completely forced me to change my ways – I can’t stand in front of 30 people for an hour with absolutely nothing to say!!

  13. Hi there,
    I stumbled onto your blog as I was searching for old classroom photos to use in a multimedia presentation for students. The presentation will contrast “old” classrooms with “new” classrooms that integrate instructional technology, and provide information about instructional technology facilitator as a career choice.

    I enjoyed reading your blog post – although a few clues indicated to me pretty quickly that you’re not in the U.S. I was fascinated by some of your details – particularly the one about the students standing quietly behind their chairs (wow!). While there are undoubtedly many differences between your classroom and those in my district, I see a common thread in your value of reflection and revising your instruction to engage your students and meet their instructional needs. This is a ‘best practice’ that we build into all of our education programs and professional development, as well as an integral component of successful instructional design.

    Thank you for sharing a part of your classroom and showing me something that we in our district have in common with those of you across the ocean.

    I’m very happy for your positive results and wish you all the best!

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