Notes from the Classroom

vintage-teacher

My student teacher days are over. Now I’m in the classroom, on my own, with the freedom to teach what I want in the way I think best, without having to tick lots of boxes and document everything I do. It’s wonderfully liberating. I have my own classroom, have chosen my own texts to teach, and have my own classes all to myself. Instead of a bumbling amateur, I actually feel remarkably competent. I can plan a lesson in five minutes, mark an essay in two minutes and reprimand a naughty student while simultaneously making 30 copies of a poem and drinking a cup of tea. I have created a rule of ‘working smart’; I am determined to have a life this year, and am not going to return to becoming the miserable black-eyed zombie with no friends I became during my training.

This means that I have come up with numerous ways to cut my workload, while also providing my students with opportunities to become more skilled and more independent. No time to plan a lesson? No problem. Give the students five minutes to plan it for you, then sit back while they teach the topic to each other. No time to mark 25 essays? No problem. Give them the markscheme and make them mark each other’s work. Don’t want to mark 30 pages of ‘research’ copied from wikipedia? No problem! Make them present it to you, meaning you also don’t have to plan a lesson, then give them a grade for their speaking and listening skills. No more will I be the sad teacher lugging a bag full of marking to my car, and no more will I spend my evenings sitting up until midnight thinking of exciting lesson ideas. The less I do, the more the children I teach have to do for themselves, and provided they are given the right boundaries and equipment to do it properly, they actually gain far more benefit from these self led activities than from me telling them what to do. That’s not to say that I will never mark essays or plan thrilling lessons again, it just means that I now recognise that I don’t need to do that every day, and the learning experience my students have is actually better if I don’t anyway.

It’s strange to look back and think that this time last year I hadn’t even taught my first lesson. Now I can barely remember a life before teaching. I am so happy that I made this career change. It is stressful, it is hard work, and I do find that most days pass in a sort of hazy blur, but it’s a real privilege to spend your days talking about the subject you love most in the world, with small people you come to really care about and enjoy spending time with. It’s also fabulous exercise for the brain; in any given day, I can go from teaching basic comma usage to Year 7s, to analysing a complex poem with my Year 12s, with three novels being taught to three different classes thrown in between. I like to think that this frenetic activity has taught me to become a more creative, thoughtful and spontaneous person. I have also learned that being a perfectionist doesn’t get you anywhere but wide awake in your bed at 2am. The art of letting go is a tricky one to embrace for those of us who love controlling every aspect of our lives, but once welcomed, it’s gloriously liberating. I must confess, I have no idea what I’m going to teach tomorrow. Last year, I’d have been panicking to find myself in this predicament, and have knuckled down at my desk until the wee hours to hash out a series of lesson plans. This year, I couldn’t care less. I’ll figure it out in the morning, after a good night’s sleep and a thoroughly guilt-free evening of watching rubbish TV. What a difference a year makes!

28 comments

  1. Hahaha, I loved grading other kids’ papers when I was in school. And I bet I would have enjoyed making a small lesson plan and teaching it, too, even though I’m an awful teacher. What sort of feedback do you give when they’re teaching the lessons? Do you wait until the end and then say “Actually, kids, it was 1066 not 1088”?

    1. I bet you did! I can just imagine you getting out your coloured pens! Oh, I butt in if it’s going really pear shaped, but most of the time I like to leave them to it, and see if anyone else corrects them first. If no one else says anything, I just raise my hand and ask them a question designed to show them their mistake, and that normally sorts it out!

  2. i am so happy for you that your year of student teaching is behind you. As I read your article I thought about parallels in my life. Although I have children your age, I have been in training to get certification to teach Montessori during the past 15 months. After teaching traditional education for many years, this old dog had trouble learning new tricks. It’s almost behind me, and I too have that glorious feeling of teaching in a way that makes sense, rather than following a script. I can use the best of Montessori methods without throwing out tried and true methods that work. I can also, once again, inject my personality into my teaching. Here’s to a great school year.

    1. How wonderful – I have heard so many great things about the Montessori method. I hope you will go on to have a fantastic time incorporating your training into your own classroom!

  3. I really enjoyed reading this, I’ve just started my PGCE and your piece has reminded me why I’m doing it. Thanks for sharing and please keep updating!

    1. It’s a hard slog, Claire, but it’s completely worth it. There will be times when you want to chuck it in, but keep going! It honestly all comes together in the end.

  4. Good for you, Rachel! This is exactly the approach I use at the university level. I cut myself slack and do not worry too much if I am not sure where the day’s classes will go. Keeps things fresh and responsive and no one benefits from a tired, cranky, overwhelmed teacher aiming for unresonable pervection. Kathy

    1. Thanks Kathy! I think that’s a great way to think of it. Sometimes you need to be free to let the lesson go the way the kids want it to. My best lessons so far this year have been when I’ve walked into the classroom, said ‘what do YOU want to do today?’ and then built a lesson on the spot around what the kids say they want to learn rather than what I think they should they want to learn.

  5. You give me hope! I am doing a primary PGCE and haven’t even started teaching but have a folder of paperwork as thick as I am wide already! Grin and bear it for the year, then I am free? Sounds good to me! Thanks for inspiration.

    1. You’ll get there in the end, Vicky! It’s a very difficult transition and at times you do feel overwhelmed, but you have to keep your eye on the end goal and keep slogging through. NQT is SO much easier so far, but then I trained in school rather than at university, so I perhaps haven’t felt the increase in workload in the same way PGCE students might. Best of luck!

  6. Yes, stopping to be too perfectionistic is liberating, isn’t it? And I really like your approach as it gives your students lots of opportunities to become independent. The sooner, the better.
    During my music studies, I learned: the more the teacher talks, the less the student has space to express his own ideas. Every year in September, I remind myself to keep this simple truth in mind. (But I guess it’s a lot easier in piano lessons than in a classroom…)
    Wishing you a fulfilling and satisfying “first” year!

    1. Thank you, Martina! Yes, definitely – there’s something to be said for being prepared to be spontaneous. I think the less you plan, the better you teach. It certainly works for me. I like to be free to take the lesson off in a different direction. Once you know what you’re doing, it’s much easier to go off piste!

  7. 80% pupils, 20% you. Perfect recipe for an Ofsted outstanding – the work life balance is so so important, but almost impossible to achieve. I do so begrudge that the weekends are just school work from home with washing, shopping and cleaning fitted around! When Ofsted come – hopefully sooner rather than later, they will have to take us out of special measures and then when they’ve buzzed off I am determined to have an approach like yours [ I’m now watching GBBO instead of marking y11books]. Stressed teachers are boring teachers. On a different note, I have just started a staff and parents book club, it seems like a good idea. Keep smiling, and posting!

    1. I’m sorry thing are stressful for you at the moment, Jo. We’re constantly being threatened by Ofsted, but they haven’t turned up yet. Thankfully my school are pretty relaxed about paperwork etc and they like to encourage us to have our own lives as much as possible. Marking is something I am definitely trying to cut back on taking home now – I refuse to take books home, for starters – only essays come home with me, as I really can’t fit those in between other tasks as they require sustained attention in the way books don’t. This weekend I’ve got nothing to do but a bit of planning, and it feels great! That book club sounds fun – maybe I should start one too. It would be great to get our parents more involved.

  8. Some of my best teaching ideas came to me driving to school. It is the capturing of a moment of thought that makes teaching such fun. Always be creative and make the lessons fun as that is the only way you will capture interest. I firmly believe that those ‘over planned’ teachers are boring and stuck on a path which leads nowhere. Be sponatneous – it really works.

  9. Congratulations, Rachel. I know you will be a fantastic teacher, lengthy lesson plans or not. I do so enjoy your notes from the classroom, and hope to hear more of what your students are reading.

    Did I mention I’m reading Code Name Verity? Oh my . . what a read.

  10. So glad you are teaching on your own. I can just about guarantee that you will never find your job boring. You may find it stressful or physically taxing, but you won’t be bored. Students are so interesting. I’m sure that your enthusiasm for your subject translates to a fascinating classroom. Some teachers have very neat and lengthy lesson plans but their students are bored. Spontaneous is the way to go. Have fun with it and your students will too. They will learn something in spite of themselves.

    1. Thank you, Janet. Yes, you are completely right – students are infinitely interesting, and that’s what makes teaching such fun. You might be teaching the same texts, year after year, but you’ll never be able to teach them in quite the same way!

  11. I’m really glad you’re so happy and as a student, I have to say your methods will teach your children more about responsabilities, kindness and maturity than if you sat them through hours of you speaking. I am a university student and while doing presentations I had to call my own fellow students attention because they were talking. I mean, we’re grown-ups, let’s act as such!

    Best of luck with your students and don’t forget to have a life outside the classroom. Sometimes I forget too and I see my world fall apart. Luckily, we both seem to know how to manage things🙂

  12. Obviously times have changed in the UK. When I taught there in 91 and 92, being liberated just wasn’t a choice. The national curriculum completely controlled what was taught and how and even when. We could not choose our own texts and testing and inspecting was rampant. When did it all change?

    1. I think each school is different, Jean. Mine is very flexible – we follow the NC, but we are able to interpret it as we see fit within a scheme of work that covers all of the NC bases. So we have about 6 texts for each year group, and you can choose from amongst those to teach, or put forward a case for a new book if you feel it appropriate. Teachers are trusted to use their professional judgement, which helps! Other teachers I know have to work in much more structured conditions, with every lesson planned for them and no flexibility on the texts they teach. Ofsted-fear is very real, but I don’t worry about all that stuff.

  13. Wait until you get your first Ofsted inspection.

    The morale drops, the inspiration withers, your understanding of what “education” means subtly changes.

    It’s an industry R – subject to the same capitalist, corporate, and politically exploited nonsense as any other social sector.

    Your fizz, fun and enthusiasm is so lovely to follow…so I give you full permission to deny and denounce the incorrigible Bop.

    – bop.

    1. Oh, Bop, don’t worry, I know all this! I just choose to ignore that stuff and focus on my classroom. I don’t care about the rest, because if I let myself care, it will ruin everything, and I won’t let that happen!

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