Notes from the Classroom

Michael-Gove-Education-Secretary

There have been completely justifiable nationwide teacher’s strikes over the past couple of weeks which I fully support. I love being in the classroom. I love the children I teach. They are what gets me up in the morning and what makes my job worthwhile. If if wasn’t for them, however, I would never have completed my training year, because it’s obvious to anyone with a brain that the teaching profession in this country is undermined, bullied and completely discredited by the government, which makes doing our job increasingly difficult. The goal posts change constantly, and the number of boxes to tick seem to grow day by day. The whole system is broken. When I think about the situation outside of my own classroom, it completely depresses me. Which is why I don’t try to think about it very often. However, I am aware that some people find my teaching posts a little naive, and that is why I wanted to focus this month’s teaching post on the negatives rather than the glorious positives in order to give a more balanced perspective.

The major issue, as I see it, is the ever increasing government involvement in how children are educated. Not only do they dictate what is taught, but they dictate how it should be taught, too. Ofsted, the government’s ‘impartial’ inspection body, has a list of criteria by which they judge teachers and schools. Regardless of how happy and successful the children in your classroom are, you will only be recognised as an ‘outstanding’ teacher if you have followed their prescribed method to make those children happy and successful. Lessons therefore become ‘tick box’ exercises, built around what Ofsted wants to see rather than what the children need and want. The decision by the government to publish league tables of school performance means that Headteachers and their ‘Leadership Teams’ are obsessed with progress and standards to the point where children become merely statistics on a page, their personal needs and goals ignored and unprovided for in the relentless drive to secure the magic 100% A*-C to guarantee the best possible position in the league tables. In trying to make schools run like competitive businesses, successive governments have sucked the soul out of education and launched children on an endless conveyor belt of formulaic lessons and relentless testing, none of which actually has their benefit at heart.

I could go on for pages and pages about the incompetence, inflexibility, fear and lack of any creativity or compassion that is rife in our education system, but it would do no real good, so I won’t. To combat my frustration, every day I make a point of staging some sort of protest against the narrow minded and illogical policies enforced upon me by the government. Whether that be something as small as laughing in the face of the three part lesson plan advised by Ofsted and having my students sit on the carpet while we just enjoy reading a book for an hour, with no ‘learning objective’ other than to have a lovely time, or as big as refusing to make my borderline students retake elements of their GCSE coursework because I don’t want them to be made to feel inferior just so that the school can boost its place in the league tables. I am trying, in my own way, to form a resistance. But I know that will never be enough to bring about real change, which is what is really needed. Something has got to give, and soon. Teachers need to be willing to put their heads above the parapet and refuse to give in to bullying. We don’t tolerate it in our classrooms, so why should we tolerate it from our government?

The children we teach are not pawns in an arrogant, egocentric man’s ideological games. Education is not a business to be profited from. There is no such thing as an ‘average’ child who can be pitted against an arbitrary measure of ‘success’. Schools should be places where children are equipped for the real world. They should be free to learn what interests them without the constant pressure of testing and categorising and labelling. The reason why so many children don’t enjoy school or do ‘badly’ in exams is because they are being asked from such a young age to conform to a system that is tailored to an ideal and not a reality. The reason why so many teachers are angry and demotivated is exactly the same. For example, I was once marked down in a lesson observation from an otherwise perfect (my observer’s words, not mine!) lesson to ‘just’ a good lesson because some of my students were talking about their personal lives during an activity. They were completing the activity in the required time to the required standard, and while doing so were having a bit of a chat. It would be entirely unnatural to expect a 15 year old to do anything otherwise, and as long as work is being done, I don’t mind a bit of off topic chatter. However, my observer was sticking to the rules – off topic chat is not allowed. Even if they’ve done their work. ¬†Because obviously we are in the business of producing conformist robots who tick boxes, not interesting, creative, thoughtful and curious human beings who have minds of their own.

I want to work myself into a position where I can stomp all of this game playing into the ground and bring about real change. I want to see schools become places of fun and creativity, where children are allowed the freedom to find out who they are and what they’re interested in within an environment that embraces them as an individual and does not try to force them into a box. I want to see teachers trusted to do their jobs as they see fit, and respected as the highly educated, passionate, dedicated and hard working professionals they are. I want to see children leaving school with an education they can actually use in the real world, rather than a clutch of pointless exam grades that don’t teach them anything beyond how to regurgitate facts and follow rules. I want to see a Royal College of Teaching that oversees the teaching profession, not the government. I want an end to armchair teacher politicians dictating the way our schools are run for their own profit, and I want to see a profession that governs and regulates itself, overseen by highly experienced and qualified fellow professionals who understand what it’s truly like to work in a classroom. I believe it can happen. We’ll see what I can do.

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!

Notes from the Classroom

Image

Today I hit the ten month mark of my teaching career, and I officially qualified as a teacher.

If someone had sat me down in September and told me about the late nights, the early mornings, the endless paperwork, the constant criticism and self reflection, the self doubt, the physical and mental exhaustion, the lessons where everything – and I mean everything – goes wrong, the lack of time to do anything other than planning and marking, the moments of panic when a child comes to you with a problem you have no idea how to solve, the excruciating parents’ evenings when you realise you’ve been talking about the wrong Sophie for the last ten minutes…I would have gone back to my safe office job and never given teaching another thought.

So, I’m glad nobody sat me down and told me the truth. Because if they had, and I’d taken the easy way out, I would have missed the most amazing year of my life. It’s been incredibly difficult at times, and pushed me to the limits of my endurance, but it’s been completely worth every minute. Teaching is nothing like I expected. I thought it was going to be a halcyon world where I would never have a moments’ boredom again. Obviously, I was wrong. Marking was fun at first, but correcting misspellings of there and their gets tiring pretty quickly. The despair that sets in when you get to the seventh essay in your pile of 30 and realise that no one can actually spell Shakespeare and you might as well have been talking to yourself for the last term is crushing. ¬†And I certainly wouldn’t call inputting students’ targets into endless spreadsheets thrilling. Of course, as I should have realised, teaching has just as many annoyances as any other job. However, the rewards it offers are beyond anything sitting in an office ever gave me. I get to be part of hundreds of childrens’ lives every single day, and that is what has made this year so special. The conversations I have with my students make me laugh until I cry sometimes. They’re amazing. They make going to work fun. You can’t ask for anything better than that.

I’m not the best teacher in the world. I still have a lot of learning to do. But I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved in the last ten months, and I can’t believe how much I’ve learned, developed and changed in that time. It’s been quite the experience. And this is just the beginning!

Notes from the Classroom

TeacherAngry

I’m now at the six month mark, and a short placement at another neighbouring – but very different – school has very much shaken my confidence. I have realised that so much of what makes a good teacher comes from getting to know your pupils. In order to discipline or encourage participation, you need to know students’ names. In order to ensure children progress and achieve their potential, you need to know what they are capable of, know when to push them and know when to give them extra support. In order to provide a safe environment where they feel they can experiment, you need to understand childrens’ backgrounds and personalities. Having been in my school for so long, I know my students inside out, and we have a strong relationship because of it. Planning lessons is easy, because I know at what pace my students work, what they enjoy doing, and what will challenge them. In lessons, we have enormous amounts of fun because we can all laugh at each other and our quirky personality traits. Arriving into my new classes, I have been confronted with a sea of unknown faces whose backgrounds and personalities are completely alien to me. I feel totally out of my depth, and that I’ve regressed to the uncertain and inexperienced teacher I was in September all over again.

This hasn’t necessarily been a negative experience, however. It has shown me that I can’t afford to be complacent. Yes, I feel confident in teaching a particular set of students of a particular ability level, but I will not always be in that environment and I need to develop strategies to enable me to provide good teaching to a huge range of children, many of whom will struggle with my subject. I have felt myself feeling incredibly impatient and even angry at times over the past week when students have been relentlessly difficult, and I have had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from screaming or saying something I would regret. It’s unbelievably frustrating to spend hours on planning something, only to have it all go to complete waste. I am not used to children shouting over me, talking back to me or just point blank refusing to do any work. However, I have learned that actually, it’s not all the children’s fault that they behave the way they do. I have planned what I want to teach, and I have tried to create something fun and interesting, but a child’s definition of fun and interesting is very different to mine. During last period on a Friday, all children want to do is go home. Expecting them to sit and concentrate for an hour when they’re not in the right frame of mind to do so is entirely unreasonable. They’re not adults. They can’t control their emotions or reactions. To them, I am just another person who gets in the way of them being able to do what they want. I came to this realisation after shouting myself hoarse by the end of Friday afternoon. Something wasn’t working, and I couldn’t blame it entirely on the 11 year olds sitting in front of me.

After the worst lesson I have ever taught, I kept two of the most disruptive students behind to speak to them. Calmly, I asked them if they understood why I was annoyed. They frankly admitted that they were fully aware of what they had done. I explained that I had spent a lot of time on planning the lesson and that I felt upset that they had not been interested in anything I had to say. I asked how they would feel if the tables had been turned and I’d spent all lesson ignoring them. I saw a light go on. We parted on good terms, with promises of a better lesson next time. However, after they left, I realised that I had spent all lesson ignoring them, just as they had me. I hadn’t bothered to make any attempt to get to know them. I hadn’t stopped to ask why they were behaving so badly. I hadn’t given them an opportunity to tell me what they needed or wanted from the lesson. I had just imposed my way of working on them, and expected them to get on with it. Was it ok for them to be rude and disrespectful? No. But was it ok for me to lose my temper and spend all lesson shouting at them without making any attempt to find out some middle ground? No. I thought I was getting so good at building relationships with students and developing lessons that excited and enthused them, but this lesson showed me that I still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding the children I teach. It’s certainly been an eye opener.

So, every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose. I’ve never been the most patient person in the world, and this experience is proving extremely beneficial in teaching me to step back and see things from other people’s perspective before giving in to my gut reaction. No one wants to be taught by someone who shouts at them. Most disruptive children are disruptive because they have horrible home lives and the last thing they need is another angry adult giving them a hard time. So much of teaching is about relationships rather than academics; you can be the cleverest person in the world, but if you can’t find the time to actually relate to the people sitting in front of you, they’ll learn nothing. Next week, I’m going to walk back into the classroom with a smile on my face and I am not going to raise my voice. If I’m doing my job properly, I won’t need to. We’ll see how I get on!

Notes from the Classroom

vintage-teacher

I am now roughly half way through my teacher training year. At this point, I feel largely competent as a teacher. I have successfully completed two parent’s evenings and been able to discuss their children’s progress without feeling like a charlatan. I am taking a class through their GCSEs and they are producing brilliant work. I am seeing students develop week by week, improving their skills and making massive leaps ahead in the quality of their writing and analysis of literature. My drama class have blossomed hugely; from wallflowers they have become magnificent little actors and insightful critics. Every day I am amazed at the talent of the children I teach, and I feel such an immense pride in them.

This has been the most surprising aspect of teaching for me; I had no idea how deeply emotionally involved I would become with my students. I care about each and every one of them, and I am so excited by the potential they have to become wonderful, thoughtful adults who will make great waves in the world. This is no ordinary job, where you go home and don’t need to think about it until the next day; these children have worked their way into my heart, and my relationship with them is so much more than just someone who chats to them about books. This is the most amazing thing about teaching; you get to be part of hundreds of little people’s lives every day. They tell you things about themselves that they are too afraid to tell anyone else. You tell them things that open their eyes to possibilities they have never considered before. You have the ability to make a child feel worth something, sometimes for the first time. It’s an incredibly powerful responsibility, bound up in so much more than exam results and detentions. Becoming a teacher has, more than anything else, taught me about the importance of taking the time to care.

This month I found out that my favourite teacher from secondary school had died. When my friend told me, I was surprised to find myself welling up with tears. I was distraught to think that this wonderful, vibrant, compassionate and deeply caring woman who had invested so much time in me at school had gone without me ever really taking the opportunity to tell her how much she had meant to me. She gave me the confidence to study French at A Level, and gave me extra tuition when I struggled. When I didn’t get into my chosen university, she picked me up, dusted me down, and told me to apply to her alma mater because she thought I would love it. She was right; I did. She told me that I was brilliant, that she was proud of me, that I was going to go far in life. She gave me the gift of self confidence at a time when I felt anything but. I took it for granted that it was her job to care about me, but now I am a teacher myself, I realise that it absolutely wasn’t.

Teachers get paid to teach and produce results. They don’t get paid to spend hours after school supporting students who need extra tuition. They don’t get paid for the missed break and lunchtimes consoling sobbing students. They don’t get paid for the sleepless nights worrying about kids who are obviously having a terrible time at home. They don’t get paid for spending their evenings checking university applications or coming up with exciting activities to deliver in extracurricular clubs. They don’t get paid for it, but they do it anyway. It’s not in their job descriptions, but they do it anyway. Why? Because they care. Looking back, I can now realise how much I was cared about by my teachers, and it is such a joy to be able to pay that forward to a new generation. In my classroom this week, as I have consoled students, sorted out bullying issues, given extra tuition and run extracurricular clubs, I have often thought about my lovely French teacher and how she did just the same thing for me and my friends, and many more students before and after us besides. She never had children herself, but I like to think that, in a way, part of her is living on in me. Without her, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I only wish I had taken the time to tell her so. I hope she knew how marvellous she was. And I hope that my students will one day look back and feel the same way about me, too.