Notes from the Classroom

teacher

The Christmas holidays marked the end of my first full term of teaching. It’s hard to believe that I have now been in the classroom for four months. When I started in September, I couldn’t even imagine getting through the first week, let alone the first term. There has been so much to learn; not just about how to plan and deliver lessons, but also how to build relationships with students, assess students, sequence learning, manage behaviour and liaise with parents. I’ve also had to learn to be self reflective in a positive way. At first I would feel disappointed in myself when things went wrong, but now I can take a step back and recognise that I am learning a whole new career and expecting myself to get everything right within a matter of weeks is ridiculous. I see mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than reasons to beat myself up, and while I do sometimes have my moments of feeling utterly useless, I spend the majority of my time marvelling at how much I have learned. When I think back to the lessons I delivered in my first half term and compare them to the lessons I have taught in my second half term, I am so proud of how much I have developed and how much more sophisticated my methods of teaching are. What other job could provide so many opportunities for progression in such a short space of time?

I think in this past half term, the most important development in my practice has been in learning to hand over the reins to my students. When I was at school, the majority of talking was done by the teacher. Some lessons, particularly as I moved higher up the school, were more like university lectures, with students just listening and making notes. Opportunities to think for myself were few and far between. Nowadays, things are different. In some schools, teachers are known as ‘facilitators’. Their role is to provide the framework for learning and leave the rest up to the children they teach. This method requires students to work things out for themselves and structure their own learning. They decide what they want to achieve and it’s their job to ensure they reach their goal by the end of the lesson. The teacher is the last port of call; students have to exhaust all other methods of finding an answer (asking friends, consulting reference books, etc) before they can ask for advice.

While I don’t like the idea of teachers being just facilitators (otherwise surely anyone could be supervising the students, rather than a trained professional!), I do think that the theory behind this method is brilliant. If children are going to be adequately prepared for adult life, they need to be able to think creatively and reflectively. Education is not just about regurgitating facts to pass exams, but about equipping people with the knowledge they need to succeed outside of the safe walls of school. I have started providing opportunities for independent learning in lessons, but I know I need to push this even further. I’ve decided to stop setting the targets for my KS4 lessons and from now on I’m going to ask my students to set their own. I want them to think more deeply about what they actually want to learn and how they can go about learning it. As my lesson won’t be geared towards meeting any specific targets apart from the overarching lesson objective, my students will have to take responsibility for themselves and find a way to meet their own targets if there isn’t an obvious opportunity for them to do so within the boundaries of the activities I have set. I’m really excited to see how this will go down. It could be spectacular or it could be a disaster; only time will tell!

Aside from independent learning, my other aim for this coming term is to brush up my Shakespeare. I will be starting to teach several plays to various classes soon and I’m terrified. I studied most of the plays at university, but it’s been about 6 years since I read a line of Shakespeare and I can’t remember a thing. Sacrilege, I know, but I’ve never quite managed to find the magic so many people rave about in Shakespeare, and frankly my enthusiasm for him, as well as the period of history he lived in, is low. All I remember from my days of studying Shakespeare is tedium and anxious checking of glossaries, but I certainly don’t want my students to have the same experience. In order to inspire them, I need to get myself inspired. I’ve started to re-read the texts I’m teaching, and I’ve got a biography that is making me feel vaguely interested in the period, but I’m still waiting to be bowled over. Does anyone have any suggestions to show me the way to the light?!

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?!

Notes from the Classroom

Phew. It’s half term, at last! My first eight weeks of teaching are over, and what a whirlwind it has been! I am absolutely exhausted, both mentally and physically, and ready for a week of sleep. That I won’t be getting, as I’m off to Paris for a few days tomorrow, but never mind; exhaustion is a state I think I shall have to get used to in this profession! I feel like the time has flown, but it also feels like I have been teaching forever already. Since I last wrote about my experiences, I have been given many more classes to teach, had to meet parents, and had to mark a whole raft of GCSE exams. It’s been a steep learning curve and I’ve often felt totally out of my depth, but at the same time, it’s been an amazing experience. When I think back to how I felt and what I knew at the beginning of term back in September, and I how I feel and what I know now, the difference is extraordinary. I can’t think of any other job where I would have learned so much so quickly, and been so rewarded for my efforts. It’s incredible!

I have been teaching a mixture of English and Drama, and I’ve been especially surprised by how much I enjoy teaching Drama. I know very little about theatre, aside from general knowledge gleaned from watching plays over the years, so I felt very uncertain and inadequate at the beginning of term. I thought I’d be totally useless, but actually I’ve had an amazing time. Watching my students grow in confidence and skill over six weeks has been a joy. They’ve gone from being either wallflowers or bouncing balls of uncontrollable energy to accomplished little actors, coming up with their own mini plays and managing to create and sustain characters with only a little bit of direction from me. They can also intelligently criticise one another and make sensible and thoughtful suggestions for improvements. While I have been developing my knowledge, so have they, and it’s been lovely for us all to grow together, while also having enormous amounts of fun!

I’m now also teaching English higher up the school, and having to face the more stroppy side of teenage-dom as the kids get older has certainly been a challenge. My first lesson with my oldest students did not go so well. If they weren’t draped across their desks, sighing about how tired/bored/not bothered they were, they were chatting to one another constantly. Attempting to get on with my lesson, I soon realised that my tried and tested methods with the younger years were not going to get me anywhere fast with this lot. We all suffered through a couple of lessons of me being annoyed and them being distracted until the penny finally dropped and I realised that I needed to change tack. They get bored quickly; so I obviously have to give them a range of activities that get them up and about and doing things. Rather than spending all lesson trying to get them to shut up, I obviously need to set tasks that have them working in groups, so that doing work involves them also doing the thing they enjoy the most – talking! Our last couple of lessons since I worked this out have been wonderful; they’ve stayed on task, produced great stuff, and I haven’t had to raise my voice once. I’m now looking forward to developing a really good relationship with them over the next term, rather than dreading the time I spend with them. The more I learn about teaching methodologies, the better every lesson gets!

Even though it’s only been eight weeks, I am finding a lot of the things I initially struggled with are starting to fall into place. It’s very much a case of trial and error; sometimes things work and sometimes they fall spectacularly flat, but either way it’s positive, because it’s a lesson learned. If a lesson goes terribly wrong, I don’t leave the classroom feeling rubbish at all; instead, I’m buzzing with ideas of how to do it better next time, and can’t wait to try again and see how it goes if I try a different way forward. Teaching can be frustrating, of course, but I can’t honestly say I have had a ‘bad’ day since I started. I am still loving every minute and wake up every morning ready and raring to go. Even so, I am grateful for this little rest, and I shall be back soon with tales from Paris!

Notes from the Classroom

I’ve decided that I’m going to do a monthly post on my teaching course on the blog, both for myself, to see how I’m progressing, and also for those of you who might be interested in hearing about what it’s like to change careers and enter the classroom. Obviously I have to keep everything very general as I can’t mention any specifics about where I am working, but I can still give you a good picture of what it’s like to be a trainee teacher. It’s now been four weeks since I started at school, and I’ve never been happier since I left my own school behind eight years ago. It’s a beautiful place to work; the campus is surrounded by rolling countryside and ringed with trees that are starting to turn golden. Whenever I look outside a classroom window I am filled with joy; it is a world away from the view of dilapidated shops and rubbish strewn pavements I used to have in East London. When I wander between classrooms I can breathe in fresh air, and hear the sound of laughing, chatting children floating out of the windows, rather than inhaling traffic fumes and being deafened by sirens. It’s bliss!

Aside from the actual setting, I love what the job itself entails too! I have a form of Year 7s for registration at the beginning of the day, and I am already involved with their little lives. They come to me in tears or with faces of worry, panicking about forgotten homework or old friends they miss. Others come bounding up with big grins to tell me about how well they’re doing, or that they got picked for a sports team. Usually I end up traipsing after one or two with pencil cases or books they have left behind, and I make list after list of things I need to remember to tell them or of things they have asked me to sort out. I feel like I have twenty eight 11 year old children. It’s a great responsibility, but also a great pleasure. I care about each and every one of them, and I hope with all of my heart that they will flourish and come to love their school days as much as I did.

I have been sitting in on lots of lessons, which has been absolutely fascinating. Even in 8 years, teaching methods have changed massively, and no longer is it acceptable to have a teacher standing and talking at pupils for an hour. Now it’s all about interactivity, and the teachers all work so hard to come up with exciting and innovative activities to get the children learning independently. I’ve loved watching how teachers with a wide range of personalities interact with their classes, and I have been especially interested in seeing how Science and Maths teachers make very complex topics simple and accessible to all abilities. After watching one biology lesson, I finally grasped the concept of photosynthesis, something my teacher never managed to get across to me when I was 16! Coming at education from the point of view of a teacher rather than a pupil is a truly eye opening experience, and it is only now that I am really beginning to appreciate just how much I owe my own teachers for the hard work they put in to giving me such a fantastic school experience. You have to be on the ball constantly, ready to answer a thousand and one questions, motivate and inspire flagging pupils, able to change the course of a lesson and come up with new activities on the spur of the moment if things aren’t going quite to plan, and able to cater for students across a range of ability levels, all while maintaining control of noise and behaviour levels and staying calm and unflustered throughout. Those who say teachers are lazy and stupid and can’t cope in the real world infuriate me; I’ve worked harder in the past four weeks than I did for five years in my office jobs, and I don’t even properly teach yet!

I have started to teach a few lessons now, and though I still feel totally inept and am reminded after each one of how much I still have to learn and improve upon, I absolutely love every moment of being in front of a class. It’s the greatest challenge I have yet faced in the working world; keeping thirty people engaged and motivated for an hour while also ensuring that they have actually understood what I am talking about is really not as easy as it looks. When I plan a lesson, I assume that things will go to plan and what I am delivering will be intelligible to everyone. What I am rapidly learning is that this is usually not the case. The way I explain something might work for twenty children, but the other ten might need some extra help. I don’t have time to explain everything in several different ways, so how do I manage to ensure everyone gets the support they need? Dealing with behaviour is also tricky; I can do a good stare down to ensure quiet when I am talking, but what happens when this doesn’t work? I have already worked out that shouting is not effective; so what other ways can I use my voice to assert authority without becoming a fishwife?

I’m also frequently coming home racked with guilt for focusing too much on children whose behaviour is negative to the detriment of those who are wonderful and should be getting my praise. I teach a delightful girl who does everything she is told and who always wants to chat to me, but because she never gives me any trouble I never really seem to be able to spend much time giving her the attention she deserves. How do I ensure that everyone in my class feels valued? It’s so hard, and I never feel that I’ve done enough. Every day I come home and think about how I can do better tomorrow. It’s not like a normal job, where you can go home and forget all about it until the following day. Something I say or do could have a significant effect on someone without me even realising, and I have to constantly reflect on my actions and think about how I could have behaved differently to achieve a more positive outcome. Every day is a huge learning curve and gives me so much to think about, both personally and professionally.  I have so much to work on, and it is daunting, but it’s also thrilling.  It’s everything I dreamed of and more. I can’t wait to get to work every day, and I never thought I’d hear myself say that! It really is the best decision I ever made, and I am so excited to see what the rest of the year will bring!

You can call me Miss….

I got home tonight, dripping wet after being caught in a rather unexpected hailstorm, to find a letter on my doormat. This was the letter I have been waiting for ever since I applied to start teacher training seven very long months ago. It therefore contained within it all of my hopes and dreams for the future and despite my desperation to know my fate, I found myself absolutely terrified to open the envelope. What if this was the end of the road? What if my dream of being a teacher was never going to come true? I gave myself a minute before ripping the letter open; then, with shaking hands, I read the line ‘We are pleased to inform you…’. I can’t even begin to describe what happiness and what intense relief I felt as those words sunk in. I jumped for joy, I whooped out loud; to be able to have a career I love, to get to teach a subject that has enriched my life beyond all measure, to get to give children the gift of an education! What greater vocation could there be?! And now it is mine!!!

I have no illusions, and I am no idealist. I know enough teachers to know that my classroom will not be a live version of Dead Poet’s Society. I know full well that it will be hard work, with incredibly long hours, and often little thanks. However, if I can give just one child the confidence and encouragement that my best teachers gave me, I know all the hardships will be worth it. Ever since I was at primary school, I benefited from teachers who spotted my love for literature and writing and encouraged me to develop it as much as possible. In my last year of primary school, my class teacher always read my pieces of creative writing out loud to the class, as examples of excellence. My heart would swell with pride at the thought that something I had created was considered worthy of attention and praise. The greatest joy for me, though, was being asked to read the story to the class on Friday afternoons. I remember the atmosphere in the winter most vividly; school was one of those red brick Victorian affairs, with huge gothic windows, parquet floors and rusty cast iron radiators. We would sit, warm and cosy in our overheated classroom, the big windows dark and steamy, with rain tapping at the glass, while I would read out loud. I don’t think my teacher ever truly knew what that meant to me.

Moving on to secondary school, I became a small fish in a big pond, and my confidence suffered. I was used to being the best at everything and, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. That’s where my English teacher stepped in. She noticed the books I chose to read were rather more advanced and she’d give me reading lists to take to the library to expand my horizons. She too would read out my creative writing to the rest of the class and encourage me to push myself further. As I moved up the school, I became known for my writing and my talent was nurtured, encouraged and given every opportunity to shine. I lived for my English lessons, where I could steep myself in words. In those classrooms I was made to feel special and that I had a great future ahead of me. Obviously my parents told me all this too, but somehow when you hear it from someone who’s not related to you, it means so much more because they have no obligation to find you wonderful! It was my English teacher who pushed me to apply to Cambridge, and gave me the confidence to believe that I could be good enough to study there. I wasn’t, as it turns out, but that’s where another favourite teacher saved the day, recommending her alma mater which she thought would suit me perfectly. She was right; I followed her advice and had a marvellous three years. Without her, I don’t know where I would have ended up.

Teachers are often vilified, criticised for working too little and complaining too much, told that they are not ‘cut out’ for the ‘real world’ and haven’t got two brain cells to rub together. The decline of respect for the teaching profession in England is incredibly disappointing when you consider that really, there is nothing more vital to society than teachers. I am enormously grateful to the good teachers I had, who dedicated themselves to their pupils with a passion and always had time for those of us who needed that little extra encouragement to reach our potential. I owe them so much and I hope to be able to emulate them as I strive to do my best for my own pupils. School is about so much more than exams and grades; it’s where children grow into young adults and lay down the foundations of their futures. To be a part of that process in a child’s life is an immense privilege and I absolutely cannot wait to have a role in it.

So, starting in September, I will be a trainee English teacher. I’m doing a route that involves being thrown in at the deep end by training in a school rather than at university, so it’s going to be quite the challenge. However, after several years of dull office jobs that I can’t wait to see the back of, I’m ready!! Woohoo!!!! Thank you all for your kind words and encouragement while I have been waiting…it has really helped to be able to share the process with you, and I have appreciated your support and faith in me enormously!