Lessons from the classroom

Next year will mark 10 years since I embarked on my PGCE.  In 2009 I was an overenthusiastic 21-year-old with an romantic view of what teaching would be like. Since then, I’ve taught 100s of children and held a variety of positions from hapless NQT to SLT. Now seems as a good a time as any to reflect on the last decade and share some of the lesson that I’ve learnt.

1. Keep it simple

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that, 75% of the time, a knowledgeable, passionate teacher, a flip chart and a projector hooked up to a PC are all the resources required to deliver a really good lesson. In the early days of my career, I would spend hours cutting out (and laminating!) endless resources: cards to sort, spinners to generate numbers, bingo boards and cards with Velcro, word wheels etc… These resources created hours of extra work for myself and would often be used once or twice, adding very little value to the learning. However I continued to make them as I was frequently told this way of teaching was “outstanding.” The more laminated shiny resources – the better I thought.

Thankfully we don’t grade lessons any more and it would seem the general consensus about what makes “good teaching” is changing. It’s less about an all singing and all dancing lesson with loads of beautifully laminated resources and more about what the children actually learn in the lesson. (If this hasn’t changed in your school, it might be time to consider changing schools.)

Don’t over complicate it. Just planning, marking and delivering good lessons takes around 40 hours a week so don’t add unnecessary tasks to your workload. Decide what it is you want your class to learn and then think about the simplest way to teach it. Which leads me nicely onto my next lesson…

2. It’s OK to teach from the front of the room.

I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing this ten years ago. “Talk and chalk”, as it is often called, was seen as old-fashioned, boring and slightly draconian. I’d been led to believe that good teaching meant letting children discover things for themselves (using the carefully cut out and laminated cards mentioned in the previous paragraph.)  Depending on which head teacher you ask, good teaching also meant: always working with a guided group, never using worksheets, never being at your desk, teaching using a “learning carousel.”

Only in the last 8 weeks of my career has a member of SLT EVER said to me, “It’s OK to stand at the front of your classroom and teach.”

“It’s not a choice between the two, but if it were the case that you could only ever teach through standing at the front and talking to your class or only teach by being the facilitator for pupils learning independently then standing at the front and talking would have the greater impact. They’d learn more.” 

Top tip: make sure there are students in the classroom before you start teaching.

I was struck by the fact that in a decade of INSETS, training, lesson observation feedback, pupil progress meetings, CPD sessions and courses nobody has ever said that me before. It’s not even been presented as an option. The idea you can just stand at the front of the classroom and tell your pupils the things they need to know shouldn’t be a  revelation but it really was. And best of it all it really works.

Small caveat: that’s not to say my class don’t do group work, role play, independent research or inquiry or have opportunities to create and explore. With careful planning and scaffolding, these will always have a place in my class.

3. There will always be lessons that go wrong

Like most things in life, teaching gets easier the more you do it. After a few years you find your feet and everything takes less time. That said, whether you have been teaching for 2 years or 20, there will always be lessons that go wrong.

It happens to the best of us.

Whether it’s technology failing you, or you find yourself fifteen minutes into explaining how to multiply fractions using modelled examples and simple steps but your class are looking at you like you’re speaking a different language.

Lessons like this do not mean you’re a bad teacher. They happen to everyone and as a profession we’re fairly self-deprecating so don’t be afraid to say if a lesson didn’t work out. Have a think about what went wrong, ask for advice and plan to tackle it again tomorrow.

4. That I’d been doing differentiation wrong

You know how right now “mastery” and “depth” are buzzwords in education at the moment? Well In 2009 it was  differentiation. That meant up to five different activities centered around one objective (and in some cases separate objectives.) There were so many problems with this. Firstly, if you only ever give you put all your “less able” pupils on a “less able” table and give them easier work then they are never going to catch up with the pupils that are “more able.” Secondly there was the awkward situation of trying to divide the class into ability tables. You’d end up with three tables with a wide range of ability that you’d put together as “middle ability” and given them “middle ability work” (whatever that is.) And finally, there was the issue of workload: planning for this took hours and you’d find yourself saying things like, “What activity could the tops do?” rather than, “What do I want my class to learn this lesson?”

Dealing with a range of abilities is a huge challenge but now I stick to the same objective for everyone and my differentiation is the support each child requires to meet that objective. Set the bar high and get every child over it.

5. A change of school is as good as a rest

As someone that has walked away believing, wholeheartedly, I would never teacher again, trust me, a change of school can change everything. There are a whole host of factors that can push teaching over the line from a challenging job to an impossible one: pupil behaviour, pressure for results, the fear that you’re not doing well enough. Nearly all of these factors fall at the feet of your head teacher.  You’re never going to find a head teacher whose every decision you agree with – that isn’t the aim. What you need is a head teacher whose vision you buy into and who you agree with on the “big stuff” e.g. behavior policy, monitoring, curriculum, teacher autonomy etc..

So don’t stay miserable – make a change. It can be all to easy to stay and moan but I find it baffling when a member of staff stays at a school year after year, moaning about every decision the head teacher makes. The times that I’ve found myself being the “moaner” I’ve taken it as a sign that the school wasn’t the right place for me and I’ve left.

“The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.”

Albert Einstein

Albert sums it up quite nicely here. For everything I learn, I am all too aware of everything I have yet to learn. There is every chance that, in a few years, I’ll look back at this post and cringe at my ignorance and naivety but that’s OK. As teachers, we get to start afresh every year: we get the chance to reflect on our mistakes, try out new ideas and hone our practice.

One of the great pleasures of teaching is watching young people exercise their freedom to learn, grow and change. It is a freedom that we as teachers should not deny ourselves.

This must be how people feel when they grow their own carrots or give birth.

When I was a younger I had three ambitions:

  1. To be a teacher
  2. To be an author
  3. To be a Blue Peter presenter

What I like about the ambitions of my 8-year-old self is that they range from very achievable to “highly unlikely.” It’s like I was looking out for my future self by giving myself the best possible chance of achieving at least one of my ambitions. Becoming a teacher was just a case of getting the necessary qualifications and securing a job. Actually staying a teacher proved much harder. And, whilst the Blue Peter dream has yet to come to fruition, last week the advance copies of my book were printed and it’s fair to say I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. I can only assume this is how people must feel when they grow their own carrots* or give birth. It is still really hard to believe that my words have been put into a book that will be sold in actual book shops.

It’s been a long process: by the time the book is published it will be almost two years since I got that first email from Bloomsbury.

There have been a number of barriers to writing this book, none of which were particularly unique but, when facing them for the first time, seemed hugely overwhelming and almost impossible to overcome. First barrier? Finding the time to actually write a book.

Nobody has time to write a book

Some writers have very specific routines and structure their day around writing. Haruki Murakami, for example, gets up at 4am each day and writes for six hours before running 10k or swimming 1,500 metres. Then he reads, listens to music and is in bed by 9pm. Perhaps the only similarity between myself and Murakami is the 9pm bedtime. WH Auden worked best between 7:00 – 11:30am after a strong cup of coffee. He would often continue writing until late in the afternoon but always stopped by 6:30pm for a strong vodka martini followed by a large dinner and copious amounts of wine.

I had no such routine. The first half of this book was written in the first half of 2017 in our attic apartment in Amsterdam. I was writing full time and most days my book was all I had to work on. It was such a luxury: living in one of the most beautiful and inspiring cities in the world with little to do other than research, write and edit. Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 08.43.11At this point I want to say thank you to Village Bagels on Vijzelstraat. I have some very happy memories of enjoying many a goats’ cheese, walnut and honey on a sesame bagel, starting out at the canal and mulling over my mornings writing. By contrast, the second half of this book was written whilst I had a full time job and at one point, was doing supply and living with my Mum before we moved back into our flat in London. During this time I wrote wherever I could.
I wrote on trains, at my Mum’s kitchen table, in Wood Green library, in classrooms at lunch time whilst doing supply, at any cafe with a power socket in the N22 area and later, having returned to teaching full time, in Zizzi on Finchley Road before the school Christmas concert. I used any window of time available. Because the truth is nobody has the time to write a book and work full time – you have to carve the time out. It means saying no to invitations and not seeing your friends and family as much as you want. It means blocking out days for writing and stubbornly defending that time. It requires a lot of patience and understanding from your friends and family (thankfully mine are wonderful.)

Nobody thinks they’re a brilliant writer

The next barrier to writing a book is a much harder one to overcome: self doubt. That nagging voice that tells you that you’re not good enough, your writing is crap and that writing a book is a complete waste of time because nobody will want to read it. To defeat that voice you need several things: an excellent editor, a supportive family member or friend, techniques for telling that voice to kindly piss off.

Earlier this year I emailed my editor Hannah telling her I couldn’t write my book any more. I was completely stuck and thought it would be best if we pretended none of this had ever happened and I’d just run away and forget all about it (or words to that effect.) She suggested that instead I met her for a coffee and we talked through what I felt I was stuck on. A few months later I emailed  her asking her what we’d do if nobody like the book enough to write a testimonial for it. Once again she reassured me that wasn’t something I had to worry about and once again she was right.

If you don’t have an editor find a patient friend who would be willing to take that role. When my editor wasn’t available I was fortunate enough to have a husband who not only is an incredibly skilled writer, but understood the subject matter of the book well enough to make useful suggestions. He was able to be the positive voice that drowned out that nagging negative voice. When he read sections that he thought were good he would say so, when he read parts that needed work he would suggest how I could improve them. Without his reassurance, advice and the many, many cups of coffee he made, this book would never have been finished.

Because one thing I have learnt since I started this blog three years ago is that it doesn’t ever go away – that feeling that your work isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter how many people read what you write, how many people share it on Twitter or whether you have a contract from a publisher – there is always that feeling it isn’t good enough.

What next?

Like my friends and family, my blog has been severely neglected since I started writing this book. Now it’s done my plan is to return to blogging regularly about teaching and education and there may even be another book in the pipeline. But for now we return to Amsterdam, where this journey began, for a much needed half term break.

*I’m told carrots are particularly hard vegetables to grow.