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.

 

 

Ofsted Grades: The Good, The Bad and The Outstanding

Before Amanda Spielman took up the post of Chief Inspector, there were rumours she had plans to shake things up a bit. One example was her views about the “Oustanding” judgement. She told the Commons Education Select Committee, “I’m quite uncomfortable about some of the effects you see it [the grade] having in the system, I have to say.” However, since taking up the post in January 2017, little more has been said about the matter of Ofsted grades – until now. “Ofsted is buzzing with rumours that the grading system for schools is about be scrapped and replaced with pass-or-fail inspections” wrote Schools Week at the end of last month.  If this is true, it will be one of the most positive and significant changes that’s ever been made to the Ofsted framework. The system of grading schools is clunky, outdated and in desperate need of reform to the point that we’ve recently seen schools take Ofsted to court over their judgements, and win. Here’s why these grades need to be scrapped.

1. The problem with Outstanding

I’ve been through two “Good to Outstanding” Ofsted inspections in my career to date and whenever I think back on them I am reminded of this cartoon:

Who's a good boy?

Because let’s face it, we know Ofsted is flawed. We know that schools are more likely to be judged to be Good or Outstanding if they are in affluent areas. We know that primary schools with high numbers of children on free school meals are only half as likely as those with lower numbers of pupils on FSM to be judged outstanding (11% compared with 25% respectively.) We know that Infant Schools are three times as likely to be outstanding than Junior schools because their end of Key Stage data is teacher assessed rather than an externally marked test. We know all of this. It is the basis of much of our cynicism about the Ofsted process.  And yet, if the time comes that our own school is judged to be Outstanding our cynicism is forgotten as we break out the champagne cava left over from the Christmas party, clear a space on the wall for the letter from the Education Secretary and roll out the over-sized PVC banners (please Head Teachers, I know you’re proud but enough with the ridiculous banners.)

And who can blame us? An Outstanding judgement is great news for a school. Following the judgement it’s likely you’ll become oversubscribed. If you’ve previously been struggling to attract pupils you may quickly find yourself at capacity. Well-heeled, middle class parents will go to great lengths to get their child into your Outstanding school going as far as temporarily moving to a house within the catchment area or, should you be a faith school, making a rapid conversion to Christianity. You’ll find it easier to recruit staff and you’ll be inundated with requests from other schools to come and visit in the hope of being able to “magpie” some ideas. The perks don’t end there.

“That’ll shut the parents up for while, we’ve just added a few grand to the value of their houses.” one head teacher told me knowingly, the day we received our Outstanding rating from Ofsted. She wasn’t wrong: within London at least, being in the catchment area of an Outstanding school can add an average of 80K to the value of your property – (estate agents LOVE Ofsted grades.) Such is the power of these judgments.

But the best thing about receiving an Outstanding judgement is that Ofsted then pretty much leave you alone. In 2011, the government introduced a policy that exempts Outstanding schools from further inspection as long as they maintain their performance. This has its own problems. It means there are some schools that haven’t been inspected for over a decade. Which means they haven’t been inspected since the new curriculum was introduced, or the new assessments. It means a head teacher could take over what they believe to be an Outstanding school only to find the reality is very different. Which leads me to another snag with the Outstanding judgement: it can put off potential headteachers. After all there is only one way an Outstanding school can go and no head teacher wants to be the person that “lost the Outstanding.”

However, whatever downside there is to the Outstanding judgement, they are nothing compared to the damage done by the dreaded RI.

2. The problem with Requires Improvement

It is my opinion that one of the most damaging changes made to the Ofsted framework was changing the “Satisfactory” judgement to “Requires Improvement.” Think about what that word, satisfactory, for a moment.

Satisfactory: fulfilling expectations or needs; acceptable.

A satisfactory judgement meant just that: this school provides an acceptable standard education to its pupils. In 2012, it was decided that satisfactory was unsatisfactory and that all schools should be striving to be good or better. A noble intention indeed. But this wasn’t just a discussion about semantics. It was announced that schools will only be allowed to stay as RI for three years – after which they would be subject to regular re-inspections every 12 to 18 months. Every 12 to 18 months: every other school year.

Trying to improve a school with an inspection every other year is like trying to fix a leaking pipe with someone interrupting every two minutes to say, “Is the pipe fixed yet? How much progress have you made towards fixing the pipe? Why isn’t it fixed yet? What are you going net to fix it?” A report in 2017 found that the proportion of schools that had “recovered” from a Requires Improvement was the lowest on record and that doesn’t surprise me. That RI label makes it harder to recruit staff and, because of the endless pressure of regular inspections, makes it much harder to retain the staff you have. The NAHT Recruitment Survey conducted in 2016 found that schools judged Requires Improvement or Inadequate found it significantly harder to recruit staff. This then becomes a vicious cycle because those schools need the most skilled and effective teachers if they are going to improve. The label of “RI” may actually be holding the school back from being able to do the things it needs to do to improve.

Ofsted recruitmentWhich leads to my next point. Having worked in a Requires Improvement school I have seen how difficult it is to make real, meaningful change in such a short window of time. It takes more than 12 months to make proper, lasting change and the threat of bi-annual inspections mean you end up spending most of your time trying to collect evidence that your school is improving rather than putting your time and energy into the things you need to do to actually improve. We knew why our school required improvement and we were very clear on the areas that needed work, however the one thing we really needed is the one thing you’re no longer given under the current inspection framework: time.

3. Removing grades lowers the stakes

Anyone who was teaching in the days when individual lessons were graded as part of an inspection or performance management will know how that one grade will overshadow any feedback. You’d sit listening to the observer talk thinking, “Yep, that’s all great, but what was the grade?” It was a ineffective system that treated trained professionals like children and scrapping it has been entirely positive. Now, feedback after an observation becomes a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson; there’s no judgement, no label, just some things to consider and work on. It’s more professional and more meaningful.

If Ofsted were to stop grading schools, then inspections would no longer be such a high-stake process. If you knew there was no threat of academisation, or the head teacher losing their job or the humiliation of being “downgraded” at the end of it then the whole process would be far less threatening.  If at the end of the day you were left with a list of strengths and weaknesses that, let’s face it, as a school you would already have been aware of, then inspection would no longer be something to be feared.

This is still a long way off but the fact this conversation is even happening suggests Amanda Spielman is listening and understands the need for reform.

 

Testing Times Tables (and Teachers.)

Long Time No Blog

I haven’t blogged since October of last year. This is because any spare time I’ve had, has been spent writing my book. No one has the time you need to research and write a book spare in their day-to-day lives – it has to be carved out by sacrificing other things and using any spare moment that crops up. Staying late for the Christmas concert? Time to write. Got a seat on the tube on the way home? Write. Early to meet friends for drinks? Glass of wine and write. It’s meant seeing less of my friends and family than I’d like and it’s meant my blog has had to take a backseat for the last few months.

But now, it’s done. Well, I say done – it’s currently with my lovely editor who will spend the next few weeks reading through it before sending it back to me for further editing. But, for now, there is nothing more I can do; for the first time since 19th January 2017 I don’t have a deadline looming over me. This means two things: firstly – time to get out of the country for a bit (which is why I’m writing this in Amsterdam) and secondly, I can finally get back to blogging.

This falls at a good time as the DfE have treated us to three pieces of “news” this half term holiday: the first is that they are dropping the two-year time cap in which trainee teachers have to pass the QTS skills tests. The second, was confirmation that the Year 4 Timetables Check is going to be trialed later this year – not really news but, as Michael Tidd points out, it’s a good way to draw people’s attention away from the third announcement. The third, and most disheartening, piece of news is that the writing assessment framework, the one that most teachers widely acknowledge is not fit for purpose, is here to stay.

When the new assessments were launched in 2016 there was a substantial level of criticism. Some said the assessments were too hard, others said that we didn’t have enough time to prepare the children for them. My main criticism at the time was of the writing assessment. It was unclear, included made-up definitions (exclamation sentences anyone?) and the advice schools received on how to administer and moderate them seemed to vary widely.

Since then, some progress has been made to address these flaws. Exclamation sentences have been dropped for example, and, whereas in the former framework teachers needed to have evidence that a pupil demonstrated attainment in all of the statements to reach one of the standards, pupils can now be awarded a standard without meeting all the criteria if they have a “particular weakness.” However the whole framework still lacks clarity. The “particular weakness” exemption can only be used “on occasion” and “with good reason” – although the examples they have provided don’t really tell us “what occasion” or “why.” The assessments have been described by the STA as neither “best fit” nor “secure fit” which I guess means they are unfit for purpose. The assessed work must be independent (a word that we as a profession still don’t have a shared definition for – does this mean no modelling? No discussion or sharing of ideas? What about having  displays up with key vocab etc…) and the spellings can be from a spelling test, the handwriting from a handwriting book etc… Moderation is going to be an absolute nightmare and ultimately the results will be meaningless. Whilst the DfE have tried to make the assessments more flexible they appear to have just further muddied the already muddied water.

Now, about the times table check: on the whole I think this isn’t a terrible idea (which I understand is a very easy thing to say whilst working at a school that won’t have to do the check.) It’s a 25 minute test and the results won’t be published at school level or used by Ofsted – although I do understand why many teachers don’t trust this to be case. However, if it makes learning times tables a priority in lower KS2 then, as an upper KS2 teacher, I believe that to be no bad thing. A secure knowledge of times tables is invaluable for understanding fractions, percentages, division, averages, area, perimeter, algebra etc… Teachers know this and are already teaching them. Every school I know has had it’s own system of testing times tables so I doubt this Year 4 Check will require any huge curriculum adjustments. If anything, I would like to see these sorts of low-stakes, short assessments happening more often in place of one, high-stakes test at the end of Primary school.

My main criticism of the times table check is the sheer hypocrisy. The same week the DfE confirmed the Year 4 Times Table check they also announce that they are scrapping the two year lock-out period that currently prevents trainee teachers from retaking the QTS skills test for two years if they fail it three times. Now, trainee teachers can take the tests as many times as they need to and teachers who have been previously banned from re-sitting will be allowed to from this week. It seems bizarre to me that children don’t get unlimited attempts in tests but their teachers do. Surely we have to be ahead of our pupils and our knowledge and skills should far outstretch theirs? I had a look at the practice papers and there’s nothing on there that my Year 5 couldn’t answer. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the adults teaching them should be to answer them as well.

These tests, we were told, were introduced to ensure we were getting that teachers had the high level of maths and English skills necessary to deliver the curriculum. Given their decision to scrap them when faced with a recruitment crisis, can we assume that the DfE have decided the highest standards aren’t important to them anymore? And rather than address the reason teachers are leaving the profession, or why graduates don’t want to become teachers, we will just make it even easier for people to become teachers? This isn’t happening in medicine or law – they have high expectations of the people entering the profession.

So in my opinion, this is a mistake. If anything I think we should follow Finland’s lead where all teachers have a Master’s degree and teaching is a well-paid, highly prized profession. As a result of these measure competition for teacher training places has risen and, last year, only 7% of applicants to the master’s course in Helsinki were accepted. Raise the bar and make sure you keep hold of those who get over it by addressing the reason teachers are leaving the profession in the first place.

Should Children Be Engaged In Their Learning?

I love Twitter. Whilst Facebook has increasingly become a forum for sharing photographs of children and memes about wine, Twitter remains the place to debate issues, find breaking news and, for teachers, pick up ideas. Whilst I’m not someone who enters into lengthy arguments online, I’m always interested in finding out what’s being discussed on edu-twitter. One debate that continues to rumble on is: should making lessons engaging be a priority for teachers?

Some on edu-twitter argue that children should find process of learning and the content interesting enough without teachers having to make the lessons engaging. And that by insisting teachers find ways to “hook” children into the lesson we undermine the authority of teachers and reduce their status to little more than that of a children’s entertainer with a laminator.

I think part of the problem with this particular debate is that we all have different interpretations of the word “engage.” When I think of that word I think of the definition: “to participate or become involved in.” For me, pupils being engaged in their learning just means that they are actively involved in the lesson: they’re thinking about the subject and actually learning rather than just sat waiting for lunch or wondering if enough time has passed since they last went to the toilet so they can ask to go again.

For others “engaging” has become a synonym for the word “fun.” I personally don’t have a problem with fun being a word used to describe my lessons, if my class have learnt what I wanted them to learn. I have never worked with, or even met, a teacher who would insist that children having fun should be the priority over children learning but I know plenty who successfully achieve both. I agree – lessons should not HAVE to be fun but fun also shouldn’t be intentionally avoided.

Another issue is that, all too often, the word “engaging” has meant “have several carefully prepared resources available in every lesson.” With workload still the number one cause of teacher’s leaving the profession, why would we add to it by asking them to make resources that don’t help children learn any better? Why spend your evening designing, cutting out and making 15 spinners so your class can generate numbers to create their own calculations when you can, in a quarter of the time, find and adapt a worksheet or *whispers it* a text book. I’ve only recently discovered textbooks. This is my seventh year of teaching and never before had I used a textbook. Do I use them every lesson? No. Are they useful for giving my class a list of fractions to simplify etc.? Very much so.

Another issue is it is very easy to engage children in fun activities without teaching them anything at all. In fact, I know from experience, it’s easier to make it look as though children are learning than it is to make children learn. And I’m sure in the past I’ve had wonderful feedback for lessons in which children learnt very little – but my god the resources were beautiful and the children were “busy.” However, I refuse to accept that engaging lessons and lessons in which children learn are mutually exclusive.

I think we’d all agree that the first thought when planning a lesson should be, “what do I need these children to learn?” and the second, “What is the best way for this class to learn that?” And admittedly there is sometimes a tendency go straight to what activity will be taking place in the lesson rather than what those children will learn e.g. “We’re doing Romans this term so we’re going to make Roman shields.” Now there are many National Curriculum objectives that could be covered by teaching children how to make a Roman shield although most of them are from the DT curriculum, not the History one. By the end of the that unit have they learnt to assess sources? Have they learnt to test the limits of what we can know about events that happened 2,000 years ago? In short, have they actually done any history?

When I first started teaching, I used to plan like that. I’d look at the topic and start by jotting down all the interesting things we could “do” rather than everything I wanted them to learn. “Oh we’re doing castles so they could design their own castles, they could write stories about castles, we could even have a medieval style banquet where they dress up, write the invitations etc…” And again there is plenty to be learnt by doing all of those things but I wasn’t thinking about that I was thinking about what those children would enjoy first and what they would learn second. I would spend ages trying to think of the objective that matched the task when the objective should have been my starting point.

Now? I’m currently planning our unit on “Women In History” (1890 -1960) and my starting point has been to jot down everything I want our pupils to learn: key dates, people and events. Now I’ve got that down I’m moving on to thinking about what the objectives are going to be and how I’ll deliver this content in the most engaging and interesting way possible. Some lessons I will be at the front passing on knowledge to the class and throwing out questions to challenge their thinking, other lessons will see them writing and delivering speeches, or grappling with Emmeline Pankhurst’s “Suffragette: My Own Story.”  There will be a debate week in which my class will have to use their knowledge of the suffragette and suffragist movements to build a case to argue for or against the motion: Is Violence Ever The Answer? 

I’m hoping my class will find this topic interesting and I want them to be engaged during the lessons but I’ll be measuring their engagement according to how enthusiastically they learn about the subject matter. Not by the number of laminated resources in the room.

 

Top Tips for NQTs

shutterstock_309235544.jpg

 

My friend Adam was training to become a doctor at the same time as I was doing my PGCE. I remember one conversation we had as we approached our future careers, “The only difference between my last day as a medical student and my first day as a qualified doctor is that I’ll be paid. Other than that I’ll have no more responsibility and I’ll still be heavily supervised.”

This is not the case for teachers. One minute you’re teaching another teacher’s class that has been setup and established by them. The next you’re presented with an empty room that will soon be full of 30 pairs of eyes staring at you expectantly. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find having your own class couldn’t have come any sooner.  By the time September arrived, I’d planned what my classroom was going to look like, I’d read everything I could find on behaviour management and I had a clear picture in my head of the sort of teacher I was going to be (a cross between Miss Honey and LouAnne Johnson in case you’re wondering.) But even Miss Honey and LouAnne Johnson were NQTs at one point and even they didn’t know where the glue sticks were kept so here are some tips to help you in those first few weeks.

Consistency, consistency, consistency

As I’m sure you’ll have already been told, the first half term with your new class is all about setting out your expectations and setting up the routines.  I’m not going to tell you which behaviour management strategy you should use, that’s entirely up to you and you may find your school has an approach they want you to use. All I will say is: be consistent. If you’ve said Sara is going to miss 10 minutes of her lunch break, then she misses 10 minutes of her lunch break, if you’ve said you’re going to speak to Andy’s mum at the end of the day – make sure you do. In the first half term in particular you need to work hard to make sure what you say is going happen actually happens. It’s hard work because the first few weeks are the time they’ll really push to see if those boundaries are actually where they say they are but it is worth getting it right. You’ll thank yourself in July.

Being consistent does not just apply to behaviour management; it is equally true of routines. It can be easy at the beginning of a new school year, fresh from the holidays and full of optimism to try and introduce too many new systems – I for one am particularly guilty of this. Every year I’d come back thinking:

“This year is going to be great – I can’t wait to share all my new ideas with the class. We’ll have one group who are responsible for keeping the plants watered  in our outdoor area, another to take care of the pet hamster, I’ll introduce the bookmark challenge to get them reading more widely, oooo and I’ll have a word of the day board which we’ll look at every morning and I’ll give a sticker to the child that manages to use the word of the day the most effectively, I’ll have an interactive phonics display that I’ll change weekly and every Friday afternoon we’ll watch News Round and discuss current affairs before they go home for the weekend and hopefully they’ll continue those discussions at home. We’re going to have such a good year.”

There is nothing wrong with any of those individual ideas – I’ve seen all of them work really well but do not do what I did and try and introduce everything at once. Otherwise, once planning, marking, meetings, school shows, INSET, data etc… kick in you’ll find yourself with several dead plants, a missing class pet and children saying in March “we haven’t done Word of the Day since Christmas”. Pick a few things you want to try and do them consistently. If you want to introduce something new introduce one thing at time.

Read Up

Despite being an avid reader, I almost exclusively read fiction until I started teaching. It was only when I started wanting to find out more about how children learn that I started to read non-fiction. The wonderful thing about non-fiction is that it can be dipped into as you need it. You can refer to it throughout the year rather than having to find the time in the evenings to read it cover to cover (that can be done in the holidays.) So read. Read the research and the ideas that are out there. Although remember just because someone has drawn a certain conclusion from one study does not mean they are correct. Read widely, try out different strategies and find out what works for you. A good starting point would be: Shirley Clarke on assessment, Bob Cox on teaching reading and pretty much anything written by Sue Cowley.

I’d also advise that before you start teaching a new topic learn as much as you can about it. The better you know it – the better you can teach it. The expectations of Primary maths and English are much higher than in previous years and you may find yourself having to teach things you haven’t even thought about you were in school yourself, particularly if you’re teaching upper KS2. Don’t panic just take the time to learn them really, really well.  If you’re not sure how what the past progressive tense is, or how to plot linear equations on a graph – find out (this is when being in a building with teachers is very useful!) Before launching into a topic about the Romans find out the key dates, names and events and have them up your sleeve.

We had a phrase for this in my first school – Know Your Shit.

Tweettwitter image

If you haven’t already, join Twitter. Books are really useful but on Twitter you can speak directly to actual teachers from all around the world (including the authors of those useful books!) They’re a friendly bunch and will happily share their advice.

My “go to” tweeters tend to be: @michaelT1979, @thatboycanteach @jillberry102, @teachertoolkit, @martynreah, @mattgovernor and @MissMaj_ they’re knowledgeable and very friendly.

Not sure where to start? Have a look at the #EdChat, #PrimaryRocks and #Teacher5aday hashtags.

Eat Your Lunch

Not to sound too much like your mother here but: please try and eat something at lunch time. It can be all too easy to fill up that hour with phone calls, clubs, setting up and sorting out behaviour issues. Take it from me, living off the left over fruit from the snack bowl is not a sustainable model; make sure you eat your lunch and, if you can, get to the staff room. In the right kind of staff room, you’ll be able to develop your relationships with your colleagues and build up a support/advice network it’s also the quickest way to get answers to those little niggling questions like “where do we keep the key for the PE shed?” and “how do I get more glue sticks?” Also the staff room is pretty much the only adult only zone in the school so go and enjoy even just 10 minutes of uninterrupted adult conversation. Teachers are some of the smartest, most interesting and good humoured people I know – get to know them.

Observe

One of the things I loved the most about being an Assistant Head was the opportunities it provided for me to observe teachers. Not formally (although there was some of that) just spending time in other people’s classrooms and seeing what was going on.  Your colleagues are your most valuable resource and you can learn something from all of them so take any opportunity you are given to watch other people teach.

Work Smart

These days most schools are open for at least 12 hours of the day but that does not mean you have to be there all of that time – make it work for you. Last year I used to get in between 6:30 and 7am so I could mark my books – I found that I was often interrupted if I tried to mark them after school. I would try leave around 5pm. Other colleagues chose to come in later and stay later and others came in later, left early and worked a lot at home. You need to decide how you work best but remember the number of hours that you are in the building has no bearing on how good a teacher you are.

Look After You

running

A wise colleague once told me, “You are no less important than the children you teach; you need to take care of yourself the way you take care of them.” I foolishly ignored her and became a martyr to my job sacrificing my social life, health and well being in an attempt to be the best teacher I could be every single day. Here is what I wish I could have said to myself:

  • Leave early one evening a week. (My first school didn’t open until 7:30am so I would often end up staying late. By my fourth year I’d learnt this and would leave at 4pm on Fridays.
  • Not every single lesson will be outstanding. A handful of lessons will be amazing, another handful will be just terrible and most will be good. You might find you learn more from those lessons that go really wrong than you do from those that run perfectly so don’t be afraid of them. Guy Claxton summed this up really well in an INSET: “When you’re making a really good car – you have to crash a few.” When you’re learning what makes a really good lesson you have to have a few complete disasters.
  • Good is good enough
  • I wish I’d overcome my aversion to exercise earlier in my twenties because it is the best way to de-stress. Whether it’s walking, swimming, boxing, running or yoga – it really doesn’t matter. It forces you to take time out for yourself – and it might force you to leave work earlier.
  • You are allowed a life. I remember sheepishly turning up hungover one morning and confessing to the Phase Leader I’d drunk far too much the evening before. “Zoe, you’re allowed a life” she replied with a laugh. I’ll be honest teaching 30 7-year-olds with an awful hangover is a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies so I wouldn’t suggest you do it too often but it will happen and that is fine.
  • Just say no – don’t feel as though you have to say yes to everything. This is a difficult one to master, especially in those early days of your career. I was the queen of enthusiastically saying yes to everything and having an emotional meltdown when it all got too much. Be realistic. If it feels as though you’re already stretched that probably means you are.

Find out how to do the register

My final piece of advice. This sounds ridiculous but on my very first day I merrily strolled into the classroom, sat my new class down and introduced myself. Then I opened the register and then realised I had no idea which symbols I was supposed to be using. Was it PL for packed lunch or D for school dinners? I had to send a patient LSA around to ask for me and by the time we’d done the register I was late for assembly. Not the biggest problem in the world but one you can do without during your first 10 minutes with your class.


 

“Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

Mary Schmich

This advice has been pulled together from my experiences as a teacher and an NQT mentor and of course from all the advice that has been shared with me over the years. As with any advice – you may find some of it useful, some of it needs to be adapted to your situation and some you can completely disregard.

 

So yes, your first year will be difficult at times because starting a new job always is. I remember telling my mentor that having my first class after my training felt a bit like getting into a car thinking I’d passed my driving test and realising my instructor had been using the dual control the entire time. It’s a steep learning curve but it’s hugely rewarding and remember: everyone has been an NQT at some point so don’t be afraid to ask for help.