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.

GUEST POST: Coming Out In The Classroom

‘Never discuss your private life’. Along with ‘don’t smile before Christmas’, this is one of the first commandments drilled into you in teacher training, but what happens when your private life is visibly tied up with your identity?

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The summer has been simultaneously shocking and celebratory, with a number of very public tributes to the individuals who campaigned tirelessly for this abolition and those who suffered under the consequences of the law.

Having sobbed our way through Peter Gale’s ‘Man in an Orange Shirt’, conversation turned to how invigorating it was to see these programmes so openly publicised. The current generation of school and university students are growing up in a world which, for the most part, celebrates diversity and acceptance. A world where openly gay characters are portrayed living mundane daily lives and ‘out’ members of the public appear, unclothed, on reality shows discussing naked suitors, with no one batting an eyelid. This couldn’t be further from our experiences growing up pre-internet, when the exposure to LGBTQ+ representation was through the scandalous 5 second lesbian kisses on Neighbours and Brookside, or sneaking down late at night to watch Queer as Folk and Bad Girls.

But whilst we are making enormous strides in our public attitudes, there remains one sector of society which is finding it hard to move on. Whilst individually, the majority of pupils approach life with an open mind, as a collective group, our current student body are producing worrying statistics. According to a 2014 Stonewall report, of teachers surveyed, 86% acknowledged homophobic bullying, 89% say that they regularly hear homophobic comments and language and yet only 43% of these teachers say that they would intervene. Only a quarter of all schools provided clear policies on homophobic behaviour and in 65% of cases, even this is not properly enforced. How are we getting it so right in one area of society and yet so wrong in another?

To answer this, we must look to our own attitudes. I remember one of my peers asking our PGCE tutor about coming out in the classroom and the response stuck in my mind for years. ‘Don’t give the children any more ammunition. They will never respect you again’. I was truly saddened by this response, not because of the negativity towards the LGBT issue, but because of the inherent suspicion and distrust she afforded the pupils. Now, at this stage I was not a misty-eyed dreamer, expecting to be adored for bestowing my pearls of wisdom upon eager young minds. I had had my eyes opened after teaching in an underprivileged and unenthusiastic school in northern Spain for a year and subsequently, working as a language assistant in two local state schools. I had seen horrendous examples of neglect, bullying, and gang related violence but never at any stage did I consider education to be a battle pitting teachers against students. I was shocked by her answer but I wasn’t surprised.

See, my PGCE tutor began her career in 1964 and when she entered the profession, homosexuality was illegal. Over the course of her career she saw the decriminalisation in 1967, worked under Section 28 (prohibiting open discourse about homosexual relationships) in 1988, witnessed the repeal of this law in 2003 and the establishment of Civil Partnerships in 2005. It is no wonder the response to the question seemed antiquated. To some extent we are all guilty of making assumptions based on our own experiences but if these attitudes are presented as lore, we are in danger of not allowing new teachers the momentum to move the profession forward.  They say it takes three generations to change public sentiment, one to rewrite the rules, one to bluster through the change and one to have never known anything different. Yet schools and teaching can be inherently institutionalised and may be in danger of not moving on.

I started teaching in a well-known public boarding school and soon began a relationship with another female member of staff. I heeded my tutor’s advice and, whilst one would always aim to be discrete in such an intimate environment, vowed never to allow this relationship become public knowledge amongst the pupils. My decision was confirmed by comments from a long-serving member of the Common Room that ‘people like you shouldn’t be trusted to work in the boarding houses’ and a close acquaintance asserting that I would ‘single-handedly destroy the reputation of the school’. This led to 9 months of looking over my shoulder and cringing whenever a student mentioned anything LGBTQ+ related. I was never 100% comfortable hiding away, but believed it was the only option.

My attitude, however, changed over the course of one evening. One of the 6th form girls came to me in floods of tears between platitudes and armfuls of tissues, she managed to choke out ‘Miss, I think I’m gay and I don’t know who else to tell. I thought you might understand because… you know…’. My heart stopped. She knew. I felt the floor fall away beneath me but my instincts kicked in, I had to put her pieces back together before I could concentrate on mine. By the time we finished, she was bouncing out of the room talking excitedly about her Oxbridge offer. I however, had never felt so sick and immediately went to explain the situation to the housemistress, an insane but wonderful French woman. Far from the conversation I expected, she wittered on about how ‘delighted she was that this girl could come and talk to me’ and ‘how wonderful it was for the pupils to have a visible, gay role model’. Both tears and the scales fell from my eyes.

Far from protecting myself, I was perpetuating the myth that sexuality is something to feel ashamed and afraid of and was helping drive it back underground. I was standing in front of these pupils every day, encouraging them to be proud of their individuality, but refusing to heed my own advice. If we want our pupils to celebrate their diversity, should we not be leading by example? I promised myself that, from then on, I would be honest and open if and when the matter arose. When we married in 2013, one of the mothers made the cake, colleagues attended and pupils conveyed their happiness and congratulations. Why had I been afraid?

Since then I have experienced, almost exclusively, acceptance. The only negative moment was during a maternity cover at an all-boys Catholic school when the headmaster called me to his office to say they weren’t going to extend my contract as ‘my lifestyle didn’t suit their ethos’. I was, naturally, upset and furious and I wanted to spend months seething and plotting revenge. But I didn’t. That would be letting him win. He had the power over my contract but I refused to give him the power to poison my mood. Ultimately, I now didn’t want to work for this institution and the only person who would be hurt by my blistering temper would have been my wife. So I had a large gin, held my head high and ensured that I was particularly subversive in my final months to help create support networks for those who didn’t fit the mould.

Subsequently, any school I have worked for has encouraged me to be open about my sexuality, embracing the importance of visibility. When I was younger Section 28 was in force and, aside from the locker room speculations about the PE teacher, there were no visible role models in real life. Every year I have a couple of students come out to me and this reinforces my belief that we need to support teachers in being open, with no fear of recrimination. We cannot live in the past, allowing antiquated attitudes and our own prejudices to be handed down from generation to generation. We must help move society towards a place where someone’s sexuality is as mundane as their hair colour.

We are incredibly fortunate to be living in the modern world where many of the barriers have been broken down by those who went before us but, in all good conscience, I cannot say that every member of the LGBTQ+ community lives without fear. Yes, we can now celebrate same-sex marriages, proudly go into adoption and fertility treatment, and live our humdrum lives arguing about whose turn it is to make the tea; but to say that we all live without fear of retribution is to silence thousands of voices. We still read of too many cases of violence being perpetrated against members of the LGBTQ+ community, too many stories of young people taking their own lives through fear of social discrimination, too many examples of individuals being turned away from their families. How do we help close the gap between general public sentiment, and the experiences of thousands in their own homes? Acceptance of homosexuality needs to step out of the television screen and into reality but, to make a stand, we need use the resources available to us. Teachers are one our most powerful weapons in the fight against homophobia and we need to give them our full support to ensure that our arsenals are well stocked.

 

Yes, We Have No Glue Sticks.

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I’ve been away from education for nearly 6 months now and most of that time has been spent abroad; I’ve not followed educational news as closely as I would have done in the past and what’s interesting is how much you still pick up from the headlines. The recruitment crisis is still heavily reported (although I would argue it is more a retention crisis than a recruitment crisis.) Government figures released last month reveled that a third of teachers who qualified in 2010, which incidentally is the year I started teaching, have since left the profession. A third. And that doesn’t include those who didn’t even make it through training. Workload is still a problem and still reported along with the clickbait stories published in the Daily Mail about school uniform and behaviour policies that they consider ridiculous. Message to school leaders: if the Daily Mail think you’re doing something wrong, you’re probably not.

There’s one piece of big news that schools have been talking about for a couple of years now and has only just been picked up by the media: budgets. In his 2015 Autumn statement Osborne (Remember him? Friends with David Cameron? Carried a red briefcase? Had a fondness for cocaine and S&M?) announced that the Government was going to cut the Education Services Grant by 75%. That’s the grant that pays for educational psychologists, speech therapists, physiotherapy, truancy officers, DBS checks, management of school buildings, school improvement and occupational therapy. Gone. Local Authorities used to offer a certain number of hours for free – these cuts means schools have to pay for each service individually. At the same time schools are trying to compensate for the decimation of other state services its families rely on. Gone are the days of Sure Start centres, behaviour support and youth services: schools are offering parenting classes and English lessons to try and help families. Teachers are buying breakfast for children who haven’t eaten since their school lunch the day before. Increasingly, schools are having to appoint their own social workers as local authority provision becomes increasingly stretched; legal services and insurance that used to be provided for free have been cut and those that still exist have to be paid for.

The Government have said that until 2020 school budgets are “protected” which guarantees that schools will lose no more than 1.5% of their income per pupil per year. However this doesn’t factor in any additional costs needed to cover inflation and extra costs such as higher employer NI and pension contributions. This means that, in reality, the actual value of funding per pupil in real-terms will fall by as much as 8% and in some cases more than that. As I said, to those working in schools this is not news; they’ve known this was coming for a long time and have been preparing for it as much as they can. I first wrote about the issue in May in my resignation letter:

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A school in West Sussex hit the headlines last month with their announcement that they are considering dropping to a four day week. In their letter to the parents the school explained that they have made “every conceivable cut” to their provision including increasing class sizes, cutting staff and reducing the curriculum on offer. Closing was very much a last resort. What I always struggle with is that when news like this breaks there is such a lack of trust in the education system that people assume that the situation cannot by this dire and schools are just mismanaging their money. When a doctor tells me the difficulties the NHS are facing – I believe them. I don’t assume that the people who have given their lives to these jobs are doing so to line their own pockets.

In the last six years I’ve seen:

  • Teachers buying stationery for their class
  •  TAs and support staff cut – most schools have one TA per year group or Key Stage
  • Schools renting out the premises after school and at the weekends. This is a good idea but does mean schools are unable to offer fewer after school clubs because there’s a zumba class in the hall. It also means paying somebody to open and lock up at those times.
  • The whole SLT in class. I agree your SLT should do some teaching but a full time class based SLT doesn’t leave much time for day-to-day running of the school
  • Schools asking parents for financial contributions for resources
  • Cuts to the curriculum areas that have resources that regularly need replenishing e.g. art, DT and even science
  • Building work cancelled or “indefinitely delayed” – schools are now having to choose between repairing leaky roofs or buying exercise books
  • Technology no longer fit for purpose. Smart Boards that don’t align, laptops with keys missing and screens that don’t work. Computing is such a vital part of the curriculum and a skill future generations are going to rely on and at the moment there simply aren’t the resources to teach it adequately.
  • Head teacher choosing not to have a deputy head
  • Subsidies for school journeys and trips being cut
  • Reducing site mangers’ hours
  • Cutting job shares – two part time teachers costs a school more than one full time but it also means we lose experienced, skilled staff because we can’t offer them flexibility once they have family
  • Hiring unqualified teachers because they’re cheap – I’ve known several occasions where the cheapest candidate has got the job because the school could not afford the more expensive (read: experienced) teacher
  • Six years of pay freezes for teachers whilst at the same time nearly doubling the contributions they’ve had to make to their pensions

Schools are not exaggerating when they say there is nothing left to cut and they are right to start communicating the problem to parents – the only way to fight this is with parents and teachers working together. Often when parents complained about testing or curriculum changes my answer was,“I completely agree with you and I suggest that you write to your local MP.” It’s the same with this. Parents need to know the cuts schools are making are not by choice – there is simply no other option.

There is an issue with the distribution of funding. A school in inner London receives more funding that an outer London one and substantially more than a school in East Sussex for example and the government has plans to address this. However simply taking from one area to give to another is not the solution here. The Government need to start investing heavily in education. Otherwise four day weeks and unqualified teachers will not just be controversial headlines but the only way schools can survive.

To find out how the cuts will affect schools in your area follow the link and enter your postcode. And once you’ve done that – do this.

School Gategate

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I tried to ignore it. You’d think being in Hawaii would be a enough of a distraction that I’d be able to take my eye off the news.It was the first week of the new school year, I told myself, how much was really going to happen? If I hadn’t already written a post about my views on Grammar schools this post would probably have been about Theresa May’s announcement that she plans to drag us all back to 70s  reverse the ban on grammars. Instead this post is about the other “scandal” to hit the headlines this week.

Matthew Tate, the new headteacher at Hartsdown Academy, made the news because on the first (and second, and third) day of term he and his staff sent home pupils for wearing incorrect uniform.

Generally I’m pro-school uniform on the condition that it is affordable, comfortable, durable and gender neutral. By that I don’t mean skirts or summer dresses. I mean that girls can wear trousers and boys can wear skirts – because it is 2016. The most common argument is that school uniform is a social leveller: when everyone is wearing the same it’s harder to tell who is rich and who is poor. Children don’t feel as though they have to “dress up” to come to school and families don’t feel the pressure to buy the latest trends (are there trends in children’s fashion? There must be. I spent my entire childhood in leggings and over-sized t-shirts so children’s fashion is a bit of a blind spot for me.)

The last school I worked at was Requires Improvement. The first thing the new Head Teacher did was write, and more importantly, enforce a new uniform policy. No more coming to school in glittery trainers or stripy leggings, no more hoodies or sweatbands. For a lot of children, the school uniform was as a physical representation of the school’s values and, when they put on their uniform, it served as a reminder of how they were expected to behave in school. For children who were allowed to hit or swear at home – putting on different clothes helped them leave that behaviour at the school gates. The number of times I’ve said: “When you wear that logo – you cannot use that language because you’re representing our school and we don’t call other people those things.” Call it voodoo nonsense all you like, it worked.

There are strong arguments against uniforms and I know lots of schools don’t have one and that’s fine. To be honest, I don’t really care whether a school has a uniform or not. I’ll never be one to fight for or against it. What matters to me is when a school has agreed what their policy is – they are allowed to enforce it. Anyone who has ever worked in a school will be able to tell you that there is nothing more pointless than a policy that is not enforced. It’s something Ofsted are very interested in at the moment: is the school doing what they say they’re doing in their policies?

When parents send their children to a school they immediately become part of a “Home/School Agreement.” This is a document outlining the responsibilities of the school and the parents. The school will commit to keeping children safe and provide learning experiences that will ensure they make progress and the parents commit to things like: completing homework, bringing children to school on time and ensuring their children are wearing the correct uniform.

My understanding is that the parents of Hartsdown Academy were written to at the beginning of the summer holidays outlining the new uniform policy, including the fact that children would be turned away at the school gates for wearing the incorrect uniform. It should therefore have come as no surprise to those parents that their children were turned away at the school gates for wearing the incorrect uniform. Apparently 20 of those children returned the same day wearing the correct uniform which begs the question – why didn’t they just wear it in the first place? Like most schools, Hartsdown Academy offer subsidised uniform for parents who can’t afford the full cost and they have a second-hand uniform shop. There is no reason for not being able to get hold of the correct uniform, particularly not on that first day.

Whether or not I agree with the actual policy is irrelevant – what I do agree with is a school’s right to enforce their policies without facing backlash from parents and the media. As a head teacher, if you bow to pressure to change your policies  you build a rod for your own back. It would send out the message that the head teacher doesn’t really know what they’re doing and you can basically ignore any new rules or policies.

As one has come to  expect, the response from the public has been completely hysterical. The head teacher has been called a tyrant and a bully by a parents but, I’ll be honest, I’ve seen head teachers being called that for reducing playtime by 5 minutes – yes really. What some supportive parents don’t realise is how many parents there are that will complain about ANY policy or change. Of course it’s not a majority. Most parents are amazing, they do the best they can for their children and work well with the school. However there is always a loud minority who cannot wait to get their complaint in. I’ve had complaints about: playtime being too long, playtime being too short, homework being changed, homework not being changed, PE kit being sent home too often for washing, PE kits not being sent home often enough, too many trips, not enough trips, coat pegs being swapped for lockers, ties being taken off the uniform list and, you’ve guessed it, ties being added to the uniform list.If a school changed its policy every time there was a complaint they would never get anything done.

I have huge sympathy for head teachers – it’s a bloody hard job and you face criticism every single day. Yes, there are some really crap head teachers out there but they aren’t the majority. Most are hard working, dedicated people who are having to act as a buffer between their staff and the ever increasing pressure being put on them by external forces. You cannot please everyone as head teacher and ultimately the final say is yours. Surrounding yourself with a smart and talented team who can advise and, when necessary, challenge you will help but ultimately you have to do what you believe to be right. And you have to defend your decisions almost every day: to children, parents, staff and, occasionally, the media.

I’ll end with a story from my husband Tim. In his first year of teaching his head teacher told him he’d received two complaints about him. One was that he was setting too much homework and the other that he wasn’t setting enough.

On the basis of those two complaints the head teacher concluded that Tim was setting exactly the right amount of homework.

 

 

Top Tips for NQTs

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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.

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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.