I have officially finished my trainee period and I’m glad to say my first years of teaching have been full of surprising enjoyment. In fact, I would say they have been the best two years of my life. The ghostly warnings of survivors that my trainee years would be full of turmoil and ask me to find new reservoirs of resolve have proved exaggerated.
This is not to claim there’s been nothing stressful. My high point of stress was probably trying to arrange last minute photocopying for a colleague. Photocopying under pressure really is not my strong suit. Anything that combines queues and computers is bound to lead to an inner explosion at some point. It has been challenging, and at times frustrating but by and large I’ve had a blast.
This is largely due to the amazing advice and the support of colleagues of the last two years; I’ve chosen the best bits with a mix of my own tips.
1. Learn the names of your students by the end of your first lesson.
This one is a personal one but I found it really helped. At the start of my first lesson with a class I tell them I will know all of their names. It doesn’t matter if you make a couple mistakes when you go round the room at the end of the lesson- they will enjoy the fact they get to test you and it forces you to spend the first lesson using your seating plan to memorise their names, target your questions and plan your interactions to ensure you are building relationships with a wide range of students. This avoids you only learning the names of the naughty ones/keen ones and it sends a message to students that you have high standards of yourself, as well as them.
At the end of my first year and year 8 was saying goodbye for the summer and said “you’re the first teacher to learn my name by the end of the first lesson.” Its symbolic, but those things really matter to students. Get to know student’s outside of the classroom to build these relationships further.
Another, contradictory, piece of advice a friend of mine said he would give the trainee version of himself: some of the kids won’t like you and that’s ok. A great anecdote from another colleague on the ice breaker game ‘Two truths and a lie’. The student made direct eye contact and straight up declared “I have a sister, I live down the road and I like you. Which one is the lie?’ You can’t please them all.
2. Know the standards and prioritise the standards according to your development needs and school context.
Just like students need to understand the assessment objectives, you need to understand what you will be judged on. Moreover you need to understand the order in which to tackle them- this was the invaluable path set out by my mentors. Setting high expectations and managing behaviour are the first that you have to get right (1 and 7). Then subject knowledge and well planned lessons (3 and 4). Then assessment and differentiation (5 and 6). If you try to get to grips with all of these skills from day one, you will be spending far too much time planning. Give yourself the chance to take risks at each stage- new teachers are allowed to make mistakes, I was encouraged to do so by even the most established members of my department. If you’re school has a particular strength then use that to help you take the risks you need to and get feedback from people at your school who are on top of particular areas of practice.
3. Balance your professional time: avoid the curse of over planning.
A great piece of advice I got very early on. Teaching is a delicate balancing act between planning, differentiation and assessment. There are important sub categories to these but in terms of your professional time you want to, ideally, split it equally between these activities by the end of your training. If you spend thirty minutes planning a lesson and then 5 minutes differentiating it, you are not spending your time in a way that will result in all students progressing. If you have to choose between spending 15 minutes creating slides and 15 minutes finding a suitable article to challenge the understanding of more able students, you should be doing the later as often as the former. A lesson can be three slides long if you have the right accompanying resources.
4. Know what progress looks like for you and make it explicit for your tutors in your lesson observations.
The purpose of a good lesson plan is not to provide your tutor with the sequence of your lesson. The purpose is to make it clear where your lesson is meeting the standards; these standards exist because if you are meeting them, it is likely that all children will make progress within the lesson. Or put another way: if you are meeting all the standards it would be hard to diagnose why a lesson was deficient.
Obviously the key component of this is to listen and act on feedback. Try to separate your emotional feelings from your actions at this point. You may have spent three hours planning it and you may not have felt sufficiently rewarded for that in your verbal feedback. Who cares? Turn up at the next lesson observation with a lesson that explicitly addresses the feedback you were given. Make it clear in your lesson plan.
5. Lessons: watch, copy, and only then adapt.
Educational institutions could really improve when it comes to passing on knowledge. Far too often people work in a bubble and don’t communicate what they are doing in their classrooms. Trainees often make the mistaken assumption that the behaviours of experienced teachers are desirable in trainees but this will lead to a huge and unnecessary pile up of work. For example, producing your own lessons: you will want to by the time you have mastered your craft, but you will be worse at doing this if you don’t observe others, use their work and only then seek to adapt for your own purposes.
The key to making sure that as a trainee you don’t suffer from this is to basically constantly talk about what is going on in your classroom and you will find that people naturally give you advice, give you lessons, give you resources. If you spend your first half term working on your own you will be playing catch up for the rest of the year.
6. “It’s not you teach and they behave, its you manage and they learn”
You’re in charge, the decisions you make will define the culture in your classroom and students need to listen to you. No one is hard wired to behave perfectly and the routines you set up do make a difference. Similarly, there is a big difference between what you teach and what they learn- remember what you are there for.
7. Go home
The single best thing for my state of mind? I left between 5:30 and 6:00 at the latest everyday and I didn’t work at weekends. It was a deal breaker and it forces you to prioritise.