By: Dr Mike Whalley
Here are ten things I wish I had known when I started teaching. Some of them are obvious but others might come as a bit of a surprise!
All teachers have had their own journey and I am sure each one will have their own ideas. Nevertheless, here is my collection.
1. Most meetings are a waste of time.
They are scheduled to satisfy a checklist to confirm that a meeting as taken place. Meetings take up the time that should be spent with pupils or preparing for the best quality of education that they can receive. Most policies and procedures that are often decided in meetings can be done in other ways.
In these days of advanced communication alternatives this is possible. ‘Zoom’ and ‘Teams’ during Covid have proved this. For example, most staff I remember were happy to receive an electronic draft policy/document that could be reviewed and then returned.
2. Controversial one here. Inspections do not really matter.
Of course, it is important to be graded as ‘Good’ or even ‘Outstanding’ for recruitment and marketing purposes. We can all give ourselves a pat on the back when this happens, but Inspections do not give an accurate portrayal of a school. They only measure the school’s ability to manoeuvre their resources to have their operational and statutory documentation in place and that they have carefully cultivated evidence of pupil’s attainment and progress. They do not evaluate the essence of the education taking place, the relationships being nurtured, the moments that matter, the nuances in a school so important to the education of children in a unique context.
Many European countries rely on a model in which inspections are based on an evaluation of how well the school is doing in comparison to the context, goals, expectations, standards that the school governance has set themselves. How well is your school doing compared to the model you have established? Is it too risky to trust the leaders and teachers in our schools to evaluate their own performance?
3. Know your subject.
Make sure that you are confident that you can answer any questions that may be asked by inquisitive pupils when they are being presented with new information.
Be confident about how you will deliver the subject and how you might adapt when it goes wrong. Learn from more experienced others in your department. Observe how others deliver your subject. Use a variety of techniques when you teach. Search for a wide range of resources that you could use in your delivery.
Admit it when you do not know a topic.
A blurring of tiny fingers on their iPhone or keyboard will give them far more access to a subject than you can muster in your old teachers’ handbooks. The clever ones will be potentially ahead of you thus theoretically making you redundant. Scary, but use this to your advantage by welcoming these opportunities for information gathering and research and channel and include the pupil’s enthusiasm and inquisitiveness alongside the work that must be done in school.
There are many ways to do this by making lessons open to the use of IT, lively debate, and discussion about historical and contemporary topics that all link to a subject matter. These lessons are brilliant to observe and experience.
4. It is all an act.
We do not always feel like teaching with a big smile on your face. However, I was always determined that I was going to try and make my lesson the best experience that my pupils would have that day and tried to instil in how the teachers delivered in my department.
However, if you need to ask your teachers to always try and deliver excellent lessons there is something wrong. Show your enthusiasm and passion for your subject from the beginning to the end of the lesson. Be excited, happy, enthusiastic, serious, direct, motivated, critical in equal measures depending on the climate of the classroom. I am a quiet, placid man by nature, but at times I needed to show the pupils that I was incredibly pleased or unhappy about the situation in a class, or with individuals on a constant basis through a school day. Having said this, pupils do not like inconsistency in a teacher’s behaviour. It is always better to remain calm in most situations, but there is a need to vent or enthuse at times.
5. Sweat on the small stuff. The details matter.
Being prepared for lessons, being on time, insisting on certain routines in lessons, dressing appropriately, not eating or drinking (as the pupils probably are not allowed to), pupils appropriately dressed, adhering to mobile phone policy, pupils entering and exiting lessons properly, manners, politeness all might seem petty when seen written here, but on the long term are really appropriate.
All these things were instilled as vital when I first started teaching. Many small things have slipped, and I have seen such standards drop in pupils and staff alike. I appreciate that not all school environments are the same but concentrating on the intricate details that matter to a school, department and individual teacher will really have an impact long term.
6. Always have a plan B, or C or D.
Some do, but most lessons rarely go as planned.
Always plan for the what if. Some of the best lessons I have taught were ones in which I changed tack halfway though. The ability to change a lesson will be learnt over time but is an essential skill. Pupils will also naturally acknowledge when a teacher has shown the instinct and skill to move on from a topic to another or change direction completely. It shows that you know how to control the teaching environment and are comfortable enough with a subject to move from one area to another.
The worst lessons are where they fail to make progress, lack pace and intensity and flounder with pupils obviously losing interest, concentration and engagement and teachers desperately trying to maintain control over a ship running aground.
Adapt to survive.
7. Communicate… at all levels.
With colleagues, management, parents, pupils, support staff and everyone else involved in the education process. Share thoughts and feelings with those you feel you can trust. Learn how to communicate your ideas, abilities, thoughts, and feelings to a wide range of audiences without appearing overbearing or meddlesome.
When I first started teaching my natural reticence to push myself froward was construed as not being interested when it was a determined effort not to appear to be arrogant or disrespectful to those far more experienced or in more senior positions. Later in my career I always tried to feed off the younger newest members of staff who had latest ideas, fresh approaches and more up to date subject knowledge. It is also vital to be able to communicate with pupils in the presentation of your subject, pastoral matters, and other areas of school life.
The ability to have a discussion with a pupil is a very skilled process. It must be done correctly and appropriately, but when done so is a vital part of the process. Gone are the days of them and us, where pupils should not talk to staff as it appears disrespectful. The ability to communicate with parents is also an underrated skill.
The best advice I heard was to communicate problems with pupils with parents at the first opportunity. Most parents appreciate early contact rather than letting matters progress too long. Most parents are also quote reasonable and supportive when early contact is made. There is still a reluctance for teachers not to want to contact parents in fear of a confrontation, or through a belief that their responsibility does not extend beyond the classroom. These teachers have problems with children and then even more severe problems with parents ate parents’ evenings when they only then find out that their child has had problems in the class. An awful situation that could have been avoided.
8. Do not break promises.
If you say you are going to do something, do it.
If you threaten a punishment and there is not the necessary reaction, punish. If you promise a reward, reward. If you promise an extra revision session, or meeting, or practice, or anything extraordinary, deliver.
Coming through on promises makes such an enormous difference to the pupils and parents. Failure to deliver promises undermines you and lets others down. Pupils lose their trust in you and regard you as unreliable. If you follow through with a punishment, the pupil might hate you at first, but will respect your sincerity in the long run.
9. Be honest, and care.
Children know when their teacher cares. They will put up with a teacher being disorganised, or a little maverick at times, if they care. We all remember those teachers that cared. They cared that we made progress on our studies. They cared that we were well behaved, polite and had manners, they cared that we had the opportunity to take part in a various range of activities that a school could offer. They cared that our home life and support was good enough. They cared that we could talk to them when in trouble or to seek their advice when we were unsure.
Be one of these teachers.
Pupils also know when a teacher is being honest. Sometimes the truth hurts, but if a pupil’s behaviour or work is unacceptable, or fantastic, tell them. There is a way of doing this which requires skill and experience to have impact but is so important. I feared this process when I was a younger teacher and cringed at the thought of telling a pupil some negative home truth. However, this skill developed, and I recognised how important it was over time. It is even more important in these days to expose children to the truth. They are exposed to so much unreliable information via social media that the truth is often blurred. It is our job to make sure that their time in school is an honest and truthful experience.
And the rules of honesty and truthfulness also applies to staff and management.
10. A good staffroom is vital.
An old sage told me when I first started teaching that the secret to a good school is a good staffroom. I was not sure what this meant. Was it how comfortable it was with nice comfortable seats, tasteful decoration, and free drinks? No. It was how the staff got on with each other, how supportive they were of each other as individuals and how cooperative they were of each different department. A poor staffroom is the opposite. Staff do not cooperate with each other and are actively obstructive to other departments. Jealousy and petty arguments, more appropriate in the playground, are rife. All the demanding work in these schools is done by disproportionally few members of staff. Go to the other part of school and get on with the caretaker. If he/she likes you he will sort out your problems quickly with you. If he does not, you will have a cold classroom, wet floor, broken chairs and tables, dead electric sockets, and a strange smell from behind the radiator. I loved our caretaker in my first school. He looked after me in school and as I settled into my new home locally. We remain friends thirty odd years later.
Also, be nice to the office, admin, finance, and other support staff. They keep the school running and are not just servants to teachers. They can be awkward and sometimes difficult but deserve feel supported. If they are on your side all your administrative, IT support, financial and secretarial worries are eased. If they do not like you because you have been arrogant and dismissive you’ve as much chance of their timely help as cracking the enigma code.
Good luck. Computer says no…. literally.
By: Dr Mike Whalley
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