‘First 25 years’ survival guide.
Some strategies that have worked for me and (almost) kept me sane. You can judge my levels of sanity from the contents of this blog.
In 2013-14, I had the following roles at the same time (and was probably not doing any of them very well)
- Acting Head of Languages (reprising a previous role in order to sort out issues in the language department)
- AST work for Modern Languages across the local authority
- Induction tutor for NQT and GTP
- EPQ coordinator
- Teaching A-Level Media; A-Level media coordinator
- Teaching French and German
- Sixth form tutor (with responsibility for Oxbridge candidates)
I have been teaching for over thirty years, fifteen of them as head of MFL in a non- selective state secondary school for mainly boys with girls in the sixth form. Here are some survival tips based on longevity.
1 The Mousetrap Ring file
I use the lethal ‘mousetrap-style’ A4 snap ring-file as a mark-book and diary planner. This is bulked out with a pack of Rymans plastic pocket inserts for all sorts of documents, bulletins and data. The inserts could also contain light snacks such as Ryvita crackers, nuts and raisins.
I have a termly ritual where I transfer the term’s pages from a current A4 planner into my battered ring file.
I use the bottom of each daily page in the planner for my ‘to do’ list. This section is normally bigger than my lesson plan notes.
I also add evening activities and social events to the space at the bottom of the daily planner page. Apart from school events, this area is sadly blank.
2 Use the breast pocket
I keep a small folded piece of paper in the breast pocket of my shirt for quick notes and reminders. Noting things down on the spot in front of staff and pupils is a way of reassuring them that I might actually do something about it. This pocket also contains my USB stick and also has a capacity to consume pens. Have a large stock of pens handy. If you do not have a breast pocket, you’ll probably need a handbag or a pencil case suspended round your neck.
3 Manage deadlines
Douglas Adams said: ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by’. This does not work in teaching where deadlines and bells govern every hour of our day. I try to work a week ahead of actual deadlines.
Consult school calendars & newsletters with paranoid regularity and double-check dates of deadlines, meetings and evening events. One of the most common sources of stress is double-booking; this is particularly likely when you have multiple roles in school. Playing one role off against another is frowned upon.
4 Combat the curse of marking
Most of your teaching career will involve trying to find ways to decrease the pain of marking and most meetings will be discussions about effective marking.
You cannot avoid marking but there are things you can do to make it a useful exercise.
Mark when fresh and turn it round quickly.
Pupils can do lots of peer and self-marking.
Pupils appreciate, benefit from and deserve instant or next lesson feedback.
Do frequent mini tests on small sheets of paper. These are far more practical than dragging suitcases of exercise books around. End of lesson mini tests make a good learning recap activity and can be a great way of gauging the effectiveness of pupil’s learning. In MFL, tasks could include short vocab tests: as many words/phrases pupils can remember from last lesson, mini paragraphs, small translation or transliteration tasks.
Use departmental marking codes. Lessons can start with pupils writing out their marking codes in full and doing useful, meaningful corrections.
Allow time during your own marking to reflect on pupils’ last piece of work.
Make notes as you mark and give pupils collective feedback from marking. Effective marking often informs the next lesson’s content.
Ensure marking systems allow scope for pupil feedback & a genuine learning dialogue. Pupils should act on marking advice, otherwise you are working harder than they are.
Know your pupils. Marking should inform your knowledge of what an individual can achieve, what they are achieving and the progress they are making. A well-judged piece of work can give you an instant feel for achievement or under-achievement.
Every pupil has their strengths; so set tasks which allow pupils to show off their talents.
Keep to systems but also be free to deviate at times to allow pupils to shine. Give pupils occasional choices of tasks – ‘mild, medium or hot’.
Give frequent rewards for good work and work where pupils have challenged themselves
Know your body clock. Work early morning or late evening, never both.
Work when you are fresh.
Do more onerous tasks when you are at your best and get unpleasant tasks out of the way first.
Set yourself guillotine cut-off times so that you have downtime for family and friends in the evenings. Wear a T-Shirt saying ‘I’m a teacher’ so that no-one will take any notice when you fall asleep in a pub or restaurant.
6 Be a slave … to routine
Prepare lessons and check resources in good time.
Send emails after 7.00 am and never after 8.00 pm. Don’t try to impress others by showing them how late or early you are working.
Try to check emails twice a day.
Delete emails ruthlessly but carefully. Never delete in anger.
Prioritise tasks. You should not need to create tasks for others which are ‘urgent’.
‘As soon as possible’ is the best you can hope for.
7 Be a beacon of creativity and variety.
Allow scope for creativity and variety. Give groups strategic breaks from a diet of ‘heavy’ work: intersperse with display work, games, speaking or listening tasks, online homework, jokes, stories etc
Assessment preparation: think what would help them best e.g a ‘speed dating’ lesson before a speaking assessment.
Build in some stimulating starters, an attention-grabber or talking point. Stretch & challenge by giving an A-level nugget to tempt your GCSE group. Use a Youtube video or an unusual picture as a starting point.
Don’t always be tied to the exam spec /programme of Study. They are your pupils and you are accountable for their progress, attainment and motivation.
8 Your role as a Form Teacher
If you are a form teacher, you should regard this as one of your main roles, not as an irritating distraction from teaching your subject specialism. Think about your form- welfare issues are important. Never underestimate how important you are as a regular point of contact and role model to some of the pupils in your care.
Keep open channels of communications with parents – be proactive here. Introduce yourself at the start of the year. Phone or email for good and bad reasons.
9 Your role as a Middle Manager
If you are a middle manager, work hard to ensure your staff feel valued.
Make time to meet and listen to them. (Not just in the context of those dreadful formal appraisals which have become a blunt instrumental for judging how much people should be paid.)
Keep your staff happy and find as many opportunities as possible to praise and thank.
Do lots of mutual supportive work and observation. Use post-its and postcards: “x is a great teacher because…..”; “these exercise books are great because…. “
Use lots of www / ebi (‘what went well’ / ‘even better if’ activities.
Have regular dept meeting times and a regular slot where you share good ideas and successful strategies. This could be a mutual ego-stroking event where someone reports back on what another colleague has done.
Never give colleagues work to do on a Friday for the following Monday.
Avoid setting next day deadlines if possible. Crisis Management looks unprofessional and causes stress and resentment.
Language teachers beware: Exchanges & trips are a lot of work; manage this carefully. These events are not as visible or as high profile as special assemblies, enrichment day events, plays, sketches and general one-off ‘fun’ etc
SLT want your staff to run trips and exchanges but will often only notice they are happening when something goes wrong. Go for the ‘easy wins’ of competitions, enrichment activities and special assemblies and celebration events.
Think what your staff need on a daily basis. Not just fruit, cakes and biscuits, although these are also important. Department timetables and pupil lists should be easily accessible. Set up a ‘buddy system’ from the start of the year so staff know that there is always someone in the department who they can ask for help or to look after a troublesome pupil. A message board is also vital for reminders, messages and quotations: e.g. “The word which sums up why I went into teaching: ….. August”.
Just as in the private sector, we should regard parents are our main clients and stakeholders. In many ways, they are our allies and we should aim to win them over. We should do our best to convince them of our skills as miracle-makers, exam magicians, social workers, child-minders, psychologists and entertainers.
Always find time to contact parents for good or bad reasons.
Reply to parents concerns within 24 hours (even if you say you’ll get back to them with more details).
Invite parents in to discuss concerns.
Phone parents; but never from home or your mobile.
Haver a regular dialogue with parents. Involve them in their child’s work.
Keep a list of your key parents’ phone numbers
Be proactive. Keep the channels of communication open
Involve other staff such as heads of year, line managers – don’t fight it alone.
11 The work starts after school
Schools are always at their most pleasant when there are few or no pupils around. After school is an ideal time to get work done. A day in the holidays is even better.
Allow at least an hour at the end of the day for:
- routine admin (catching up with registers, rewards and sanctions etc)
- Parent contact
- Checking emails
- Detentions & retests
- Intervention/ support/ revision classes (Remember: you are accountable for your groups’ progress). It is also good if you can share these sessions among colleagues.
Use rewards & sanctions systems fully and consistently. Always write down and follow-up promised rewards and sanctions.
12 – The big stuff
Avoid sending angry emails. It’s best to wait, write a rough draft and send it later… or not at all.
With complex staffing issues, keep a log of events but don’t let matters fester.
Don’t have one big moan at the end of a half term when you are tired and run down; alert SLT in good time and ask for issues to be dealt with at the start of a new half term.
When moaning to SLT, present them not just with the problem but offer a possible solution. Try to see the bigger picture; (try to pre-empt what they might say). SLT will always use the ‘bigger picture’ argument to justify their decisions.
Work with your line-manager. If relationships seem to be breaking down, alert the next in the chain, or a senior colleague you get on with and explain what seems to be happening
Build social time into the school day; the best ideas come from informal chats with colleagues.
Find time to look at Twitter and Blogs for ideas
Manage those passwords – keep a secret list
Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task. ~Haim G. Ginott
A good teacher is like a candle — it consumes itself to light the way for others. ~Mustafa Kemal Atatürk,
Teaching is not a career but a way of life.
Starting a new term is like setting off on a long sea voyage (normally as a sub-mariner)
The best teacher gives pupils something to take home to think about besides homework.