The Journey So Far…

As it’s the Easter holidays, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on the last seven months and think about how far I’ve come.

I joined the ARK teacher training programme because I found their vision inspirational: to combat educational inequality by establishing a network of outstanding schools in some of the UK’s most deprived areas. However, I don’t think I was really prepared for the reality of working in such an environment.

Whenever I told people that I was going to become a teacher, they were really positive and always said what a great teacher they thought I’d make. One of my colleagues sent me a lovely note saying: “Good luck. You’ll be a great teacher. The children will be very lucky to have you. I think you’re principled, funny and engaging and they will love that.” All of these comments filled me with confidence and assured me I was doing the right thing.

So you can imagine my shock when, come September, I was standing in front of my classes, doing my upmost to make them be quiet but ultimately failing. It was embarrassing. How was this happening? I thought my students would love having a fresh, young teacher but instead, they sensed my nerves and took full advantage!

I never thought I would be one of those teachers who couldn’t control their class; I thought that was reserved for teachers who had the wrong image, a weak voice and no personality, but that Autumn term was a battle. A battle to get the students to come into class respectfully, to not talk over me when I was trying to teach and to work in silence when I asked them to. It also showed me that behaviour management isn’t all about personality, rather it’s a skill you can learn through training and then set about applying.

By the end of the term I was quite demoralised. The whole point of working in a deprived area was to make a difference; what was the point if I couldn’t get through to all of the students and help them progress? Yes, some of the students hung on my every word, but I wanted them all to! You can imagine how I felt when I was told that I was going to be taking on another class in January: the notorious 9D.

Year 9 have a reputation for being difficult: their hormones are raging and they’ve been at the school long enough to have found their feet. Add to the mix the fact that this is a low attaining class and I thought this could be a recipe for disaster – I wasn’t looking forward to this new challenge but agreed to take it on.

Over the Christmas holidays I did a lot of reflecting about the past term: what I’d done well and what I could have done better (What Went Well / Even Better If to use ARK feedback speak). What mistakes had I made in September that I could address with this new class in January? I realised I’d been far too smiley to begin with; I should have been stricter initially and then gradually have become more relaxed. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.

I also reread my notes I made at the ARK summit in October when I heard Tom Bennett speak. The ARK summit happens once a year and is an event where the staff from all 27 ARK schools come together and celebrate successes and attend workshops.

Tom Bennett is a teacher in London who has made a name for himself as a behaviour guru. After 10 years working in the night clubs of Soho, Tom thought the transition into teaching would be smooth. He was horrified in his first lesson when a child asked him his name, to which he answered, to which the student replied “F*** you, Mr Bennett!” Tom learnt the hard way but now people seek his advice, and I can honestly say he is the most engaging, hilarious and inspirational speaker I’ve ever listened to.

So I bet you’re wondering how things turned out with 9D? Well, I think taking on that class has been the making of me. I went in with an authoritative tone but also tried to buy into their hearts a bit by telling them how much their progress mattered to me. They do have the odd day when they’re not focussed, but in general I feel that a lot of progress takes place in lessons and I enjoy teaching them. It also helps that their previous teacher was the Head of Department, and my mentor, who also happens to be the holder of ARK’s Most Outstanding Teacher of the Year award! She had instilled confidence in them and a desire to succeed.

As for my other classes, they’ve improved too as I think the confidence I’ve gained from taking over 9D has made me more assertive in general. The students respect me more and we’ve forged relationships. There are some students who I feared I would never get through to who are now showing a real appetite for learning

While these last seven months have undoubtedly been tough, there have been some wonderful moments too, here are some of them:

 

  • A student writing me a letter telling me how much she enjoys my lessons.
  • Taking a group of students to the Southampton Daily Echo where they met the editor and learnt all about how a newspaper is put together.
  • Marking work where I can clearly see evidence of my teaching.
  • Learning that since one of my students joined Charter, she has rekindled her love of English.

 

I hope this post has given you an insight into some of the highs and lows I’ve experienced since becoming a teacher. My advice to any new teacher reading this would be to go in hard. Those first few lessons with your class are crucial in terms of them forming an opinion of you and how far they can push you…show them who’s boss!

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Work/Life Balance

My blog post this week is going to be fairly short as I was on a very tight deadline with one of my university assignments over the weekend. On Monday I had to submit 4000 words – eek!

I will, however, take this opportunity to explain a little bit about what it’s like to balance the academic side of my qualification with the practical side.

In order to be awarded my PGCE in July, there are several things I need to do. Firstly, I need to prove I’ve met the ‘Teacher’s Standards’. There are eight standards in total and I need to submit evidence that I’ve adhered to them sufficiently. This might include examples of my marking, or lesson plans that show I’ve implemented differentiation.

On top of this I need to complete three 4000 word essays during the year. My first assignment was a ‘Professional Studies’ essay, which I chose to base on behaviour and the effectiveness of detentions as a sanction.

The assignment that was due on Monday was a case study on an element of my school’s Improvement Plan. The area I focussed on was assessment and how regularly it should be used to improve student outcomes.

While it is difficult to find time to complete these assignments to the standard I would ideally like, it is a great way to get new teachers to reflect on their practice and also critically engage with the systems in place at school. Through the reading I’ve done for the literature review sections of the assignments, I’ve definitely strengthened my professional knowledge.

During term time, it’s almost impossible to get much substantial essay writing done. Your time is consumed with school: planning lessons, marking books, preparing assemblies, organising trips, attending meetings, doing admin and running detentions! Instead, I’ve tended to use the holidays to make serious inroads into my university work, so that busts the myth that teachers’ holidays are overly long – we still work during them! It’s not to say the holidays aren’t great, they are, but they’re needed; I honestly think teachers would burn out without them.

Which brings me onto working hours. I think it’s fair to say that if you want to be an effective teacher, you’ve got to be prepared to put in the hours. I had no idea how long the hours would be before I started. I think I had the notion that I’d be leaving at 4pm every day. Not so! I get to school at 7.45am and usually leave at some point between 6 and 7pm. The reason I leave so late is because I like to get all of my marking done at school so that I don’t have to bring it home, then when I’m home for the evening, I’m done (apart from the odd sneaky email).

I have had to accept that, during term time, I’ll only have a one day weekend, so I’ll either spend all of Saturday or all of Sunday planning the week ahead’s lessons. I have tried planning the night before during the week, but found my brain didn’t work well enough in the evenings to plan engaging lessons. I’d much rather plan them at the weekend when I’m fresh.

Last weekend was tough as I had all of this week’s lessons to plan as well as my assignment to complete. However, it’s only a few days until Easter when I’ll get two whole weeks off, one of which will be spent on a beach! I don’t plan to take a single exercise book with me.

Even though the hours are long, it is worth it. There is a quote by the American writer Nicholas Sparks that reads: “Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy. Remember that.” I think this directly relates to teaching: it is a challenging job but the rewards are immeasurable. You’re investing in young people and their futures.

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela.