The Journey To Outstanding

It has been a good six months since I last posted on here so I would forgive you for thinking I’d given up on this blog. The truth is that I meant to post last half term but somehow time just got away from me, you know how it does sometimes. I guess, therefore, it’s also not a surprise that I’m doing this post on the last night of the Christmas holidays!

A lot has happened over the last six months in terms of my teaching career and I’m happy to say it’s been hugely positive. I’m now a Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) and if you remember, last year I blogged about the ups and downs of being a trainee teacher in an inner city school. You’ll be glad to know that it does get easier and in this post I’ll try to explain why.

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but by the end of the summer holidays I was actually bored! The last two weeks of August were dull and grey so I couldn’t even spend the time topping up my tan. With my husband and friends at work, my family miles away and no children or pets for company, I started to get itchy feet. So, like a good NQT, I set about doing some prep for the new school year.

I remembered my first few lessons as a trainee in September 2013 and shuddered….I could not let that humiliation happen again and I could not make the same mistakes twice – that would be unforgivable. How could I do things differently? How was I going to make an impression on my new students so that they knew I meant business? How was I going to inspire and motivate them?

I thought hard about this and then remembered a video ARK’s Head of Teacher Training, Marie Hamer, had sent me this time last year. It was of a teacher, Tyler Hester, in California delivering his expectations lessons to his class. He taught in a deprived part of the state called Richmond, so not a dissimilar context to mine. I remember watching it a year ago and not really gaining too much from it. Watching it through the eyes of someone now with a year’s experience under their belt was like a revelation. I could see all the subtle but highly effective behaviour management techniques that Tyler was using, ones that I’d read about in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion. I could see them working and I could see how he was motivating the students too.

I meant to just watch the first video, but ended up watching two more of his lessons plus an interview with him. I was completely mesmerised with how in control he was of his class but also how warm he was towards the students. I was even more excited when I found out that he’d had a terrible first year in teaching but had been able to turn it around by being “obsessive” about implementing behaviour management techniques. His success made me feel even more confident about going into my second year and brought home just how important those first few lessons are with your classes. First impressions count.

For me, there were a few key things that I found especially effective in order to create the right classroom culture. With my new year 7 class I made sure I was constantly narrating the positive. Something I noticed Tyler doing was saying “Period 3, you are all meeting my expectations”. That verbalising of what they are doing right makes them feel great about themselves right from the off.

I also made sure I “sweated the small stuff” early too. There was one child who whispered to another, despite the fact I’d asked the class to do a task in silence. That resulted in me having a private word with the child and letting them know that was their first warning. By picking them up on the small stuff, it prevents bigger issues later down the line. Being crystal clear of expectations is another thing I noticed Tyler doing well. During independent tasks he often says “In complete silence, I want you to…..” By making your expectations explicit, there can’t be any doubt in the students’ minds how they’re supposed to be working; you cannot assume that children know when they should and should not be talking.

Another idea I borrowed was clapping a beat to get the students’ attention. If you’ve set the pupils on a paired task, getting them to draw their conversations to a close can be difficult without raising your voice. Rather, the clap signals that they need to stop their conversations and they show they’ve understood this by clapping the beat back. This works brilliantly with my Y7 class (there’s 31 of them) and saves your voice box! I wouldn’t use this with my older students but lower down the school, especially with big classes, it’s great.

For my Y10 class, I had to think about how to motivate them. This was a class who I’d taught for half of last year and, as a bottom set, really need that motivation to keep them going. The first tactic I borrowed from Tyler was getting them to realise the correlation between literacy and their future. By showing them the stats to do with literacy and prison and education and salaries, I wanted to give them that kick start in realising just how important their time in the classroom is. I also borrowed Tyler’s reward system, which I thought was genius. Every time a student does something merit worthy they get a ticket (I bought a book of raffle tickets from the pound shop). If they get one ticket that results in a glitter pound (like giving some skin but with a twist), five tickets results in a positive phone call home and ten tickets results in me buying them a book of their choice from Amazon. This slightly unconventional method of rewards shows them that their good behaviour and effort is noticed and gives them even more incentive to make the right decisions.

My first term as an NQT has had its challenges (namely the workload) but it has also been really enjoyable. Yes that’s right, teaching has been a JOY! In general I wake up and get excited about the lessons I’m going to deliver and get great pleasure from delivering them. It’s not about getting through them any more, it’s about enjoying them and seeing the students flourish. My mentors continue to be highly supportive and comments such as “I was really impressed with what I saw in your lesson today” from the Associate Principal after a walk-through have all really helped to build my confidence. I even got my first ever “Outstanding” lesson observation judgement at the end of term – what a way to finish, I couldn’t have been prouder!

I’m now looking forward to building on the progress I’ve made over the last term in 2015. I think momentum, consistency and confidence are key. Whether you’re in teaching or not, I wish you all a happy and healthy new year and the best of luck in all of your endeavours! Watch this space for more updates on life as an NQT.

Road-Journey

I Passed!

One huge thing has happened since my last blog post…..I passed my training year! So apologies for not blogging sooner but I have been rather busy. A lot of preparation goes into your final assessment, with the bulk of it going towards making sure your portfolio of evidence is ready. As I’ve mentioned in the post Work/Life Balance, to qualify as a teacher you need to prove you’ve met the eight standards – that proof comes in the form of evidence such as lesson plans, powerpoints, copies of students’ work, photos of your classroom, copies of your marking and lesson observation reports. It also includes a learning journal that has been kept up to date throughout the year.

Whilst I always knew that I had all the evidence that was required, putting it all together was another matter. Finding the time to devote to compiling an A4 lever-arch file of evidence is difficult when you’re still teaching and marking every day, as well as finishing your final essay. In the end I had to take a whole weekend out to get the thing done….but it was definitely worth it.

The second part of the final assessment was a 30 minute lesson observation which, despite being extremely nervous, was absolutely fine. Hopefully the more experienced I get, the less nervous I will be in these situations. When I was younger and I was playing a lot of competitive tennis, I used to get more nervous when my family were watching, but as I got older I learnt to “get in the zone”, which is where you’re so focussed, you forget about who’s watching. Similarly, in lesson observations I’m looking to forget that anyone is watching and to relax into the lesson more: easier said than done I’m sure but that’s the goal.

Now that I have passed, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. There are only two weeks left of term and then it’s the summer holidays; a chance for a well-deserved break but also a chance to get ready for the year ahead.

There is lots to look forward to next year. We are one of eight ARK Schools to pilot the new Mastery curriculum in Year 7 English, which is incredibly exciting. Depending on their reading age, students will follow one of two pathways, with those showing reading ages of approximately nine and below doing a phonics pathway to enable them to catch up and eventually reintegrate into the traditional pathway. The main changes to the curriculum include:

  • Explicit teaching of spelling and grammar for two hours a week;
  • A greater focus on the acquisition of knowledge as well as the development of skills;
  • Extended writing to be assessed three times a year, with more regular assessment to use multiple-choice style questions;
  • A reading for pleasure lesson once a week;
  • Levels to be replaced with grades.

A lot of the changes in the Mastery course address the issues I have with the current curriculum such as pupils leaving primary school without basic literacy skills and ambiguous level descriptors on the Assessing Pupil Progress (APP) grids for reading and writing, therefore I’m very excited to see how much progress can be made by pupils under this new design.

I’m also looking forward to taking on new classes and having the chance to start with a clean slate. When I think about how little I knew last September compared to what I now know about teaching, learning and behaviour management, I feel like I’ll be in a much stronger position to make a real difference to the outcomes of my students. Add to that the opening of our Sixth Form and my Creative Writing club going from strength to strength and 2014/15 could be one heck of a year! Happy summer everyone!

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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!