Just Keep Swimming Tips

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post and that is largely due to the fact I haven’t had a clue what to write about. As I faff my way in to the new academic year I’ve been asked by a number of people to give both formal and informal advice about how newly qualified teachers should or could begin the year.

I am in a very poor and lowly position to do so and also know that too much advice can be overwhelming and that a huge amount of the advice given to you isn’t particularly helpful as everyone’s situation is different.

Moreover, I believe that being an NQT is, although quite daunting, a privileged position. From my experience, and that of others I have spoken to, being an NQT is a period of time we would like to return to. You have the chance to watch and learn from others, hopefully find your own style and always know that if you face that challenge again you have at least one experience to draw on. I was lucky enough to have a large amount of support during my NQT year and although that remains being an RQT (recently qualified in case you’ve lost your acronym dictionary) seems to hold just as many pitfalls.

Despite what I said about not knowing what I was on about or being in a place to advise I will attempt to summarise the various bits of ‘advice’ I have mocked up and handed out to various people over the past few weeks. As well as giving a few snippets of advice this post is a selfish opportunity for me to reflect on my goals for the academic year 2013/2014. A more succinct version of this is available on the Guardian Teacher Network site which features a number of other teacher’s top tips: Guardian Teacher Network NQT Survival

On the subject of time management or lack of time management:

Earlier on today on Twitter @stevejodwin said I needed to ‘re-evaluate your work/life balance if you’re going to work from 3:00 on a Sunday!’. I partly agreed and partly disagree with this statement. As a GTP student and NQT I spent a number of weekends working without pause just to get ready for Monday morning and this was clearly not a healthy situation. By the time it reached Sunday night I felt just as tired as on Friday night and my head would be spinning. I think it is very important to choose at least one day and two nights where you don’t do anything to do with school. If I am super busy I may start work earlier on a Sunday but if I know I have an event on Saturday night I will do work on Saturday instead…just in case a headache strikes out of no where! Planning is key to time management so I plan when I will work and when I won’t. I’ve become fairly strict with myself. Our English AST @Siancarter1 said earlier this week during a meeting at our school with NQTs and RQTs that she believes people with children have a better work/life balance as they are forced to stop at certain times and I would (Sian will fall over now!) tend to agree. I’m sure they bring many stresses along with them though and rather than stealing some children all non-child owning teachers need to do is be strict with their timings. I didn’t start work until 3.30 pm today despite saying I would start at 3. I’m counting writing this as a break and I will begin planning again in a while. See this latest article from the Mirror to use when people ask what time you leave work: Teachers among hardest working professionals – although granted it is full of slight bias seeing as the poll was done by the TES.

Another top tip which I have to remind myself of sometimes is how to prioritise. Someone once told me that women are good at multitasking but men get things done more efficiently because before moving on they complete each task. I now try to work through things one at a time. Prioritise your life over anything else; if you have a birthday party at the weekend simply put that top of the list and work to get things done so that you can go. Ignore anyone who says you shouldn’t go – they probably weren’t invited.

How to understand and approach new pedagogical theories:

Personally, I believe you should try to approach new theories with an open mind. In the teaching world, old ideas masquerading as new ideas are bounced around every day. That is understandable and I am sure annoying if you’ve seen them once or twice before, but as a new teacher these ideas seem magical and inviting. I say approach with caution, but don’t just ignore them because someone older (and probably wiser) tells you that idea was first used in 1987 (a great year for teachers to be born I believe). Inevitably ‘new’ ideas are recycled in someway so do your own research before putting them into practise and then test them with a class before bragging about it to people who frankly don’t care! Wait and see if it works for you, and if not discuss with others close to you first before putting it out there.

Understanding new ideas and theories takes time and effort through research and questioning. Approaching them takes less effort but more cynicism to simply ensure that you don’t turn up to school every day with a new idea, find yourself using it with one class badly before jumping on to the next! Be brave and allow time for you and your pupils to learn about a new technique or approach. I have played with theories such as SOLO taxonomy or new resources like the 5 minute lesson plan and found they haven’t worked perfectly in all situations. I found introducing public critique a struggle with some of my groups but I have begun this year by trying again with my new classes and giving it a go before finding an alternative if necessary. Not all theories or ideas will work for you but they’re probably worth a try!

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The first term’s stresses

The first term is insane but brilliant. I feel fairly similar this year only with a slightly clearer understanding of what might happen next. I still struggle to play the game of getting difficult students under wraps and have quickly worked out that the key to this particular stress (behaviour management at its extremes) is consistency and transparency. Expect to spend a lot of time working outside of school hours but learn when to stop so that you survive. See above about time management! This year it has become our school’s policy to ensure you have regular contact with your tutees parents or careers but I think this applies greatly to your subject as well. Parents, guardians and careers greatly appreciate you taking the time to get in touch and although this is a particularly aggravating task when you have little time, the phone numbers don’t work and you have a conversation that goes on too long or when you verge on saying the wrong thing it is hugely worthwhile. As a new teacher I would suggest phoning as many homes as possible as soon as possible. This also greatly increases your chances of chocolate at the end of term – joking. Honest.

Lastly, do get involved with students’ events outside your subject and get to know your colleagues well. Don’t try and do everything in the first term because you have years and years to go and only having just started my second year this certainly feels the case. I would propose that in the first term you make mistakes (usually unintentionally), in your second term you try to forget them and in the third term you find the time to laugh at them!

Planning and knowing your subject

It is always advisable to read about the texts and topics you’re going to be teaching in advance of teaching them. There are some things I love teaching but bizarrely I find the better I know something (a skill or a text) the worse I seem to teach it. I begin having conversations with myself – usually ones I never had the chance to have at University when I know a text inside out and I begin teaching it at slightly too high a level. When faced with something new and unknown I pick it apart carefully and find myself teaching it in smaller and lighter chunks. These are usually my best lessons as I too have had to approach the topic from an unknown although hopefully with a slightly more able perspective to begin with. It is important before you begin teaching to plan and understand the assessments from the beginning and ensure you count how many lessons you have to utilise – this will reduce due to trips, assemblies and yours or pupils illness. This is something I don’t always do and something I will note down as a point to refer to this year. Knowing the course will mean you always know where you are going and this is vital for KS4 and I’m sure for KS5. Planning lessons takes time but it will be made easier if you know yours and your pupils’ ultimate aims.

Final top tip: Take vitamin C – all the time. Lots of it.

NB. As all NQTs have now begun their first year in school this advice will no doubt seem pointless to many however, as I said above, this is advice that I must heed during my second year as a qualified teacher and I’ve no doubt for years to come. I feel it is important to have goals as the goal posts around us as teachers change daily. I don’t really mind what Mr M. Gove or any other politician thinks about my lessons which may use plasticine, board pens or plates (yes I have really used plates…and pens – call me crazy!) but I do care about improving day by day in order to provide the best teaching and learning for students that year.

My aims for this year include staying completely focused with each class – ensuring the maximum effort is put in to every moment through focused planning to ensure students complete the year with the outcomes they deserve; to keep on top of the crazy mark load with new ideas on feedback (post coming soon when research is completed) and to begin to delve deeper in to the dark and mysterious world of data analysis! I shall reread this post in a year’s time and hope to say I’ve improved ever so slightly before boldly declaring my new aims for the 2014/15 season!

Just keep swimming,
Just keep swimming,
Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming,
What do we do we swim, swim, swim…

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