Top 10 Tips for Supply Teachers, Trainee Teachers and NQTs

Supply/substitute teaching can be really a tough job.

Managing the learning, relationships and behaviour of children that you’ve just met; deciphering another teachers’ plans and resources; learning routines, timings and procedures of the school (not to mention – where is the toilet?); and occasionally, dealing with with school staff, parents and students, who speak down to you because you’re not a permanent member of staff. Side-note: I was once in a secondary school, whereby the minute I’d finished my cup of tea, a teacher stormed over to ask if I’d finished and snatched her cup out of my hand. Apparently, I’d unknowingly drank from her cup. GASP!

With that said, supply teaching can also be rewarding, fulfilling, exciting and freeing, for you and the children you teach! It’s just about approaching it in the right way.

happy teacher

Here are my Top 10 tips to help you and your students get the most out of your day:

  1. Introduce yourself, and set out expectations at the beginning of the day. 

    Wherever I teach, I provide a little introduction for my students about who I am, what we’re going to cover that day (especially important if you have autistic children in class) and what my expectations are. I tell them that I’ll do my best to learn names and keep things as close to normality as possible, but remind them that I’m only human and may make mistakes or require support from them. I find that showing a little vulnerability – in primary supply at least – results in a lot of students wanting to guide you through the day. It makes them step-up.

  2. Learn names quickly.

    This was isn’t easy, but it’s so important.  Remember, to many students, you’re just a stranger, brought in to do a job. As far as they’re concerned, you have no real reason to get to know them, care about them, listen to them or understand them. Learning and using a child’s name, instantly creates more of a connection between you – and it’s a pretty handy tool for behaviour management too!

    Learn names in lightning speed by: 
    a) Trying to remember distinguishing facts/features – e.g. Josh has the wild hair. Ella has the mischievous grin. Clayton and Braydon and twins, and their names sound alike. Emily read out that incredible simile! Tom A has brown hair. Tom C loves Harry Potter.
    b) Using the information above, build up your memory bank through the day. Each time you hold class discussion, challenge yourself to use three more names. If you’re teaching multiple classes, then you’ll have to be realistic: unless you’re Derren Brown, you won’t remember 150+ names in a day. Just try and remember 6 names in each class, and make a conscious effort to remember names of some quiet, hardworking students, ensuring you’re not always just praising the super-confident or nagging the poorly behaved.
    c) Find some time early into the day, to jot down names on a seating plan. If it’s a tricky class, kindly ask support staff to do this, or a sensible child. When I say sensible, I mean someone who will write down accurate names in correct places, avoiding you dolling out a detention to a year 9 ‘Donald Trump.’ Clear handwriting is equally important, to avoid you giving a detention to a year 6 ‘Dynald Troompt.’ I have a pack full of these hideously scruffy plans so that when I go into a school and a class that I haven’t seen in months, I can go in armed with names. Using a child’s name, who you’ve met once two months ago when you were in on supply, will honestly light up their entire face. It’s priceless!

  3. If you have support staff, appreciate them for the god-send they are.

    If I wasn’t already convinced as to the value of TAs, I am now! Through the course of my adventures on supply, I’ve received different levels of support from TAs in class (when you have one); but the particularly amazing ones have helped me to understand work set, timings of the school, policies and procedures, and yes – where the toilet is! More importantly, where you have a member of staff attached to a specific child or class, they will give you vital information about the students which will help you pre-empt what may go wrong and take steps accordingly. Be kind of them – their support may make all the difference in how you feel at the end of the day.

    children reading

  4. Show genuine interest in your students.

    On supply, there are plenty of points in the day when you have opportunities to find out more about the class you’re teaching, and build up a rapport. In primary, most students perform quiet reading first-thing. I love to go around and listen to them read, while asking questions about books that they’re reading. Again – you’re showing them that you care and you’re interested. And it feels really good to get to know them. The major upside of this too, is that children are much more willing to work hard for people that they like. Just be sure that you really listen to the answer. If you’re just asking for the sake of it, while tallying up dinner orders in your head, they’ll know it’s fake interest.

  5. Win over tricky students as early as possible.

    Every class has its own, unique mix of personalities, often sprinkled with a few trouble-makers, lovable rouges and occasionally, straight-up psychopaths. It’s really important to get these children on-side as quickly as possible. Use their names, show an interest, give them jobs to do, ask them questions about school routines. I know that at times, you might feel like you shouldn’t have to go the extra-mile for students who choose to behave poorly, but in reality you’re just trying to get the best out of a child and class that you’ve just met. Failing to at least attempt to build up a relationship with these characters could lead to a very frustrating day for you, the student in question and the rest of the class.

  6. Act like you’re SUPER-CHILL, even if you’re not.

    Naturally, my tendency towards panic means that I’m probably one of the people you’d least like to have with you in an emergency  – but after years of practice, I’ve developed a teaching persona of a calm, relaxed and laid-back teacher. Basically, I’ve learnt over time – after many mistakes – that nothing is ever gained from shouting at students and escalating problems. A lot of students who behave poorly crave attention, so by reacting loudly or emotionally, you’re just adding fuel to the fire. Certain things can be tactically ignored, and in instances where action is required; a look, a firm tone of voice, a hand placed on someone’s desk, a name written on the board mid-class discussion (without explanation) can work wonders. If a break-time argument threatens to spill into your literacy lesson, assure students that you’ll absolutely deal with this right before lunch, but you’d be so impressed if they could put their argument on hold for the lesson, so you can fully investigate at lunch. This way, your students feel like they’ve been listened to, you haven’t fallen into the trap of reacting too quickly, based on limited information or assumptions, and you can get on your lesson!

  7. Uphold rules and routines fairly, as a professional.

    As a supply teacher, behaviour is usually your biggest challenge. Most children relish the challenge of seeing what they can get away with saying, doing or not doing, when a stranger is in charge. To maintain the class’s trust, you uphold rules and apply them fairly. In this respect, I’ve found that being a new face also has its perks! For one – you’re without any emotional baggage that some children might use against you i.e. You always blame me for talking, or you never tell her! And for another, when a child reacts badly to something like a warning on the board, you can really push the point that you’re just an outsider, who has a job to do, and you have to follow the school rules. It’s nothing personal – it’s just that this student has chosen to demonstrate behaviour that doesn’t fit with the school rules, so you’ve had to follow procedure (it’s even better if you can link this in to what the students themselves told you at the beginning of the day.) This should de-escalate their reaction, along with the fact that your tone of voice and attitude remains nonchalant, telling them that with any luck, it’s just a blip and you’ll look forward to seeing their behaviour return to the excellent standard that you’re sure they’re normally capable of.

    Recognise that some children will be stuck in a pattern of poor behaviour, spending most days ‘in bother’ and having a set image of themselves as a ‘naughty’ child. As a new face, the actions you take and the words that you use, could provide a clean slate for this pupil; a chance to be earn rewards, complete work you’re proud of and show what you’re capable of, if even just for one day.

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  8. Provide feedback for the teacher and the class.

    As part of my introduction, I always tell the class that of course, I’ll be leaving notes for their class teacher to say who had behaved exceptionally well and of course, anyone who really lets themselves down. I always make sure I do this, sometimes adding suggestions for class or school-specific rewards. I do this because I want children to receive praise for behaviour or effort the following day, or consequences for poor behaviour so that they learn from their mistakes, and because I said I would. I also mark their books. Ok – so I know that some schools now have Oftead-ready marking expectations that would make even the robust supply teachers shudder in horror, but this aside, it isn’t a big ask that you mark the work that you’ve taught. Do what you can within a reasonable time-frame, focusing less on the highlighting and whatever hieroglyphic-like codes you’ve been asked to write, and more on giving quick, effective, specific feedback for the students. Knowing that you noticed that amazing word they used in literacy, or that they actually managed to solve that Maths challenge they’d struggled over, will only continue the good feelings even after you’ve gone.

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  9. Learn to think on your feet.

    Just as I’ve had to work on the act of appearing laid-back, I’ve also had to work on thinking on my feet. Working as a short-term supply teacher forces even the most rigid of people to become more spontaneous, because often you don’t know what’s going to happen until minutes before it actually happens!

    It’s always a good idea to have a few lessons up your sleeve
    – preferably ones that can be adapted to suit different age groups – for the times when the planning has gone walkabout. In this sense, you can prepare to be quick-thinking. Honestly though, I think that when it comes to supply work, preparing to just take things as they come, preferably with a sense of humour, is the best you can do. After all, that’s all part of your super-chill persona.

  10. Enjoy yourself. 

    If you act like you enjoy your job and the company of your students, they’ll notice. Remember, you’re an unknown entity, so they will watch you closely. If you model positive behaviour, enthusiasm and cheerfulness, your class will respond well. Of course, sometimes you’ll feel that you’d rather be at home, bingeing on ‘Stranger Things’ as you devour your weight in ice-cream, but on these days I set myself a challenge. I tell myself, “Today, I’m going to be the best supply teacher these kids have ever seen.” It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth trying.

    Are you currently working as a supply/substitute teacher? Do you agree/disagree with my points here? Have you anything to add that other supply teachers might benefit from? Comments welcome:

What if we set goal systems instead of goals?

At this time of year, when talk always turns to New Year’s Resolutions and goals, I am reminded of a clip I watched on the YouTube channel ‘Big Think.’ Here, Adam Alter tells us that it’s much more useful to set goal systems than goals.

Think about it. On a personal level, this could mean that instead of telling yourself that your goal is to lose 2 stones in weight – and then spending 3 months in a state of perpetual failure – you might instead set a target of working out for 40 minutes a day. One day into this and you’re already a success!

There’s nothing to stop you having a goal in mind, but if you’re more invested in the goal system, then it’s your daily action that defines you.

Consider too – the implications for children in school. In this target-driven culture, how many children live in this state of perpetual failure, always feeling that they are behind target?

What about children with special educational needs in mainstream education – children for whom the system isn’t designed; children who aren’t even going to sit the exams that their peers will be judged by; children that are often fully aware of how completely unreachable their end goals are?

It’s no coincidence that as our teachers express distaste for the data-focused exam culture in UK schools, the media report on an ever-increasing myriad of mental health issues faced by our young people.

So what’s the answer? Even if we are powerless to change the focus on testing, we can ensure that the language we use around students is based on goal structures. We can praise use of full stops in a piece of work, rather than the reaching of a certain level. We can reinforce the notion that tests provide only a result of how you achieved in that hour, rather than how you perform in class each and every day. We can create our own targets, based on the individual needs to students; targets that are actually realistic and achievable.

Furthermore, what if we stopped the emotional battery of our teaching and support staff when our students ‘don’t make the grade?’ I doubt we’d be having the recruitment crisis that we’re currently facing.

Agree/disagree? Are you a teacher who has faced this issue themselves? Are you writing your New Years Resolutions and looking to try something new? Have you had success with goal structures in the past? All comments welcome:

QUICK READ: 5 Teaching strategies to benefit the shy and socially anxious

When I was at school, I was a massive ‘swot’. I wasn’t overly intelligent, but I worked incredibly hard. I’ve always loved to learn new things and I took a great deal of pride in producing work that reflected effort and creativity.

Yet, I hated school. I was just so unbearably shy – so socially anxious – that any area of the curriculum or school life that required confidence/social interaction/public speaking, caused dread, misery and upset. I saw everyone else as being super relaxed and confident – I was a pathetic freak because I couldn’t cope with normal life situations. As time went on, I was able to drop the ‘out-there’ subjects like Drama and PE and throw myself into academic subjects which tested my essay-writing skills, while allowing me to hide my inner-freak. I left school with awesome results, but my self-esteem was in the toilet. I’d had some fantastic teachers who had pushed me academically, but other than annual comments on my report that ‘she needs to put her hand up more,’ my lack of confidence was never tackled. Teaching ‘soft skills’ like confident public speaking, just wasn’t part of the educational dialogue at that time. Everyone was just expected to get on with it.

Nearly twenty years later with the roles reversed, I am driven by the need to make things better for the students I teach. More than anything, I want them to challenge themselves socially and grow their confidence and self-esteem, just as they would work towards targets in their academic subjects. It’s my hope that by opening up discussion of nerves and anxiety, we might just save our students from future years of avoidance, missed opportunities and feelings of worthlessness.

Here are 5 teaching strategies that I’ve found really effective in encouraging confident speaking and discussion: 

  1. Always give ‘thinking time’ in class discussion. When I ask a question in class, I usually ask three times, while wandering around the room. I change the expression in my voice, the emphasis and sometimes the pace of the question. I wait ten seconds or more before choosing someone to answer/taking hands up etc. All students, but particularly nervous speakers or low ability pupils, need time to prepare an answer.
  2. Allow them to prepare feedback in pairs. Whether you want them to consider a question, respond to some stimulus or solve a problem, ask them to discuss this in pairs before answering in front of the class. For younger children, you can make this really structured by giving them set amounts of time each to speak, asking them to speak in turns or giving them speaking sentence openers. For SEND students that struggle to remember what they’ve discussed, they can write notes on a mini-whiteboard to help them answer. I tell my class that as I’m giving them time to prepare, I expect everyone to be ready to answer – then I’ll choose a name, use a name generator or pick out a lollipop stick with a pupils’ name on.
  3. Open up dialogue about nerves, anxiety, social anxiety, fear of public speaking. I found it particularly useful to spend ten minutes going over the physical symptoms of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and why our bodies react this way. We talked about everything from dry mouth and palpitations to the need to have a nervous wee! We also delved into why the body is designed this way – how it expels fluids so that you can run away more quickly; why your heart beats faster to ensure blood is circulating to your major organs; that when you feel like time has stopped, it’s because your senses are heightening, ready to act. Not only did this allow students to realise that these reactions were normal, but also put a positive spin on them.
  4. Before a presentation, ask your students to write a ‘recipe for success’ and a ‘recipe for disaster.’ I love this task so much! It really pushes students to think about what they need to do to perform an effective, confident and calm presentation, and contrast how they would prepare if they wanted to do a terrible job and let nerves take over. When I was really struggling with public speaking myself, I found it incredibly useful (and amusing) to write my recipe for disaster. It was a big turning point for me, because I realised that I’d spent my entire life up to that point following the wrong recipe!
  5. Notice – listen – understand – but still challenge. When I come across a child who is too afraid to speak in class, I set them a challenge of putting their hand up once a half-term/fortnight/week/lesson. I usually tell them to get this out of the way at the beginning of the lesson, so they’re not worrying about it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve found this really successful with some students. You can see the mixture of relief and pride cross their face once they’ve ‘done the deed’, and wonder what they were so worried about. Even better, once this becomes a regular pattern, you can see them build up positive momentum. After a while you can’t shut them up!

 

Have I missed anything? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

Supporting mental illness and anxiety in the classroom

I was browsing through BBC news a few days ago, when I came across the story of 16 year old George Hodgson. Despite suffering from extreme anxiety, OCD, panic attacks and even suicidal thoughts, like so many other children, George was placed on a waiting list to get the help needed, but was told that there was a 40-week wait for his treatment. He wasn’t contacted until two years later, just before the cut-off for adolescent care, as he was about to turn 18.

For many children and their families, George’s story is all too familiar.  Desperate and helpless children, parents, teaching/support staff and health care professionals, faced with a total lack of support when they need it most. 

And it’s getting worse. Childline released figures this month, showing that the number of children having therapy for anxiety has risen by 60% in two years. Alongside this, their figures show 13,746 sessions in 2016/17 for children suffering from anxiety, including more than 3,304 suffering panic attacks. 

Clearly, there is a great deal of work to be done. Only yesterday, the UK government announced a new vision for Mental Health research, which certainly promises steps in the right direction. Will it be enough though? With less than 6% of overall health funding going into mental health research, this will be no easy task. It won’t be quick either.

As teachers, we care deeply for our students. It can be heartbreaking to meet distraught parents who tell you what they’re going through day after day; who see their child’s anxieties worsening, watch them withdrawing as their self-esteem falls, worry constantly of what might happen next. While we’re not social workers or psychologists, we are on the front-line working with children suffering from a range of mental health issues. 

As our students are placed on a waiting line to get help and their parents turn to us for guidance, is there anything we can do?

I think there is. 

We can talk about mindset, thoughts, body language and actions. We can teach students about mental health. We can set daily activities whereby children look for positives in their lives, themselves and others. We can create an ethos of kindness, acceptance and honesty within our classroom. We can encourage daily mindfulness. We can ask students to weigh up actual evidence to prove or disprove negative thoughts. We can promote the benefits of eating wholesome food and exercising. We can give out useful resources that parents might not have access to. We can build solid relationships with families, becoming a united front. We can listen. We can try. 

Unsure you know how to help? Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS is one of many brilliant sites that you can use to familiarise yourself with a young person’s condition and what they may be going through. They have self-help leaflets covering a range of issues. For primary age children, I’ve printed copies for children to use with support staff or myself in school, and another copy for parents so that they can better support at home. My go-to resource for secondary students suffering with anxiety, has been this amazing Moodjuice anxiety workbook which you can discreetly print, enclose in an envelope and slip to them in class for them to work through at home. Depending on what pastoral provision your school has, and how willing the particular student is to talk, you may be able to arrange a more direct intervention in school.

Essentially, what I’m saying is that if you’d like to help your students but don’t know enough about the topic yourself, you can find a wealth of useful information by googling terms like ‘NHS Anxiety.’ As someone who has myself experienced anxiety and undergone cognitive behaviour therapy, I can attest to the quality of booklets like the ones above. The same information, ideas and activities really helped me to change my thoughts, beliefs and actions, resulting in a much happier person. 

Again – we’re not trained health care professionals and I’m not naive enough to think that we can cure severe mental illness by asking students to write down positive thoughts. But for children who are perhaps beginning to show signs of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, whose only alternative is a waiting list, the interventions I’ve described above might just be the difference in a student worsening or getting better.

Luckily, for 18 year old George, his story had a happy ending despite the lack of support. Having made a full recovery, he now runs his own fashion brand which raises awareness of mental health issues. It’s a brilliant, inspirational story. It’s also rare.

As ‘Young Minds’ report as many as 1 in 6 young people experiencing anxiety at some point, this problem isn’t going anywhere. Alongside this, we live in an age of funding cuts – not only for schools, but also those same mental health services that the government have promised to ‘transform.’

Basically, we’re really up against it. All the more reason to put our creativity, resourcefulness and caring natures to good use.

 

 

 

 

 

Skills for Success

In my last position as head of skill-based learning for Key Stage 3 pupils, I spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of qualities that I wanted all students to aspire towards having; qualities that would help them fulfill their academic potential, find good jobs, build solid relationships and lead happy lives.

Today, having been fortunate enough to teach children from Key Stage 1 through to Key Stage 5, I have developed a clear idea of exactly what skill-based learning should look like. I chose to name ‘Fishing Net’ skills as such, based on the old proverb:  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” No doubt this resonates with teachers across the board – so often in the classroom it can feel like we’re constantly handing out fish to mob of hungry children. The idea of the ‘Fishing Net’ skills therefore, is that students have their own net, and they’re taught how to use it. They gain the confidence, independence and ability to think and act for themselves.

So what are they?

Freedom – Students must be able to ask questions, make mistakes and adopt creative learning approaches to suit their individual needs.

Independence – As independent learners, students will be able to follow instructions, organise themselves, meet task deadlines, find their way out of ‘stuck’ and take responsibility for their actions.

Self-belief – Our students need confidence in themselves in order to take risks, try new things, face challenges and grow.

Honesty – As reflective learners, students should be able to truthfully acknowledge their own strengths, weaknesses, wins and losses.

Investigate – Students should be able conduct research while considering the reliability and trustworthiness of their findings.

Notice – Through Mindfulness practices, students can increase their awareness of what’s happening around them, and inside of their minds, in the present moment. They’ll build up concentration and memory muscles, along with a greater ability to handle their moods and emotions.

Go for Goals – For some students, we need to inspire ambition. As reflective, independent learners, our students need to be able to set their own realistic but aspiration targets, and start working towards them.

 

Nurture – Students need to be taught to look after their minds and bodies, as well as the people and world around them. We need to ensure that they leave school with the skills and knowledge by which they can create a happy life.

Elasticity – Resilience is everything. We need our students to develop that bounce-back ability so that when things go wrong, they spring right back into action.

Team work – As collaborative learners, we need our students to practise kindness, empathy and understanding, putting this into action through team projects where they demonstrate sharing, listening, contributing and compromise.

Over time, Wellbeing and Mindfulness have organically become a central part of everything that the business offers; the frills to our skills.

If you’re interested in seeing what these skills look like ‘in the flesh,’ take a look at current learning experiences on offer. Click here if you’re interested in booking but unsure how it works or contact us to discuss options.

 

Brave new world: Act II (a plan is formed)

Since September, I’ve been earning my money through supply teaching in local primary schools. While I was nervous at first, I quickly realised that this was actually a fantastic opportunity for me to continue enjoying the best bits of teaching while dropping the worst. Teaching spontaneously like this – keeping students that I’ve only just met happy and engaged, well behaved, learning – has definitely allowed me to add to my own skill-set. Every day when I enter the classroom, I set myself the secret challenge of being the best supply teacher the children have ever seen. I make it my mission to make these children feel good about themselves. This doesn’t always work – supply teaching isn’t without it’s challenges – but like we tell the children, when we reach for the moon, we land among stars even if we miss.

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One upsetting aspect of leaving your job is that you can no longer use ‘marking books’ as a legitimate reason to avoid the gym.

I had thought that I might have a problem with traipsing to different schools where I didn’t know anyone, but actually I’ve found it fascinating to visit schools that are vastly different in the makeup of their students, staff and approaches. When you have a permanent job in school, you can become very insular and set in your ways. Yet, we can learn so much from seeing the way things are handled in other schools.

Even where schools appear to be very different, they often have much in common. Right from the bustling, multi-cultural inner-city academies, to the leafy lane one-form entry religious schools; teachers gripe about Ofsted, excessive workload, student behaviour, learning and attitudes. Across the board, many staff feel that they have to cram in curriculum content in a series of fast-paced, prescriptive lessons, without any real time to focus on other things that should matter just as much.

As a passionate facilitator of skill-based learning, I recognise that children everywhere are being pushed academically by some fantastic teachers and support staff; but that their life-skills have been mostly forgotten. At best, words like collaboration, communication and confidence are mentioned at a shallow level. At worst, they are unheard of within the school dialogue. Even the truly brilliant members of teaching staff and leadership are often just too busy trying to keep up with ‘aspiration data targets’ to truly consider how best to instil an ethos of independent learning and resilience throughout their class or school.

In the current educational climate, anything that isn’t measurable in the form of a data spreadsheet or written exam, just isn’t a priority. So this is where I plan to come in.

Though I have often been prone to bouts of insecurity, I have never wavered on my decision to leave my job and ‘go it alone.’ Even more so, I am certain that I can use my own knowledge and skills more effectively under my own banner, and pass these on to a much broader community of students and staff. For this reason,  this month I officially registered ‘Skills with Frills Education Ltd.’ I plan to launch in January, 2018, offering my teaching services to schools within Yorkshire, promoting my newly-created ‘Fishing Net’ skills.

What we need to consider as educators is that not only do we have a duty to develop the whole-child alongside their academic abilities; but also that if we were to inspire qualities such as resilience, independence and communication within our students, then they would no doubt reap academic benefits alongside an abundance of others.

 

Brave new world: Act I (leaving my job)

After a huge amount of care and consideration, this week I made the monumental decision to see my Head teacher to announce that I would be resigning from my role at the end of this school year.

To many, including my former, more sensible self, this might seem like utter madness. As a head of department at 33, I’m earning more than I thought I would at this age, I have a solid position and status in school and as I’m repeatedly reminded by my non-teaching friends and acquaintances – I have 12 weeks holiday a year. I also love many parts of my job, mainly my daily interactions with incredible kids and colleagues.

I suppose that I fit nicely in with society’s picture of what success looks like.

So why am I leaving?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the urge to be out on my own; to be my own boss; to have creative freedom; to make my own decisions. And the plan always was to step into this, either through writing my blog, completing additional courses or taking on extra jobs, while teaching at the same time. Lately, I’ve come to the realisation that this would never happen while I was in full time teaching. Though I’ve found maintaining work-life balance easier in my role within a secondary school, it’s still an exhausting job that eats up not only time but also your energy. If I want to put my heart and soul into a new project, I know I can’t do it from this position.

Let me be clear – I still love teaching.

I love the children I teach (even the ones I encounter briefly) like they were my own family. I love delivering lessons; the look on a child’s face when they’ve understood something, gained a new skill, pushed themselves, taken pride in their work, received praise. I love planning lessons and creating resources, challenging myself to think creatively about how I can make the unknown known; the dull colourful and the disengaged inspired. From the meek, nervous student-teacher I was less than a decade ago, I have become a classroom director, thriving upon the daily performance of my actors.

I have fallen out of love though, with the idea of teaching within an institution. Again, I find myself in a position where I’m spending more time on data and targets, new Ofsted-friendly initiatives and pointless paperwork, all of which require a lot of effort but have no real impact on children’s learning (in fact they’re even detrimental in some cases). When I drive to work in a morning or sit down to work on an evening, I can’t shake the sense that I don’t believe in what I’m doing anymore.

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Obviously I couldn’t resist capturing my complex emotions in an #Iquitselfie

From August, I will be out on my own. I’m scared… yes, but I’m also more excited than I can ever remember being. I don’t know what the future will look like yet, but the possibilities are endless. More than anything, I feel like if I’m going to work with children, then I’m a better judge of how to do this than the government, or Ofsted, or schools. I want to be my best in order to give the best to the children in my care.

I have never thought of myself as brave – quite the opposite – but I have realised that I’m not afraid to fail. What I am afraid of is continuing to do something that I know just isn’t really working for me anymore; to repeatedly crawl forward when every fibre of my being is pulling me away in another direction.

And at a time when life seems so uncertain, I can cling on to my own advise that I often give the kids at school: people regret not trying something a whole lot more than they ever regret trying.

Slow writing? Quick progress for weak writers.

When I arrived at secondary school, I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of ‘slow writing.’ In fact, I only heard about it through a chance encounter with one of the English teachers in the work room. I was grumbling away about the lack of progress in my special needs English group and at the point where I felt like nothing I’d tried was working, when she suggested that I try ‘slow writing.’

Basically, the idea is that students are told what each sentence must include. For example, sentence one must start with an ‘ing ly’ opener; sentence two must include a connective and so on.

It’s true that this is very prescriptive, but it has worked wonders with my SEND writing group.

Previously, these students just couldn’t generate the ideas needed for a lengthy piece of writing, even with planning frames and speaking prep time. Many also were incredibly frustrated because they had the ideas, but just didn’t have the ability to get these onto paper. Then there were the students at the upper end of the group, who can spell and write, but tend to write huge streams of unconscious waffle.

Did they like this style of writing? Not at first, no. The group did complain a lot about having to write what they were told. I also had issues in that this approach relied on them understanding at least basic grammatical words and terms. Even with examples and explanations, I found I would have to recap individually what a simile was, or what a sentence with a subordinate clause would look like. Really though, as I find with any new approach, the key is training students up over time and patience.

We’ve just completed our fourth structured ‘slow write’ this term and the complaints have dropped. The work that my group is producing is of much higher quality and they’re all very proud of themselves. They’ve also built up their SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) knowledge as a positive side effect of this.

I’ve attached a slow writing sheet – Mr. Bean at the dentist – slow writing task and example – that I used with my SEND group at the end of a unit of work based on Mr. Bean. We watched a video clip of Mr. Bean getting up late for the dentist and I showed students examples of slow writing to match this. Their task was then to complete slow writing for the second half of the clip, following the set structure. While this isn’t really my kind of humour, I find that Mr. Bean is a MASSIVE hit with KS2 and SEND KS3 students so the fact that they’re happy and engaged certainly helps! Here’s the clip in full:

Slow writing really is such a simple idea, but it has made a huge difference to the progress, skill, understanding and confidence of some very weak writers. I will certainly be using this again.

 

A simple and effective way to learn from our mistakes

For many of the children I teach, particularly the lower ability/special needs pupils, mistakes are something to be feared; something that seems to prove your stupidity and confirm to everyone that you’ll never amount to anything. It’s Learned Helplessness 101.

I did it wrong. I must be thick.

I’ve lost count of the number of children over the years (mostly boys I’ll note) whose immediate response to a tiny mistake is to rip their work into shreds and ‘down tools.’

And I know I’m not alone. This is a problem throughout primary and secondary schools, and there’s a lot of fantastic work going on in both sectors to combat this ‘destructive perfectionism’, linked to ‘Growth Mindset’ approaches. Educators are talking about failure, and mistakes, considering how we frame this in the classroom so that children see it as a necessary and beneficial part of the learning progress, rather than something negative.

For many children though, we need more than words to really ‘hit home’ with the message. I’ve tried something this week with my special needs Maths group – something that I’d done years ago with bottom set year 6 Maths and forgotten about. Basically, I set them a test but I’ve already filled in all of the answers incorrectly.

test1

test-scales

At this stage, I know my students and I’m aware of the kind of mistakes that they’re likely to make…so I purposely make the same mistakes, so that they’re immediately forced to think about why this is wrong and find an alternative solution. test-3

 

 

As they work, we talk about how great it is that we’re learning from mistakes and gaining high-level thinking skills in being able to explain why certain questions are wrong.

This kind of activity is easy to put together and highly valuable for all groups of learners, in any subject, at any age. And it’s another reminder for our students that we learn so much more from failure than from success.

Teacher Wellbeing: Does your morning set you up for rock-star teaching?

What is your morning routine? Do you even have one? I suppose it’s quite an American concept – something that most of my rather sarcastic British friends would feel was quiet ridiculous and even self-indulgent.

What? You don’t just roll out of bed, throw on your clothes, chug down a coffee and race off to work?!

And this is exactly what I used to do, in the years BT (Before Teaching). The idea of course, was to maximise sleep and therefore feel more refreshed and rested for the next day. Only I’m not sure this ever really worked.

When I began to feel overwhelmed with work in my first teaching position, and every minute of the day seemed to be occupied with thoughts of the to do list, I decided it was time to experiment with my morning routine and take back a little time, just for me, before I went out there to face the world.

What I quickly realised was that I didn’t feel any more crappy if I missed 30 minutes extra sleep; in fact, I felt a lot more emotionally prepared to face school, and my workload, because I’d had that time for me.

Just like an actor prepares to go on set or a rock star performs a number of rituals before they go on stage, many teachers might just find that they benefit from cultivating a morning routine.

My own individual morning routine has changed again and again; with my job, my mood, my exercise routine or the latest book I read. At one point, I was staring at a focus board while incense burned, then I would read through positive quotes about life and set an intention for the day. Yes, seriously. It was nice and I found myself surrounded by unfamiliar silence (in my mind too) but I didn’t feel particularly energetic, and my hair smelt like burnt lavender.

So I changed my routine – I stayed later in school on an evening, setting up my lessons, and went swimming at the local baths in the morning. It was a bit of a race time-wise (I really worked ‘drowned-rat chic’) but I felt amazing. At the baths, I would mix up fast power-lengths with ‘meditative lengths’ (Yes, seriously!) in which I would focus on my breath, and use all of my senses of feel the soft blanket of water around me. Sometimes, I’d throw in some ‘gratitude lengths’ too and I’d force myself to think about everything I was so grateful for in my life. Even on the worst mornings, when the pool was jam-packed and there seemed to be a convoy of kamikaze granddads directed towards me at every turn, I would come away feeling energised, strong, calm and grateful. I’d arrive at school knowing that I’d already achieved something; something for me as a person, not as a teacher.

Sadly, when I moved jobs to a school further away, I couldn’t accommodate my morning swim. I switched to morning gym sessions and started hitting the treadmill at a gym on the way to school, getting ready in the changing rooms. It’s true that getting up at 5.40AM isn’t for everyone, but I can’t describe how energetic and empowering it is to arrive at school at 7.30AM, knowing that you’ve run 5KM. I felt unstoppable.

Last year, a broken leg abruptly ended my morning gym habit, so now it’s ten minutes of YouTube Yoga followed by Berocca and avocado-peanut butter toast (don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it.) Sometimes I review my gratitude diary too and have a sneaky peak at my monthly life goals (Yes, I really do this!) then off I go. Even in the car, I alternate between ‘mindfulness driving’, 80s power-ballads and podcasts/audio books. I regularly find myself wishing my drive home was longer because I want to hear more about the health benefits of Tumeric or because Harry Potter is about to go undercover in the Ministry of Magic (God love that Polyjuice potion!)

yoga pic

Finding my zen… if only these leather trousers weren’t so itchy.

Being a teacher is a lot like being a rock star or an actor; sometimes you wake up feeling like a gloomy Monday morning, but you’ve still got a show to put on; people have bought tickets and they deserve a good performance. I was always told that the children should never see a difference between your worst day and your best. There’s nothing worse than a teacher who inflicts a bad mood on their students.

I really encourage you to think about what you could change or add into your morning routine.

You might find that not only do you teach better lessons, but that everything just feels a little easier; a little brighter; a little better. Surely, this is worth the loss of twenty minutes sleep?