And so, the end is near…

I’m on the final furlong: the last 8 weeks of teaching 80% and preparing lever arch files of astonishing complexity, which will hopefully end in QTS, a bottle of champagne and a long summer holiday.  It’s been good to return to the class which I was with at the beginning of the year.  It was a lovely relief that they were happy I was back, and a surprise (in a good way) how much they’d progressed in their learning since Christmas.  Now I’m teaching more, it’s possible to have more fun – finding slivers of time to watch a Michael Rosen video, practise songs for the class assembly or to read a story in the outdoor classroom.  Bizarrely, given that this is the heaviest workload I’ve had so far, and that I’ve been worrying about coping with it for months, I feel pretty relaxed.  It certainly helps that I’ve been lucky enough to get a job for my NQT year.

I cleared the decks of weekend plans for these two months, as I felt there was no point even hoping for a social life during my final block practice.  Even so, it’s almost (fingers crossed) manageable, which bodes well for next year.  I’m still in the process of understanding how all the different threads of being a class teacher weave together: spelling tests, and reading levels, times tables, delegating tasks to TAs, classroom displays, homework setting, report writing, progress data, class website content, intervention timetables and behaviour awards.  September is still going to be a bit of a shock.  Teachers are multi-taskers, multi-managers and multi-thinkers extraordinaire.

It is intense.  I occasionally feel quite jealous of those 1980s teachers of my childhood, who seemed to wing it through long-running projects on cathedrals or the Romans, and never noticeably levelled anything.  Over the course of this year, working 12+ hours a day has started to feel normal.  Teaching invades your subconscious.  Dreams are wasted teaching punctuation to imaginary classes of children.  Those dreams are better than the stressful ones where I arrive in class with 5 minutes to spare, with a broken laptop and no idea what I’m supposed to be teaching – the TAs fixing me with doleful, disappointed eyes.  In fairness though, teaching’s never boring.  My worst job (other than the one cleaning urinals) was one in retail, where hours were spent standing and waiting, hoping for a customer to pass by; in teaching, you are never waiting around.

Last term, one of the veteran teachers retired from my school.  She had been there since the 80s – since my own childhood era.  The SLT threw her a fantastic party: the school hall has never looked so civilised.  I absolutely loved her leaving speech, however sentimental that makes me.  She talked about how when you get back home at the end of the day and you feel exhausted, you also think about how that day’s been for the children in your class.  Sometimes it’s the children who are most difficult to teach, and who have the most difficult lives, that you’re actually making the most difference to.  She thought teaching was the best job in the world.  It was hard to imagine her actually leaving, when she was so passionate about the work.  The head teacher from her first school, who had appointed her as an NQT, came to the retirement party.  There was a giddy-ness to it: the way her teaching life was concertina-ed like this.  It made a teaching career seem a real long-haul possibility in a way I hadn’t imagined before.

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NUT student members’ weekend

I had a lovely weekend on a student members’ training course run by the NUT at their glorious base in Lincolnshire, Stoke Rochford Hall.   The taxi driver bigged it up on the way there: the building looks like something from Harry Potter, the food is wonderful, the teachers he drives back to the station can’t wait for their next course.  All true.  With the acres of grounds, copious biscuits and tea, hotel breakfasts and heated pool, it is rather like a sanatorium for over-stressed teachers.  As you wander around the lawns, it has something of the atmosphere of that summer camp in the Catskills before Patrick Swayze arrives.

In terms of the actual training, it was really useful to have advice about professional teaching standards and behaviour from experienced NUT reps who have had to deal with the aftermath when things go wrong.  I’ve now had it drilled into me to be careful what’s in my handbag, mobile phone or desk drawer if a pupil could possibly access it; to always call an ambulance if in doubt; to never offer pupils a lift even if it’s raining; and to stick to whatever schedule and activities I agreed with the parents on school trips.  Another useful session was about contracts and conditions of employment, and how these can vary.  I’d got this far in my teacher training without really thinking about the details of sickness pay, redundancy, notice periods, maternity, admin tasks, dinner breaks and so on.  Boring as all the fine print was, I feel better prepared for next year as a result.

The most unexpected part of the programme was a wonderful music/video performance by Banner Theatre about the academisation of Downhills Primary School in Tottenham.  Their performance made its political points good-humouredly and creatively: I felt preached to, but not indoctrinated.  It was also great, over the weekend, to meet trainees on other routes to QTS, and those based in secondary schools and FE colleges – you can learn a lot from other students, and it was good to be social and exchange ideas and experiences.  All in all, a fantastic weekend.

Behaviour management blues

I’m slowly gaining better strategies for behaviour management, though there are days when it’s still a struggle.  I’m an easy target when pupils want to push the boundaries: new to the school, slightly nervous, and not their real class teacher.  Sometimes pupils who are beautifully behaved for the class teacher are completely disrespectful to me.  And although schadenfreude isn’t nice, it is a relief sometimes to see MDSAs and supply teachers struggling with these pupils too!

However tricky it might be, I am responsible for class behaviour, and sticking to the school’s policy, rewards and sanctions.  There’s no point complaining.  In the same way that a bad workman blames his tools, a bad teacher blames the kids.  I can spend a lesson feeling bullied by 30 nine-year-olds, and still have to take it on the chin that it was my fault (whether by appearing flustered, nervous, indecisive, negative or angry), and make a new start the next day.  The change to improve the situation has to come from you (as wisely pointed out by Meryl on Tough Young Teachers – the patron saint of embattled trainees).  The best advice I’ve had so far is to praise lavishly and to act calmly – “fake it till you make it” – in order to appear unruffled by anything they might throw at me, rulers, paper planes or otherwise.

The other advice that has stuck a chord is “you are the weather in the room” which is so true.  Behaviour management is so much easier on days when I’m feeling happy and confident – minor things can be more easily brushed aside, and the lesson can gather momentum and engage the pupils before they have a chance to argue.  But the nature of teaching is that it’s not just for good days. Even on a miserable February morning, when you’ve spent your weekend working, and feel exhausted, you’ve still got to stand up in front of the class.  At such times, I do have the odd dream of office life with biscuits and tea, and a quick browse of hotmail before lunch.

Next term I’ll be in Key Stage One, so taking a break from Year 5.  I asked hopefully if the behaviour management might be easier with younger children – which was met with an incredulous, “If you’re too nice, they’ll run rings around you.”  But I’m nevertheless looking forward to working with Year 1, who were sweet on first acquaintance – little beings chirruping my name like the mice on Bagpuss.

The quest for an NQT job

In the brief lull of the Christmas holidays, amongst the sherry and the mince pies, there was time to catch up with background reading, filing, the Professional Development Profile, and a first look at the job market. Applications are a time-consuming process to do on top of teacher training – so although it’s early to be looking for NQT jobs, it felt worth making a start while I had some free time.

One of the initial attractions of teaching was that it seemed to be a career, rather than just a job – with professional standards, a positive community role, paths for progression and a measure of stability. That’s the Holy Grail – especially given the recession – but I need to get my first permanent post before that becomes a reality. I might have to muddle through a transition period of supply work and maternity-cover posts first. In previous careers, I’ve experienced the joy of acquaintances ringing up with offers of freelance work, of interviews which are essentially a friendly chat over coffee, but those opportunities tend to be part-time and precarious. For teaching interviews, I’m expecting a competitive slog of preparatory tasks, outfit panics, trial lessons, guided tours, strengths and weaknesses…

Over Christmas, I trawled through online advice for applying for NQT jobs, of which there is plenty, and asked a couple of teachers for advice. I’ve added links to some of the best articles as a page on the blog. Here’s a summary:

1) Think about the strengths of the school you’re training in – what strengths and skills have you learnt as a result of being placed there?

2) Be enthusiastic about teaching. It’s far too early to appear jaded! Remember to say why you want to be a teacher in the first place.

3) Use the skills of self-evaluation and reflection that are encouraged during teacher training to give a bit of depth to your applications and interview answers. Acknowledge areas for development, and have clear aims for the future. Don’t be too focused on past experience – what you want to achieve next is important, especially for future employers.

4) Make an effort to get on with any children you meet at the interview, or whom you teach in a trial lesson. They’ll be asked for their opinion of you afterwards. Acting as if you don’t like children is a no-no.

5) Remember all the things that make you a little bit different. Mention your subject specialism(s), transferable skills from previous jobs, and your hobbies, especially if they might be useful for after-school clubs.

6) It’s less nerve-wracking to ask permission for references before, rather than after, you’ve submitted your application.

7) Remember to check local council websites for jobs.  Some vacancies might not appear in the Guardian or TES.

8) Try to visit the school if you have the opportunity. Praise their displays. Trawl the school website and latest Ofsted report. Make your application tailored to that particular school. At the very least, get its name right.

9) Ask a teacher to have a look at your personal statement and give you feedback.

10) Beware the random person lurking around in the staff-room during your interview break – they will be reporting back on you (perhaps this is just my paranoia!).

11) While it’s worth starting looking early, the peak time for NQTs to get jobs is often in June, after the deadline for current teachers to hand their notice in.

It’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas

Having completed my first block practice and got to the other side, I now know I can teach – it’s just a matter of getting better at it (a process which will probably be ongoing for the next five years or so…).  It has been a relief to shift from being observer to practitioner, and get past those first nerves of standing in front of a class.

I’ve had the chance to plan a couple of one-off lessons, about Remembrance Day and the World Cup, which I’ve really enjoyed.  I’m looking forward to getting more involved in planning as the training progresses.  Even when you have a lesson plan provided, there’s still a creative process of thinking through how it will work in practice, anticipating what might be tricky or engaging.  When a lesson is going well, it is lovely to be able to respond to the class and make small detours, or slow down for tricky bits. The flipside is the little chants that sometimes spring up, and seem to take all the oxygen out of the room: “I don’t get it, Miss”, “This is really hard”, “I’m like Joey Essex, Miss”.  I know I’m sometimes at fault for aiming things a bit too high, or not breaking them down enough.  The class are so bright-eyed and articulate, so buzzing with confidence (or possibly bravado), it’s easy to forget they were born in 2004 and don’t have much prior experience of anything.

The workload has been overwhelming at times, especially during the block practice.  In Term 1, I thought I was working hard, while enjoying such luxuries as most Saturdays off, breaktimes chatting in the staffroom and Thursday nights at Zumba.  Term 2 was a bit of a shock.  After working all Saturday and Sunday the first weekend, I still hadn’t got on to my phonics assignment, which was the thing I really meant to do…  but my occasional yelps about the workload to teachers have been met with “welcome to our world!”   My impression is that you need to have the resilience and work ethic of Maggie Thatcher to survive in teaching, but without scaring the children.  The workload is set to increase as the year progresses, but I’m hoping my efficiency and skill will improve at a fast enough rate to manage.  The great blessing is that unlike normal jobs, where you slog it out for the long-haul, with teaching there is the magic of a 2-week holiday to look forward to.  The moment towards the end of term where the workload suddenly lifted, to be replaced with Christmas crafts, pantos and a festive donkey, was slightly euphoric!

Going forward into Term 3, one of the main pieces of advice I’ve been given is, in the words of Hilary Mantel, to “arrange your face”.   Apparently (and I can quite believe this), I looked like a scared rabbit all the way through my assessed observation.  My training manager pointed out that children can sense fear “like dogs or horses” and that I needed to take on the appearance of a swan.  Other advice was to vary my voice more, and make use of friendly nurturing tones, and stronger more disciplinarian ones as appropriate.  She found things to praise too, and I feel reassured going forward into Term 3.  A piece of advice that’s stuck with me from the Train to Teach Roadshow in Bristol is that teaching is a profession of fresh starts – whether a new lesson, week or term, and so it’s worth being persevering when things aren’t going so well.  That’s certainly been my experience.  So much seems to depend on the mood of the classroom: trying to foster a positive working atmosphere where the children are engaged.  Some days I feel I’ve got the knack, but it’s not secure yet.

While the classroom is the crucible of it all, the moment when I first felt like a teacher wasn’t in school at all – but standing in the supermarket, looking slightly deranged, still wearing my swipe identity card, as a shop assistant said, “So you don’t want the lollipops, you just want the lollipop sticks?”  This is now my world.  Whether the pupils see me as a proper teacher yet is debatable.  But I can take heart from knowing, according to one Christmas card, that I am “one of the best TAs on Earth.”

The Great War in 65 minutes

My School Direct route is a general pathway with no official specialism, but the programme leaders have suggested a do-it-yourself approach: decide on a specialism and gather evidence for it, because it will help at interviews next year.

I decided on History, the subject of my MA.  So I was really pleased to have the opportunity to teach a one-off history lesson for Remembrance Day, using Teachers’ Media resources as a starting point.  I needed to adapt the resources for the class I work with, going back to basics a bit, as it was a completely new topic.  Therefore, I decided to focus on the trench experience, and the activity of writing a soldier’s letter home.

I was interested to find out what History resources were available locally for schools, and spoke to a local museum, an archive and a heritage centre.  They were planning educational resources for next year’s Centenary, but none were yet available.   This was a shame as I felt that physical objects would make the history real and engage the pupils more than an ICT resource or laminated print outs.  On Remembrance Sunday, there was a World War I exhibition in the local town hall, full of ephemera from the time.  Some of the exhibits were pretty ghoulish, including German barbed wire from No Man’s Land and rusting weaponry.  I was tempted to ask if I could borrow some for my lesson; before realising that bringing a World War I grenade into school without permission on Monday morning probably wasn’t the wisest idea.  Nevertheless, borrowing a museum handling box of real or replica artefacts is something I’d love to do for a History lesson in the future.

The pupils did engage with the topic.  To start with, I briefly covered what Remembrance Day was about; when the First World War happened; its causes and what the Western Front was (amazingly this fitted into 5 minutes rather than a PhD!).  For the initial activity, each table researched a different aspect of life in the trenches, using photographs, extracts of primary sources and books.  I was very wary of exposing the pupils to any material that was too grim, and didn’t feel it was appropriate for them to do internet research.  They shared what they’d found out with the class, and then all wrote letters home as if they were a soldier in the trenches.

I was impressed by how much the pupils managed to write, and that they gamely had a go after only half-an-hour studying the topic.  A few of their letters were dryly factual, or made the war sound like a particularly bad birthday party: “the trenches are horrid, can you come and get me?”  Others had wonderful bursts of empathy and imagination: “I am sorry about the mess on this letter, it’s raining as I write it”; “Those rats are fearless.  Some of them are nearly as big as cats!”; “I wash in filthy water that fifty other men have washed in”, “To keep happy, we sing songs about going home”; “I promise you with all my heart that I will keep safe.”  It might sound geeky, but I really enjoyed marking the letters, partly because it was a lesson I’d planned and cared about, but also because they’d all come up with something original.

Goodbye to Term 1

As Term 1 draws to a close, I’ve been asked to reflect on something I find easy, and something I find hard, about teaching so far.

The thing I’ve found trickiest is, perhaps predictably, behaviour management. I’ve ambled through office and museum jobs being fairly laidback and not-remotely-bossy. This approach doesn’t really cut it in the primary classroom! As half-term fast approaches, I’ve been given some full lessons to teach. I don’t want the classroom to turn into a merry-go-round of wandering pupils, giggling fits, tall tales of playground mishaps and ‘Miss, Miss, can I go to the toilet Miss?’. It is, after all, learning time.

My mentor has suggested practising ‘The Look’ in a mirror, and says I need to find my ‘teacher voice’, and tell off the furniture at home until I get it right! A couple of times in class, I’ve found the right teacher-ish, stern tone. The pupils could hear it too – and seemed almost pleased to have discovered the boundaries where I will lay down the law (don’t dance in the middle of Literacy; don’t attach a pen to your nose…). The talent of being able to turn this teacher voice on at will (in the way I can hear experienced teachers doing expertly, especially when marshalling two hundred-or-so children in assembly) is so far elusive…

So that’s the hard bit. A (relatively) easy bit is assessment. Marking is a bit like proof-reading, which I did many hours of when working in publishing, and so feels reassuringly familiar. It’s the kind of quietly satisfying routine task where, as long as you’ve got the time, you can be fairly sure of doing a good job. My class teacher has inducted me into the mysteries of Green Pen Targets and APP sheets. I also attended a great training session where we sorted through a bunch of books from different schools, deciding who’s feedback style we liked best and why. The training session brought home that it’s important to remember there’s a child reading and decoding all the marks, comments and targets. As I remember from publishing, it can be demoralising for adults, let alone 9-year-olds, to have every missing apostrophe and mis-spelling in their work marked up. I’ve followed my class teacher in including plenty of praise and smiley faces. Books are returned rainbow-coloured with felt tip.  However, the novelty value of marking may wear off – especially as I start to teach more full lessons and am faced with daily wads of books to get through. Long may the honeymoon period last!