How to survive in teaching 

Teaching is a challenging job. we are accustomed to news stories about teachers leaving the profession and yet we don’t seem to have a clear idea of what to do about it. This is because in order to properly tackle these issues, we would need to change the fundamental ideas that underpin education and that’s hard.

These days, I am head of mathematics with a couple of whole-school roles that mean I no longer teach a full timetable. Go back a few years and I was head of science at a school in London that was officially labelled as, ‘facing challenging circumstances’. At one point, a colleague’s daughter was unwell and so I took over his class, teaching a 100% timetable for a term. I survived this and continued teaching so I have a few coping strategies to offer from a secondary school perspective.

1. Joint Planning

There is nothing more pointless than a teacher designing lessons and resources when the teacher in the classroom next door has already done this. We should work to improve materials already created and not to recreate them from scratch. In good schools, there are systems in place that require teachers to work collaboratively – there is a tight curriculum and an expectation that teachers follow it.

In bad schools, it’s every teacher for themselves. The bad idea that holds sway is that it’s somehow good for teachers to plan everything personally; that this will tailor the lesson to the specific needs of your individual students; that textbooks are bad. It clearly comes from a supposedly ‘child-centered’ outlook. Yet children actually have more in common in how they learn than you might think and it’s more efficient to teach to these commonalities. If a task works in the class next door then it’s likely to work in yours.

And the reality is this: a teacher who has to start with a blank sheet of paper is likely to latch on to something – anything – that they can quickly find on the internet in order to produce a lesson rather than constructing a well thought-out, optimal plan.

If you work in a school where teachers don’t share then you need to find some people to collaborate with. You need to ensure that you give as much as you get because teachers will soon tire of giving you stuff and not receiving anything back.

2. Avoid marking

Marking books is largely a waste of time. People somehow equate marking with feedback but there are far more efficient ways of providing feedback than writing it in the students’ books. In making the case for formative assessment, Dylan Wiliam asks:

“Does the teacher get the class’s learning back on track with the class in front of him, in one go, and when the meanings of students’ responses and the teacher’s questions can be negotiated, or does the teacher do it one student at a time, after they have gone away, and in writing?”

Consider the act of marking a student’s homework. You don’t even know the conditions under which it was produced. Did the student gain help from a friend or relative? Did they take more or less time than was intended? Effective feedback would need to take this into account.

And remember, the most important aspect of any kind of feedback is that the student takes it on board. If they ignore or don’t understand your beautifully crafted paragraph of points then it’s not actually feedback. It seems highly unlikely that a student will be able to handle anything more that two quite specific points (see Daisy Christodoulou’s new book on why many of the comments we tend to write are useless).

Instead, try simply reading what your students have written, noting some of the common mistakes and misconceptions and then address these in your next lesson. Wiliam’s ‘exit pass’ routine is good for this. Tell students that this is what you intend to do and, in my experience, you will have no complaints. If something is simple to mark – like a maths quiz – then ask students to do this themselves in class. They will gain feedback at a point when they can still remember the task and you can then collect their papers in order to perhaps check some of the marking and record the scores.

There is an emotional component to marking. Students need to feel their work is valued and reading through and marking books is one way of doing this – this is Phil Beadle’s marking as ‘an act of love’. You might also be under pressure from your school to do far too much marking. And it will be far too much. So bear that in mind and think of ways that you can reduce the amount that you are required to complete without falling foul of the rules. I absolve you of any guilt.

3. Centralised detentions

This is the most ideologically difficult strategy to enact. Many school leaders and academics are openly hostile to the idea of detentions, even in schools where they are notionally part of the system. And yet all teachers working in tough schools will need them as a fallback if they intend to maintain high standards. Often, issuing detentions is seen as a sign that your teaching is dull and uninspired whereas it’s probably a sign that you have high expectations of work and behaviour.

There are lots of steps you can take to avoid detentions. Ironically, one of these is to ensure that students know that you will follow through with detentions; something you can only prove by doing. And there will be pinch-points such as when you take a new class and they are sussing you out.

The problem with issuing detentions is that they rapidly become unworkable. You have a duty at lunch or an after school club and so the detention cannot be enacted straight away. You can lose a lot of lunches and break times to detentions. Many secondary school teachers struggle to make it across to the staffroom.

Ideally, your school will have a centralised detention system. This is increasingly mainstream in the U.K. but I’m not sure it’s caught-on elsewhere. If not, you can again try collaborating with colleagues. This is what I did as a head of science by organising a science department detention. Apart from when I had that 100% timetable, I use to schedule my detention slots so that I wasn’t teaching on the period before the detention. This meant that I could visit the classes of some of the students and collect them, minimising the need to chase absentees. I also rang home and asked parents to bring the students back if they did manage to escape.

Talk of detentions becomes emotive. People note that some kids are frequently in detention and use this to suggest that detentions don’t work. Clearly, repeat attendees need a higher level of intervention and schools should be able to provide this – many can’t or won’t. However, to claim this shows that detentions don’t work ignores the vast majority of students who never made it into detention in the first place because it acted as an effective deterrent.

You can also be ‘restorative’ while using detentions. I used to have students write about why they were in detention and then complete a worksheet about a fictional incident. They didn’t enjoy the task much but, in my view, the worksheets helped students think more objectively about behaviour (see these examples I found in my archive: thinking-about-behaviour-1thinking-about-behaviour-2, michael-and-mr-peters)

4. Don’t complain to non-teachers

I have come to realise that the only people who understand how hard teachers work are other teachers and people who live with teachers. If your family are not teachers then they will listen to your complaints and, at best, assume your exaggerating or, at worst, tell you off for whingeing: “But you have all those holidays!”

People who have moved into teaching from other professions are always particularly keen to talk about the workload, as if they are surprised by it. Non-teachers simply can’t grasp that there is more to the job than turning up and teaching your classes. So you won’t win. Instead, embrace it. Go somewhere lovely on a Wednesday during the school holidays and post photos of it all over Facebook.

Bad ideas

It is bad ideas that prevent us tackling the entrenched problems that lead to teacher recruitment and retention problems. If you want to know more about these bad ideas then you’ll find them critiqued on my blog. All schools subscribe to these bad ideas to a certain extent and you’ll have to decide whether any particular school is one you want to continue working in.

And if you want to know how hard it is to challenge the bad ideas then take a look Michaela Community School in London and the abuse that it has suffered mainly for putting points 1 to 3 into action.

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2 Comments on “How to survive in teaching ”


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