It’s that time in August which sees a very definite split in types of teacher. The first category, the ones I have always been in awe of, are currently decorating their Pinterest perfect classrooms and putting the finishing touches to their lesson plans. For the whole year. The second category, which I have always firmly fallen into, are those in complete denial and refusing to accept the summer holiday is coming to a close. The third category is the shiny new teachers, excited and perhaps a little nervous about starting such a challenging but rewarding career. These are the folk about to inject some enthusiasm and fresh ideas into the classroom. Here is my advice for surviving that first roller-coaster of a year based, in the words on Baz Luhrmann, on nothing but my own meandering experience.
- Get hold of the specification(s), the sample assessment materials and the examiner reports
There is so much information it is quite easy to get overwhelmed with what you need to know and be teaching. You’ll have schemes of work and lesson plans and lots of advice from colleagues. But the specification is the core of what you are teaching and it is important that you get your head around it. The sample assessment materials (often known as SAMS) and examiner reports can really help you to understand what the examiner will be looking for and it is useful to have that clarity before you step into the classroom. I would strongly recommend taking a quiet day (with a cup of tea and an aspirin) to familiarise yourself with this material. It really will be invaluable. All of the information can be found on the website of the relevant awarding body.
- Get a planner
Trust me, you will be lost without one! And all teachers love an excuse for new stationery right?
- Don’t reinvent the wheel with resources
In my first several years as a teacher I created absolutely everything from scratch and it had to be perfect. I spent hours and hours and hours creating these resources because I enjoyed it and I thought it would make me a better teacher. I now know this is not the case. Your focus has to be on whether your students are learning. Of course, your materials have to be engaging and I’m not saying not to spend any time on them, but will the perfect image you spent 30 minutes looking for really make that much of a difference? There are so many resources already out there on websites like Teachit and TES. And English teachers tend to be a very generous and sharing bunch so things like Twitter (see the next point) and Pinterest can save you hours. It took me a long time to realise that this wasn’t laziness, it was necessary if I was going to be at my best in front of my classes and not burn myself out.
- Use social media
If you aren’t already on Twitter I would strongly advise you to join. It didn’t exist when I started teaching (yes I’m that old) but if it had I know it would have made me a better teacher. It is overwhelming how generous people are with their support and the sharing of resources. I’d highly recommend the amazing @Team_English1 for this. You can also keep up to date with fabulous education events and CPD.
- Observe other teachers
Whenever possible, observe other teachers. I have found this to be one of most effective ways to improve my own teaching. It isn’t only about the material being taught, although of course that’s always useful. It’s about the nuances of their behaviour management techniques and personal teaching style. You won’t be able to use everything you see in your own teaching but I guarantee you will be full of ideas and techniques to try. Make sure you don’t limit this to just the English department either. That starter the Geography teacher used might be great for teaching some Shakespearean context…
- Do a pupil trail
Try to make sure you spend a day following a pupil around too (make sure the kid knows about this!) It is very, very easy to live in your own little classroom and subject bubble. Following a student around for the day really opens your eyes up to what their days are like. This can give you far more empathy for your learners and the better you are able to understand them, ultimately the better teacher you will be.
- Read books
Sounds an obvious one for English teachers right? Of course it is but I mean books that are focused on teaching as well as literature. There are so many books out there which will help you to hone and develop your teaching. You’ll probably end up taking some ideas from each you read. I always found it helpful to set myself a target of reading one per month to make sure it didn’t keep slipping to the end of my enormous to do list. My favourites are the ones which give you practical teaching ideas to try in the classroom. The two which I always return to and I have used again and again are Phil Beadle’s “How to Teach Literacy” and Jim Smith’s “The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook”.
This is another important one which is easy to lose at the bottom of the to do list. Always, always make time for some self-reflection. Find a way that suits you. I buy a nice notebook (yes I have an addiction) and spend ten minutes a day noting down thoughts about the teaching day. It can be as simple as a new idea for managing some little tyke’s behaviour to the way you felt when a lesson went really well. Of course, you’ll probably need to do this formally as part of your training, but I always found the complete freedom to write what I really felt without any restriction very useful.
The first year of teaching is a difficult but wonderful experience. You will laugh and you will cry. No two days are ever the same. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and make sure you look after yourself.
Best of luck!