I'm celebrating ten years of teaching this year. If you buy into Malcolm Gladwell's theory, outlined in his book 'Outliers: The Story of Success', that means I've still actually got a little way to go before I clock up the 10,000 hours required to truly master something.
I've also made fairly rapid progress up the greasy pole of school leadership, so some will tell you that I no longer possess the credibility to comment on matters of teaching, and certainly not of learning, because my careerist tragectory has now firmly established me as part of the problem.
So I may not quite carry the weight of experience required, and I may now be 't'gaffer', but occasionally I've worked with colleagues on helping them evaluate their practice and sometimes they have told me that I've been able to help. So I thought I'd set down a few things I've learned in ten years along with a few things I'd like to be able to tell myself back in 2002 in order to save a lot of time, worry and anxiety.
1. You are probably teaching in a school because institutions and timetables suit you better than being an entrepreneur, an artist or a maverick. Accept that about yourself and the job and you will be happier. You probably could not earn more in the private sector, regardless of your intelligence, for this reason. You are probably liberal by conviction but you will regularly feel conflicted by your authoritarian and hierarchical instincts - this is natural and does not make you a bad person. Children need figures of authority and structure in order to make mistakes, to make poor personal choices and to experience new freedoms safely around people who care for them. You are powerful and important in your role and (without wishing to sound pompous) you have a responsibility to work hard to be the best teacher that you can possibly be.
2. Here are the things that matter in terms of accountability:
- mark their work regularly and formatively;
- understand the assessment modes and methods as thoroughly as you can and guide them through it as well as you possibly can;
- always answer queries and requests from students, parents and colleagues quickly and constructively.
3. Here are the things that matter in terms of creativity:
- don't listen to anyone who tells you there is a 'right' method of teaching and a 'wrong' method (only listen when they show or prove to you that a method you have chosen isn't working);
- not every lesson you plan and deliver can or should be like an episode of 'Glee' (you never see the musicians endlessly practising their scales do you?);
- the day you stop being open to new ideas, strategies, technologies and techniques is the day you need to start looking for a new job.
4. Here are the things that matter in terms of questioning:
- the bright child who makes you feel good by answering your question instantly and with relish is not your friend - it was easy and they've learned nothing;
- the child who looks crestfallen as they struggle to answer your question is not damaged by the experience (but make sure they answer one correctly before the end of the lesson) unless you make your classroom a place where to be wrong is to be humiliated (in which case you are a terrible person);
- ask questions of everyone and follow them up with probing, searching head scratchers which make it difficult for everyone (that's differentiation and challenge you know!).
5. Here are the things that matter in terms of behaviour:
- some of it may well be down to your teaching, but most of it is usually down to the lack of an effective system in the school (unless you have an effective system and you aren't applying it consistently, in which case you've only yourself to blame);
- your mood and tone is always the dominant one in the classroom - if you are edgy and cross, the chances are the children will generally amplify and ape this (try to stay cool and try to keep smiling);
- always have and enforce a seating plan and don't listen when they tell you they work best with Sophie - they don't.
6. Here are the things that matter in terms of work/life balance:
- you will get more efficient and quicker at terrible things like marking and report writing but, rightly or wrongly, (and I'm really sorry about this) teaching will always be a job which takes about sixty hours a week to do well;
- if you're spending eighty hours plus a week doing it, you are doing something wrong and need to work more efficiently (you'll make yourself ill);
- don't work on at least one day a week if you can possibly help it (your family, friends and mental health need you).
7. Here are the things that matter in terms of presence:
- don't kid yourself with precious notions of integrity and honesty, when you are teaching you are presenting a version of you, and that version requires rehearsal and preparation;
- where you stand in the room and the way you use your voice is very important, you should be as reflective about this as an actor on stage is - film yourself teaching (cringe and critique!);
- always greet students at the door and smile and interact with children around the school - you get back what you give out in this respect.
8 Here are the things that matter in terms of literacy and numeracy:
- most students fail to access a lesson because they can't understand what is being delivered (naturally) - this is, more often than not, a literacy issue (we are all teachers of literacy);
- make sure that you always model written activities or at the very least provide good examples - providing a suggested structure or even a scaffold is not cheating, it is teaching;
- teach spelling strategies explicitly, get all students reading and never bow to the temptation of allowing SEN/D or mixed ability issues to become an excuse for either dumbing down the texts you use or not hearing a child speak or read aloud to you.
9. Here are the things that matter about planning and teacher talk:
- don't listen to anyone who tells you that teacher talk is inherently bad - the point is not how much you talk but the quality and impact of what you say (boring/ineffective teacher talk is just as useless as directionless group work);
- the point of a scheme of work should never be to essentially hand you a ready made lesson - they are about sharing ideas, resources and ensuring a broad consistency of experience (don't expect anyone else to plan your lesson for you);
- never spend more time writing a lesson plan than you do delivering the lesson (I've seen this happen so often), and always sit down to plan thinking about the outcomes/success criteria ahead of what you want them to do.
10 . If you make it ten years in the job (many, many sadly don't), you will doubtless have formed strong views about the job and of the political and structural winds which batter us as teachers. This is right and proper and natural but it should never be allowed to overpower those core values which took you into the classroom in the first place. Those entry level aspirations were always noble, right, innocent and pure - and the one thing that will never change is the joy that a good teacher can glean from a well delivered lesson and a child who is making great progress in your care. It is, for those with the guts, resilience, tenacity and reflective wisdom, the best job in the world.
Enjoy half term - another of the best things about the job!