As I come to the end of my 6th year in teaching, I wanted to reflect on what I’ve learnt this year. I feel like this year, my practice has developed, I’ve managed to balance work and life effectively and I’ve learnt more and more about pedagogy and education politics.
This academic year has seen lots of involvement in conferences and events as well as supporting the work of the Education Support Partnership. It’s been a good year, so here’s a reflection on 5 things I’ve taken away from it.
1 // If it doesn’t benefit my students, why am I doing it?
I’ve learnt to question everything I do, to consider the benefits it has for my students and thus whether or not to do it. Obviously, I still have to do the things required of me by the school like writing reports and that, but I do question what I’m doing and why in order to make it have the greatest impact possible. When it comes to my own classroom practice, I think I’ve been teaching long enough that I have go-to strategies that I know work and whilst I try the odd new activity or approach I try to keep consistency for my students (and myself) and no longer try too many new things like I probably did in the first few years in order to find what worked and that my students ‘enjoyed’.
Before implementing anything, first consider the impact on students. How will it benefit them?
2 // Differentiation is misunderstood
This one has worried me at times, how differentiation seems to be so misunderstood by many. I’ve had many NQTs and trainees say they’ve been told to show differentiation in lesson observations; things like individual worksheets for each student with their target at the top and work to help them meet that target (crazy I know), having students do different tasks based on their prior attainment, grouping students into high, middle and low and giving them work based on their ability… the list goes on. Not only does it create excessive levels of work for teachers, it limits a student’s progress.
Overtime my understanding of differentiation has developed with research, action and curiosity. I will admit I was guilty of using the ‘spice challenge’ for differentiation in the past, but I never limited which one students could do, so long as it challenged them. It was always their choice. But there have always been the little things too like word lists, scaffold sheets etc. and plenty of choice. Additionally I like to give students independence and responsibility for their learning by making differentiated resources available to all so students can opt to make use if they wish to do so.
We need to remember that differentiation is more than just the task we give students or small adjustments and provisions we make such as coloured overlays or paper, it’s a teacher’s response to learner’s needs and therefore can be planned or unplanned, long term or short term, explicit or subtle.
These days I’ve learnt to teach to the top and differentiation down through the use of scaffolds, feedback and in-class intervention strategies. Appears to be working.
3 // Saying no is hard to do, but has to be done
As much as you might not want to say no, learning to say it is vital for your own sanity, health and wellbeing. Teachers (generally speaking) want to do well for their kids, they also want to be good at what they do and that also means we sometimes take on far more than we should. Before my breakdown, I struggled with saying no. Partly due to my desire to succeed, but also partly due to the performance management process.
The performance management process, which for many involves book scrutinises, observations, crazy targets etc. etc. has had a hugely determinantal impact on our ability to say no, both to requests from others and to ourselves.
It’s important that we do though.
In my last school, books had to be marked every 4 lessons. For me that meant marking every night which would take 3-4 hours to do a set. I had between 12-16 classes each year over a two week timetable across the humanities (Geography, History and Opening Minds) as well as ICT. I didn’t want to ‘fail’ book checks so made sure I kept up to date. I even had a marking timetable to keep track. That was unhealthy I realise. I’d stay up to around 9 every school day, just marking books as there was no time in the school day. So that meant my day consisted of wake up, go to work, teach, admin and phone calls, go home, eat, mark, sleep and repeat each day. Where was the life?
Now I’ve learnt to be strict on myself when it comes to a work-life balance. I don’t have kids, so I can stay in school until 5-6pm get all my work done then take nothing or very little home. Usually if I take anything home it’s the last few essays I haven’t finished marking and want to finish, but that’s because I want to not because I feel I must. I’ve never had students complain when their work wasn’t marked for the next lesson, that’s who we do it for so why worry about book checks?
It’s important to be able to set yourself limits and stick to them, but know you can alter them if you need to. Don’t take on too much, if you can’t fit it into your directed time and the hours you opt to work just say sorry, I can’t.
4 // Plan for progress by planning backwards
Planning backwards is a skill I’ve developed over time and involves carefully planning learning not lessons . Ever since I set up the humanities department singlehandedly from scratch at my last school, it’s become one of my most honed skills I reckon. It takes time to be able to look at the bigger picture and work backwards; you need to consider the content, the skills and the development process of both. By doing so, I can plan assessments and feedback throughout the course, year and term. I can see how everything fits and works to develop the best possible learner I can create in a year, over the course and within the 5 or 7 year geographical experience within my department.
It was hard work to begin with, but the one thing it has done is made me a more effective teacher. I’m constantly thinking about the big details and how they relate to the minute day-to-day teaching.
By planning for progress, it has also meant I’ve reduced my workload. With my team, we planned out assessment, feedback and feedforward across each year group across the year to identify the work that will be formatively assessed, the work that will receive feedback and who the feedback will come from.
Feedback as a result isn’t just the responsibility of the teacher; I train the students from day one to be able to give their own feedback to their peers and to themselves. In the end this helps them to self-regulate and progress effectively.
5 // Being organised is essential
Probably the most under-rated skill in a teacher’s repertoire. Seriously, I’ve become a master organiser since becoming a teacher – possibly to medically diagnostic levels but still it’s a vital skill to have to help limit the stress, particularly of deadlines.
Know the school calendar or at least regularly check it. Take note of upcoming deadlines and organise your time to be able to complete them in time. It reduces stress and anxiety, I promise. It can also help Heads of Departments and your Line Manager, if they don’t have to chased you; making them happier too.
Print resources at the beginning/end of the week ahead. Stops you just ‘adjusting’ lessons in your PPAs so you actually spend time doing things you actually need to do.
Plan your PPAs. Have a definitive, yet realistic list of what you want to complete and aim to do it.
Avoid distraction, when I was stressed I’d always go and do what I didn’t need to do usually lesson planning as it was the one thing I enjoyed. This only made things worse as I’d still have to face the task at some point. Delaying it just it more stressful.
Keep your resources organised. I have folders for each year group on a desk at the front of my room. I keep resources in there when we’ve used them. This means students can always catch up and I have the resources ready for next year. Admittingly I need to organise them as at the moment they are just shoved in there, but I’m waiting for a filing cabinet to become available.
What have your takeaways from the year been? Feel free to share them in the comments.