Having taught for the past four years, I’ve been asked by a few friends, who are new to teaching, for some tips and advice. With the first half of term out of the way and the gloss of the new job wearing thin (what with the late nights planning, the endless piles of marking and little Jonny continually mucking around), now seems like a good time to offer my pearls of wisdom. So, having taught in both a challenging state school and a top independent school, what advice would I give to new teachers?
Planning and testing
First things first: relax. When you are a new teacher it is very easy to get stressed about planning every single minute of every lesson down to a tee. Partly due to the desire to do a good job and partly due to poor management and training, new teachers spend hours creating endless worksheets and PowerPoint presentations to accompany the lesson (most of which never get used in full). This is compounded by a terrible trait of some teachers (including – bizarrely – heads of department) to not openly share their resources with their colleagues (the inefficiency on display here is staggering, but that’s one for another day).
The answer to effective lesson planning and delivery is to keep it simple; less is more when it comes to activities. Pick two or three activities that work well and simply repeat these. Cast away the group work and banish the advice that you should be moving onto a new activity every 4-7 minutes. Focus on activities that make the students think deeply about what you’re teaching and build on this with effective questioning and low-stakes tests/quizzes. In fact, I’d be as bold as to suggest that, in the early days, you can just pick one activity that works well and repeat this every lesson. It’s seen as a bit passé in the progressive education sphere, but a clear teacher explanation followed by a comprehension (reading and writing) tasks, followed by class discussion/questioning, is in my experience, the best way to convey knowledge and to check understanding. All the time you spend faffing over whether to do a card sort or a ‘diamond 9’ or whether to use lollipop sticks and red/yellow/green cups for a mini-plenary (God help us!) is time you could spend picking out high quality reading material or crafting a better question to stretch your pupils.
My best lessons were very straightforward and nearly always followed the straightforward structure of:
- Greeting and register
- Recap prior learning (short quiz, questioning, video clip or teacher explanation)
- Explanation of what you’re doing today and how this relates to prior learning
- Activity (reading and questions) followed by class discussion/questioning
- Recap of lesson (short quiz or teacher explanation)
Textbooks are (mostly) your friends. Some textbooks are, admittedly, terrible, particularly where the case studies go out of date very quickly. But in essence, textbooks are written by experts on their subject in a way which is accessible for the age group that you’re teaching. Whilst this might offend some (it shouldn’t), as a new teacher you aren’t an expert in your subject. Having an undergraduate degree in something doesn’t make you an expert, so don’t waste hours of your time writing up your own notes. Find a good textbook for your subject/topic, and use it. Of course, supplement this with additional notes if needs be, but for now, cut yourself a bit of slack. Instead, focus on making your explanations clear, your delivery and your questions stretching.
To embed knowledge, devise a multiple choice quiz (no more than 15 questions) to use at the end of each lesson, and perhaps at the start of the next lesson. Every few lessons, give pupils the chance to do all of the quizzes covered to date (i.e. all 60 questions covered in the first four lessons). At the end of a topic, get pupils to answer all of the quizzes; over the course of a unit this could run to well over 100 questions. This is a brilliant and time effective way of revisiting topics and this repetitive process will help to embed knowledge.
If you are not one of the lucky few whose headteachers have decided to end the marking of classwork, then you will be expected to mark your pupils’ books every couple of weeks. If, like I used to, you teach a subject with limited contact time – say one hour per week – you could have anything up to 17 classes as a new teacher. If these classes have an average of 28 pupils in each class, that’s 476 exercise books that you need to be checking, once a fortnight. If each book takes three minutes (this is how long I worked out it takes to check a pupil’s book properly every fortnight – including correcting any errors with spelling and grammar) then marking all 476 book would take 1,428 minutes (or 23.8 hours) every fortnight in order to hit your school’s targets. That is, if you work totally efficiently, without distractions and without dying of boredom on the way! Add an assessment to this, and the time required will double (or triple if you include detailed KS4 or KS5 work). This calculation shows how ludicrous many schools’ marking policies are and how desperately misguided many headteachers are in their interpretation of Ofsted guidance. But moaning and groaning doesn’t get those booked marked, so what can you do to get your books marked without burning out?
The answer, like many challenges in teaching, is down to efficiency. With any assessment, pupils errors made nearly always fall under three categories:
- Content – misuse of information/lack of understanding
- Technique – poor structure and argumentation
- Spelling and grammar
So, rather than identify these in every single pupil’s books, skim read a few books to get an idea of what errors keep reoccurring, and then simply use the code ‘C’ (content), ‘T’ (technique) or ‘Sp’ (spelling)/ ‘Gr’ (grammar’) in the books. No words/comments are needed. This can reduce the amount of time spent on a book down to about 30 seconds (or under 15 minutes for a class of 28). Then at the start of your next lesson, dedicate some time to get pupils to re-read their work and then you can clearly:
- Clarify areas of misunderstanding – content
- Model good and bad structure and argumentation – technique
- Recap on key words that have been misspelt and emphasise which words should have capital letters – spelling and grammar
Give pupils the time to correct or improve their work (your school will probably make you do this in a green/purple pen…). The result of this is that every pupil has revisited and improved their work, whilst you have only spent about 15 minutes flicking through a class worth of books, 15 minutes writing up some specific and high quality feedback (which can be reused with every class that sits this assessment) and spent 5-10 minutes going through the above with the class. Compared to spending upwards of 90 minutes per class, replicating the same feedback over and over, this simple shift in approach will not only save you time (and your sanity) but also have a much greater impact on your pupils.
Unsurprisingly, behaviour will make or break your impact in the classroom. Get it right, and the atmosphere every lesson will be positive, you will feel like you’re making great progress and you will enjoy your job. Get it wrong, and your lessons will be stressful, frustrating and feel like walking through treacle. I passionately believe that
There are endless blog posts and books available on behaviour. This plethora of information, whilst often valuable, can be a little overwhelming. So I’ve boiled down my three top behaviour tips:
1. Never proceed whilst someone is talking. Doug Lemov’s silent technique is the best for grabbing attention. Here you abruptly cut off your sentence half-way through a word, thus creating immediate silence. The guilty student will realise pretty quickly that their voice is audible in the otherwise silent room, and will be quiet pretty quickly. If a pupil simply isn’t listening/focused during a task, then Lemov also champions the ‘minimally invasive correction technique’ to get that pupil on task without disrupting the entire class
2. Focus on the small things. If you let the small things go, the bigger things are harder to control. In one of my first sixth-form classes of the year, I saw that a pupil had coloured in the letters on the work pack that I had painstakingly produced. I gave this pupil a stern word saying that this made his work look sloppy and therefore showed a disregard for his learning. Many would argue that this was just harmless doodling, but I think that if you set expectations high over the little things, then pupils adjust to that and make a bigger effort to maintain standards in there important areas of their work. Once you’ve raised the bar high, it’s more likely to stay high throughout the year. Needless to say, that pupil and his class remembered this stern word even at the very end of the year – these things stick. You just need to make the effort to address them. Related to this – make the effort right from the very start to call home if pupils are mucking around. They will soon learn that you mean business.
3. Establish clear routines. You need to sit down and work out how you want pupils to enter and exit the classroom (e.g. stand behind chair in silence or sit down and get on with a task), how you are going to ask/answer questions (e.g. hands up or hands down ‘cold calling’) and how you are going to explain information/tasks (e.g. pens down, arms folded, tracking the teacher). Once you have worked out how you want pupils to act from the very start to the very end of the lesson, write it down in clear and explicit steps (David Thomas has explained this well). Print these steps out on A3 sheets and have them at the front of the classroom and explain them at the start of the year and then refer to them throughout the year (‘thank you class X for coming in and sitting down in silence and getting on with the task’). Kids need clear rules and routines – anything else is confusing for them and difficult for you.
I hope that these tips are useful. If you get these basic steps right, your life will become easier; you will be less stressed and have more time for friends and family. Happy teachers = better teachers, and a more sustainable teaching profession. Take the pressure off and keep it simple.