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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.

Marking

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:

  1. Content – misuse of information/lack of understanding
  2. Technique – poor structure and argumentation
  3. 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:

  1. Clarify areas of misunderstanding – content
  2. Model good and bad structure and argumentation – technique
  3. 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.

Behaviour

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.

Smart new teachers flock to coasting schools for an easier lifeLast Saturday I witnessed my first speech day at Wellington (watch this trailer by the student-run TV station, WTV, for a glimpse of what the day had in store). Singing, dancing, poetry, speeches and prizes, made up a breath-taking 3 hour(!) spectacular in a ‘big-top’ hired out specially for the event. One could only marvel at the sheer scale of the event and talent of the pupils. It was superbly over the top and a welcome contrast to the stuffy formality that many public school speech days involve.

The following day I came across an article on Schools Week which halted my end-of-year jubilation in its tracks. Entitled ‘Smart new teachers flock to coasting schools for an easier life‘, the article focuses on the recent work of John Brown from the IoE which sought to analyse the recruitment of new teachers to establish whether there was a link between degree outcome and the socio-economic make-up of the schools that appointed them to their first post. Although I cannot find this research paper online, the article reliably informs me that:

“higher qualified teachers were most attracted to schools with high achievement. After that they headed to those achieving greater progress and then to schools with more affluent pupils. Last came the schools that achieved greater progress accounting for pupils’ socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Whilst the focus on these factors as the key drivers of teacher recruitment is flawed – with other factors inevitably influencing a teachers’ choice of employer, such as proximity to the family home, whole-school ethos and the necessary teaching subject being offered – this article did make me think about the challenges the sector still faces in terms of ensuring the best teachers are attracted to teach in the schools most in need.

Whilst it’s true that some highly qualified graduates would choose to work in ‘coasting schools, the rise of Teach First – which places such graduates into schools with a higher than average proportion of disadvantaged pupils – has been meteoric. It recruited over 1,500 new teachers last year, resulting in current position as the top graduate recruiter in the country in 2014. However it is also manifest that new ideas are needed in order to keep excellent teachers in the schools in which they’re needed. Teach First’s own statistics show that 46% of teachers who have completed the Teach First programme have since left the profession. Thus, rather than the quandary of how to get ‘smart new teachers’ into the classroom, I believe the more complex question is how to get more teachers to stay in the classroom after teaching for two years in a challenging state school.


To understand how to achieve this, one must understand why many good teachers (either via Teach First or other entry routes) are leaving the profession. Whilst the NCTL doesn’t produce qualitative data on this (something they should aim to do in the future), I believe that the reasoning behind the majority of leavers is common: they are worn out and frustrated. Worn out after the daily battle to engage students with learning and the gruelling workload. Frustrated at school leaders who micro-manage rather than lead and at the politicians who posture but, to be frank, have no idea what they’re talking about. Even though the genuine reasoning behind poor teacher retention may be more nuanced than this, there is undoubtedly an issue if high quality teachers are not kept where they’re needed. It is not sustainable to have teachers come in for two years to be replaced by the next pair of of bright eyes, like a kind of post-university national service for teachers. As the OECD’s special adviser on education wrote in a report published in 2012 “people who see themselves as knowledge workers are not attracted by schools organised like an assembly line, with teachers working as interchangeable widgets”.

So what can be done about this? I don’t claim to have all of the answers, and every teacher will have a different opinion, but here are some thoughts:

1) Teach First needs a clearly defined ‘phase 2’. The current offer of a (mostly) self-funded Masters, additional workshops and a bit of coaching on the side is not enough to keep talented teachers on the gruelling treadmill. Teach First – or even a new organisation which could also appeal to non-Teach First teachers in the year after their NQT year – needs to offer a pathway for teachers to stay within disadvantaged schools but within a context that motivates them more than the general aim of ‘tackling educational disadvantage’. Teachers need scraping up, shaking down and re-engaging with the ‘mission’. Teaching Leaders already exists for middle leaders, and Future Leaders for aspiring headteachers, but what about ‘normal’ classroom teachers; what options are there for them? Teachers could be placed with another school within the Teach First network which matches their short and mid-term career aims, and which has a particular challenge which appeals to them. Whether this is supporting any one of the alphabet soup of SEN, EAL or G&T pupils, or a particular key-stage (for me it was KS5), individuals could be assured they were working in a school with a focus on that which inspires them. Relevant conversations could be had between Teach First and participants at the end of their first-term of their second year on the programme. At present, there is no formalised way for teachers to find out which schools might match their interests beyond broad searches on TES or word of mouth. This might have some complications and  some might argue that teachers should simply apply for a new job at another school if they are unhappy with their current employer but I believe that the current situation is a wasted opportunity to keep teachers engaged. We should be helping teachers move ship before they end up jumping ship.

2) Quality teachers need a pay-rise. This is perhaps the most challenging to administer, but the government needs to put its money where its mouth is. A recent study by the OECD showed that the potential cost to the UK economy for failing to educate a more highly numerate and literate workforce will be up to £1 trillion by 2095. The incentive to the government is clear; they must invest their resources into securing the proven and best qualified teachers money can offer. This must be comfortably more than they would achieve in less challenging (‘coasting’) schools and in the private sector. Alan Milburn, who chairs the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, has already called for a ‘teachers’ pay premium’ under which 2,000 of the best teachers would be given a 25% increase in salary for teaching in tough schools. No doubt this would have its own criticisms and there are obvious challenges with regards to best identifying which teachers have had and will continue to have the best impact in schools.

It is sometimes said that law and accountancy firms in the private sector have to pay their employees significant amounts because no rational individual would work such long hours and in such a mundane environment for the same salary achieved by those working in 9-to-5 jobs in more conventional surroundings. The same argument must follow for the government remunerating teachers working in particularly challenging schools where could have a transformative impact on those children but also on the wider UK economy. This is much an argument about economics as it is about social justice.


Of course there are other ways in which teachers could be persuaded to work and stay working in challenging schools. Long-term and sustainable school reform requires exceptional school leaders and programmes such as Future Leaders will do huge amounts in helping to achieve this goal. However there is a danger that the UK system as it exists will not provide sufficient flow in the number of high calibre candidates needed to take on leadership roles in the future.

We can only ensure that the very best teachers remain as school leaders in challenging contacts if we get the systems right from an early stage before many talented individuals have left the sector entirely. Pay is certainly not everything (and there are many teachers who even with a significant pay rise would still not wish to work for more than two years and very challenging circumstances) it is certainly a compelling policy option, alongside a more clearly defined pathway for classroom teachers working in challenging schools.