Collecting advice for new teachers

Recently, I’ve made a point to write down any advice I’ve heard for teachers, especially new teachers. I’ve been lucky to attend some amazing events and chat to lots of educators. It’s been so valuable to hear what they have to say, so I thought it might be helpful to share some of the advice I’ve heard.

  • Your main job as a teacher is to raise aspirations.
  • Be consistent in your expectations. You can help students a lot by being a stable influence in their life.
  • Ignore the “rule” about not smiling till Christmas.
  • Set out very clearly what your rules and expectations are at the start of the year. Ask the students to come up with rules and agree on them together. You can even name the rules after the student who suggested it to give all the students a sense of ownership of the rules and motivation to follow them (eg. “let’s remember Hannah’s rule, we don’t talk when somebody else is talking”).
  • Agree on expectations with the students, then hold them accountable
  • Make use of connections with nearby schools and other schools
  • Think about language and make it positive: instead of saying “Steve, spit out that gum! Sarah and Jess, stop talking!”, positively narrate what’s happening and what you expect, eg. “Steve’s about to put his gum in the bin – thank you, Steve. Sarah and Jess are bringing their conversation to an end now, thank you”
  • Always have high expectations.
  • Be very resilient if you want to make changes in a school. Keep bringing the idea/issue up and be willing to put in the work.
  • Write down something good about every day and put it in a jar.
  • Take stock of things as often as possible – think, reflect, listen to thoughts.
  • Mindset is the most important thing to change in students.
  • Make sure you remember all the students’ names, even if you don’t see them very often.
  • There are frustrating things that you can’t control. Eg. due to progress targets, it can become practice to lower the reported achievement/progress of students so it’s not too unrealistic for them to progress the next year. Try and brace yourself for things like this and don’t let it get you down.
  • Don’t lose your temper, you will regret it. Always stay calm.
  • If you are interested in being a headteacher, bear in mind that being a good teacher is not enough. Running a school is like running a business. You need to budget; recruit and retain staff; talk to and appease stakeholders; be good at strategy, planning, data analysis, etc. 
  • Make friends with the kitchen staff, librarian, cleaners etc. They are underappreciated, and on a more selfish note they are often the ones that can really help you out if you are in a fix.
  • You probably won’t get appreciation for your hard work, but show it to others as much as possible
  • Students’ behaviours are learned, you can model better ones.
  • You can apologise if you lose your temper.
  • Keep a learning journal, reflect on your practice each day.
  • Don’t reveal too much about yourself to your students in your first year of teaching. They are not your friends, the tendency can be to overshare. Keep a professional distance – you can’t unshare anything you have told them and students remember more than you think.
  • In secondary school it’s really hard to get parents to come in for parents evenings. In primary, parents are there a lot and need a lot of assurance (who you are, where you’re from, what your experience is, why you are qualified to look after their children).
  • Ask people to observe your teaching and give you feedback as much as possible.
  • Resist temptation to ask for observation of your best classes. Ask for observations of your toughest classes – this feedback will be the most helpful.
  • Praise the kids for their effort, not for their intelligence or their results, to encourage a growth mindset. If praise is contingent on success or results then people become afraid to fail (read “Mindset” by Carol Dweck for more info).
  • Don’t ask students if they understand what you’ve told them – ask if they can explain it back to you. 
  • Get a personal hard drive to keep with you at all times and fill it with resources for all age groups you might encounter.
  • (Particularly in regards to SEN students, but applies more generally too:) always interact with students in a way that if their parents suddenly walked in the room you wouldn’t be ashamed of how you were interacting with them.
  • Trainee teachers tend to waste time by making resources for scratch and being perfectionists – don’t reinvent the wheel. Get material already made (eg. from TES) and modify it to suit your purposes.
  • Be authentic – use your own style and know your limits. You’ll see some teachers using really great techniques or teaching styles, but it just wouldn’t work for you because it wouldn’t be your authentic style.

Please let me know if you have anything to add, advice is very welcome!

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Book recommendation: “Success Against the Odds” by Brett Wigdortz (CEO of Teach First)

I am a complete bookworm, so of course one of my key preparations for starting teacher training with Teach First is reading everything related to teaching, leadership and pedagogy that I can get my hands on. I love getting book recommendations, so in case any of you do too I will be sharing my recommendations and thoughts on any relevant books that I read.

As a Teach Firster, it makes sense that I start with “Success Against the Odds. Five lessons in how to achieve the impossible: the story of Teach First”. This book was released in 2012 by the founder and CEO of Teach First, Brett Wigdortz, and is his account of how he conceived of and founded Teach First; the challenges faced in setting it up; and how it progressed in its first 10 years.

Image result for success against the odds brett wigdortz

Key features

  • The book is a fairly chronological account of how Teach First was conceived of in 2001 and implemented up until 2012.
  • The Teach First values (Commitment, Integrity, Excellence, Collaboration, Leadership) are very much at the core of the book. The values are used to explain how the organisation was conceived and successfully developed, and the book is structured in 5 chapters, with each chapter focussing on the importance of a particular value (whilst explaining the journey of Teach First).
  • At the start of each chapter is a one-page, inspiring case study of how a Teach First teacher has helped a student in difficult circumstances.
  • There are “how to” boxes throughout the book that explain things mentioned in the book, eg. “how to write a business plan”, “how to attract Generation Y”.
  • There is a strong focus on the business side of things, including the nitty-gritty of how things got up and running and very honest accounts of the challenges and near-fatal moments (“valleys of death”) for the charity, as well as the many successes (“hills of happiness”).  However this is very intertwined with explanations and motives for the vision of TeachFirst (“no child’s educational success should be limited by their socio-economic background”) and how and why TeachFirst candidates are recruited.

My reaction

I didn’t really know what to expect from this book when I started reading; honestly it was a lot more nitty-gritty than I expected, especially at the start. Despite how successful TeachFirst has become and what a great idea it clearly was, it seems its existence was teetering on a knife edge for a very long time. Despite an immense amount of hard work put in by Brett and many staff and supporters, quite a lot of the reason Teach First ever got off the ground seems to be down to luck: it was lucky that the government was looking for new ways of providing Initial Teacher Training when the programme started;  lucky that a similar programme had already started in America; and lucky that the government at the time was focused on education and willing to promote Teach First and provide it with funding to expand.

Although there is a lot focus is on the things that Brett didn’t have (educational experience, leadership experience, knowledge of Britain or public policy etc.) it is also clear that he was in quite a good situation in terms of things like working for a finance company that allowed him to take unpaid leave to start the charity and put him in touch with a lot of invaluable contacts; having connections to private sector parties who would donate office space and money to Teach First etc. To me that seems as valuable as the things he was lacking, but I guess the grass always seems greener on the other side!

At the start of the book I was actually quite disheartened, as TeachFirst seemed so close to failure all the time, so it seems many great ideas would never take off the ground without “the planets aligning” and many factors beyond your control being favourable. As someone with lots of ideas which I would love to turn into educational charities or initiatives one day (without any business background or connections) this was quite depressing, although I guess a reality check is always a good thing, and I am trying to think of it as inspiring because it means even if you have a great idea and you fail it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great idea, maybe it just wasn’t the right time. It doesn’t mean that future endeavors would fail, although it seems it would take a lot of resilience and energy to carry on or try again, as it is very clear from this book exactly how much hard work and energy went into getting Teach First to where it is today.

The first 2 chapters of this book are definitely why it was categorised as “business”, and I’m not quite sure who this book is actually aimed at; people interested in Teach First (as there is a lot about the vision of educational equality)? People interested in business (as there is a lot about the logistics of getting Teach First set up as an independent charity)?  It seems to try to cater to both. For me, as someone interested in Teach First more than the logistics, it was a very interesting read.

Chapter 3 (The Value of Excellence) is about the recruitment of the Teach First participants, which is when it gets very interesting for me as it becomes clear that one of the most important features of Teach First is having extremely high standards, and this was something they really had to fight for. I didn’t realise that the acceptance rate onto Teach First is so low: in the first year they had over 1000 applicants but only accepted 186 out of a 200 target. Many people naturally didn’t understand why they didn’t just recruit 200 participants when they had more than enough applications to do so, but they insisted on only accepting people who they had no doubts about. The current acceptance rate according to the book (so in 2012, I assume) is 18%. For me this was very motivating, as it helped me realise what an accomplishment it is to have been accepted onto the Leadership Development Programme. Since the values and vision of TeachFirst are so important in recruitment, I am even more excited to start the Summer Institute now and meet the rest of my cohort. It will be amazing to be surrounded by people with similar goals and motivations to me.

There were also lots of stories throughout the book of amazing things Teach First participants and ambassadors have gone on to do, such as starting charities like Jaimie’s Farm, and contributing to many huge improvements in GCSE results in challenging schools. It was very motivating and has really got me thinking of the impact I could make if I work hard enough and encompass the Teach First values.

I thought it was very clever how the values were a core part of both the book to emphasise how important they are to Teach First in general. The conception of Teach First, the development of Teach First as an independent charity, the structure of the book, and the selection process for the candidates all seem to have the values at heart, and it really hammered home how important they are to think about and always work towards.

Aside from a lot of motivation, one of the most useful and important things the book instilled in me was that failure and not being the best (or even good at something to start with) is all part of learning and growing and doing something good. The honesty in this book was very helpful, Brett shared the feedback he got about what an “awful” boss he was at one point and didn’t hide the times when he feels he wasn’t getting things right. This is so useful to me because I am perfectionist and very conscientious about letting people down. I am always grateful for reminders that excellence doesn’t mean not ever failing, and that things might go wrong quite frequently, but that isn’t something to be ashamed of and doesn’t mean you aren’t doing something very worthwhile.

Would I recommend the book? 

Yes! I think if you are interested enough to read this review (which has turned out to be far longer than I expected ) you would definitely find the book very interesting. If you are a Teach Firster it’s a must, and I would recommend it to educators and anyone interested in starting an independent charity.

New blog (2017: the year I start teaching)

I decided to start this blog partly as an outlet for how excited and nervous I am about starting teacher training this July, and also because I hope it might helpful or interesting to provide an insight into what the process of becoming a teacher is like.

Ever since I got accepted onto Teach First I have been looking for blogs by educators, particularly by Teach Firsters, and I have found some really interesting ones. I have particularly enjoyed First day at school, which includes a pretty detailed account of the 2013 summer institute (I’m not sure who wrote it, but if you ever read this thanks for writing such a helpful blog, and I hope you will start blogging again one day!), though sadly it does stop after the first term of teaching (.. totally understandable since it seems free time is at a premium for teachers!). I’ve also read blogs by Teach First ambassadors about their ideas and experiences as teachers after completing the programme (eg. Pragmatic Reform, Gurmeet Kaur) and many great blogs by educators (eg. Mr Hill’s Musings, Kevenbartle’s Blog ).

However, a blog starting from before teacher training and continuing throughout a teaching career is something I haven’t yet found. It would be so interesting to see how a teacher’s perspectives changes from being a trainee to an experienced teacher, so I thought why not start a blog myself?

It’s so nice to be training in a time when there are such strong educational communities via blogs and social media; I feel like I can really learn a lot and get a lot of help and advice before I’ve even started. It’s so helpful for teachers to share best practices and mistakes for others to learn from, and to share their perspective from the “front line” of education.

I’m pretty sure I’m going into this quite naive about how much work it’s going to be and what the challenges are going to be. Honestly, I know a lot of (really good) teachers who quit because they felt they just had to for their health and well-being, even ones who started only a few years ago – so I know it’s going to be really difficult. In fact, I pretty much only know ex-teachers.

I would really like to be in teaching long-term, so I’m concerned I won’t enjoy it, or that I’ll just burn out… teaching in the UK isn’t being painted as a sustainable career if you want any kind of life lately. That’s my main worry really, not being able to do the job well or not feeling like I can make it into my career. Though maybe if I expect it to be really, ridiculously tough then it might be better than I thought?! I’ll keep you posted…

On the bright side, I am really really looking forward to starting training, meeting my students, challenging myself, learning a lot, and having lots of opportunities to interact with students and hopefully encourage them and make a positive difference in their life. I’ve been lucky to have some brilliant teachers, and I’m very grateful to them for making school a positive experience where I learnt what I could do if I worked hard enough (even if I never did thank them properly), so hopefully I can pay that forward to my students.

My plan for now is to write about how I’m preparing for the Summer Institute (the intensive training part of Teach First) and the classroom, particularly in terms of the books I am reading as I am a complete bookworm and I’m guessing I will have far less time to read when I am actually teaching!

Feel free to follow my blog for email updates when I post, or to check out my twitter – there seems to be a great educational community on twitter which I am excited to follow and be a part of.