Sunday, 9 September 2012

Things I Wish I'd Known

4 years ago, I embarked on a career about which I had no clue. I didn’t know this at the time, of course. I thought teaching English was about cosy classrooms and endless conversations about poetry with the only aim being to enthuse students. I was wrong and right. Teaching is wonderful, but like many many other jobs, it’s also full of bureaucracy, meetings and pressure. I wish someone had told me this before I’d started, to shake me out of my naïveté.

So if you’re beginning a PGCE this September and are about as clued-up as I was, this one’s for you!
  
Things I wish I’d known…

…about the training process

When you apply for a PGCE, you’re asked to observe in schools as part of the process. This requirement exists for a reason, so do as much observation as possible as it will give you an insight into what modern teaching looks like. You’ll pick up the jargon that will impress your interviewer when you talk about the difficulty of getting plenaries right, or when you discuss the use of SIMs. Be as hands-on as possible and use this time in school to learn how to use IWBs or the VLE etc as this will give you a head start when it comes to your school placements.

As a PGCE student, I walked around with a perpetual fear of failure. I was convinced that I would be busted at any moment for the lesson plans I hadn’t written yet or the marking that my year 9s were still waiting for. This, I learned from many others, is normal and can linger beyond your training year. Truth is, there are not enough hours in the day to complete all of the tasks that go with doing a good job, but somehow you and your classes will and do manage with however much preparation and work you have put in.

When you’re training you’re both a student attached to a University as well as a teaching professional in a school. Looking back, I’d say don’t build up the importance of the university/academic side of the training too much. So many PGCE students think that when their University mentor comes to their school to observe, it’s ‘make or break’ time. It really isn’t – the proof of your success or failure is in how well you’ve developed and maintained your work and relationship with your classes during your placement and what your placement mentor says about your progress. If anything, it’s the colleagues rather than your lecturer that you need to impress…start with buying them biscuits, that helps. Even if your big observation doesn’t go well, or your placement for that matter, as long as you’re showing yourself to be able to take on feedback and understand how to improve, you’ll be fine, and you’ll be supported.

The thing about teaching is that you can’t learn about how it’s done through reading, theorising or attending lectures alone. It takes practice and continual review of your techniques throughout your career. It wasn’t until the end of my NQT year that I realised that I was finally getting the hang of teaching. I look back at some of my earliest lesson plans now and laugh – I really didn’t have a clue, and I thank the generous teenage souls who sat through my lessons so patiently. The only memorable piece of theory that I have ever used from my PGCE year is Bloom’s Taxonomy. I’m not saying that academic theory isn’t useful, but for me it only began to make sense once I was confident in my practice and able to understand how it’s applied. So rather than using the ideas put forward in the lecture hall, most of the ideas that have informed my teaching techniques have come from colleagues feeding back after attending conferences and training days.

…about marking

Marking kills me.

It takes me ages and seems to haunt my leisure time and my dreams.

Unless you are going to avoid setting long writing tasks (which you can get away with to some extent), you need to make it meaningful and efficient. Try to do it as you get it, or keep a schedule of which year group’s work you’ll mark at which point in the week so that your students are clear (and won’t moan) and so that you’re never overloaded at any point in the week…if you can do either of these, you’re better than me.

Marking can be really interesting as a way of keeping track of the skills that your students are developing. Marking formatively through a unit means that each pupil builds up a number of ‘what worked wells’ and ‘even better ifs’ through the term and regular marking means that you’ll often see where they’re starting to change how they work and where they’re taking on your feedback. If you keep a record of the advice you have given each student (using codes can help to make this efficient), you can also pull up students who aren’t responding to your feedback.

Then there’s those wonder concepts…peer and self assessment. Make these your best friends if you want to reduce your marking time. They’re not just convenient for you, but really effective at boosting learning skills. They make pupils much more independent and reflective as learners as they’re being empowered with knowing how the criteria upon which they will be judged works. It can take time to train pupils to get peer and self assessment right, but it’s worth investing in as ultimately, they’re the ones who will be sitting the exam, they need to know how to play the game.

…about behaviour

My first placement as a PGCE student was a bit of a disaster, partly because as I said before, I didn’t know what I was doing, but also because my mentor encouraged shouting as a behaviour management tool. She adopted the persona of the drill sergeant and would give out detentions for the most insignificant of reasons. It worked for her. Her students would leave her lessons trembling and subdued, but insofar as the execution of the lesson, it worked for her.

Shouting and being mean definitely doesn’t suit me, or work for me. For a start, it’s energy consuming and puts you in a bad mood. It can also get students’ backs up and then you have them and their friends working against you for the rest of the lesson, if not the rest of term. For me, it’s just more stress than it’s worth. More dignified than a shouting match with the whole class watching is ignoring an ill-behaved pupil (I said more dignified, not more polite) and then having a quiet word soon afterwards about what’s going on. You can invite pupils to be really honest and to reflect on why they’re not working when you talk to them individually and they do tend to recognise that they’re not on track and they do know how to improve the situation. They also tend to appreciate being listened to in this way.

Whether you decide to be the strict and shout-ey teacher or the firm and reasonable type, firsts are important when it comes to behaviour. The first lesson and the first week with a class need to go smoothly and you need to establish your rules and expectations in the first meeting.  The first time you’re tested on your rules (yes, they’ll test you) is also important as your students will judge you based on your reaction, so you can’t afford to let it slip. Get senior staff or parents involved if the act of defiance calls for it. Similarly, the first 5 minutes of a lesson are also crucial as they determine how the rest of the hour will go. Insisting on silence for the first 5 minutes while you take the register and while they get on with a task you’ve already put on the board works well. Meeting them at the door and allowing pupils in only once their uniforms are in order is another good way to stamp your authority.

One of the biggest shocks to me when I started teaching was that some pupils didn’t want to learn. They needed motivating. Some even needed me to supply a biro so they could do the work. They couldn’t see the benefit of being in my carefully planned lesson! A bit of empathy is useful here and helps maintain a level of patience for the young people you’re working with. Your training will tell you that some students have much bigger issues in their lives, much more urgent than the need to understand how to use apostrophes etc. Sometimes a pupil might be having a bad day, or might be distracted by any number of things: growing pains, a love interest or the fact that the teacher went on a shouting rampage in the previous lesson. Whatever’s fuelling their distraction or apathy, it’s down to teachers to lure them back. Because of this, I’ve seen all sorts of incentives and treats dangled under pupils’ noses and you have to work out what you’ll offer, whether it’s a pizza party, a positive phone call home, smileys, an encouraging word in the ear, doughnuts, chocolate etc. Rewarding effort and achievement and refusing to give time to poor behaviour is not just effective as a behaviour management strategy, but also makes for a more comfortable experience for everyone. Students feel encouraged this way and you get to keep your sense of humour.

…about Secondary English

It’s easy to get caught up with lesson preparation, but wherever possible, get them to do the work. This isn’t just about getting pupils to hand out and collect in books, it goes much further. Rather than putting together a list of key quotations in a novel yourself for example, get your students to come up with them. They can then go on to analyse them, annotate them, whatever. This means not just less work for you, but it makes the text and revision more meaningful for them.

When planning a lesson always make sure that the majority of the activity is done by the students and again that you’re getting them to do the work. It’s also a good idea to get a variety of activities in, aim for some speaking, some listening, some reading and some writing for each pupil.

Planning all-singing, all-dancing lessons for every teaching period is tough and realistically is only done when Ofsted come knocking. Aim for 1 flashy lesson per year group a week – this is still quite a fair bit of quality planning – the rest of the week’s lessons can feed into or develop the theme. You’ll be using the module and lesson plans again next year so you can develop them as you go along. You didn’t hear that from me…


If you’ve read this far…I hope I haven’t put you off! This post is as much about me giving myself advice retrospectively as it is about sharing my experiences with others. If you are embarking on a PGCE…all the best! J