Lessons from term one

Sunday evening. The night before I begin my second term as an NQT. This feels like as good a time as any to take stock and reflect on the Autumn term and the nights which darkened ever sooner as time went on.

Throughout my training I was frequently told of the dark winter days which lay ahead as an NQT. Where the diminishing daylight reflected the energy reserves which were themselves ever-decreasing. Nay-sayers remained abundant and the challenges of teaching were professed from high. Despite my previous experience from working in schools in the past, I was still warned of the bleak midwinter days as if they were inevitable on the path to some form of competency.

However, having braved those long days when I arrive at school before the sun and leave long after its demise I can now judge for myself and reflect on term one of hopefully many to come. Yes, it had challenges. It would be naive to think otherwise. But at no point did I ever question my decision to join the ranks of the profession even as many continue to flood out. Quite frankly, it is the best choice I could have ever made.

1. Establishing myself

One of the omissions I felt most strongly about during my PGCE was the lack of time spent observing at the very beginning of the school year. As with any observations of expert teachers, those with vast experience and a formidable reputation within their school, most of the groundwork occurs in the first couple of weeks. The first few lessons are where the battle lines are drawn in the sand, and the teacher fights tooth and nail to maintain a firm line as 30+ squabbling teenagers push back. Those lessons are crucial to the future relationship between the teacher and the students. Behaviours, routines, and expectations all stem from that which is accepted by the teacher, explicitly or otherwise. Because I missed those first few weeks whilst sat in lecture halls at university last year, I felt my experience lacking somewhat as I stepped into my classroom for the first time.

I was luckier than most, having secured a position working at my long-placement school from my PGCE, I had somewhat of an understanding of the school’s routines, and their students. I knew enough to settle some of the nerves, but certainly not enough to quell them completely.

I remained firm but fair during that first week. Lessons went well, students responded well, and behaviour was good. Much of my ITT year was spent trying to find ways to cut down on unneccessary time and preparation. I have seen enough teachers suffer from burnout in even my relatively short career to allow myself to work ridiculous hours planning extraneous resources which cause me to exert more time and effort to prepare than it takes 32 students to complete collectively. One phrase had become my go-to: “opportunity costs”. If I could spend less time planning/preparing/creating whilst simultaneously increasing my impact in the classroom then it was a win-win. And I focused relentlessly on searching for teaching methods, ideas, and snippets which could help me to achieve this. Not because I’m lazy (well, not completely because of this) but because it seems absurd to push teachers to exhaustion from workload and to be surprised when they inevitably burnout.

2. Proper teaching

Rosenshine (2012) was like a messiah. His work was beautiful in its simplicity. To many, it was good old-fashioned teaching. To some, an oversimplification. And some claim it misses the wider aims of education. To me, it was a chance to focus on effective teaching and effective instruction. Spending more time explaining difficult concepts to novice learners, and guiding them through well-sequenced instruction. There’s no need for a ‘guide-on-the-side’ when you can have a guide at the front of the classroom.

As I taught more lessons, I spent less time worrying about preparing lessons, and more time thinking about how to sequence ideas and concepts. Not developing “creative” activities for the sake of it, but being creative in the sequencing of ideas. Bringing together ideas of spacing, interleaving, and domain-specific pedagogical approaches to create lessons which dare I say might appear simplistic to an outsider.

After one observation by an experienced non-specialist the observer told me they couldn’t work out how the students were able to link together the different chemical concepts which were being taught. Unlike some lessons, the lesson was focused entirely on the content to be learned, and how to sequence it. To understand and justify the teaching sequences used it was necessary to understand a vast amount of prior knowledge. Essentially, it was a lesson based around direct instruction, with high numbers of questions, broken down into clear steps all brought together at pace throughout the lesson. The observer, a non-scientist, was left unable to understand the reasoning behind the choice of questioning and the sequencing that was used to elicit learning. Yet when asking students they were able to explain expertly how they achieved their high success rate.

As a lesson I was proud of the students and their success, not just because of their performance in that short observed segment, but because their performance was a direct result of their learning over the past term. They could only succeed because they had such strong subject knowledge and retention which was built up and sequenced for that exact reason. I’m even more proud because that class was a bottom-set class with, by definition, lower prior attainment. And during the entire observation they did nothing but showcase how much they had learned, and did so with confidence. That on its own is reason enough to teach.

The lesson wasn’t perfect, we both picked the same things up to develop, and when I had observed him using the same focus I had found myself intrigued by how we achieved the same results through slightly different teaching methods. The observation itself was part of a lesson-study CPD method within the school. Teachers with similar interests choose a topic to study and discuss at length throughout the year using an action-research approach. Appositely enough, we were part of a triad that chose Rosenshine as our focus. It felt gratifying to sit down with such an experienced and respected teacher and reflect on teaching approaches in a non-judgemental, exploratory position. We were both trying to find ways to save time and increase student outcomes; however you may want to define them.

3. Relationships

Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like

Rita Pierson, Every kid needs a champion, 2013

One of my inspirations to become a teacher was my old chemistry teacher, Mr Bradshaw. A kind and caring teacher, he supported me when I didn’t realise I needed it, and it took many years for me to realise the impact he had by showing a genuine interest in me as a student and person. Because of him, I knew that these relationships can quite literally change the lives of students, and having worked in a school before, have felt privileged to support students too.

However, I knew that the time spent on placement during a PGCE isn’t necessarily long enough to develop those sort of relationships where you get through to students. Towards the end of the Autumn term, I noticed a hurry of students who for one reason or another had been struggling. Perhaps I had only just developed the relationships with them where they felt able to open up, or perhaps it was just a coincidence, but all of a sudden I had several students seeking advice, guidance, or just an ear to listen to them. Relationships take time to build, and you don’t become a teacher to be liked, you do so because you want to help young people learn. But Rita Pierson’s aphorism “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” certainly has something going for it.

If proper teaching is the key pedagogical lesson learnt, then establishing relationships is certainly a key pastoral one. Seeing young people develop and grow is unbelievably rewarding, and having taught for just one long term I can say that I am starting to see those relationships begin to pay off. Taking an interest in your students is no substitute for good teaching, but it certainly supports the culture of my classroom and the wider school.

The saying “what you permit, you promote” applies here too. We want to develop students as well-rounded individuals. Therefore, why not demonstrate how to build positive relationships within the community? It makes my job much easier when I am looking forward to greeting my students in my classroom and around the school. Perhaps most importantly, some of those relationships may allow a young person to come to me when they are struggling and need support. Although that may occasionally be for more trivial matters, it is important to remember that there is always a chance that it is for something far more serious. That is a responsibility we must always be prepared for. And one we must be actively building towards. If it is true that kids don’t learn from people they don’t like, then there’s a good chance they won’t confide in them either when they have nowhere else to go.

4. Iterations

Learning can be modelled, rather crudely, as a feedback loop:

There are many different ways to think about teaching and learning, but ultimately the teacher does something, there is some sort of effect on the learner, and then the teacher does something again. Simple, right? The only question then is what makes that teaching effective. The more time I spend in front of my students the more I realise that this is a reciprocal process. I learned much more in my first week as an NQT than I ever did in any given week as a trainee. That’s not to say that I didn’t learn through my placements, especially as one of the placements was at the same school where I’m an NQT. However, the act of being alone in the classroom and solely responsible for my 13 different classes has certainly brought a new perspective to my ability to self-reflect. I know that I am still learning as a practitioner at a level I didn’t envisage during ITT. That alone signifies the importance of the “initial” in initial teacher training.

Most of this learning is the result of what can only be described as an iterative approach to teaching. In other words, I’m getting some stuff wrong. It’s the lessons that don’t go quite as I’d like that teach me the most. Sometimes they go better than I’d have imagined, and those puzzle me just as much as the ones which I felt were sub-par. If effective feedback is considered to be one of the foundation stones of effective learning, then it’s certainly a foundation of effective teaching, and effective development too. Post-ITT, I feel far more able to spot what has gone well and not-so-well during a lesson, and more importantly, to do so over time. I am now more able to reflect on each lesson and use them to develop both my teaching practice and the lessons themselves. This to me is iterative. Some lessons are better, some not quite, but overall I feel that I’m getting closer towards my goal whatever that may be.

One thing is for certain, I’ve learned a lot. Hopefully, the kids have too. Onwards to term two.

References

Rosenshine, B., 2012. Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), pp. 12-19. available at: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf

Pierson, R., 2013. Every kid needs a champion. TED. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFnMTHhKdkw