As the new school year approaches and over 30,000 new teachers begin their career in the classroom, Katie Ashford gives us the first part in her three part series. Katie is an English teacher in a secondary school in London. These are her individual views.
Every teacher knows that things will never be as bad as they were during the first term of the first year. Gosh, you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to that! I like to call this period in my career ‘the dark days’, mainly because I never saw daylight; I travelled to and from school in the dark, and when I was actually at home, I was always sat in front of my computer planning lessons.
Why was it like this? I had lots of support in place from my mentors, my colleagues and my fellow new teacher friends, so why was I willingly working myself into the ground? I think it boils down to two things: guilt and fear.
Every new teacher knows they aren’t as good as they want to be. It’s not because we are failures, or that we will never be very good teachers; rather, it’s because we desperately want to be better. We want to provide the best possible education for our pupils. After all, that is why we entered this profession in the first place, isn’t it? We feel guilty that we aren’t amazing, transformational teachers from day one. Of course, very few of us come in seriously thinking that we will be an exceptional teacher from the beginning, but it is still a hard pill for even the humblest of newbies to swallow. We all want to be better: plain and simple, and never is that feeling more visceral and destructive than during the first term of teaching.
One night, in October of my first term, I was exhausted from a terrible day at school. I was physically, emotionally and mentally drained. Every fibre of my being had been pushed to its limit and I could no longer take it. I decided to go to bed.
After about 40 minutes I got back up again: I couldn’t sleep. I hadn’t planned my lessons for the next day and felt terribly guilty. I thought to myself: “No. Get out of bed and plan your lessons. It’s not the kids’ fault that you are tired.” And so I did. I stayed up until about midnight planning lessons because I felt too guilty to go to sleep.
Guilt is a damaging enough emotion to experience as a new teacher, but there is something else far worse lurking beneath the surface: fear.
When we start teaching, managing behaviour can be a cripplingly difficult task. In some schools, where behaviour policies and systems are weak, new teachers can be left feeling helpless and alone, powerless to do anything about naughty kids other than dishing out detention slips that are quickly ignored. We end up fearing for bad behaviour, dreading particular lessons because we know that it won’t end well, no matter what we do.
However, we are continually told that there is a solution to this, something that every teacher can do, that determines your success or failure in the classroom: planning. The combination of our fear of bad behaviour and our drive to be better makes this seem like a challenging but reasonable answer to the problem.
We are led to believe that the best lessons result from the best planning, and that the worst lessons result from the worst planning. Therefore, we stay up all night worrying that if we haven’t planned every minute detail of the next day’s lessons, we will be forced to deal with despicable, disruptive behaviour all day long: something so undesirable for new teachers that we are willing to do almost anything to avoid it, including working ourselves silly.
This simply isn’t necessary. You can stay up until midnight planning the best lesson in the entire world, complete with fireworks, dancing elephants and magic carpets, but if Kevin in year 9 decides he wants to play up, he will. And, if Kevin does decide to play up, we definitely should not be blaming it on our planning. As I’ve explained above, we are fully aware that we are far from perfect in our first term, so not only is it untrue that kids misbehave because you failed to create a jazzy enough PowerPoint, it is also something we can do very little about when we are learning how to teach.
You don’t have to stay up until midnight to be better!
The fact is that we don’t have to stay up until midnight to be good at our jobs. We shouldn’t feel guilty for getting an early night and we certainly shouldn’t fear the consequences of a barely planned lesson.
Firstly, new teachers must understand that it takes a while to get really good at teaching. Many experienced teachers would say it took them a few years before they really knew what they were doing. This doesn’t mean we should simply give up and not bother working hard to improve our practice, but it also doesn’t mean we should be killing ourselves by working utterly relentlessly. The fact is, managing behaviour and delivering good lessons is far easier when you have had a good night’s rest. If you go into school feeling tired, you will feel cranky, and any misdemeanors that you might have to manage are more likely to tip you over the edge. You end up losing it over something relatively minor, such as a child swinging on her chair, potentially damaging relationships in the process.
Going into work after a good night’s sleep means that your mind will be clearer, you will be more patient, and will be able to deal with bad behaviour in a calm and measured fashion. The calmer your classroom, the easier your life is. Of course, sleeping isn’t the only solution to all of the world’s behaviour problems, but it will help you to feel better prepared to face them.
Secondly, good planning is not the sole cause of good behaviour. Good behaviour is a result of routines, relationships and consistency. Yes, planning is necessary in order to make sure your pupils learn, but you should never spend more time than necessary doing it. Always remember this: if you spend longer planning an activity than delivering it, it probably isn’t worth the effort.
Your first term is hard enough as it is. Don’t make it even harder by depriving yourself of your most precious resource: a good night’s sleep.
Edapt is the trade union alternative providing individual support and protection for teachers in allegations and employment issues.