Towards sanity

A refreshing look at how we keep focused and upbeat amidst the challenges of our profession by Nige Armitstead.

As we ignite the afterburners to get the academic year off the ground, an almost private letter to a teacher who nearly gave up last year – a real and indeed quite special person…

Dear Kay

You have a pretty good life all things considered.  I have always admired the drive you bring to everything you undertake.  Perhaps the balance of things is open to improvement: from a touchline perspective I think your game is nearly all attack with poor quality defense.  I hope you won’t mind me saying so. We all have things in our lives of great value to us; things we should defend with as much strength and vigour as that with which we attack the try line of life.  It’s a rugby metaphor… Go Kay!!

What is it that needs defending?  My list would include health, home, and happiness of relationship.  Your list might be different, although I hope not entirely different.  The important point here is to be clear in your mind what the things are which have great value to you, that may sit in the background somewhat, that may be the foundation from which your zest for life springs, and which need your active attention to sustain the quality they give your life.  Your relationship of course is also a quality factor in another person’s life whose happiness you may want to defend.

You work extremely hard Kay, and towards the end of last academic year you began to say that it was defeating you: that perhaps you should give up teaching. To balance working hard you try to play hard, but it is all just too hard.  You have not burned out, but you know that you are risking it, even though you are still in your twenties and regarded as a ‘super teacher’ by your managers.

So enter a kindly old friend with some suggestions for an alternative but still high quality of professionalism…

Exhausted Coping is NOT OK

Teachers need their wits about them to keep one step ahead of the event mania of the school day.  The rolling problem analysis, judgement in an instant, and clocking of follow up needs that is continually present whilst in contact with students requires the mind to be in top form all the time.  Otherwise there is vulnerability to professional hazards. So making sure that you are at no point exhausted should be an absolute priority in order to do the job well. Do these things…

  • Prioritise sleep hygiene. Hours before midnight have double quality!
  • Get to school with time to relax before the students arrive.
  • Always go to the staff room at break time, and for at least half of the lunch hour.
  • Never see students outside lesson time.  Have a spare chair by your desk, and summon a student to it for a quiet chat during the lesson.  If necessary take a student outside the room for a quiet chat during the lesson. Beyond that, catch up with them during lessons you are not yourself teaching.
  • Always go home by 6.00pm
  • Never take marking home, ever.  (cf my suggestion on marking below)

Teaching can be an enlightened enjoyment rather than a dire enslavement.

It is so much more enjoyable to do the things your are interested in.  So be interested in teaching, and in particular…

  • Follow education in the news or in professional magazines.  Read books.
  • Stay in touch with and try out ideas: for example our ‘educationalhipsters’ blog.
  • Stop doing the dark brooding that teachers sometimes do that involves a low opinion of students, a disenchantment with school managers, and an embittered hard luck story of the self.  You can do better: make it your professional business to like students; work positively with managers; and take responsibility for positive self beliefs in relation to your role as a teacher.
  • Reflect on your classroom practice, always looking for what seemed to go well and therefore you might want to do more of.

Use a SIMPLE feedback mechanism for students to make progress.

For any year group the main aspects of the curriculum for any given subject should be possible to simplify on to one side of A4 paper, with room underneath for recording assessments that have been made.  The following is half of a feedback sheet which I used to hand out to GCSE students so that they knew what to aim at for different grade levels. It is derived from the GCSE curriculum but reconstructed as a set of statements which complete the sentence starter –  ‘In order to improve you need to…’

GCSE GRADE: 3 and 4 5 and 6 7 and 8
ACCURACY OF EXPRESSION (writing)
Spelling and
Punctuation
[SP]

Vocabulary
[VC]

Phrasing
[PH]

Paragraphing
[PG]

to spell high frequency words accurately; to use capital letters and full stops to apply spelling rules accurately; to use speech punctuation and indents to spell unusual words accurately; to use punctuation for sophisticated phrasing
to use basic vocabulary with some qualifiers (eg. very, extremely etc.) to use extended vocabulary without qualifiers to use elaborated vocabulary to convey precision meaning, subtlety and fine nuance
to write correctly structured sentences including commas for basic phrasing to use sophisticated phrasing in order to embed one sentence inside another to use specific phrasing for analytic writing; comparisons and contrasts
to indent the first line of a paragraph and use as a larger unit of meaning to give clear internal structure to paragraphs; topic sentence, details and completing sentence to use well structured paragraphs to organise the development of a story/essay

Of course this is the template for feedback which suits my mindset on the exam course assessment objectives.  Your template might look different. The thing is to explain it to the students and then use it to give feedback on their work, although in line with the comments below on marking.  For example, using impression only as an adequate analysis, I might put at the end of a piece of work PG 5/6, and the student would be able to consult their sheet and see what this involved, and furthermore what they needed to do better (in the box next door) to improve their grade.  Thus a useful feedback process is managed in a simple way with a low cost to time and effort (once the sheet is produced and put in student books).

STOP MARKING

Well, OK, not entirely stop, but let’s remember that if the feedback process is good, it is the poorest use of a teacher’s time to wade through yards of student work trying to grade every inch of it.  Instead…

  • Check at a glance that the work expected has been properly presented.
  • Ask students to put a mark by any aspects they want you to look at more carefully, up to a maximum of three.
  • Comment by those marks, extremely briefly.
  • At the end of the work record your impression of it, using the system offered above for feedback or something like it.  (Students should know in advance what the particular line of grading was going to be relevant, eg ‘Spelling and Punctuation’ etc.
  • NEXT!

Allow a MAXIMUM of two minutes for each student’s work, and aim for it to be one minute.  Take the obvious short cuts such as asking students to hand in their exercise books stacked open at the page on which the work is to be found.

Marking wastes time.  There are more important things to be good at.  Cut through it as quickly as you can. Talk to students about their work rather than writing long comments.

School managers should be helping to protect you.

So if they aren’t insist that they do.  Find a fair and reasonable way to address issues to senior managers.  If you fear that you will not be treated well then get support. But having said that, my experience is that when managers know you are a good and committed teacher, they will be only too happy to listen and help.  After all, nothing I have said above would erode good learning, and therefore all of it should help sustain or improve a school’s examination results.

The conclusion is the same as the start, and that is that you can only sustain good teaching in the long term if you are enjoying what you do.  What I have tried to offer above are some suggestions about taking this into account, and having a good life alongside a good career. It isn’t about work life balance, as they aren’t ever likely to balance, not when you are a teacher.  But there is plenty you can do to make the imbalance acceptable and even happy.

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