Why Teach? A Self-indulgence.

There are problems with recruitment and retention.

It isn’t clear how these will be addressed in the foreseeable future, and ‘that’ advert, with its panning shots and relaxed teachers, seems to have ruffled feathers, which I get, but given how difficult schools are finding it to recruit, moaning about an advert feels like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

This half term’s been quite challenging. There’s no breathing space in my days now my NQT time’s gone, and a maximum timetable is like a weekly Herculean task.

In my training I didn’t cry once. I cried three times in one day this last half term, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Other recently qualified teachers, both on twitter and in real life, seem to be looking around wondering what happened. Friends, family and even colleagues (!) have questioned why I’m still a teacher.

It’s unanimous. “Get out.”

Like the Amityville Horror, but with gluesticks.

*whispers*

*whispers* “Put… the lid… back on… or it’ll… dry… out…”

Student perceptions of teaching aren’t much better.

“Do you need GCSEs to be a teacher?”
“You got all As and A*s at GCSE sir? You could have done ANYTHING.”

Capture

So, given just how often I seem to be justifying the choice in career to loved ones, I’m going to be a bit self-indulgent and lay out why I decided to start teaching.

NB: There seems to be a culturally pervasive idea that ‘a teacher’ is a type of person, rather than a description of their work. IMHO you’re not born a teacher; it’s actually a lifestyle choice. I don’t think we have a monopoly on socially conscious work.

When I first went to university I was going to study composition and the piano, then write music for a living. This lasted until I realised I’d have to practise 4 hours a day.

In the end I chose to study philosophy, and took electives in anthropology, music (non-performance courses) and theology. Educationally, I’d never been more satiated. I studied enough philosophy to get a single designation degree, and then studied more theology alongside it. I just liked learning stuff.

I’d never considered teaching. I taught piano for a bit during sixth form and I didn’t feel that ‘heal the world’ vibe other friends had. It was just less greasy than the chippy, and paid better.

I first considered maths during logic classes. I loved philosophical logic. It was like solving simple equations. My tutor wasn’t keen on my comparison.

“Dan don’t say that. It puts people off. We prefer to say it’s like word puzzles. People hate maths.”

I was livid. It hadn’t occurred me that saying something was ‘like an equation’ would put people off a subject.  I’d always loved maths. I did A level and found it really interesting, but I was always a ‘performing arts’ kid. Nobody else in the family had been to university before, and if I was going, I’d be going to do music and/or drama.

I visited a school and quite liked it, so I applied for a deferred PGDE in maths so I could teach English abroad for six months and then spend six months on the old maths enhancement course to sharpen my subject knowledge.

Both experiences made me want to teach even more. I loved my training, and I love the job, even though I sort of fell into it. Face first.

Teaching is the most intellectually stimulating job I can think of. In my four years of philosophy, there were no answers, just more refined questions. Then suddenly, I’m teaching mathematics and I can show you proofs.

You can find the area of a parallelogram by multiplying the length of the base by the length of the perpendicular height, but don’t take my word it, there’s reasoning you can follow to see why it works.

You’ve only got to look at the comments section of a website to see how even the simplest ideas can be rowed with, but you can’t argue with the area of a parallelogram.

It’s an irrefutable truth about the world that’s accessible to children.

I don’t have the vocabulary to explain how much that makes me fizz.

You also get to see how people learn day in, day out.  Strictly speaking I suppose you don’t as we can’t ‘see’ learning as such, but if you’re dead nosy (*surreptitiously raises hand*), you get to hear their ideas and shape how they change, which yes, might be part of a socially conscious idea to improve the world, but it’s also fascinating.

“What do you think it’d be like to live in four dimensions?”
“I don’t get fractions. I’ve never got them. I never will.”
“Are squares rectangles?”
“What’s the exterior angle of a concave polygon then?”

As well as that, working with young people, you see the whole gamut of human experience. Within 20 minutes a student’s story can break your heart, whilst someone else has made you howl with laughter. Their energy is a challenge, as is their lethargy.

We’re at the end of the half term break and I’m a bit more rested, so the bags under my eyes have receded back behind my rose-tinted glasses somewhat, but I stand by teaching as an attractive career choice.

And let’s be right, we’re teachers. We know this. We know the job has the potential for needing to beat people away with sticks.

If the pay and the ‘making a difference’ doesn’t sway it for you, then how about the variety, the life you see, the community you join and the intellectual stimulation of it all?

And it’s still less greasy than working in the chippy.

Hey Teacher, Leave Them Kids Alone

Induction’s been officially passed, new term INSETs are done and dusted, and it feels like the holidays were an age away already. September’s here, and it’s time to get back into the swing of teaching. The timetable’s somewhat fuller, and there are less names to learn this time round, but it’s still equally nerve-wracking and exciting to be back at school.

When it comes to new year resolutions, mine are to stop over-planning, calming down a bit with marking and then making sure I leave work earlier than last year.

It seems counter-productive to actively try and do less this year, but it’s not. Last year, there were lessons where I was doing more maths than my students. That’s definitely counter-productive.

My new year 9 class were in their third lesson with me last week, (multiplying fractions) and I set them a textbook exercise. They were working in silence, and I gave them the chance to get their teeth into it, to focus. Not having some gre’t lummox faffing about asking you questions and confusing you for 15 minutes whilst you got to get your head down and practised meant that when we stopped, I could really start to question what they had understood.

“Why was question 4 different to question 5?”, “Which question was harder, question 8 or question 14? Why?”, “Write a question you don’t think you could solve this way, and suggest why not.”

If you’ve got no hook to hang your hat on, you’re just chucking questions around.

The breathing space for them allowed them to focus on what they were doing instead of what I was doing. The atmosphere was calm and the students were really proud with what they had achieved, which in terms of building confidence might allow them the security to attempt more involved problems applying their skills.

When it comes to building in routines and getting students to really hone a skill, unsolicited silence as they concentrated on getting through the task was a wonderful surprise.

If students aren’t working on a task long enough to run into a problem, they certainly aren’t going to have the time to dig themselves out of it.

I don’t need to micro-manage my students every second in my classroom and write it down, I don’t need to slave over every single thing my students write in their books either.

This year, I’m going big on routines, and sometimes that routine will involve doing a lot of similar questions quietly.

The Best Of Times Is Now

“I’m really looking forward to reading your essays. You’re quite gobby.”

I wasn’t sure whether one of the tutors from the Teaching Advanced Mathematics course was aiming for a backhanded compliment, but that’s how I took it. I do tend to get a bit heated in discussion sometimes, especially about maths teaching (and music, books, film…).

There have definitely been times this year where I should have got back in my box and kept my mouth shut. My grandmother was always quite gobby as well. I say ‘was’, as unfortunately she passed away about a week and a half ago.

The last week of term has been full of strong emotions. We buried her on the last day of term, so there hasn’t really been the headspace to reflect on the end of the year properly. We’ve also had enrichment week, with plenty of educational trips, which I had no idea would be quite so exhausting.

I found out Mommar had died during a non-contact hour, 20 minutes before my final observation. It had been expected, but there was still a shock and realisation that I’d never hear her sardonic voice again.

Obviously, one should never look at one’s phone unless you have the time to deal with the consequences, but I had been checking quite often, to make sure I knew what was happening.

Going into my classroom after for my observation was a strange experience. For that hour I was incredibly focused on what actually matters, and it wasn’t whether I was using a certain technique for AfL, or whether my books were marked sufficiently, or claims about student learning made from dodgy data.

The learning environment was really relaxed, as I was acutely aware of the futility of everything in the grand scheme of things. The lesson ended up being one of the best I’ve taught. There was no pressure at all, even with two observers in. I wasn’t worried about ‘demonstrating progress’, or ‘showing evidence of learning through bookwork’. I was there to teach some students some maths.

Death throws up a lot of different things for different people. The family stuff that kicks off is the stuff of legend, but now it’s calmed down, each of us is grieving in our own different way.

Death forces us to re-evaluate our own mortality, and for me it made me step back from work.

I love teaching.
I love maths.
I love working with such amazing people, both students and colleagues.
I love talking. (I especially love talking about maths and maths teaching.)

“Oh does note bu’ rattle” as Mommar would say, with the strongest Derbyshire dialect known to man.

I’ve been really lucky these past few weeks to have the opportunity to talk about what makes good teaching so often.

  • I visited Michaela Community School and saw the incredible way they’re approaching what it means to be a school, which has forced me to confront some of my assumptions about what schooling can be.
  • Starting  the Teaching Advanced Mathematics course, which has focused my thinking and reading towards A Level teaching, which I’m really excited to develop.
  • A nrich day in Cambridge allowed for some really great discussion and great things to come back and share with the rest of my department.
  • Not long before that there was the La Salle Maths Conference, which was another fantastic day of idea sharing and discussion.
  • I also managed to get along to numicon training session to help support our weakest students.

Each of these experiences merit their own blog post to discuss all the incredible ideas, but the main thing I’ve taken away from all of these things is that now is an incredibly exciting time to be a teacher.

In that stepping back from it all afforded by both the end of term and the personal grief, I’m convinced that being a maths teacher in 2015 is one of the most positive things a person can be.

Yes, it’s also a tough time out there, but there are so many brilliant things happening all over the country in maths education.

So as I stop being a NQT, going forward I reckon the best piece of advice I’ll heed is once again from my Mommar:

“Dunna play silly boggers.”

I’m really glad I’m a maths teacher, but Christ do I need to take it easy this summer.

It’s Good To Talk

I’ve seen a lot of blogposts about advice people would give retrospectively to their NQT selves. This is always massively useful as a NQT as it’s great to see that other people have gone before and had the same issues and struggles as I have. Why wouldn’t you want advice from others?

Last half term, I was all about the positives. This term, less so. This term has been hard graft. Emotionally and intellectually draining, the honeymoon period has ended.

The one thing I’ve noticed in conversations with other NQTs is that lots of us don’t like the teachers that we’re becoming. Lots of us don’t like the people we’re becoming.

These simple statements should not be whispered in the dark corner of a pub. They should be shouted in staff rooms.

Others have waxed lyrical about the problems of wellbeing and retention for those new to teaching with more eloquence than I could, but those two simple ideas worry me.

Is the fact lots of us feel like this a symptom of a broken system, or just a natural part of the journey towards being a fully inducted teacher? How would we know? These difficult conversations are met with ‘it gets easier’, or ‘but you’re doing really well’.

Some days I wonder how I could possibly do anything else and some days I wonder if I’ll make it to Easter.

I don’t think these concerns are a problem, or even indicative of my ability to hack it as teacher, but instead just an expression of the massive difference between training and the NQT year. I went from being engaged with other teachers and discussing my practice daily to being left with it. Development as a NQT works incredibly differently.

If I didn’t have the support of a fantastic department where I am now, I would not be in this job.

This summer, I must have anticipated the grind of school in this first term, when the novelty’s gone and the nights have drawn in, as I sent myself an email to be delivered in December. Instead of giving advice to my NQT self in the past, I did it the other way around and sent advice forward.

You go on a website, type away, and select a date. Naturally, I chose three weeks before the end of term, where the end isn’t quite in sight, but I am still pretty exhausted.

Ayup. So it’s summer and you’re bored. I’ll just let that sink in. You probably reckon you’ve changed beyond recognition, but you’re doing fine. You ant changed that much duck. Please don’t have messed up moving to London. Enjoy it. You’re sat on a Sunday August afternoon looking at resources for crying out loud. The feeling of being in the classroom and witnessing knowledge being acquired, and sharing it, is incredible. Do not lose sight of that. Stick to your guns, and keep being a gobshite. This first term is about survival. You’ve got this.

When I read this all the rubbish kind of dropped away. I have been a teacher for three months. I need to cut myself some slack. Nobody else is going to. That is my responsibility.

A few weeks ago, on twitter, I had a bit of a moan about how much stuff I had to do and how I’m struggling to prioritise, and after a quick natter, I realised that it was incredibly simple.

“If I were one of my pupils, what would I need me to do?”

If this isn’t my priority, I might as well not be there. All the rammel just sort of sorted itself out, and I was much more content and confident. My priorities were back on track.

Getting it all out and having a proper discussion when things are difficult is the only way I can hope to crack a problem. Thoughts are messy. When we vocalise them, or write them down, they become much clearer, more manageable and easier to deal with.

Do I still worry about the teacher I’m becoming? Absolutely.

Do I feel better for acknowledging it and facing it head on as opposed to burying my head in the sand about it? Too right I do.

“Drains are those who hate what they do, and suck the life out of you if you stand too close, whereas radiators radiate with enthusiasm for their jobs. Stay away from drains. Be a radiator.”

You hear this metaphor loads as a trainee and NQT. As quite a sardonic person, I find the idea that teachers can all be split into these two aspects of plumbing a bit ridiculous, as even those hallowed observation grades have 4 categories.

The idea of being a drain or radiator is too simplistic and shuts down discussion. Any open, honest conversation helps, be it over a blog or social media, in the pub with others in your position, or with the amazing department you work in.

I’m incredibly lucky to have all three to help me get better, and as term comes to an end, it’s been this that’s allowed me to not just survive, but actually enjoy it too.

“You’re a bit of a drain you, aren’t you?”

Yeah, you could see it like that. Personally, I think I’m more of a vent. A vent that’s trying to develop a pretty decent crap filter.

All Things Considered…

Half term’s here and you can almost hear the sound of 250,000 sneezes as teachers finally find a bit of time to be sick. For us NQTs, this half term is a particular milestone. The toughest half term is over, and we’re still here.

The last week of term was hard. There were incidents and issues at school that I most definitely couldn’t have envisioned being able to handle months ago. Things I would have had no idea how to deal with have been sorted swiftly and with deft.

Perhaps being too tired to muck about has its advantages, because believe me, I have been tired. Unfathomably tired. Once last week I prepared for a lesson to have an entirely different class walk in and look at me like I was losing it, which was actually a sterling assessment on their part.

I was so tired towards the end of the week, nearly every sentence sounded like my grandmother. On more than one occasion we had:

“I want doesn’t get.”
“You look with your eyes, not your hands.”

And perhaps my personal favourite,

“I don’t care if you’re* Queen of Sheba, you don’t talk to anyone like that.”

(*There is certainly a correlation between how tired I am and the number of missing definite articles in sentences.)

I’m too tired to stress about work as I’ve all on getting through it, and I’m too tired to moan. In education there’s no end of stuff we could moan about if we choose to, and indeed many of us do. It’s cathartic. It’s also valuable to get valid concerns out there and challenge ideas, but I’ve reached the limit on being negative about this half term.

This half term has been excellent.

You most certainly won’t find me part of the happy-clappy brigade pretending everything’s brilliant all the time, but when people at school have been asking me how it’s going, I can’t lie and say it’s rubbish. I can’t in all honesty say I’m not enjoying the challenge.

Yes, there are problems with the system and things aren’t working fantastically at the moment, but as a job we get to introduce students to some of the most pertinent ideas in human history.

Everyone in my department is very supportive and have all been asking me how I’ve been getting on and congratulating me for getting through this term, not only just getting through it, but also getting through it successfully. Yes, my lessons aren’t as good as I’d like, and yes, there are areas of my practice that need to improve but essentially:

  • Every hour my practice improves.
  • My students are learning.
  • I’m actually enjoying it.

So in the spirit of sharing the positives, below are the three main successes from this last half term.

My students

The sheer range of students across my classes keeps me on my toes. Teaching AS level is a massive challenge to my pedagogical subject knowledge, which I’m really enjoying. Teaching certain groups are a massively challenge to my behaviour management too, which I’m also really enjoying. My strategies for teaching SEN students have transformed in the last 8 weeks, as has the myriad of social issues, personal problems and generally attitude deficiencies my students have.

Every single student I teach in the space of a week makes me a better teacher. How can I not be grateful for that?

Owning my role

First lesson last Monday I was teaching year 7, the head came in for a book look and learning walk which took me by surprise. On top of this we had a new girl that had started that morning who spoke very little English. I needed to source equipment and books for her, as well as welcoming her on what I’m sure was a terrifying day. There was also a year 12 student in my lesson who was apparently supporting in maths and wanted to know what I needed her to do, and many students went to the wrong class as recent timetable changes had caused some confusion.

I was also trying to teach short division.

It doesn’t sound like much of a highlight, but I kept my nerve and carried on. In the midst of every new challenge in those first few minutes I realised I had finally internalised the fact that I am a ‘proper’ teacher. This is my classroom, and I am in charge of what goes on in there. I had it all under control.

Sharing good practice

In our first departmental meeting I was asked to share good practice with a couple of ideas I’d started using for feedback. Having that platform to share after spending a lot of time pinching the ideas from others was wonderful.

Similarly, twitter has been phenomenal for seeing and sharing ideas and really engaging in debate about teaching on a wider scale.

My mentor asked me for a ‘quick word’ a few weeks back. I panicked. A ‘quick word’ usually means ‘you’re for it’, but it turned out he’d been browsing blogs and found a homework I’d made. The PRET homeworks started by @DIRT_expert and compiled by @mathsjem are something I found and began to incorporate into my planning. Having made my own for a topic that wasn’t on the website (http://prethomework.weebly.com/), this was then put up for all and sundry to use as they wish.

Sharing ideas and experiences loops right back around and lands in your own back yard, which as a newcomer to education is great to know, as I’ll never be stuck for ideas and inspiration for what to try next.

As a natural follow on from that of course I’m going to try and update this blog a little more next half term with some actual resources instead of just me waffling on.

Obviously just seeing the positives does not a good teacher make, but not seeing that bigger picture is what sends us off the rails. Positives and negatives need to be framed in some sort of context.

We’re not talking about having our glass half full, we’re talking about keeping that glass half full when we’re on a waltzer. (Let’s not look at that metaphor too deeply as it’s liable to collapse.)

Considering the ups and downs of school life, and all the classroom pressures on everyone working in schools at the moment, perhaps it’s a disservice to say the glass is half full, when in fact all things considered, my cup runneth over.