As we approach the end of the summer holidays I notice a real surge in posts and tweets from people worried about returning to the classroom. The issues that keep being mentioned are things like a feeling of being overwhelmed, of not knowing where to start, of feeling inadequate and not being able to keep up with the workload. I think we all know those feelings. I am sure that on the first morning back I will be awake at 4am with my mind racing and will have the occasional spell during the year when it all just seems too much; but these moments are few and far between. Generally I find I am very relaxed about my job and have a pretty good work/life balance. I like to get into work early (about 7am) but if I don’t have a meeting I am often out the door at 3:30pm and home in time for a run. I might do a little work in the evening but it tends to be marking a few tests, researching a topic I am teaching or looking through some plans. Things I can do while relaxing in front of the TV.
At a time when teachers are leaving the profession in their droves and people are reporting increased workload issues I thought it would be worth thinking about what I might be doing differently that means I can mange my workload and feel like I (usually) have things under control.
Collaborate on planning. When we need to write a new scheme of work (which with new KS4 AND KS5 specs we really do) we spend some time discussing it as a department before deciding who should plan which bit. With four of us in the department I am only planning around 25% of my lessons myself. The others I’ll tweak and adjust but the ground work has been done.
Use your network. I also have a wide network to draw on for resources and ideas. Planning the GCSE fieldwork would have been a huge task but a local school had done something brilliant I can lift off the peg. People on Twitter cast an eye over my new assessment policy and suggest changes that would have taken me hours to think of and implement. On Schoology someone has created PLCs for each topic. Something’s aren’t worth re-inventing the wheel for. You get out what you put in. I try to be generous with what I have in return.
Know when to stop looking. On the other hand I don’t spend time trying to find lessons that have already been created for other schools. Inevitably those schools will have different ways of doing things, their own culture, and the time spent locating the materials and then adjusting them isn’t worth the time cost.
Feedback and marking. I rarely put written comments on work in books. I look at books, make a note of common issues and give whole class feedback. I circulate while pupils are working and give feedback as the work is being done. I use quizzes pupils can mark themselves to spot misconceptions that need addressing. The time saved can be used to plan better lessons the whole department will use.
Trips vs fieldwork. We don’t do the obligatory trip to Iceland. Or Italy. The stress and time cost is huge. I think it is wonderful if we can give kids enriching experiences but inevitably the ones who can afford to go are the ones who least need a school to organise a holiday for them and the ones who would benefit most are the ones who can’t afford to go. I’d rather spend a fraction of the time and energy to plan something in the local area that everyone can access.
Displays. I was writing a piece for TES on whether teachers are their own worst enemy when it comes to workload. Someone suggested I search on Pinterest for classroom displays to get a sense of the problem. I was shocked! If I never see another 3D model of the Incredible Hulk coming out of a wall just so there can be a display of “Incredible work” it will be too soon. I display excellent work and I annotate it to show why it is excellent. I direct pupils to look at it and learn from it. It takes me minutes to do. The problem with elaborate displays is they quickly become background, a visual white noise, and are soon ignored. If you enjoy doing it then that is lovely, but please don’t call it work. That is now a hobby.
Learn what works. Where I do put in a lot of time is in reading and thinking about teaching. Books, blogs, twitter, I’m always on the search for what works and what doesn’t. A lot of the things I used to spend a lot of time doing I have stopped doing as they just don’t make a difference to how pupils learn. Agonising over lesson objectives, differentiated resources, intricately planned group work, complex data analysis, marking, I always try to find the most effective and efficient way to do what needs to be done.
Teach like nobody’s watching. Once I have worked out what is working I do that. I don’t do anything for an audience other than my pupils. We need to have the confidence in our professionalism. We have to care less about what other people think. My lessons are therefore very simple but seem to be effective. A hook previous learning, the delivery of new information, application of that information and then later a test if what has been learnt. It doesn’t look flashy but it works for me and for them.
Mindset. I accept that the job in infinite. There is always more I could do. Once you accept that it is remarkably freeing. You can’t do everything so start discarding things. Find those things that you feel are important and do those things really well.
Be honest. Ask for help. If you are struggling, be honest. Ask someone for help. Talk to your line manager. Explain that a deadline will be missed. Explain why it will be missed. Ask if someone else can do some thing you don’t have time to do. Check whether something you have been told needs doing really needs doing. Does it really need doing now?
The right school. I have also found the right school for me. What I am trying to achieve fits in with what the school is trying to achieve. I am not sure I could find things so easy and relaxed if we were rowing in different directions. If I taught in a school where I wasn’t happy I am lucky enough to be in the position where I could leave and find a job elsewhere. There are a lot of schools out there and they are crying out for teachers.
Teaching doesn’t have to be a stressful and overwhelming job. It becomes that way because of the amount of noise and nonsense that surrounds education. I think the route to happiness involves the following four key steps:
- Find the right school
- Collaborate and share the load
- Just do the important things well
- Teach like nobody’s watching
Let’s all have a relaxed new term 😎