What should teacher trainees know?
Every time we get a new batch of trainee teachers in, I let them to know I want to have a chat with the and give them my 'state of the nation' talk. I warn them that what they will hear from me is not what they will necessarily hear elsewhere - but its important information they will need to survive the crazy that is the first few years of teaching.
Its similar to that old, but sage advice that every new teacher gets given - "don't upset the secretary, make friends with the caretaker and be nice to the cleaners, they are the real power around here…" or the more tongue in cheek "Don't be nice to your class until at least Easter".
These are examples of the old school standard set, but there is an awful lot of important, practical things budding young (and not so young) teachers in waiting need to know or be advised about. I am pretty confident the training providers are not sharing the realities of what teaching in the first few years is all about - and as far as I am concerned, its critical they understand and prepare for it. Not to scare them off but to prepare them for the realities.
This is not a definitive list of things. We would be here for a long time if I was to highlight everything, but this is a list of some of the big important things that our new teachers are not always told but should know. There are miles of lists out there that outline what new teachers need to do or know in the classroom - this list focuses on some of the obvious but not always talked about things.
1. Family and Loved Ones
This is in two parts. Part one is the first two years out of training where you are getting registered. These are hard work years. Sometimes you will be coming home and working late into the night, sometimes you will get up at the crack of a sparrow, and most times in the weekend you will be mucking around in your classroom. Your family/friends/significant others will not be impressed. Even they will be surprised at how many hours 'school' consumes from you. The advice here is to pre warn them, and let them know what they are in for. Most importantly, tell them it will settle down and try to make time each weekend for yourself and them.
Once they understand this, the second part, which is post full registration, applies. Let your loved ones know that in education we have busy periods, and that during those busy periods it would really help if they let you get on with it. In particular, the biggest of these is around report writing. They take hours and hours. During that time family just have to understand you are going to be stressed and a little frantic to met the deadline. Just one small tear in the fabric of outside school life at this time can be the onset of anxiety. So, pre warn them. You can always make up for it during the holidays, oh sorry, I mean the 'non contact time'!
I, at this point in my discussion, advise the trainees to warn families that during the busy time, expecting you to come home and cook dinner and clean the house when thats what you have done in the past, is just going to cause friction. If you don't have an equitable family life prior to embarking on teaching, I would advise readdressing this. One of the things I have noticed is that there are more and more trainees entering the teaching profession after time either at home with children, or in a different career. Teaching is not a soft option. The more high stakes our profession becomes the less flexible it gets. Some weeks are very full on with long hours and early starts. Juggling a family can be hard work. So, an equitable home life will make things easier to manage.
2. Making the most of practicum visits
When you are training, the time you spend in schools observing teachers and teaching students is critical. No amount of 'book learning' will prepare you for the first day on the job when you are facing your first class. Take every opportunity to be a part of the school you are in. Visit other classes if you can, ask your associate (the teacher you are attached to while you are training) for advice - how did they set up their reading/writing/math groups? What do they do if someone is off task, how do they get them from one part of the school to another without it being a chaotic experience? Listen, observe, take notes and ask questions. Ask them if you can take more opportunities to teach. They are there to advise you - so ask them what they did on the first day. Ask them what 5 things should you know before you start teaching. They are experienced teachers and what they tell you - even if it doesn't make sense to you at the time - may just be a gem of gold on your first day on the job.
3. When you are training - be prepared
There is nothing worse than having a teacher trainee in your school who does not listen and is not prepared for the lessons they are expected to teach. You may not realise this - but Principals take note of when a teacher tells them someone is doing a great job. We are always on the look out for a potentially good trainee who fits well into our school. Sometimes, growing our own teachers is better than getting an experienced teacher in. Do a good job, go to the meetings, take part in the life of the school. You will grow from the experience and it gives you a good understanding of what you are going to experience.
4. Look after your health
Expect to get sick. Not just a little sick but a lot sick. The first year is the hardest. Usually, every bug that comes through the school is going to end up crossing your path. Be prepared for this while you teach your immune system to ignore the majority of the bugs that come through a school. This might sound a bit trite, but wash your hands before morning tea, lunch and at the end of the day. Teach your students what to do so they sneeze correctly and how important it is to cover their coughs. Teach them how to wash their hands and remember that door handles, pencils, desks - pretty much anything in a classroom - has the potential to have bugs on it. In saying this, I don't want you to get paranoid but it is important to be aware. Most parents do not keep their kids home long enough (and those of us who are parents understand some of why they don't) but as a result, we are likely to meet new strains and get sick ourselves. I have always found eating well (it is amazing what ginger does to boost the immune system and kill bugs), keeping fit and getting enough sleep helps.
5. Look after your stress levels
I can not understate this. Stress is a huge factor in teaching and it is important to find ways to combat it. If things are becoming overwhelming - tell someone. In NZ you will have a mentor teacher - let them know when things are getting too much and they will work with you to find some balance.
Being organised, prepared and on top of the work load will help. Once again, getting some sleep is critical and try not to live at school. Go home early at least once during the week - and by early I mean prior to 5pm. Each week, find time for yourself to recharge. It is tempting to be at school all weekend, but all work and no play makes for one very stressed teacher. That is of no use to the school or to your class.
Be realistic and try to start your day in a positive frame of mind. Finally - practice mindfulness and breathe. Sometimes, taking a few minutes to breathe in and out will make a huge difference. I used to do this with my class after lunch time - it settled everyone down and got us all in the right frame of mind. (google mindfulness in classrooms for more information)
Keeping fit helps so find a way to stay fit and healthy - either by playing a sport, going for walks or joining a gym.
6. Take some time out
I have already mentioned this above but its worth mentioning it again. If you live, breathe and consume only school with no time for yourself, not only will you begin to resent school, you will burn out. A stressed out teacher who has had enough of the job is an ineffective one. It may seem counterintuitive to say this - but you need to take some time out for yourself and have some life experiences so you can share this with your class. A teacher who has a life is far more interesting than one who does not.
In saying that - don't fall into that trap some young teachers fall into of thinking you are still a student who can keep on partying. Teaching and partying all night DO NOT mix. You should never have a hang over in the classroom - but if you do, you will only have one once. Children (and might I add principals/senior leaders if they find out) are not very forgiving.
When out and about socialising just remember to keep yourself professional. A good rule of thumb is to think to yourself, would I want this on a headline? There is nothing more juicy for the media than a teacher that has fallen from grace. I would caution you to be careful about what you say on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as well.
What you do is one of huge responsibility and as such - you need to treat it that way. Too many late nights will make you ineffective in the classroom. This goes for if you are having a major life crises at home. Please tell someone - we notice when things are not going well and it is better to tell us. Teaching is hard work and students are demanding. Its one of those jobs where you need to be on form emotionally and psychologically.
7. Break times
Find time to eat your lunch. This may seem silly but there are days where you find its suddenly 6pm and you missed lunch - again. I encourage my staff to take some time out in the staffroom and to take a bit of a break. Its a good place to talk to other adults and have a quick breather. One caveat here is to avoid 'that group' of teachers who are always scouting for new members, particularly the new ones. They do not exist in every staffroom, but they do exist and are to be avoided. Too much time with them and you will find yourself bogged down in negatives. Remember to keep professional and avoid gossiping.
8. Keep advice garnering to a minimum
When you first start out - everything is new, everything is a bit overwhelming and everyone seems to be more on top of things than you. It is very tempting to ask the same question of 20 people. Don't. Stick to your team leader, your mentor and anyone THEY suggest. Refrain from asking all the teachers you come across.
Why? Because you will become confused and lost. Irrespective of how well meaning the teacher next door seems, if they give you advice it will be from their experience and their perspective, not necessarily what your mentor or leader needs you to do. I don't doubt it will be good, but it is unlikely to be what you need right then. It can cause friction and I have lost count of how many conversations I have had with my team around how their BT (beginning teacher) asked the same question of all the teachers when really, they just needed to listen and implement it once. More importantly for you, it will save you time.
9. Read, read and read
Sharpen up your pedagogy by reading about teaching and learning. Google is your best friend. The caveat here is to be a critical thinker and to not believe everything you read. Use your common sense and read up on what best practice is.
One of the amazing things about technological advancements into days teaching world is the wealth of resources we have at our fingertips. Need to find the latest research on shifting priority learners in Math, or ideas for an Inquiry on global issues facing children - then let your fingers do the walking to find the information.
Another caveat here would be to watch how much time you spend surfing the net as this potentially could suck up more time than it should. Your first few years are a speeding train of busyness and the internet is one of the worlds best time wasters! The more time you spend teaching the more likely you will understand the research and realise that all the time you spent 'pontificating' about best educational practice from the research whilst you were at University means practically nothing on the first day of teaching.
10. Develop a 'toolbox' of behaviour management ideas and strategies
This can not be understated. Nearly every new teachers wants their class to love them and for it all to be one big happy rosy family picture. They want to be like 'that' teacher - the one whose class is on task, who students take and show responsibility without any apparent effort, all the while engaging in meaningful curriculum discussions and whom appear to be model students.
I don't want to burst that bubble but the only way those teachers have such well oiled classrooms is from hard work. They understand how students learn, how to engage them, and they have good strategies for when things go pear shape. In addition, they have high expectations, shared understandings about what is expected and what consequences will be put in place if there are blips in a students behaviour. These teachers also know their students - they are firm, fair and they are well versed in the art of negotiation. When a student has a bad day, they know that tomorrow is a fresh start and they wipe the slate clean.
So, if you want to be like these teachers, then you need to make the most of observing good teachers, making notes on what strategies they use, and learn about how students brains work. Understanding how students behave - especially those who are most at risk - will help you understand what your role as their teacher is. Hone your skills. They are the most important in your repertoire as a teacher. I can not oversell how important good (not power trip) behaviour management is. It is irrelevant how good your curriculum knowledge or lesson planning is if your class is out of control. I could spend this entire blog on just behaviour management - more on this another time.
11. Be educationally aware of the big picture
It is full on being a student and it only gets more so when you are starting out on your teaching career. It can seem a bit overwhelming to try and take on board what is happening on the world stage regarding education. But, it is important that you read what is happening, that you find out what is going on and that you understand the context from which our education system takes its shape from.
For example, find out why teachers are concerned about neo liberal policies, find out why they are concerned about Charter Schools, find out what this IES policy is and why there are educationalists who are calling for PISA to be scrapped.
Please don't bury your head in the sand on these issues and pretend they don't impact on you. Each policy that is implemented in the worlds educational systems have implications that may just eventually impact on what you do in your classroom, It is naive and I would go one step further to say professionally neglectful, to not take an interest. If you don't take an interest, you will not know what rights and awards you will lose, or more importantly, what impact this will have on your students. It behoves you to find out. It is, after all, your career and your profession.
12. Know what you are entitled to
Whilst I can not speak for systems other than here in NZ, as a Beginning Teacher you are entitled to a certain amount of support and guidance. I rarely hear of stories of schools not meeting these obligations these days, but it is important to find out who your mentor teacher is and what the expectations are on you. At our school, we take the role of mentoring seriously and we put a lot of time and resources into supporting our BTs.
Think carefully about how to maximise your release time. Some schools are particular about how you use it and others are more flexible. Whatever structure you find yourself with, do your best to fit in observations of other teachers in your school (or neighbouring schools if you are in a small one) to observe them teaching. Although you will be observed many times in your career, to be the observer and then to discuss with whom you observed what you saw is incredible professional development.
13. Your first day, week of teaching
Firstly, breathe. Secondly, this could be a series of blog entries on its own. Invest time in plenty of activities that set the scene for how you wish to go on. Set up your expectations, co construct how things work in your classroom and take the time to implement plenty of 'getting to know each other' activities. This is the time to really ensure you set your class up the way you want it. Here is where you lay the foundations; from how you expect your students to line up, set out books and how they treat each other. Be planned, be over prepared and most importantly - have some fun. Teaching, whilst hard work, is also the one job you can go to where you can actually have some fun. Students appreciate seeing the real you and who doesn't like a bit of a laugh?
14. Avoid making friends with parents and the community
I know this one is tricky, but you will thank me for it one day. It is professionally difficult to be friends with parents of the students you teach. It is so much easier to keep a professional distance. Sometimes, you meet people with whom you really click with - my advice there is to wait until either they or you, leave the school. It is not ok to be professionally compromised and despite your best efforts, it can be hard to keep school matters out of the conversation. The old adage 'what happens on camp stays on camp' is applicable here.
15. Time management is critical
A successful teacher is a prepared and organised teacher. The workload of a teacher is never ending. Your inbox will never be empty and your list of things to do will never be finite. Now that we have that clear, there are some secrets that will assist you with your time management. Again, this is a separate number of blog entries on its own. Firstly, find a system that works for you. If you know a teacher who always seems to have their stuff together, ask them what they do. A key here is to prioritise. As a young teacher, I quickly realised that there was always going to be something to do and that my list was never-ending. Thats when I would ask myself - will the world end if I do not get this done today? In most cases, it will not.
The big thing to remember - if it is all you remember - is this. If your principal, your leader or your mentor asks you for something, then you need to go all out and get it done. If you want to be known as organised, prepared and look like you are onto it - then do what is asked of you by the important people when they ask. If your principal or senior leader has asked you for data or information, I can guarantee to you that it is important. If we ask - we need it. We do try to give a decent timeframe but sometimes we can't and that makes it urgent.
There is nothing more frustrating than a teacher who does not give leadership what it needs in a timely matter. If you do not meet your deadlines then it has an adverse effect on all the team. For example, school reports. If your deadline is to have them to your team leader by Friday and you don't get it to them, then it sets the whole agenda behind. When we work out deadlines we work them out based on what is the very latest we can work with in order to get them to the principal and out to parents. There is a science to it and we need all our teams to be on time.
I hope this non definitive list is a good start.
Next time, what you need to show on your CV, why the Covering Letter is so important, what to think about at an Interview and some thoughts on what to do if your first job goes pear shape.
In the meantime, teaching is an amazing career and one where you get to shape the face of the future. Is it hard work? Yes. Is it rewarding? More than I can ever express in words.