10 things I have learned since becoming a teacher

As I lurch into my last three weeks of my teaching career (for a while at least) I thought I’d make a list of what my short but eventful teaching career has taught me. Most of these are teaching-specific but some may have resonances in the wider world.

The first two are the most important so if it’s all a bit TL/DR, just read those. They both came from the same person, Georgina Harland, who is as practical as she is wise.

1) Never under-estimate what you can achieve in 10 minutes. An excellent transferable life-skill. The classroom teacher is so busy that every second counts and where previously I may have thought it’s not worth starting a task in such a short amount of available time, now I know better. Do that bit of filing, make that resource, plan that lesson. 10 minutes. It’s longer than you think.

2) Life’s too short to laminate. Controversial one this, and I do sometimes laminate resources that are designed to be handled by children and re-used. But displays? Nah. Slap the childrens’ work up. Don’t mount it, don’t double-back it, don’t laminate it.

3) Confidence. I’m a naturally shy person, teaching is all about performing and has given me much greater confidence in life in general. I would not, for example, have been able to address a packed funeral before I had trained as a teacher.

4) Adults and children are quite similar. I think they learn the same ways, the lessons we learn from how to teach children should apply to teaching adults too. I sat through many 30-slide parroted PowerPoint presentations in which I was instructed that teaching should not be didactic. Now that, Alanis, is ironic.

5) Don’t print PowerPoint slides. Just take notes if you must. I have binders full of PowerPoint presentations from teacher training and CPD which I have never ever revisited. And almost certainly never will.

6) Every teacher should supply teach for a bit. I hated supply teaching but I learned so much. I discovered teachers were (at least in London) in much greater demand than I had realised (a couple of times I was offered a job before I even took my coat off), that I could have shopped around much more when looking for my first teaching post, that every school is totally different, that there are some very odd people running schools. In the space of six months I had more experience of different ways of doing things than some teachers (senior leaders even) manage in entire careers.

7) 95% of planning is wasted. I’ve probably been doing it all wrong but even when I had to make detailed lesson plans I would invariably forget things, and the lesson would take a different turn. I think good teachers adapt and are flexible within lessons; if a child says or does something unexpected but brilliant, I run with it, that can become the focus of the lesson. That has to be better than sticking rigidly to a script. I have been lucky in recent years to work in schools where I have been given the freedom to do this and did not have to submit next week’s detailed lesson plans by 7pm on Sunday into a folder that, it later transpired, no-one ever looked at (yes, that really happened to me).

8) Related to point 7 above, children are your best creative resource. They can’t, I admit, do your planning for you but they do constantly amaze with their creativity. I had a Year 1 girl go off-piste and make unexpectedly beautiful patterns in Scratch so that became the focus of our next lesson. My Code Club was wonderfully hijacked by another girl whose extraordinary Scratch animations and games entertained and transfixed everyone including me.

9) Fads and factionalism – no thanks. Even in my short (5 year) teaching career I have seen things come and go out of favour. Learning styles, mindfulness, multiple intelligences, growth mindsets, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Cheese (I’m pretty sure it was cheese), I’ve been taught them then been told they don’t even exist. There’s probably a grain of truth in most of these things: good lessons should stimulate many of the senses but let’s not turn every teaching point into a song made out of differently-textured smells differentiated 30 ways to accommodate each child’s ‘learning style’. Life’s too short.

Edu-twitter spats depress me beyond words, and the viscousness with which I see members of ‘the greatest profession’ ripping each other to shreds over things I just don’t understand makes me feel like I’m doing an extra playground duty rather than relaxing after hours. What would you say to children at school behaving like that? Children and adults. Much the same, see?

10) I don’t know how you do it. Class teachers in state primary schools, I’m talking to you. The job is insanely difficult, and no-one, but no-one who has not done this job (or possibly lived with someone who does it) can begin to understand how extraordinarily demanding (and damaging) the job can be. You need to have the patience of a saint, the wisdom of Solomon, time-management skills unheard of in any other industry, a bladder the size of Texas, a conviction that this is the only job that will make you happy, boundless enthusiasm, creativity, plus a severe lack of friends, family or social life in term time would be an advantage.

I could go on. I started teaching late in life because I thought I had time for ‘one more adventure’. It’s been quite a trip, but apparently I still have time for another adventure…

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