New teachers

Teaching is absolutely the best job in the world, but it doesn’t always feel like that. The first year of teaching was, for me, the hardest. Yet in a way it is almost the best: in no other time of your career will you go so far so fast. By the end of the year, you will seem to be decades ahead of where you began. Here are some of my tips for new teachers.

Fake it til you make it

No-one needs to know you’re a new teacher, and it can be helpful to forget this fact yourself. Cling to all your past experience, whether that be in your placement school for your PGCE, or your Summer Institute teaching practice with Teach First, or your TEFL experience, or even tutoring your sisters/brothers. It all counts in the big performance of not carrying your new teacher baggage with you. Pretend, pretend, pretend.

Learn their names and use them

With every new class, I have a clipboard with the seating plan. Within a week, the clipboard can go away. Consult it for every question asked, for every hand up, for every cold call. Use the students’ names as often as you can – it means a lot to a child that you have learned their name, and you will be surprised at how offended they will be if you mispronounce it, even by a syllable.

Call home to say nice things

My mentor used to make three positive calls on a Friday before going home – no matter how bad your week, this will make you feel better and pave the way for a more positive Monday. On my darkest days even now I will call home to five or six students to say “well done.” It is great for the student, but also reminds you: you have done a good job. Indeed, parents will often be magnanimous in assigning you as the cause of their child’s wonders – on a tough day, take the credit.

Praise three before sanctioning one

Your students come into the room, and inevitably the first thing you will notice is the one (two, five, seven) doing something wrong. The temptation is to immediately call out these students. In the early days, however, a wall of misbehaviour can feel overwhelming: if you call out one/two/five/seven and not the other one/two/five/seven (“it wasn’t only me!”) you can redouble your problems. Try praising three before calling out any. Lee Canter talks about “behaviour narration”: “I can see X is standing behind her chair”, “has taken his coat off,” “is ready to learn,” “is doing the right thing,” for three students will usually ensure you have far fewer to sanction as more and more fall into line, wanting you to say their name positively. Most students just want some attention. If they know you will give it for positive things first, they may well switch their behaviour.

Don’t back down

That said, you will need to sanction students. In the heat of the moment, I know I often ran to the wrong sanction; usually one too harsh for the crime committed. No matter – stick to your guns. You threatened a one-hour detention? They sit a one-hour detention. You know you were wrong and you probably won’t do it again, but if you back down or negotiate with students who have done something wrong they will not learn to respect you. That said, do use that hour to reassure the student that you know they can succeed. And remember: it’s not the severity of the sanction but the certainty. Three minutes of their lunch hour will hurt just as much (and you can get on with your life).

Mark books

At the start of the year, look at your free periods and when you see your classes and set out a marking schedule for yourself. If possible, give yourself at least a day – don’t try to turn around a set of books from Wednesday to Thursday, for example. Think about how big (or how demanding) your classes are and make a rota; so all things being equal I would mark year 7, 9 and 10 one week and then year 8 and 11, as year 11 will want your most brilliant marking prowess. (This is, of course, assuming you are an English teacher with a normal amount of classes.) When you take in books, ask students to turn to the page you last marked: this way, you can have the last target you set in the back of your mind, as well as saving valuable seconds (they really do add up) by not having to find the right page to start on.

Be yourself

When attempting to “fake it til you make it,” it can be tempting to emulate your mentor, or your own favourite teacher from school, or the scary teacher you wish you were (I have tried and failed at all of these). Students see through it. You have to be yourself. I find it really hard to not smile and have a laugh with students; in the early days I suppressed this and found myself called out as a classroom ogre. It didn’t feel right. You will find your own classroom personality, and it might not fit any of the preconceived ideas you have about what being a teacher is. No matter. No-one will be you.

Good luck!


Teaching memoirs

I love a good teaching memoir. During my first year in the classroom, I relied on the Teach for America memoirs (which are legion) to provide hope that I would prevail, despite current adversity. I’ve also included some organisational biographies and books of leaders which I’ve found especially inspiring.

1. Taught by America, Sarah Sentilles

This is the first Teach for America memoir I read. Sentilles joined TFA as a member of the 1995 corps and was sent to Compton, a city south of Los Angeles. Her beginning days as a teacher will sound comfortingly familiar I think:

I woke up before 5am each school day, made myself breakfast and packed a lunch, drove to the nearest copy shop to make copies for that day’s lesson, and then hightailed it to Compton. I taught thirty-six students all day, and then I cleaned my classroom, graded papers, planned the following day’s lessons, drove home, opened a can of something to eat for dinner, and practically fell into bed. I often cried myself to sleep. The next morning it started all over again.

If nothing else will, these American teachers will make you grateful for your school copier (even if there’s a huge queue after 7:30am and it jams five times a day). The issues of unsettled homes are writ large in this book: Sentilles contends with an ever-changing register of names as children leave and move into the area. Despite these struggles, there are some truly heart-warming moments in this book – although the ending can be hard to swallow if you’re a hardened teacher (I won’t give it away here).

2. Hands up! Oenone Crossley-Holland

This is the sole Teach First memoir of a participant I have been able to find (if you know of another please do let me know). Crossley-Holland’s placement school was alleged to be the one near my own placement, and a girls’ school as well; I thought I’d find plenty to learn from here. I wasn’t disappointed. The writer takes you through several “typical” days, and some of the challenges (both external and emotional) of working in a “Teach First” school. I found the style of the book warm and the writer extremely likeable. Her dialogue is convincing and the students warmly depicted, with a real sense of them as humans, often flawed by factors not of their own making, and eminently lovable.

3. Whatever it takes, Paul Tough 

This isn’t a memoir, but rather a biography – yet it is also informative of the challenges facing our students, and inspiring in one man’s quest for educational equality, crusading outside a classroom. Geoffrey Canada, a teacher by trade, took it upon himself to transform the life chances of children growing up in Harlem, creating the “Harlem Children’s Zone”, and Tough chronicles his movement in this book. This book is a must-read for any would-be education-reformers, as well as anyone with an interest in the backgrounds of the students they find in their classrooms. Depressingly, it also shows us how vast the issue of educational inequality is; at the same time, one might also conclude that more people with Canada’s dedication can do much to turn the tide.

4. The Best Job in the World, Vic Goddard

I’ve never tried to hide it: I am a massive, massive fan of Educating Essex (any international readers: this is a Channel 4 series which documents the year in the life of an exceptional school in Essex, England). Goddard, in the series, is seen in headteacher-guise; a very human headteacher, but still one with all the confidence such a role illuminates. His autobiography shows us that such certainty is created, not inborn, and Goddard takes us through the highs and lows of his career, whilst simultaneously repeating his rallying cry to those new to the profession: become a headteacher; it is the best job in the world. There is much to learn here, both about teaching, learning, behaviour management and, especially, leadership.

5. Teaching in the Terrordome, Heather Kirn Lanier 

This is another TFA memoir, one about an English teacher. It is suffused with genuine humility, such as Lanier’s retelling of her first lesson with her students, where she wants them to see reading as a door to new and undiscovered worlds:

‘See! It looks like a door!’ I close the cover to illustrate, then open it again. I nod. “A book is a door! Reading is a doorway into a new world!’ I raise my eyebrows, I smile. They stare back blankly. They show no signs that they are enthralled by the prospects of visiting new lands via literature. No music plays in the background, and I win no one over.

The sheer belief you have in your students is often met with complete and utter apathy at first; in Lanier’s disfunctional school in Baltimore, she overcomes challenges I could only imagine, and reveals more about the disfunctional American system than perhaps any other memoir I have read.

6. Work hard. Be nice. Jay Matthews

This is another biography of an organisation, this time KIPP: a chain of hugely successful charter schools which have gone on to inspire many of their UK counterparts. This is the story of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two of my heroes (and it is well worth following both on Twitter); of their initial experiences in the classroom (both were not born teaching prodigies, comfortingly) and their unstoppable drive to change education for the better for as many children as they could. The story is peppered with anecdotes which show the human and reflective side of the educators; my favourite is the one of the student who can’t finish her homework because she is addicted to television (something I sympathise with). Feinberg visits her home and asks the mother for the television set. She protests that it is their only one, and he responds:

That’s fine, but you tell me you are powerless to stop your daughter from watching it, so it seems to me the only way to make sure she doesn’t watch TV is to take the TV out of the house.

After the incident, Feinberg humbly admits he has overstepped the mark, yet there is something heroic in the anecdote I think we can all gain from.

7. Radical, Michelle Rhee

If ever there was a truly “Marmite” educational reformer, it has to be Michelle Rhee. She is known to many through her appearance in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”, wherein she becomes chancellor of schools in Washington D.C, said by some to be the most malfunctioning system in the states. Her central aim is to put students first; unlike my educational inspiration, Dr Irene Bishop (CBE; Superhead) who contends that to put students first you must look after your staff, Rhee often accomplishes this aim by firing “inadequate” heads and incentivising the best teachers financially. Although this sits uncomfortably with me, her invective against mediocrity is compelling. We must always be familiar with what we disagree with. And I don’t disagree with her aims, her intentions; only at times her method. Rhee’s style is powerful and she really takes you on her journey through education, as well as leaving you will an irrefutable call to arms.

This post is un-finishable; I have not explored There are No Children Here or In the Deep Heart’s Core, two of my very favourite books, as they mainly reiterate concerns above – but I would urge interested readers to read both; the first set in Chicago, the second Mississippi.

Finally: readers, please direct me to more teacher memoirs; share your favourites and, most importantly, go and write your own so I have more to read.

Embassy Adventure

Receiving an email from my ex-Leadership Development Office (Teach First speak for your mentor over the two year programme) is always a delight; however, during half term I received a message unlike any other. The email explained that Teach First and Teach for All (a partner organization which umbrellas all the “Teach for” set-ups globally) were running a joint event at the American Embassy in London, and they were looking for someone to come and talk about education from a teacher’s perspective.

Now, I talk about education so much that the lady who does my eyebrows spent our last session trying to convince me to come and set up a school in her home country with her. But the prospect of something so immensely scary as this made me pause.

Then I remembered: I’m Jo. I do scary things. This has to be my new tagline, as, admittedly easily scared, this year I have done more scary things than you could shake any stick at. I’m basically walking around, continually petrified.

I arrived at the Embassy in good time, and soon a group of attendees and I were waiting patiently to go through security. Nerves had taken me over, and I struggled through polite conversation with some extraordinarily fabulous people. I would like to apologise to all of those people.

While we watched on, the almighty Wendy Kopp (founder of Teach for America and a massive idol of mine) waltzed effortlessly in. The woman has power.

Eventually in, after the Ambassador had charmed us all with some informal quips (none of which I remember due to being a puddle on the floor), Wendy stood up and told the story of Teach for America and Teach for All. Shaheen Mistri, the CEO of Teach for India, spoke next. It is safe to say 1. I was in extraordinary company, and 2. I was in no way cognizant of what was going on. After an awkward pause, I realized that it was my turn to speak. I was meant to be representing the “teacher voice.” But would I have a voice? My only hope was to not entirely embarrass myself.

I began by exploring the critical difference in outlook embedded by the “Teach” organizations. Though this is not an attitude exclusive to teachers trained in this way, I am not sure other training routes prioritise and indeed dogmatise this value to the same extent; that is that all children, regardless of background, have the potential to achieve. And I began by recounting a conversation with a colleague which ended with them asserting of a student: “they’re just not smart.” I find this a dangerous comment with the capability of writing off potential, and argued that instead of focusing on targets, statistics and expected progress, we needed to change the conversation to explore what measures we could put into place to help children achieve; what more we could do.

Keen to not cover up the depths of my ineffective first few weeks (months? Terms?) of teaching, I reminisced on my first “tricky” class.

In my first year as a teacher in an inner city school in one of the most deprived areas of London, my year 10 set 5 class taught me a lot about resilience. Our first lesson together started well. I even had them packed up, standing behind their chairs, and dismissed in an orderly manner. It was the Teaching Assistant who let me know that I had sent them off 10 minutes too early. Once they had clambered back to me, trust in my capability to even tell the time shattered, the uphill struggle began.

In the two years I taught this class, I grew to love each student dearly; despite some difficult interludes, there is not a single student I don’t think of fondly. They were patient with me, they who should have been least patient because most in need of decent teaching.

After two years with them, I wasn’t sure I’d actually taught them anything. I wasn’t sure I’d done all I could. I certainly hadn’t done all they deserved of a teacher. Yes, I’d marked books and planned lessons and delivered intervention; but after a difficult exam (the one with the “radio script” – my poor confused children, and equally I, had no idea what to do with this) and results’ day morning’s news that English results across the country were down, I was not hopeful.

The class did themselves proud. In that year our English department achieved the phenomenal result of 94% of students achieving an A*-C in English. But what made me even more proud were the individuals in my set 5. One student, who begged me to sit the higher paper, had achieved a B grade despite being entered for foundation. And two students, Roselyn and Rosina, both on track for D grades according to their “expected progress”, left with an A grade each in English. Those students, with their hard work, their continual effort and their refusal to give up, I hope provided a valuable lesson for every other set 5 student in years to come: just because they are in set 5 doesn’t mean they can’t achieve.

For me, that moment was humbling. I had predicted Rosina an A; I knew she would achieve it (though perhaps not that doom-ridden morning). But Roselyn? I predicted her a B. I didn’t believe an A grade could be possible. Those two taught me I should never put a cap on the ambitions I have for my students.

When I was invited by Teach for All to their Chicago conference in 2012, not only was I made more aware of the multiple challenges facing teachers around the globe: of teachers in Pakistan operating without tables and chairs; of teachers in India pleading with parents to let 11 year old girls attend school after it had been decided that their place was in the home.

I was also taken to visit Charter Schools, each containing powerhouse teachers who were quietly changing lives. Every day my expectations of what was possible were shattered. At Gary Comer College Prep, with 94% of students on free or reduced lunches, an average incoming 9th grader on a 5th or 6th grade level, and a proportion being unable to read or write, by the time of their graduation from the school 100% had gained acceptance to a 4 year college course. 100%. Like Roselyn and Rosina, it was humbling; and like with Roselyn and Rosina sometimes you have to see it to believe it.

After three years in my Teach First placement school, I interviewed for a Head of Department role in a school serving a deprived community in North London, and I spoke of my belief in the possibility of all students achieving at least a C grade in English. 100%. I wondered if this would be seen as wide-eyed naivety. But there was a wonderful moment when the deputy head called me up to offer me the role, saying that he too was a Teach Firster, and he was excited that together we could try to achieve this.

As Head of English, I have been privy to much more information about the lives of the children we are responsible for, and some of that information is heart-breaking. Yet it cannot break us.

And this was my rallying cry: every barrier our students face must make us more tenacious for their success. I know that success against the odds is more than just words because I have seen it; I know that with hard work, resilience and that belief that every child can succeed, it is a reality.

Teach First is a contentious training route, and I don’t wish to debate its efficacy or ultimate value; I only speak from personal experience. I couldn’t have asked for more from them as an organization, as a trainer, as a supporter of teachers throughout their career. I have received countless opportunities through them, but more importantly that that, I fully believe that my experience has irreversibly changed me. I certainly did not expect to be teaching beyond two years when I signed up.

I know that there are many young people around the country about to embark on their Teach First “journeys”. It will be hard. Oh, so hard. I hope they know that change is possible, gruelingly hard, but possible. No – probable. These are children with a well of potential. We can never forget that.