Teaching – tips to survive September

September 16th 2020| Victoria Bryant

It’s currently the middle of the summer after what feels, to us all, like the longest term and a half in the history of teaching.  I’m heading (hurtling?) towards my fifteenth year in teaching, a career which has thus far encompassed two different schools, teaching in every year group and more changes to curriculum, pedagogy and the overall role of the teacher than you can shake a battered metre stick at.  Technology has more of a role than ever, needs of children are increasingly complex and diverse and that’s before we even start on the daily ‘to-do list’:

I’ll be honest – on a good day, I can achieve three of these things.  On a bad day, the list is more:

  1. Make Coffee
  2. Have a series of unexplained miniature crises that prevent drinking of the coffee.
  3. Drink lukewarm coffee anyway.
  4. Pull face as I remember that I hate cold coffee.
  5. Repeat process until 4pm.

The last few months have been crazy; or to use the word of the moment – ‘unprecedented’.  Teachers and parents have worked together through lockdown to survive, to educate, to provide as best as we can for our children.  We need to remember this when school begins in September, and focus on what is important, on what really makes a difference to our students, to their learning, to their wellbeing and self-esteem.  So, here is my A to Z of what I’ll be focusing my attentions on when school resumes in September:

Assessment:  We can’t get away from it (I’ve tried; think Indiana Jones and the giant boulder) but I will be doing this in a different way this year.  Sure, I want to know the children’s reading levels and where they are at in Maths, but I also want to assess their interests, find their strengths and the things they need to work on.  These might be ‘academic’, these might be learning to share with others, for example.  Yes, the more formal assessing will be taking place, but I also can’t wait to get to know my new children!

Building relationships: With children, with colleagues, with families.  I can’t stress the importance of this.  Good relationships with your class and their families can make all the difference in the world, as proved during lockdown when we all had to work together to support the little people we care about most.    To any non-teachers reading this, the best way I can think to describe it is, you are lucky enough to be part of a huge team with 30 miniature humans.  Throughout the year, their triumphs are shared by the whole class.  When one achieves, everyone celebrates.  It’s a truly magical thing.   

Colleagues: Never, ever underestimate the power of having wonderful people around you.  Unless your family are also teachers, no one will really understand the pressures of the job like those who are in it.

A good teacher colleague will ask if you want a cup of tea at breaktime; a great teacher colleague will have already made it.  And brought a biscuit.  Also, be a good colleague.  A smile and a ‘how was your weekend?’ go an awful long way.

Differentiation: Our teaching bread and butter.  Planning for the first few weeks is tough, when we’re not entirely sure whether they’ve genuinely forgotten everything they’ve ever learned over the last six weeks or whether they never really knew it in the first place.  I have to remind myself every year that in July, as a Year 2 teacher, I’ve said goodbye to “almost year 3s” and in September I’m welcoming “just finished year 1s” and this helps me to put things in perspective.  This will be trickier these year, but differentiation is one of those things which we can’t and shouldn’t let go, because we owe it to the children to cater for their needs as best as we can.

Environment: I’m a big believer in a classroom environment that the children enjoy, use and are proud of.  I was once told that display boards should be 50% useful and interactive resources, 50% examples of children’s learning.  I try to use this as a guide, but with my own twist.  This year, my classroom ‘theme’ is ‘The Wizard of Oz’.  The book corner is ‘Lions and Tigers and Books, oh my!’ (sorry), with a home-made signpost with locations including ‘Yellow Brick Road’ and ‘Kansas’.  Our class reward involves the children collecting ruby slippers on an interactive chart and our growth mindset board features Dorothy with various facial expressions as she struggles within her learning pit.  I’ve also painted onto canvas some beautiful quotes from the musical ‘Wicked’.  In addition, I have interactive resources for Maths, Literacy and Welsh, a project board to showcase our learning, phonics and handwriting reminders and a ‘WOW’ wall.  I chose to have a ‘WOW’ wall after reading some research which said that children feel that their teacher only chooses the ‘best’ or ‘neatest’ pieces for display.  With the ‘WOW’ wall, the children choose their favourite piece of learning (it can be anything) and the work reflected on their wall gives them chance to showcase something they are truly proud of.  I also have a personal and social display to focus on kindness and feelings; particularly important given the emotional shift in the world at present.

Find your own style: It took me a while to understand that you need to be your own teacher, not a version of what you, or someone else, thinks you should be.  Just because a colleague has a different style from yours, doesn’t make yours any more or less effective.  Some colleagues (guilty) love an all-singing, all-dancing (no, literally) approach to teaching, with characters and costumes and silly voices; others prefer different approaches.  Observe as many people as you can, read and research, adapt ideas if they work for you, but don’t try to shoehorn yourself into someone else’s teaching style.

Growth mindset: For us as well as the children.  You’ll have great lessons when you just know the teaching profession couldn’t survive without you; you’ll have not-so-great lessons when you thank the gods that Estyn weren’t in watching.  Take it, learn from it.  Far better to stop a lesson in the middle and regroup if something isn’t working than to plough on and hope for the best.  I stopped an art lesson a few years ago that I was demonstrating to a student and, with the children sitting on the carpet, said ‘Mrs Bryant is with you all in the bottom of the learning pit right now.  What can we do to get out of it together?’ It’s still the bravest teaching move I’ve ever made and probably one of the ones from which the children and I gained the most.

Humour: I laugh, every day.  With colleagues, with the children.  In difficult days it keeps me going.  Whether it takes the form of a Whatsapp message to your team, or something funny a child has said, or even a ‘teacher phrase’ you never thought you’d hear yourself say e.g. “Please take your finger out of his nose; he doesn’t like it,” there is joy in every day.  EVERY day.

Innovation: Try something new; a new approach, a new technique, a new song, even a new reading book with the children.  Don’t be afraid to try.  I’ve done some wonderful things with the children; many worked, some didn’t, but in everything was a lesson.  We learned as we experienced.

Juggling: Could also have been called ‘plate spinning’.  Or teaching.  We have a lot to think about, often at once, and some days it’s overwhelming.  The key to it is learning what is urgent, what will keep and what can be delegated.  This graphic summarises it all really:

Keeping it fresh: See also: Innovation.  That’s how important it is.  It got a double-mention.

Learning: Still of paramount importance.  Teaching and learning is why we’re here, after all!  Outdoor learning, learning through play, learning at home, learning in school.  Learning takes many forms and even the parents who found supporting remote learning tricky admitted that they had enjoyed learning with their children through cooking, gardening and practical activities.

Magpieing: I only learned this term over the last few years.  To those unfamiliar with the terms, magpies like to steal from other nests.  ‘Magpieing’ is a nicer way of ‘stealing ideas’ and refers to sharing good practice.  Do it.  Frequently.  From colleagues, other schools, Pinterest, Twitter.  New ideas are great and should be shared.  Take them, try them, do them in your own way.

Needs: Of the children, of each other.  We will always put the children first – the nature of teachers is to go home long after hours, worrying about what we can do to help the child struggling with Maths, or how to improve another child’s confidence, but it is important to recognise when a colleague is struggling too.  A quick “Everything ok?” or a friendly text after work can make the world of difference. 

Outdoor learning: ‘Seizing the season’.  My new (school) year’s resolution is to make sure I facilitate plenty of outdoor learning opportunities.  Getting the children to make the most of our school grounds: for play, for wellbeing, for learning.

Positivity: Not something everyone finds easy, and not something that comes naturally to everyone but it is so important in the workplace to realise the impact our moods and emotions can have on the working environment.  We’ve all been in a meeting where a negative comment has impacted on the tone of the whole session.  Compassion and empathy can make a big difference.  A favourite image of mine which I like to share with the children is this:

Quenching thirst: Ask any teacher friend and they would tell you they don’t drink enough during the day.  Cue splintering headaches around 3pm.  I promise I will prioritise drinking water this year.  And it’s in print so now I have to.  I bought a shiny new water bottle and everything.

Routines: Not teaching grandma to suck eggs here.  Establishing routines is vital for the children and the adults to know what is going on.  Visual timetables may benefit some children.

Supplies: You will never have more pencils, pens, rubbers, etc than you do on September 1st.  My advice to you as a veteran teacher is channel a wartime spirit and ration, ration, ration.  When colleagues are petitioning office staff for “just a few more board pens” in November, your smug self can revel in the plethora you have stored up.  Or share.  You can do that too.  See also “Colleagues”.

Technology: I have an unrequited love affair with technology.  I love it.  It remains staunchly indifferent towards me and breaks down with alarming frequency.  I will be brave and continue to persevere.  Maybe I’ll even write about it.  Watch this space.

Unique: Every child is unique, as is every teacher.  Find out what interests the individuals and give the children plenty of opportunities to lead their own learning.  Thanks to a child in my class last year, I feel confident I could answer a specialist subject Mastermind round on Venus fly traps as that was his obsession.  The best thing about teaching is you can genuinely use the phrase “Well, you learn something new every day”!

Versatility: You can’t teach without it.  Every day is different when you’re a primary teacher and surprises and unexpected events occur with alarming frequency.  In the words of that iconic 90s band, “You gotta roll with it.”

What matters: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Xerox machine: AKA Photocopier.  Forget members of staff, this is what you need to befriend.  Speak calmly to it; it senses fear.  You will likely see more of it than your own family.

You: I’m absolutely rubbish at this, but making time for you will avoid the infamous teacher burnout.  My teacher friends mock me (you know who you are) for my caffeine dependency, but on some days, a quick cup of tea at breaktime can switch a mood around.  I know I don’t get enough sleep, or drink enough water, or take care of myself as I frequently promise myself, but maybe this year will be different???

Zillionaire: Something a teacher will never be.  But we will always have a heart full of love for ‘our’ children and a constant need to provide the best education and experiences that we can.  So I’m going to ignore the ‘zillion’ items on the ‘to do list’ that frankly will never be completed and focus on the ‘zillion’ smiles and ‘little wins’ that my class and I will have this year.  And honestly, fifteen years in, I still can’t wait for September.

View all posts by: Victoria Bryant
Categories: Classroom Environment, Teaching Ideas
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