Friday, 30 August 2013

Top 10 Tips for NQTs, PGCEs and ITTs

Over the past few weeks there have been plenty of blogs providing tips and advice for new teachers starting their 1st roles this year. It got me thinking about what my 'top 10' tips would be to perhaps my former GTP/NQT self and what would be useful to know before starting these training years. So, under no illusions that I'll be able to do a better job than the likes of the already written advice to trainee teachers, here are my two pennies worth (in no particular order)...

1) Find out how you work best and stick to it

This is a bit of a strange one to start off with but essentially finding a routine that suits you is vital to surviving the sheer amount of paperwork you'll have to deal with over the course of the year. Some schools may expect certain planning requirements - on one of my placements I was expected to hand in lesson plans 24hrs in advance of the lesson. This for me didn't work as I got into the habit of pretty much planning my lessons as I went; I wouldn't plan a class' lesson until their last one had been taught. I found that preparing lessons too far in advance caused me to forget what I had previously planned and it was no longer fresh in my head.
There will also be times where you'll be invited/asked/required to joint plan with other colleagues, it could be that they share a similar group to you or are teaching the same topic. This is something that I've personally found more time consuming than anything else and would much rather plan certain lessons individually and share.
Essentially, whatever works for you, stick to it and don't be afraid to do what's best for you. Over the last two years I very much left school as soon as any after school commitments were fulfilled and I did my work at home. I was pretty much the only teacher in my department that did this and everyone else stayed at school until 6pm+ planning their lessons for the next day/week. I felt bad in the first few weeks for looking like I was leaving ASAP and going home, but they soon came to see that I must have been doing just as much work at home as I would have been at school. Whatever works for you is best!

2) Have 3-4 'go to' starter/plenary activities

By having a number of 'go to' starters and plenaries your planning time will be shortened considerably. I'm guilty of jumping on board of every new starter idea I see on Twitter/TES and usually get creating new resources as soon as I see them and try them out the next day. However, I have a set of activities that I reuse on a regular basis; I 'swap' the activities around between classes and lessons so the activities do not get 'stale' with the students. These activities help you when you get stuck for ideas for lessons, you'll get to refine your skills at delivering them and your students may even like the 'routineness' of having similar activities.

3) Set up individual class folders in your school e-mail Inbox

The amount of e-mails sent round schools on a daily basis is ridiculous. You'll be sent e-mails from your house team, year team, department, NQT/PGCE trainee manager, your mentor, your assessor, all staff e-mails and e-mails from maintenance/reception asking if someone has lost a blue pen with a cat sticker on it. The best way I've found to 'manage' all of these e-mails is by having class folders set up in your Inbox. This way, any important e-mails that get sent from your students, or from other staff requesting information on your students, can be added to the individual class folder and found easier at a later date. I also have a folder for 'Mathematics' (any departmental resources/info), 'NQT/PGCE' (training dates and meetings) and one for your form too. I also get into the habit of, if I'm sat at my desk when the e-mails come in and I don't need them, deleting them there and then. I also have my school's e-mails set up on my iPhone so I can keep track of them at home without logging in externally on my computer - beware --> if you do this you will be constantly checking them, it works for me, but is it something you actually want?

4) Get feedback from your students on you and your lessons

Some of the most useful feedback I've had over my training years has been from my students. You'll find they are brutally honest at times and tell you exactly as they see it. If something isn't right they'll usually make this known to you. This, for the weak hearted can be shattering to your self esteem, but when approached in the right way you can use the feedback to improve your teaching and your students' learning. How I gather the feedback is by using a quick, simple survey on www.surveymonkey.com. I set up a short (7-10 questions) and send it round to my classes via e-mail to do for 'homework'. I make all responses random and include a question 'anything else you'd like to comment on'. I keep them random to try and get as much honesty out of my students as possible. I'd ask them things such as: do they like where they are sat, do they feel they get enough 'teacher time' in class, what activities do they like best, is there anything you particularly have/haven't liked so far this year, do you feel you are making progress in Mathematics, what can Mr Collins do to help you improve further etc.
Don't be afraid of what might come back; if it's negative - do something about it!

5) Reinforce your expectations regularly

I would recommend reinforcing your classroom expectations (in line with your school's behaviour policy) after every half-term. Do this with EVERY class, regardless of whether there your golden top set or the dreaded set 5 class. It'll make a massive difference in terms of the consistency of the behaviour you get in class. I found this out the hard way in the 2nd half of my 1st term with a few classes and it was tricky having to stamp my authority again in the new year. I've heard before that 'once you've lost them it's hard to get them back'. This is true, not impossible, but true.
I've attended a fair few training sessions on behaviour management over the past 4 years or so (including the time when I worked as a cover supervisor) and the one thing that kept coming up was to have your expectations on display in your room. These need to be in a prominent area of your room, that all students can see, and can be used on a daily basis to refer too. Go through these expectations at the very start of the year and ask if any students have any problems with them, if so discuss and re-empthasise why the rule stands, if not bring the fact that there were no issues with them up when a student tests the boundaries.

6) Record details of ALL meetings/duties

There will be loads of meetings throughout the year. There will be house/year/department meetings that all staff will be required to do. On top of that you'll have NQT/PGCE/ITT meetings and then you'll have duties to do to. When push comes to shove, the duties get easily forgotten and you'll get to the end of the day and will suddenly realise you forgot to stand in the playground for 25 minutes. However, the SLT member that randomly checks throughout the year that everyone is where they're supposed to be won't forget! They are important and you don't want a naughty e-mail sent to you asking where you were! Meetings will need to be recorded in your planner and the duration of them too. There's nothing worse than turning up to (what you believe to be) an hour meeting to be told that it's actually 2 hours. I suppose it's all about being mega organised!

7) Do something extra out of the ordinary

This to a lot of people will sound ridiculous given the 'normal' workload that is expected being more than enough to manage during your training years. However, by doing something extra out of the ordinary at your school you will gain the attention of your peers and your students and they will appreciate it. The kind of thing I am talking about doesn't have to be radical or completely insane - I don't mean setting up an 'extreme ironing club' (my University had one of these, and no...I wasn't a member). I set up a TeachMeet at my school last year and although it was a lot of extra work and caused me to liaise with a lot of other members of staff it was well worth it to see what the staff that attended got out of the evening. Other suggestions could be setting up a lunchtime/after school club that hasn't been run before, setting up a class blog (bear in mind safeguarding and child protection) or a blog for a school trip (I did this for our Spanish trip and it was very successful). It could even be organising a car boot sale or fete for the local community. Whatever it is you do, get help doing it and put yourself out there!

8) Communicate with parents and the local community

Parent's evening, in my opinion, is not the first time you should have contact with your students' parents. Ring them (especially your form groups' parents) at the start of the year to introduce yourself. You might be lucky enough to have a 'back to school' parents meeting in the first few weeks - get e-mail addresses from them to provide another means of contacting them. I've found that when you try to ring parents (during the school day) 9 times out of 10 they'll be at work or out. You leave a message and then rarely do these get returned and you end up forgetting what it was you were calling about in the first place. So I've found e-mailing is more successful. Something I wanted to do this year was use www.remind101.com to increase parental engagement, but it's not available in the UK, damn!
An extension to parents is the local community. Like it or not, when in your local area, regardless of what time of day it is or what day of the week, you are a teacher. If you get seen by parents, students or members of the community that serve your school (I'm mainly thinking the local newsagent owner or petrol station staff where you fill up on the way to work) speak to them. Be nice, smile and refer to them by name (if you can remember), you'll be surprised at how much it means to students that you know who they are still outside of school! Above all though...BE POSITIVE. There's nothing worse than moaning about your day or what you have to come that day; you don't want to be creating a negative impression of your school, its students and staff. You'll be surprised how quickly news spreads across your local community and the little 'hellos', 'how are yous' and 'thank yous' go a long way.

9) Cherish your TAs/LSAs

Other than your students these are the most important people in your school - your teaching assistants or learning support assistants (whatever they are called at your school). They have the ability to provide you with an unparallelled amount of support with your students, and mostly your most difficult students. Get to know them, what they like/don't like etc and get them involved in your lessons. This starts before the lesson if possible - show them your lesson plans or talk to them about what you intend to do and what you'd like them to do to help you out. Ask them if they have any suggestions, anything they've seen in another class/school etc. If you're getting the students to do a competitive task, add your TA/LSA to the mix - your students will love trying to beat their score/performance. Use them to model tasks to be done in class and call on them to be the 'volunteer' for the lessons examples. Of course, do so with their blessing - if you know they don't really want to be involved that much and they'd much rather just go and support your students when they're working then give them this choice.
Lastly, thank them regularly. In fact after every lesson. Oh...and get them some chocolates/wine (whatever they like) at Christmas and the end of term - they deserve it.

10) Be there for your students through their tough times

Now this last one may sound obvious as there would be no point in you wanting to teach if you didn't care about the students you teach, but I'll tell you why I've included this...

Regardless of all the training sessions and meetings you'll have to prepare you for your teaching career nothing can prepare you for the 'human' side of the job. Nothing can prepare you for the death of one of your students. Nothing can prepare you for dealing with your students lives and difficulties they face on a daily basis. Nothing can prepare you for these situations. So...all you can do is be there for your students. Let them know you are there if they need you and offer the support you can. Obviously here we have to remember all the child protection training on disclosing information and not being able to keep students 'secrets', but the role of a teacher includes caring for your students. If you know of a student having difficulties at home or at school, whatever it is, be aware of it and, without directly bringing the situation up, be there. A lot of students won't want to talk about things that are troubling them, but will want to talk to someone about anything else, whether it be how many planes of symmetry a cube has or why Arsenal still haven't bought any players in the transfer window!
They'll appreciate you being the 'relief' from their problems, however short that 'relief' may be.


So, that's my top 10 'tips'. I hope they are useful to someone out there besides me. Best of luck to all those about to start their teaching careers, or those starting new roles or new schools - here's to a great year.

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