28 Aug '13

News Heading into your first term as a teacher: keep calm and progress

From planning to timetabling rest and reflection, Marie Hazel offers her advice for surviving your first term in teaching

Flash-forward; it's Sunday 1 September, you're sitting on your sofa, staring down the barrel of your first year in teaching and thinking about what the new academic year will bring. Hopefully you feel as prepared as you can be, rested and raring to go. You've probably got your timetable, sorted out planning for the first week and got your uniform in order. Adrenaline will have kicked in and you'll be a mixture of nervous and excited.

You will move through many different emotions in your first term; it's exhilarating but knackering all at the same time. You will feel like you're just treading water, you'll question whether you know what you're doing more times than you care to admit, and you'll find out more about yourself in those seven weeks than you have in your whole adult life. Move over PGCE – welcome to the world of the full-time teacher.

My first term was a blur of planning, getting to grips with behaviour, learning about my pupils, getting to know colleagues, finding out where to get stuff and seeing a lot of the four walls in my classroom. My husband forgot what I looked like and when I did surface, I spent a lot of time drinking rocket-fuel coffee and sleeping. I was trying to be a perfectionist – working too hard, ticking every box and trying to make every lesson amazing (though they clearly weren't).

I wish someone would have taken me to one side, sat me down with a cup of tea and told me to get a grip. It was completely unsustainable and a real waste of time. In fact, one of my vice-principles tweeted me his top advice for new teachers saying: "learn that cutting back on the perfectionism won't limit your capacity to be consistently outstanding. In fact it's a prerequisite." Wise words and some that I wish I'd been given during that first term.

There's something to be said for those posters that are seen everywhere these days, the keep calm ones. Here's an acronym that could be used for keeping calm in teaching, be you PGCE, NQT, secondary, primary, UK or abroad. Keep calm and P.R.O.G.R.E.S.S. So make yourself comfortable and see whether the following could apply to you and your first term:

P – planning

This takes a while at the start of your career and can be a bit tedious, especially during your PGCE. But it's worth doing well. There are many versions of the five-minute lesson plan out there, which cover differentiation, challenge and marking foci – all essential to streamlining your approach to planning. The Guardian Teacher Network and other websites have planners that you can manipulate to suit your needs. Use them – don't waste time reinventing the wheel.

Alongside this, use a good medium-term plan. Do it in your holidays and you'll reap the benefits later in the term. Include on it learning objectives, outcomes, possible learning activities and potential marking foci. Plan your own timetable too, detailing what you'll do with your frees, when you'll carry out your workload and time for rest and relaxation.

R – reflection

Some days will be rubbish. Some lessons will suck. Sometimes you'll have planned down to the tiniest detail and it'll go horribly wrong. Why? Lots of reasons, including mood, weather, equipment failure etc. The key is to take five minutes at the end of the day to write down or have a think about why these things happened. The most successful teachers are the most reflective – they take every opportunity to think about their practice and what they can do to improve their work. You may be able to isolate a couple of things to tweak, which will remove the issues you've had and make things easier the next time around.

O – optimism

It's not easy to cultivate a positive outlook, especially in the depths of November on a rainy Wednesday last lesson. But it makes a difference. There are a few things that can happen in your teaching day that are really that bad, but every day is a new day and if you learn to wipe clean issues with students or things that have gone wrong as you collect your jacket on the way out, you will feel so much better for it.

G – gratingly persistent

The key to behaviour management is consistency and persistence. Students need boundaries, whether that's school policies or your own classroom rules. Make sure your boundaries are very clear, be persistent in applying them and be consistent at following them up. This could be anything from a detention for someone who has not handed in homework, to confiscation of mobile phones which are taken out in your classroom. Plug away with this for a few weeks and behaviour management will start to be become much easier. You will soon become known as a firm-but-fair teacher and students will be less likely to break your rules. Never go back on your word – pupils will take it as weakness and you'll be easy pickings from there on in.

R – rest

Make sure you timetable in some downtime, otherwise you'll come down with all manner of ailments faster than you can say sick day. It's ok to call in sick, don't soldier on – it doesn't benefit anyone. It's really hard finding sick cover halfway through the day if you have to go home.

E – evaluation

Teacher and student discourse features highly on the Ofsted agenda. When you mark, choose one or two things to focus on, based on your lesson content, and give them feedback as to what went well, and how it could be improved. Plan evaluation time at the beginning of your lesson, where pupils read your comments and give themselves targets for the next few lessons. Then ask students to peer assess each other, easing some of the workload for you. Persistent behaviour is essential – keep doing it and it'll become second nature for you and the kids.

S – sociable

Don't, whatever you do, stay in your room alone, even if you just nip into the staffroom at the end of the day. Make as many friends as possible – they will help you through many a tough situation.

S – student-focused

Focus on the kids. So if you're tired, they won't get the best from you. Look after yourself by timetabling rest, getting enough sleep and making sure you maintain good health. Try and make time for your favourite activities and with family and friends. Not only will it do you good but it'll make you a better teacher.

I have one last suggestion, get up off the sofa and grab yourself a brew. Relax and enjoy the last few moments of the holidays – then get ready for an epic first term.

Marie Hazel teaches science at the City Academy, Bristol and is also deputy head of humanities.

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