Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

As I tried to get to sleep on the penultimate day of last term I had visions of a new classroom layout. I started to think about where I would move furniture to and how I could arrange the tables to better support learning for all the different types of learners I accommodate in my room. Needless to say on the last day of term I could not leave until I had realised my vision.

In a mad panic I plugged the iPod in and set to work moving furniture and tables in alignment with my ideas. I have moved from a symmetrical double horseshoe layout in which the tables relentlessly marched forward, effectively cutting off whole corners from me. These days are over.

My vision sprang from an understanding that the majority of classes have students who are quiet but need individual attention and others who are loud yet relatively independent. I wanted to create a space which catered for both types. I have therefore divided my classroom into two. On one side I have rows and the seating plan will enable facing and side partners and on the other I have ‘islands’. This also supports those who are more comfortable in group settings and those who are better facing forward and who need their own space. The idea is that I can swap each side depending on if a task can help the quieter students gain confidence in working with groups.

It is certainly an experiment and the room looks a little unconventional, and I will have to tweak the seating arrangements depending on students’ performance, but in my mind it should create an holistic learning environment where all my students feel safe.

I have also moved my desk from one side of the room to the other so that I can now see the entire learning landscape and everyone in it.

It feels like my space now; it has my mark on it. And I am certain that no one will be totally cut off from me anymore, even if the desks do all march forward over time!


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I realise this blogging malarkey should be regular; I’m painfully aware that I have not blogged in what feels to me like a lifetime. ‘Painfully’ because as a writer (in a previous life) writing used to be a way of life; a way to vent frustrations, catalogue and celebrate successes, self indulge and hope that one day you could write that piece that would catapult you into the literary elite. Alas, with little persistence and regularity as a writer I was forever destined to be merely part of the amateur self-publishing clique – whose writings stay housed within personal journals or the archived local press pages.

Since retraining to teach writing, along with all other facets of myself, has taken more than a back seat – it’s all but been cancelled out by the daily grind of teaching. Teaching as a profession often feels like being fossilised; trapped under the immense daily pressure and never-ending list of things to achieve. As such, I have become far too engrossed in the daily machinations of being a teacher – planning, marking and reporting. But this isn’t a blog about the tribulations and troubles of a teacher; a topic heavily documented, especially this year due to the educational climate in the UK. This blog is about my own journey as a human being over the past year and a half as a fully-qualified and as I see glimmers of a life-once-loved slowly returning to sight.

One such glimmer is the ‘me’ as writer. After a particularly care-free and hedonistic Christmas break I was skillfully ignoring the mountain of marking staring at me from my desk and the hours of up-skilling I needed to do ahead of the next term as a still relatively-new and inexperienced teacher of English and media. Drastic measures were needed if I was to avoid the inevitable last-minute planning panic that was about to ensue if this state of semi-ignorant bliss continued. Those drastic measures involved me booking a quick two-day trip away from the comfort of my reclining chair and BT Vision box.

Within 4 hours of arriving in the sanctuary of Llangollen (with laptop and marking neatly stored in my luggage) I had achieved: (in no particular order) a two-course meal, two pints, over half my marking done and written two poems, including a sonnet (the first creative writing I have done in a good many years). Proof be, if proof be needed, that breaking the cycle is healthy and was indeed, much needed.

As I reflect on the past year (an annual past-time in December, I believe) I am spurred into a renewed sense of excitement for myself as I embrace these glimmers of the old me – as writer, as traveller, as woman even. You see everything stopped for me while I adjusted to my new vocation. Wanting to be able to do something well is all-encompassing, no matter what it might be, and, as you will see from this year’s book diary, I have struggled to find time to do anything else.

Becoming a teacher was my final calling, but in answering the call I ceased to be good at anything else: I failed in my relationship, turned my back on my family and friends, scarcely wrote but a few lines in my journal, gave up on choir, and instead found myself in a relentless cycle of term time (hard, emotionless and focused) and holidays (letting hair down excessively). Somewhere in all of this I forgot to be me. So it was with relief and vigour with which I enjoyed writing my sonnet yesterday – not only was it a moment in my own history but a turning point in what could have shaped up to be a pretty pathetic and sad year.

The proverbial jury is still out on whether I have made the right decisions giving up everything I once knew to commit to this career; God knows I adore what I do – the students, the ‘light-bulb’ moments and the literary research I do – but there is no denying it is not just a job. I have felt moments of turmoil this past year that I recognise from the shaky and unknowing years of my youth. I have felt hopeless, and tired, and often questioned whether I have what it takes (and it takes a great deal). But north Wales – hoorah! you have restored in me the me I longed to see and speak to at this critical time. God bless you.

The moral? A change is as good as rest.

The sonnet? Well, seems only fair to pair the renewed blog-writer with the renewed poet.

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I’ve been on a one-woman mission to try and get my students passionate about reading for some time now. Through showcasing my own passion and love for literature, and talking to students about their interests and hobbies I have slowly been opening up avenues of reading for them which they will hopefully enjoy and stick to. I was thrilled to discover last week that our department have put reading firmly back on the agenda for our year 8 and 9 students specifically in a bid to boost reading ages for all. We’ve been tasked with trialling and reporting back on the effectiveness of a variety of reading strategies with all of our classes but have been given total autonomy on how we approach the task.

I set out with my lower ability year 8 group to stage a series of reading activities based on a short story that I read to them. They took to it considerably well, so bouyed by our success I’m sticking to this strategy with this particular group.

It’s fair to say I was nervous about tackling ‘reading’ with my year 9s. They are reluctant learners at the best of times and the very prospect of asking them to sit quietly with book in hand for half a whole lesson filled me with dread. I was forced to face my fear last week off the back of an IT issue where I lost my planned lesson. “To hell with it,” I mused, and armed myself with my self-made box of books and magazines and walked briskly and purposefully into our classroom. I told them straight up what the plan was, and as I called their names on the register they were to come and select reading material from the box. One by one they all became armed and returned to their seats to fumble and finger through pages of pictures and text.

I told them they had to read for 10 minutes in silence and give their books “a good go”. If after that time they really couldn’t get into it then they could swap it. I took up a book myself and sat in the back corner of the room watching my wristwatch and passively reading. 5 minutes – still quite. 10 minutes – still quiet. 15 minutes later and the room was still reading. I decided to time them; leave my readers undisturbed until they naturally became restless and started to chat to each other. Taking this as my cue I then asked them to talk to their neighbour about what they had read whilst I circulated the room and asked them for their opinion on the lesson. By and large they all said they were happy but would be happier if we could have short bursts of reading segmented by different activities, not unlike the structure I had tested on my year 8s. It was a wonderfully co-operative period and my fears were more than allayed.

Now I have the students on board, but I had more of a struggle with colleagues. I was disappointed to learn that 3 students had been returned to my room empty-handed from the library. The librarian had turned them away because she could register loans due to the aforementioned IT failures – all computers and networks were down. If I’d have been able to leave the room I would have challenged her about this: what’s wrong with a good old-fashioned pen and paper to record loans? Surely it is better to have students with books in hand than not, particularly with our department focus? I’m going to take this up with her when I see her, because I just think it’s sending them the wrong message. And I don’t want to feel like I am once again on a one-woman mission to get our kids reading.

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Turning a corner.

I’m starting to get things right. Inevitably, there are still vast canyons filled with room for improvement, and I’m still not sure how Ofsted will feel about me when we finally meet, but I’m beginning to see the fruits of my labour come to fruition. (Oh come on, who doesn’t like a mixed metaphor?)

I drove home on Monday on the verge of tears. Tears of happiness, of joy and serenity. I finally felt like I had cracked it. My students were safe, happy, engaged and learning and I was energised and on form. I even had a colleague suggest that I had the makings of a good head teacher. I’ve never even considered it; when you work at the coal face it’s hard to imagine being the boss. Besides, I think I’d miss the kids too much. But it was my greatest compliment to date in my teaching career because she claimed I ‘got them’ and my way of thinking is ‘good for them’. I’ll never claim to have the best subject knowledge; I’ll never say my teaching is flawless and that I tow the line every minute of every day, but I can say I’m there for my students, and from what they tell me and other members of staff they know I am there for them.

Above all else that’s why I’ve ended up here. Sure, I care about the considerately placed comma and the poor abused apostrophe, these things are important and any day now I will stop comma splicing! But being a constant for a young person who faces difficulty is what gets my out of bed every day.

I am always amazed by the resilience and tenacity our young people show; the things they have to deal with on a daily basis are remarkable, I don’t know where they find the strength but they do, and they inspire me because of it. It’s so easy to holler at a student and challenge them “Why are you late?” and when they reply with alarm didn’t go off, mum didn’t get up, ran out of electric, I had to get my brother to school, etc etc, it’s easy to see how we should be patient with them. It’s plain to see that it’s a miracle they even get to school at all some days. It’s simple to understand that their lives are bigger than the school day and getting to registration is not always going to be their most pressing priority, and often for good reason.

Tuesday saw one of my more reluctant readers asking about ‘1984’ after I’d mentioned it in class. He wanted to know if it really was as good as I’d said. I told him I’d lend him my copy and he smiled. It was a simple yet brilliant moment in my career so far. He’s fired up about reading again and he enjoys coming to English.

My students think I’m fair and that is a good thing. They know I am investing in them. There was a moment when I was concerned they didn’t think I meant business, but they do. And I’m content with this balance. I’m proud that my natural strength is my relationships with my students and that they feel they can come to me and be honest. It’s a privilege to earn their trust and enjoy their company each day.

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The fact that I haven’t blogged in a long while is testament to how all-consuming my new teaching life has been. When I haven’t been teaching – or doing something teaching related – I’ve been making up for it letting my hair down with friends, or making cupcakes with my niece. But there never seems to be enough time to do other things, and I’m not yet at the stage when I could confidently say I have a healthy work/life balance.

There’s always some meeting to get to, something to file/log/mark, someone to ask questions of or answer questions to, and of course the students are always asking “What are we doing next?”.

I’m one full term (or half term in old money) in to being a ‘real’ teacher now. Yes, I am exhausted, and yes, I underestimated quite how hard this would be. But something keeps me going in spite of the perpetual challenge and the ups and downs. Something stops me from throwing in the towel even when I’ve had a day which went belly up and I’ve hated myself for doing/saying something stupid.

My teaching skills leave much to be desired and I’d be surprised if Ofsted judged me fit to teach at all some days! I feel the constant pressure from the ‘data’ and ‘progress’, and every so often I crumple under the overbearing weight of responsibility I feel for their futures. Never more so than this week when I sat with my HoD and decided which of our Year 12 retakers would resit their Controlled Assessments. Decisions were based on what they had achieved so far and whether I thought they would a) resit 5 pieces of work and b) succeed at it. I ended up putting all of them back in the pot. I didn’t want my judgment to limit their achievement, it just didn’t seem fair. They’ll hate me for it, I know this, but the alternative was telling them we didn’t think they were good enough to secure their required C and as such they would not be allowed to continue with their Post-16 endeavours.

I sat down to write this blog with every intention of writing something pithy and poignant but instead it’s just a virtual sigh. I hope to make this more regular, and stick to topics and themes a bit more, but for now, this is me, NQT blogger back in the fold. Look forward to recording some of the most exciting days of life right here.

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I took a trip to the Guardian this week. It was actually a bit of a day out for me and my fellow trainee teachers to that there London, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was all part of supporting us in a project we are doing with two schools whereby we set up a newspaper simulation day for the children to get a glimpse at what it’s like to be journalists for the day. They have to arrange interviews, come up with story ideas and on the day will have to write copy, take photographs and create a print and online version of their paper.

Given my background, i.e., my degree in journalism and 12 years in the industry, I was faced with the obvious questions from my peers about my previous life. Where better to ask a so-called failed journalist if they regret not making it than in the hub of one of the most respected newspaper in the UK?

So it got me thinking, and on the train home I asked myself, and I asked for an honest answer of myself: am I ashamed of or regretful about my failed aspirations as journalist? And the truth is no, I’m not. When I set out to be a journalist I had the goal of a 15-year-old in mind. I wanted to use language to spread and share knowledge and being a news hound was the best way I could think of at the time. It all seemed so logical. So off I went down that path. But I can trace my ‘failed aspirations’ to a single moment in class. A time when we covered what is known as the ‘Death Knock’. And I knew from that moment on I wasn’t cut from the right cloth to be a journalist, in spite of pleas from my tutors to ‘toe the line for a couple of years’. I didn’t have what it takes to knock on the doors of people who had just tragically lost relatives and loved ones all in the name of ‘getting the story’. I’m not built to impose on people’s grief like that, and I never will be.

So it begs the question why did I continue with my degree? Well, I’ve never been one for quitting anything for a start. And for another thing I began to choose options which would send me down a different path, one of online and specialist journalism which eventually did lead to me having a few interesting and exciting jobs in the media.

Do I regret never becoming the Guardian journalist I always dreamed I would? Still the honest answer is no. I was passionately chasing a dream, but it was the wrong dream. The essence of what I wanted to do as a journalist (and why I chose it as my degree) was that I wanted to impart knowledge, share experiences and ideas, do something important for mankind, and what better way to do that than the way I am now doing as an English teacher? I can’t think of one. And that degree and brief journalistic career helped get me to this point. As my dear old Mum always says, ‘nothing is ever wasted’, my background has become the mainstay of my vision of what kind of teacher I want to be, how I want to share knowledge and encourage fresh and independent thinking.

Now I dream about fuelling inquisitive minds, and helping young people on their path towards their own dreams. And that is now the single most important thing that has ever happened to me.

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One thing They teach you on your PGCE is to ‘reflect’. You must be capable of reflecting on your practice and that of others you observe. You develop the art of reflecting, not because this is something which can be taught mind you, but more as a natural part of the process. The first two weeks of my school placement were a blur; I couldn’t tell you what happened now looking back at it. Not in any detail anyway. But I know I survived because I ‘reflected’ on it at the time and became more and more aware of what I was doing in the classroom and what I had to do to get the desired effect from each lesson (i.e., hopefully getting some teaching and learning done!).

It seems appropriate now, as I pause for breath during the Christmas break (the only school holiday which we actually get to enjoy during our PGCE year I’ll have you know), to ‘reflect’ on the last 3 months post-epic life and career change. And as I brace myself for round two (aka spring term) I wanted to catalogue my feelings and experience so far somewhere which is personal to me, and that I can share with friends from a previous life who have been somewhat neglected of late (apologies for this).

When I entered into this I did so with an adventurous spirit, a wealth of enthusiasm, stacks of innovative IT tricks to take into the classroom, and a naivety that I will never again know. We started the course and were told: “This will change you. You will be a different person this time next year”. After much protestation from me about how I’ve only recently learned to really like myself and it would be a crying shame if I were to change, I decided to pack that piece of ‘advice’ into a dark corner of my mind and ignore it for all eternity, sure in my own mind and spirit that nothing will change me now. I am who I am, and that is precisely why I had the courage to leave my old life behind and embark on pastures new.

Being a trainee teacher is a bit like being bi-polar: every hour is different, let alone every day! One lesson you’re up, you’re winning, you’re all having a delightful time and some actual learning is taking place. The next, it’s 15 minutes before all coats are off, bags are out of the way and pens are handed out. Modern teenagers don’t carry their own stationery. Gone are the days when your stationery was something to be proud of and show off at the beginning of every new term.

A few things surprised me about teaching. Best to list them rather than puff them out into a paragraph, we’ll be here all night otherwise and these luxury days of writing for pleasure are few and far between!

1. As mentioned, kids don’t carry pens

2. No matter how warm it is in the classroom, coats are a thing of pride and are not taken off lightly

3. Kids are like pinballs; they cannot stay still

4. They don’t make the connection between school and life after school; school is just something that happens to them

5. A lot of teachers don’t appear to actually like kids

6. Kids are really, really clever, just not in the way you’d perhaps like

7. They remember everything you say. Everything, that is, that isn’t associated with learning

8. Exercise books have a habit of taking mini adventures, at least one will be missing every lesson

9. Kids don’t like writing

10. IT can never be trusted in the classroom

Now that said, you might suspect I had a terrible time. But here’s the thing; kids are funny, if a little reluctant to learn, and most of them have a good heart and a good spirit and they want to get on with you in spite of their moans and groans which suggest otherwise. It’s really easy to get a kid onside, and that’s the only way I eventually managed to teach them anything.

We’re taught that you are not the kids’ friend, and that’s quite right, you aren’t supposed to reach that level of intimacy with them. Having said that, from my experience (brief though it is at the moment) they do want to feel that they can talk to you, and that they have things to talk to you about. Two of my greatest successes came from children being able to talk to me, and I took these little victories, as you must take all victories no matter how small, straight to heart.

I had more than my share of problems, failures and mistakes. But above all, I actually enjoyed the crowd control aka teaching. I never felt out of my depth or like I’d made the wrong decision, and by the time I was stood in their Christmas assembly on the final day of term I was sad to be leaving the kids.

They are mad, bad and dangerous, and they are crying out for a bit of routine and discipline. But they have a sincerity you don’t get from working with adults, a charm which I cannot describe, and I am looking forward to getting to know my next clutch of teens at my next placement in February where I shall not be doing the following:

1. Allowing my scepticism about the system to rule my teaching decisions

2. Not putting the kids into a seating plan of my choosing

3. Wasting time worrying about my lesson plans too much

4. Making assumptions about what the kids already know

5. Taking any shortcuts

6. Putting too much faith in the adults

So here’s to 2012, when I get to apply for real jobs and become a fully-fledged public sector worker. Whatever you have planned for next year, I urge you to take risks and to reflect on everything you do. It is the only way we grow and learn.

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