Welcome to my world

Exciting times.  We have a new physics teacher joining us in September.  Here’s what I hope I’ve let them know.

Despite everything, it’s great being a teacher. 

You know all those teacher adverts?  They’re a bit annoying, because a lot of the time, teaching isn’t fun like that.  Sometimes it is though.  Sometimes, Year 9 won’t appreciate your lesson on parallel circuits, or appear to learn much from it.  Sometimes, they will though.  When that happens, the buzz is fantastic.  On top of that, children can be great to work with; they’re (mostly) curious, funny and an intriguing mixture of superficial street-smart and charming childish gaucheness.  I’m not convinced about “loving children” as a criterion for a teacher; certainly at secondary level, we ought to be changing children into adults, helping them put childish things behind them.  But working with children can be a life-giving experience. Enjoy it.

Despite everything, it’s a good time to be a teacher.

OK.  There’s going to be remarkably little money for anything nice for the foreseeable future.  And there are terrible people doing terrible things (though who the terrible people are, and what the terrible things are is still a matter of opinion). But there is an increasing intellectual freedom in some parts of the education system, and that offers hope. For starters, all the social media malarkey has given people the opportunity to try out their ideas, and test out the claims they are presented with. Knowing that you are not unique, or crazy, for thinking what you do is incredibly empowering in itself, and it’s something that didn’t really happen a decade ago. Also, some of the tricks schools have used to make themselves look better than they are aren’t going to work as well in the future. There are increasing openings for other ways of doing school. This is a Good Thing.

You’ve got to get safety and safeguarding right.  Pretty much everything else is fixable. 

You know what to do with Child Protection issues; everyone knows what to do.  If in doubt, even if it’s a vague unease, report it to the appropriate person in the appropriate way.  In terms of lab safety, think through the risk assessments for practicals, and be prepared to stop if you aren’t convinced about the class’s ability to work safely.

Beyond that, anything that goes wrong is fixable, even if it doesn’t seem it at the time.  If a class leave the lesson not understanding, look in their books, try to work out what went wrong, and fix their learning next time.  If a class gives you the run-around behaviour wise (and someone probably will), sanction the ringleaders (and don’t panic if you don’t catch everyone, or you can’t quite pick up the scale of bad perfectly), and reset the expectations as the prelude to a fresh start next lesson.

You will be horribly short of time, so bear that in mind when planning.

Recycle lessons, and bits of lessons.  Don’t laminate anything.  If you must do card sorts, give pupils an uncut set and a pair of scissors. Make them tidy up at the end, so you don’t have to.

Part of the art of teaching is channeling and conserving energy.

It’s about 7 or 8 weeks from September to half term, and another 7 or 8 weeks to Christmas.  That’s a lot.  Think how you are going to keep going for that long.  Look out for the days in your timetable where you teach non-stop, and how you can be get everything ready for them.  Plan something nice for half term.

Another part of the art of teaching is making sure that pupils actually do the work.

Unceasing vigilance is hard to do as a teacher.  Human nature being what it is, pupils will often slacken off the work rate if they think they can. Think where you will sit, stand and move to address this.

Part of the art of science teaching is managing resources.

Where are exercise books at the start and end of lessons? How are you going to get experimental equipment out and back? What will you do when things get broken? In a really well-run school, there will be answers to these, so ask. If there aren’t, work out what you want to do. It doesn’t really matter how good your plan is, as long as you have one. But do count apparatus in and out, and log things that get broken.

Technicians are heroes.

They know how everything works. They also know how everyone works. Be friendly and grateful, and give them the paperwork they need. Prep rooms are usually a great place to decompress after a difficult lesson. Everyone has difficult lessons.

Watch out for magnets and compasses.

A certain kind of light-fingered pupil loves magnets and compasses. Definitely count in and out. And check that the compasses point the right way before you start the lesson.

Experiments with electric circuits never, ever work.

Usually there’s a dodgy connection, or the fuse in the ammeter has broken. Spend lunchtime getting one example circuit working properly.

Make lots and lots of lists, and keep them in a big folder.

One of those big (but not lever arch) ring binders. Make it distinctive and lurid, so that you will recognise it when you put it down somewhere.

Have information about every class and every scheme of work. If you put documents (like seating plans) in those transparent document wallets, you can write on them in board marker, and rub them out later. This is quite handy for in-lesson notes about naughty children.

When you make phone calls (and you should, for both good and bad news), record who you spoke to and what you said. You might find it useful to write down the key points before you pick up the phone; you will sound much more convincing if you have the facts to hand.

If you must do colour-rated spreadsheets, use pastel colours.

You and I both know that the difference between an estimated attainment grade and a made up target will be small enough to be swamped by the uncertainty calculation, because we’re physicists, and understand these things. Until the revolution comes, you can at least use the paler colours of the palette. At least then you can look at the wretched things without getting a migraine.

I don’t think anybody can really tell you how you should teach.

I can tell you, and show you, how I teach.  Sometimes that’s great, sometimes… less so.  I can also tell you, and show you, the sorts of ways of teaching that generally work better in the context of our school, and the things you need to do to fit in the whole-school demands, so that they don’t tell you off and continue to pay you.

But I can’t tell you exactly how to teach, because there is a pretty wide range of things that work roughly as well as each other.

I’m not arguing for an “anything goes” approach here.  Some of the approaches to teaching really don’t work, like extreme discovery learning with novices.  For everyone’s sake, your classroom routines need to be reasonably consistent with the rest of the school. But anyone who tells you “this is how you should teach” should be nodded to, and then walked away from whist maintaining loose eye contact.

It didn’t feel like that 10 years ago; then there were people making reputations by claiming that teaching was a solved problem; as long as we all conformed to the checklist, all would be well. The checklists didn’t really work, because they missed out too many possibilities, and checking the checklists took too many people too much time. The education system is gradually learning this. All I can ask you to do is try stuff, sense if it’s working, and respond appropriately. I’m sure you will be great.

In the meantime, it’s break time and the kettle is on. Bagsy the penultimate chocolate hobnob.