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17 Feb 2017

Rediscovering your teacher mojo

For some teachers, the start of half-term feels like waking from a nightmare. For others, it is more like the beginning of a desperate pursuit for leisure and recreation; one of my colleagues flew out skiing on Friday at 6.30pm and returned 10 days later on the Monday at 4:00am in a desperate attempt to squeeze every last drop of holiday time out of her week off. Personally, I always felt like Lewis Caroll’s Alice; returning from a strange world filled with odd characters where time seemed to take on a life of its own.

During my PGCE year, I was unfortunately burdened with the task of writing a 3,000 word essay on the importance of Assessment for Learning on progress in the classroom. When questioning the idea to force teaching students to work every second of the week, a tutor told me that working over the half-term was good for helping teachers to improve their approaches and take new ideas into the classroom. He thought all teachers should devote some time over the short holiday to plan lessons and think about classroom management.

Having been a stressed teacher working in a difficult environment, I would have to say that I still wholeheartedly disagree with my tutor. I believe that school holidays and the February half term in particular (the start to the year tends to be the most difficult weeks for teachers) should be reserved for relaxation and rejuvenation. In fact, a 2015 study of teaching staff demonstrated that those teachers who continued to ruminate about work over the holiday period had lower levels of psychological health during term time1. As part of their conclusion on the study, the researchers recommended that teachers undergo mindfulness training during their time off.

With the idea firmly in mind that half-terms are for sleeping in, seeing friends, eating crisps and entering into adult conversations that are not about the lack of parental support for the Modern Languages department or a better way to approach the school consequences system, I have thought of some practical tips on how to start off the new term that need no preparation. I tended to come back from holidays (after the dreaded essay routine had ended) feeling refreshed and ready to do things differently – to have better discipline in my classes, to encourage the shy students to speak up and to try new and interesting teaching methods. Alas, these intentions did not often stick and I would normally slide back into my status quo. The below tips will hopefully be handy for ensuring this does not happen with your own teaching practice.

  • Take a simple new idea and make it into a routine

The Behavioural Insights Team, an ex-government organisation that looks at increasing the effectiveness of public policy, have been fairly spot on when talking about frictions (and their whole report is awesome, definitely worth a read)2. What they point out is that when we make something hard to get out of, we tend to stick to it. Like the fact that we end up paying for the gym for months because it takes effort to unsubscribe. Let’s take AfL, if you make one AfL activity, like using traffic lights to show understanding in the middle of the lesson, and make it into a routine, you are more likely to stick to it. On day one you should tell students that they are going to do this every lesson, put the activity up on the wall somewhere and right it into your planner. This way, it will become a routine that is hard to get out of, even when you get a little tired during term time.

  • Observe other teachers for inspiration

In my first year of teaching, I observed one teacher every two weeks. In my second year, I observed two teachers. In total. I find it interesting how many great practitioners surround us in our workplace and yet we see how so few of them operate. Lesson observations can encourage you via the smallest tweaks, be it changing your classroom layout because someone else’s seems to work better or changing the way you give instructions to students. In every observation I did, I learned something useful and potentially learned more from observing people who taught entirely different subjects like Drama or Music. While you have the energy, I would encourage you to try and observe a couple of teachers at the start of term to see what new ideas you can pick up.

  • Set a mid-point to review your own progress

All the ideas I had for the new term would have disappeared three weeks’ in. And like new year’s resolutions, I didn’t realise how little I had actually achieved until the new term rolled in. To avoid this wave of innovation and then potential disappointment, setting a review point just for yourself can be a good idea. This is normally best around 3-4 weeks into the current term. This can solely be renew your new term’s resolutions and devote some more energy into making them achievable.

For those of you on holiday, I should have asked you to stop reading right at the beginning. Go and forget about teaching and save this semi-useful blog post until a free period on Tuesday (focus on just getting through Monday to begin with). When you return, these tips should help to make those new ideas stick for a little longer and make sure that the renewed holiday energy is not wasted.




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