On 27th October 2021 Katharine Birbalsingh, Headmistress and Founder of the free/charter school Michaela, tweeted the following:
In subsequent days Birbalsingh has been both hounded and celebrated online in equal measure. Her critics are seemingly shocked by her audacity to bring religion into the context of educating children. Her defenders, however, say that children (as people) inherently struggle to make the morally right choice when the wrong choice can often be so damned tempting.
As an English teacher this reminded me of John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, the story of two American ranch workers who dream of one day owning their own piece of land.
A few years ago, while teaching a top set boys’ class in Year 9 I dared to be a bit clever and have them write a psychoanalytical interpretation of the tale through the lens of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the human psyche. In a nutshell, Freud argued that the human personality is the result of competing internal forces: the Id, the Ego and the Superego, which can be defined as thus:
The case I put to the class was this: Lennie represents the Id – his urge to pet soft things, his eagerness to take care of imaginary rabbits. Petting rabbits will not make Lennie any richer in a material sense, but that doesn’t stop him wanting to. We are all Lennie to a degree in that we all want something, all the time. We have done since birth and will go to our graves laced with wants. As Freud acknowledges, this is chaotic and animal-like: a toddler having a meltdown in a sweetshop. We are all born with this readily installed, and it never goes away, only ever being managed.
Lennie’s close friend George is the Ego. He’s in charge most of the time. The more practical of the two, he tends to the tricky business of getting them not what they desire, but what they immediately need: employment, food and shelter – safety. These don’t magically appear because they want them. A plan must be put in place to obtain them, a plan that only George, and his more practical nature, can formulate. George taking care of Lennie is the Ego managing the Id.
The Superego is presented in the form of the boss’ son Curley. Steinbeck uses him to criticise American society, as he personifies the ranch’s hostility towards its workers. A tyrannical figure, he keeps order through cruelty and the threat of violence. Both George and Lennie learn very quickly, like all the other characters, to keep their heads down and behave accordingly each time he shows up.
So what’s this got to do with Original Sin?
Students are often confused as to why George stays with the burdensome Lennie. Whenever I’ve asked them why he might, they often suggest that is may be as Lennie is a big man he is capable of beating up anyone who might wish to hurt them.
But this isn’t it.
George doesn’t stay with Lennie because his desire to touch soft things is chaotic and animalistic. It is because Lennie’s insistence on hearing George speak about their dream of having their own land (and rabbits) brings out in George a child-like desire; a craving for something that is often so silly and impractical you would ordinarily be too embarrassed to say it aloud.
Like us all, George fundamentally needs to believe that the dream of owning his own piece of land is still one day possible despite, in the context of The Great Depression, it being exceedingly unlikely. He needs to feel that there can be more to life than the practicalities of simply surviving; the monthly getting and spending, even if this is an illusory dream.
Most teachers enjoy working with children, I believe, because most young people are a source of energy and optimism having not yet had their faces rubbed in the dirt by painful experience. They are innocent in that sense, admirably believing they can achieve anything if they just put their minds to it. And who knows? Maybe they just might.
Are children bad then?
Childish Id – or Original Sin, if you prefer – can be very ugly if left untamed. As depicted in the novel, without George, Lennie ends up committing a terrible atrocity. And we have all experienced to some degree the horror of this in the classroom or at home. Teachers and parents must stand by and support young people, like George does with Lennie, for the sake of the child and for the sake of others.
But the paradox of Steinbeck’s novel, and the controversy that comes from talking about children and Original Sin, is that our wants are not exclusively awful.
If it is true, as Wordsworth wrote, that ‘the child is the father of the man’ then logic would have it that the novice is the teacher of the expert. We learn from our mistakes, as the adage goes. I certainly had to.
But that doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistakes as me in order to learn not to do them. A wise person doesn’t just learn from their own mistakes, but also those made by others.
What, then, should you avoid doing at all costs in your first year of teaching? Well, exactly what I did, for I was not a wise person.
I present to you the 5 don’ts (and 5 preferable dos) I learnt the hard way during my horrible first year in teaching:
DON’T – Stay off social media
You’ll have already heard a lot about how your first year of teaching is going to be really busy so it makes sense to stay away from time vampires like social media as much as possible.
But Twitter can be a good exception to this rule.
There you’ll find a community of education professionals, like you, who engage in conversations around teaching. What is commonly referred to as ‘Edutwitter’ has daily discussions (and arguments) ranging from everything you could imagine: behaviour management to classroom displays; career advice to subject knowledge.
Many contributors are very generous and share their resources for free.
I have personally found it helpful to see that many other teachers are tackling the same problems I’m facing. It has made me feel less alone, giving me greater confidence that actually, for the most part, I do know what I’m doing.
DO – Get on Twitter
Begin by searching for topics that interest you. In this context, ‘teacher’ would be an obvious one to try, or ‘education’. Do you like what they’re saying? Then give them a ‘follow’. Then look for other people worth following by seeing who they’re giving ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ to.
A word of warning though: while it’s a wonderful source of wisdom, one emerging danger with all social media is that it quickly becomes an echo chamber in which you will quickly only hear from lots of people who conveniently agree with you. This can be very disorienting as it can give you a false impression of how ‘most people’ feel.
Follow people whose viewpoints resonate with you, but also follow those whose opinions are contrary to your own. It is important to hear opposing views in order to receive a more balanced commentary on education. You don’t have to agree with everyone, but just as you wouldn’t surround yourself with ‘yes men’ in real life, nor should you online.
DON’T – Learn as you go
Observing other teachers and copying them is really all I need to do, isn’t it?Practice makes perfect, surely?
Well, yes and no. You will certainly learn through practice and certainly from observing others, but you’ll also pick up bad habits along the way. And remember: practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Better, then, to practice the good, rather than cement the bad.
CPD (remember this term because you’ll hear it often) stands of ‘Continuous Progression and Development’. At the time of writing there has never been more experts writing books, blogs, Twitter threads (and even TikToks) with the intention of helping teachers of all levels improve. And it only appears to be growing.
In my training year only one book was recommended through my initial training provider: How to be a Brilliant English Teacher by Trevor Wright. Amongst all the uncertainty in that year, that book turned out to be my bible. I should have read others (I wish I had), but I didn’t know what else was out there. For me, book recommendations are where Twitter really shines. I have read several books now and each has had a huge and immediate impact on how to I teach. Books are superb for cutting your learning curve – unlike me, not only will reading help you get better at teaching, you’ll get better at teaching faster (and spare yourself some humiliation along the way).
DO – Read books
Twitter is overflowing with book recommendations. But another word of warning: it’s really tempting to read books on topics you’re already competent at. I spent this past week reading the brilliant A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland, convinced that it will help me as a teacher because which teacher doesn’t need more subject knowledge?
While it wasn’t a waste of time by any stretch, I did use it to conveniently ignore another book on my pile I should be reading more urgently: Running the Room – The Teacher’s Guide toBehaviour by Tom Bennett. If I was being honest with myself, my behaviour management is not as sound as my subject knowledge.
Note to self: more on modelling behaviour, and less on Moby Dick.
DON’T – Blame others
The problems I had when I began teaching were, on reflection, largely self-created. I’ve managed to deduce this because I still teach in the same school, to similar cohorts of students, with largely the same staff and resources available. But now, five years in, my days feel a lot more manageable.
What changed? Frankly, I did. I used to expect quick results, thought I could do it all by myself, and took more than I gave. Now I am more knowledgeable, more skilled and a far better teammate to my colleagues.
Rather than willing everyone else to change, I had to do it myself instead.
DO – Take responsibility
Resist the temptation to find fault in other people. It’s a simple cop out that is all too easy to do and lets you off the hook from the tricky business of changing.
Concentrate instead more on what you can control, which is yourself and what you do. Focus on improving one aspect of your teaching at at time, starting with the most urgent and go from there.
DON’T – Go it alone
As a novice teacher I foolishly imagined I was working in conflict with those around me: students, parents and staff. I believed that in order to do a good job I had to do it despite the students who were poorly behaved, the parents who wouldn’t reply to my emails, or the judgements of other teachers.
Which of course wasn’t true; just a bizarre state of paranoia. It was only when I began to open myself up to others that I began to get better at teaching: becoming more familiar with my students, co-operating better with and seeking advice from other members of staff.
DO – Play well with others
When you have a problem, the solution will likely be in the form of another person. A mentor, ideally, or perhaps a sympathetic ear from a trusted friend. Good colleagues are good because they reduce the suffering of work. They can often provide solutions you would have never imagined yourself because it’s likely they possess skills in areas that for you are a weakness.
And they’re fun – other people have the power to surprise us and make us laugh.
DON’T – Work yourself silly
A teacher’s workload has become the stuff of urban legend even amongst those who do not teach. I heard dozens of horror stories of teachers working every evening and all weekend to keep up. Some well-meaning friends and family even discouraged me from the joining the profession in the first place.
But how much work is too much? It depends. Some people are simply gifted with a greater capacity for demanding work than others so you’ll need to figure out for yourself where the line is.
I personally like to do some planning in the evenings. I actually enjoy sitting at my computer after everyone else has gone to bed, listening to a podcast and thinking about the next day’s teaching.
That won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and not everyone’s personal circumstances will allow for it, but I’ve been doing it for years and it’s what I prefer.
I used to think that I could cut down severely on sleep to help fit everything in, getting just a few hours kip each night. Even typing that now, I realise quite how ridiculous it sounds. And needless to say it proved to be a disaster. It is certainly possible to work too hard.
DO – Work sensibly
In Aesop’s fable The Goose & the Golden Egg a countryman, unsatisfied with his goose only laying one egg a day, kills the goose and cuts it open thinking he’ll get more eggs. Of course, there aren’t any more eggs, and he never gets another egg again.
Part of managing workload is figuring out how productive we can be (getting our ‘golden egg’) while being mindful that as soon as we push ourselves too hard for too long, we risk burning ourselves out (and killing the figurative goose).
Monitor your energy levels regularly and adjust your work rate accordingly. I find that I get a lot of work done at the beginning of a week because I’m well-rested from the weekend. Understandably I get a lot less done at the end of the week because I’m tired. And that’s usually okay because I can then compensate for it at the beginning of next week.
The sun has now set on this year’s summer holiday and despite my mistakes; the lessons I learnt the hard way when I began teaching, I’m actually looking forward to the next academic year.
I have a confession to make – I’m not really a fan of TED Talks.
It’s an unpopular opinion, I know. I find the scope and ambition of them to be wonderful, and while the speakers are all experts in their respective fields, it’s rare to find one delivered by someone who is actually good at, well, talking. Too many are clearly nervous, dry-mouthed, reading a heavily scripted speech from an autocue. It’s a turn-off.
But not Benjamin Zander. In 2008 the English conductor and Music Director for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra delivered a TED Talk on (to quote TED) ‘classical music, and helping us all realize our untapped love for it — and by extension, our untapped love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections.’
Call me ambitious, but if I could achieve even a smidgen of that, I’d retire a happy man.
And while the content of the talk is certainly inspiring, I couldn’t help but feel there was a lot to mine from a teaching perspective. I’m not alone. On YouTube, where the video has been watched over 6 million times, a comment underneath asking, ‘Can you just imagine having this man as a music teacher?’ garnered four thousand ‘likes’.
Do I believe Zander could really hold his own with Year 8 on a windswept Friday afternoon? Not necessarily. In the video he addresses a paying adult audience who are unfailingly polite, aware of his standing in classical music, and are very much in his pocket from the beginning. But, as I’ll explain, I still feel there is a lot that could be transferred.
‘My estimation is that probably 45 of you [in the audience] are absolutely passionate about classical music…Then there’s another bigger group. These are the people who don’t mind classical music. Now comes the third group. These are people who never listen to classical music. That’s probably the largest group of all.’
In my classes there are some students who appear to adore English. They’ll be the first to have their reading book out in form; they attend creative writing club at lunchtimes; they write for the school newspaper after school.
Then there are those students who appear not to mind the subject. They appear to recognise the importance of being literate, want to do well generally, and might even find some of the topics interesting.
But there are a sizeable few who, if they didn’t have to, would happily sit plucking the pages out of a book, one at a time, like the wings off a fly.
I try to bear this last group in mind to some extent when planning lessons. How am I going to get their eyeballs on the page? How do I make it clear that they need to learn this? What is the point of all this?
I don’t always arrive at answers, mind you. Besides, these will often differ depending on the student, the school, and plenty of other factors. But they are questions I feel I should be asking myself.
Address common misconceptions
‘And then there’s the smallest group of all. These are the people who think they’re tone-deaf… actually, you cannot be tone-deaf. Nobody is tone-deaf…you have a fantastic ear’
As a student at primary school I despised poetry. My teacher in Year 6 once tried to teach us Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. I can’t recall much from those days, curriculum-wise, but I do remember despising those lessons, and that poem, especially. Which is odd as it’s a great poem.
The problem, I think, is that ten year-old me didn’t know what poetry, as a medium, set out to do. So instead of reading it as a poem, I read it as a very short, and very dull, story of a bloke sauntering down a lane, not really knowing where he was off to, and never really ending up anywhere.
Read like that, and you can see why I might have simmered with resentment.
I might well be wrong, but I believe that anticipating such misconceptions – seeking them out and addressing them head-on – has the potential to cause a sea-change in some of the bad attitudes students display towards various subjects.
Appear really competent
Zander interleaves his TED talk with moments sat at the piano. Unsurprisingly he’s excellent at playing it, which is important, as by doing so he reassures the audience that they’re in the hands of someone more skilled than they are. He is showing them that he is the expert in the room and therefore has something to offer them.
I don’t shy away from showing off my skills and knowledge. As far as I’m concerned, there should be no room for humility. The students need to know that you’re the right person for the job. So show them.
Take something complex and expose how it works
‘Did anyone think while I was playing, “Why is he using so many impulses?” If I had done this with my head you certainly would have thought it [Zander then proceeds to nod his head on each impulse] For the rest of your life, every time you hear classical music, you’ll always be able to know if you hear those impulses’
Most topics appear overwhelmingly complicated until they’re broken down to their more basic components. Zander takes the high art of classical music and boils it down to a series of simple head nods.
Each topic we teach can also be boiled down to its skeleton. I used to hesitate to show the bare bones of something, worrying that that I’d murder the metaphorical frog by dissecting it – concerned that while students would have learnt more about frogs, the frog they’d be left with would be dead.
I now see topics less like frogs on a table in a lab and more like clocks on a watchmaker’s bench. Teaching is the act of unscrewing the back off an old clock; to expose the clockwork and watch it spin. Only then can students appreciate the craft of the watchmaker more than if they had only looked in wonder upon its face.
Do the same with your subject – unscrew the back and expose the cogs. You can’t kill it.
Have a clear objective
‘I’m not going to go on until every single person in this room…will come to love and understand classical music. So that’s what we’re going to do’
It’s my school’s policy to plan each lesson around a so-called ‘Line of Enquiry’ – essentially a big question we attempt to answer in that lesson. At first I felt ambivalent towards this. Thinking of the question was hard and it felt like more work. But it makes the hour I have with my students purposeful. It keeps me on track because it’s the main thing to attend to. Helpful, when it’s tempting to drift and waffle about everything and anything the topic has to offer.
Don’t doubt for one moment the capacity of your students
‘You notice there’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that this is going to work…it’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realise whatever it is he’s dreaming’
Whenever I share a complicated text with ‘low ability’ students I’m often taken aback at how they engage with it far better than I had anticipated.
Most of my time spent lesson planning now focuses on scaffolding rather than differentiation. Complexity for all, but with ‘power-ups’ for those who need them.
‘I’m going to take a piece by Chopin… a beautiful prelude by Chopin’ [proceeds to play the piano beautifully to the awed silence of his audience]
Whatever you teach; art, science, foreign languages, geography; there will be many beautiful aspects to it. An appreciation of that beauty will be blatant to you and is probably why you decided to pursue teaching it in the first place.
I’ve started asking myself, when teaching a topic: what is so beautiful about this? And then sharing that view with my students. They often like to disagree, and that’s fine. But beauty, where it can be found, is life-affirming.
And who doesn’t need more of that?
Put yourself in the students’ shoes
‘You know what I think happened here in this room. When I started you thought, ‘how beautiful that sounds’
It took me a long time to recognise the difference between explaining something to a class and explaining it at them. When I did the latter I used to just project my explanation out into the room somewhere, over their heads to the clock on the back wall or at the bin to the side of the room.
Now when I’m explaining something to a class of students, I’m talking to individual faces, gauging how much each is listening, looking at their eyes to see whether they understand or appear confused. Only by doing this can I then steer the explanation in a different direction if needs be by repeating what I said, explaining it a different way or happily move on.
Don’t be precious – have a sense of humour
[playing Chopin in a melancholic tone] ‘I don’t think we should go to the same place for our holidays next year. It’s funny, isn’t it? How those thoughts kind of waft into you head. And if the piece is long and you’ve had a long day you might actually drift off!’
Quite often students will try to find the funny in what they’re studying. There’s often plenty to find, although most of it unintentional. As an English teacher, teaching a national curriculum which focuses on many Victorian texts, I can’t seem to get through the day without stumbling across a description of an erect gentleman ejaculating in a lady’s ear.
Meanwhile some students who struggle to recall very much Shakespeare at all have an uncanny ability for recalling Lady Macbeth plucking that unfortunate infant from her nipple.
Even Lennie’s rabbit obsession gets progressively funnier each time he opens his mouth in Of Mice and Men. Just when you think he’s moved on, there he is again banging on about alfalfa.
Teenagers find these moments hilarious. And that’s largely because they are. Some might argue that laughing at these moments undermines the gravitas of these texts or the solemn act of learning. After all Shakespeare did not intend for us to laugh at Lady Macbeth’s nipple. He wanted the audience to be horrified.
But trying to police these moments is like shielding a sandcastle against a rising tide. It’s exhausting and hopeless.
I try to anticipate these moments now and not be surprised by them anymore. I’ll share in the amusement briefly with a raised eyebrow, demonstrating how to do so sensibly. Then move swiftly on.
Make it about them
‘So we have B, A, G, F and then….?’ [audience correctly hums E]
I used to loath student participation because I didn’t know how to get good responses from students, so what I did get was underwhelming and felt like a waste of time. I had to learn how to guide students to better responses first.
One of my favourite moments in a lesson now is when a student makes a point I hadn’t before considered. These are gold and I celebrate them enthusiastically whenever they arise. But I need to seek them out first. I need to have dialogue.
Believe your subject is for everyone (they just haven’t found out about it yet)
‘Nobody is tone-deaf. Every village in Bangladesh and every hamlet in China – everybody knows da, da, da – DA, everybody… is expecting that E.’
It’s very tempting sometimes to dismiss certain students, to assume that maybe your subject is beyond their grasp or to convince yourself that they’re never going to need to know about sonnets in real life (whatever that is).
I frequently need to remind myself to have high expectations for all. Whether this eventually comes to fruition or not, I need to start a lesson believing they can get it. And even if they don’t, I need to start over again the next day with that same noble ambition.
See the big picture as well as its constituent parts
‘Chopin wouldn’t have wanted to reach the E there because what would have happened? It would have been over… He’s just about to reach the E and he says “Oops, better go back up and do it again. So he does it again’
Teaching a topic sometimes feels like I’m looking through a microscope, zooming in on something to study its details. The problem, sometimes, is that it can get so abstract what we’re learning about appears to lose all meaning.
I try now to regularly zoom back out to see how what we’re studying fits in with its environment. Nothing is ever that interesting in isolation. It is often far more intriguing when linked to what surrounds it.
It’s important to examine the wood, but this won’t make sense unless we also look up at the trees.
‘For me to go from B to E I have to stop thinking about every note along the way and start thinking about the long, long line from B to E.’
You can’t go to South Africa without thinking about Nelson Mandela in jail for 27 years. What was he thinking about? Lunch? No, he was thinking about the vision for South Africa and for human beings. This is about vision. This is about the long line. Like the bird who flies over the fields and doesn’t care about the fences beneath.’
I get too bogged down in the day to day minutiae of lesson planning, or setting detentions, and often forget what it’s all for. I need to remind myself what the point is in all of this. Only by doing so can I better tolerate the difficulties of teaching. Only then does the suffering feel worthwhile.
Tell a tale
‘There’s a gentleman in the front row who just went [sighs]. It’s the same gesture he makes when he comes home after a long day, turns off the key in his car and says “Aah, I’m home.” Because we all know where home is. So this is a piece that goes from away to home’
Why do we all enjoy a rollicking good tale? Stories are baked into humanity and have been used to help us understand a world which for the longest time appeared strange and frightening, such as the Ancient Greeks who used myths to explain natural phenomena in terms that we could understand.
I find that students, even the very difficult, will pay attention when being read a good story. And while subjects like English are geared towards storytelling, I’d argue that stories can be found across the curriculum in all subjects: the autobiography of a significant historical figure’s life, for instance.
We want to hear about problems, struggles and survival. It makes whatever we’re studying feel instantly relevant and irresistibly human.
The definition of success – shining eyes
‘I suddenly had a realisation – the conductor of an audience doesn’t make a sound…. He depends on his power to make other people powerful. I realised my job is to awaken possibility in other people. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it…who am I being that my children’s eyes are not shining? …. [success] is not about wealth and fame and power. It’s about how many shining eyes I have around me’
You know what I’m going to say already, don’t you – the power of a teacher is in making students powerful, to awaken the possibility within them. I’m cringing a bit as I type that as it’s such a cliché, but only because it’s true.
Have I had shining eyes in my lessons? Sometimes. Ever since I heard Zander’s TED talk I’ve started looking more for these little beacons of success. Are they consistently there? No. And that’s okay. We can’t expect success all the time. But noticing these glimpses of success when they’re around are so important to help keep you going.
What you say makes a difference
‘It really makes a difference what we say. I learnt this from a woman who survived Auschwitz ….
She went to Auschwitz when she was fifteen years old and her brother was eight and the parents were lost and, she told me this, she said, “we were on the train together going to Auschwitz and I looked down and saw that my brother’s shoes were missing. I said, ‘why are you so stupid, can’t you keep your things together for goodness’ sake?” … Unfortunately, it was the last thing she ever said to him because she never saw him again.” He did not survive… she said, “I walked out of Auschwitz into life, and I made a vow…I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever say.”
Now can we do that? No. We’ll make ourselves wrong and others wrong. But it is a possibility to live into.’
Decades on, I remember a handful of sentences said to me by my teachers at school. Some of them were horrible. A PE teacher once nicknamed me ‘Brain Cell’ for my apparent inability to remember instructions. Sadly, it’s barbed comments like this which stick the most.
But there were some lovelier comments too. Like when my Head of Year stopped me in the corridor at the end of Year 7 to congratulate me on the high number of merit marks I had accrued. 23 years have passed since, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
Perhaps this is sentimental middle age creeping in, but wouldn’t that be the very best thing? Decades from now, a person remembering words you had said to them?
While not a household name in the UK, French-Canadian Georges Saint-Pierre is regarded worldwide as one of the greatest fighters in mixed martial arts history.
Having earned a karate blackbelt at just aged 12, ‘GSP’ (as he’s fondly known) went on to have a professional fighting record of 26 wins and only 2 losses. Since his last fight in 2017 he has worked on a fledgling acting career with a recently reprised role as Georges Batroc, a supervillain in Marvel Studio’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
With his trademark skinhead and muscled frame you would be forgiven for thinking that GSP was a meathead cage fighter with nothing much of value to say. But a recent JRE podcast interview showed that behind the talented athlete there is wisdom from which even this humble English teacher could learn.
So, could advice from Georges ‘Rush’ Saint-Pierre really make you a better teacher? While the second half of their talk together covers the minutiae of diet, the world of combat sports, ancient civilizations and UFOs, the first half of his conversation with podcast host Joe Rogan was packed with useful advice about achieving success:
Working with people all day is tiring
GSP: ‘It’s insane. I can train all day, but something like this [a podcast], or an autograph signing or a meet-and-greet takes more out of me than something physical like training.’
While the children may be out of building by 3 o’clock and there are weeks of holiday to enjoy each year, anyone who has been teaching for five minutes will tell you that being responsible for dozens of young people in a room for hours at a time leads to a special kind of exhaustion.
We know this, but be prepared to accept that people who have not taught before might not appreciate how tiring it is.
And despite how much much we like to tell them, they probably never will.
Face adversity early
GSP: ‘I think it’s important to face adversity at a very young age because it moulds you, especially if you’re able to overcome it because if you’ve never faced adversity before and you face it for the first time and you’re not prepared for it, it can break you…What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger…. By facing adversity and overcoming it you’re building confidence. If you’re always giving someone help, they will rely on that. They need to rely on themselves’
I became a teacher partly because I wanted to help others. But this noble instinct wasn’t always a useful guide in teaching. Sometimes I helped when I shouldn’t have. I had to learn that in order to help a student you must occasionally step back and let them struggle.
Scaffold the heck out of anything you’re teaching at first, but crucially, take it away afterwards.
Let them learn to walk on their own.
GSP: ‘You can have all the skills in the world, but if you don’t have confidence, you’re like someone who has a lot of money in their bank account but has no way of accessing it.’
There was a time when I realised I’d figured out the fundamentals of teaching, I just couldn’t put them into practice. I’d get too nervous, fluff the instructions or not be decisive enough when tackling challenging behaviour.
The lessons shrivelled on the vine and died.
I had to learn to just go for it. If I turned out to be wrong (which was often), the consequences were rarely ever that bad. I could always afford to pivot to what was right soon after – clarify my explanation, admit to making a mistake and plan a better lesson for next time.
But first I had to take more confident action.
People expect to be entertained
GSP: ‘We’re in the entertainment business. It’s not really about who’s the best. As martial artists, that’s the purity of our sport, to see who is the best man… If you’re a martial artist, you understand that, but if you’re watching to be entertained, and because we live in an entertained world, that’s the way it is.’
I don’t believe that as a teacher I am in the business of entertaining students, but I feel that many students expect to be entertained. Or that at least conflate entertainment with the motivation and inspiration they’re expecting from a good teacher.
Part of my lesson planning, then, is giving some consideration for how I will engage these students with a topic.
While there are many ways to achieve this, the simplest way I’ve found so far is to simply explain why we’re spending time doing what we’re doing. This is not just in the context of exams (as important as those are), but also the broader reason for learning a topic – as individuals, citizens, human beings.
The why helps to motivate and inspire.
Remember to take care of your health
GSP: ‘You should see your career as a marathon, not as a sprint…you want to save yourself for another day…More is not better. Intelligent is better. You burn yourself out [otherwise]’
Sometimes I forget that my career as a teacher needs to last decades, not years. I’m still trying to figure out what a healthy amount of work is for me because I don’t want to burn out too early.
I try to tell myself that it’s not about doing the most work I can today nor is it about seeing how much I can achieve this week. It’s about doing the most work I can over the next few decades.
GSP: ‘When you’re tired your creativity diminishes and you go back to what you do best. Creativity is very important…. and creativity is linked with your physical condition’
If I’m serious about getting better as a teacher, I can’t keep resorting to what I have always done before. Otherwise nothing will change. Being well-rested, then, is key to maintaining a creative spirit; to becoming a better teacher.
Work towards a win, not away from a potential loss
GSP: ‘When I’m fighting, I can tell when a guy is letting me know he’s not fighting to win anymore, he’s fighting to not lose….’
In my lessons I admit that I compromise far too much. I sometimes accept the unacceptable to give myself an easier ride. For instance, I’ll placate a difficult class and tolerate quiet talking when what I actually want (and asked for) was silence. I want to avoid an argument or the rigmarole of implementing behaviour sanctions.
But by doing this neither myself nor my students are winning in the long run. I’m just avoiding small losses.
Tell your friends the truth
GSP: ‘I tell my real friends, when it’s time to hang up the gloves, I say to them: If you were going to make it you would have made it by now.’
Why haven’t I always been honest with my closest colleagues in the past? I suppose I didn’t want an argument. Or I didn’t want the people I like most to think badly of me. But in keeping my cards close to my chest I was not being a good friend or colleague.
I am beginning to believe that honesty is the best gift I could give anyone. Only by being truthful will anyone of us have the information we need to make the best decisions we can.
People are welcome to disagree with me. And I accept that I won’t necessarily inspire them to action. But I did my bit.
I need my closest colleagues to be honest with me because it’s too hard to be honest with myself – I’m too close to have a proper perspective.
So I ask people I trust to be honest with me. And then try to really listen to what they say.
Success depends on a variety factors
GSP: ‘Mental prowess, physical prowess. You have to have great coaching… And also fortune…you’re dealing with a giant hurricane of possibilities … The odds of failure are so high’
When I feel like a failure I like to remind myself that it’s an absolute bloody miracle that a lesson in a school can take place at all. There’s so much going against it working, so many possible ways it could go wrong that to avoid any of them at all can often mean something great has been achieved.
Some might think that’s just me having low standards. But perhaps it’s okay to lower our standard for success if we have any hope of feeling successful at all.
GSP: ‘Opponents are scary until you figure out how to beat them. Then they’re not scary anymore’… ‘Knowledge is a weapon. I knew BJ Penn [an American professional mixed martial artist] had a good reaction time so I kept faking to make him react, to exhaust his nervous system. His reaction time slowed down. That was how I was able to get him’
Teaching was very scary at first because I had a lot of problems and didn’t have the knowledge to solve them.
Today there are more books and courses about teaching than ever. Whatever the problem, someone seems to have written a well-reviewed book explaining a potential solution.
Teachers I follow on Twitter (#edutwitter) share brilliant resources that have helped me teach topics in ways I wouldn’t have conceived of on my own.
GSP: ‘the best way to improve is when it’s playful, when it’s like a game because you’ll be more prone to trying new things…it makes you grow’
Twitter is an excellent resource for learning because it’s fun to use – posting comments, getting replies, likes and re-tweets is addictive. I’ve no problem admitting that when I’m tired after a day’s work I am more likely to browse Twitter than I am to read a book on teaching.
And Twitter isn’t serious like a formal school CPD and so I feel like I can try a new technique or approach in the classroom because I simply like the look of it rather than feeling I must try it because it’s being implemented by my school’s management.
Find great mentors
‘I met in my life incredible mentors who had such an incredible influence on me’
As a trainee or NQT you’ll have an official mentor assigned to you by your school, but your mentorship shouldn’t stop there. Seek out other inspiring teachers you resonate with too. They could be in your school or – and I wish I had done this sooner – online. There are many teachers on Twitter who have no idea they’re mentoring me, but they are.
It was easy. All I did was click ‘follow’ and now I get to hear their day-to-day thoughts on teaching. I get a glimpse at their productivity. Each day I borrow their superb ideas. And I’ve yet to not have had a prompt a response when I’ve asked a question.
Their generosity continues to astound me.
Spend time around those less experienced than yourself
GSP: ‘You don’t need to [work] with good guys all the time. Train with people who are not as good as you. This is how I developed my confidence…because these guys were not on my level. You need a variety of training partners. The bigger the range you will be able to adapt to different kinds of styles.’
Now that I am a few years into my teaching career one pleasure I have is the chance to observe new teachers just starting out. I see them make all the same mistakes I made but have since managed to (mostly) figure out. That comparison is meaningful because it makes me see just how far I’ve come.
Your development as a teacher happens so gradually you hardly even notice. It’s important therefore to be able to stop, turn around and see how high you’ve climbed.
GSP: ‘Success makes you weak. Success makes you forget…no matter how good you are…you always need to be sharp’
Observing less-experienced teachers reminds me of the fundamentals, which in turn keeps me on my toes.
Find motivation in bad experiences
GSP: ‘[Losing] was no doubt the most humiliating event in my career. It became a nightmare for me, an obsession in the back of my head. I never wanted this to happen ever again’
I struggled a lot when I began teaching, largely with behaviour management. It was humiliating and it was this lack of dignity that led to me working harder at teaching than anything else in my life. After it happened, I never wanted it to happen again. And so I worked harder.
GSP: ‘A negative experience that you don’t often understand at the time because you go through a depressive moment, but you realise later in life can often help’
With the benefit of hindsight, the worst moments of teaching have shone a light on what I needed to work on. There was meaning in the suffering, so to speak.
I always recommend to anyone struggling in their first years of teaching to persevere. While the relentless difficulty may feel pointless at the time, I realised later on that the pain was trying to tell me something.
GSP: ‘I have an incredible ego. I’m a very proud person…It’s an issue sometimes in life. If I use the emotion when I got hit, I wanted to hit him back right away. It was humiliating. I wanted to give it back to him to shut everyone’s mouth. But if you use it for that, it can be a big mistake. You keep it inside of you and then, when it’s time, you let it explode.’
I spend a lot of energy trying to keep cool in lessons, especially when behaviour is challenging. It’s very easy to get drawn into an argument with a student, to have that last word. But that has only ever caused me problems. Keep it inside. Don’t let it burn you.
GSP: ‘Emotion is like fire – it can help you cook your food, but it can also burn you…I was afraid before every fight. Fear is a good thing. But I’m not a coward…I’m going to go out there and I’m not going to care how I feel because it’s subjectivity. I only care about the objective – what I need to do. This needs to be done at all costs. Me, myself, how I feel, if I’m sick or not, what other people think – that does not exist. The only thing that exists and matters is the objectivity of the things you need to do to succeed. These need to be done at all costs’
I use that fear as fuel to plan (at least by my standards) decent lessons. Nervous energy is still energy after all. It gets me out of bed in the morning. It helps me into a chair to plan lessons after a five-period day. And it helps me to hold my head up and teach when I’m exhausted.
When I started teaching, I was on the receiving end of other people’s judgement: staff, parents, and students. I was still learning and many of these people found me lacking. If I was going to persevere, I had to concentrate on the job at hand and not to get distracted by their opinions.
Strive to be your best self
‘I’m very critical of myself. You can always be better. Martial arts taught me that if you want to change yourself, you have to love yourself. And so I learnt to love myself, to love who I could become.’
Some people are more self-critical than others. I happen to be very critical of my own teaching which has helped me to improve. I’m rarely satisfied with my work and in my first few years of teaching my self-esteem really took a knock.
I am more content now than ever because I love who I have become. I used to be selfish and lazy and I hated myself for that.
Whenever my school has a non-uniform day a student will ask me in the days preceding what I intend to wear.
I then reveal, much to their horror (and my own amusement), something they hadn’t considered – that my ensemble of black leather shoes, woollen blazer and polyester tie, are not a uniform, but in actual fact my own clothes.
It’s like that episode of The Simpsons when Krusty the Clown announces to Bart: ‘Hey kid, this ain’t make-up!’
But the student does have a point. Are these clothes really mine? Just because I once tried them on in a Marks & Spencer changing room doesn’t really mean I chose them to be my so-called ‘work clothes’.
So what compels me to wear shoes, a blazer and tie to work? Why not a t-shirt and trainers? Or Angel Delight? Is it just because my school’s code of conduct asks for ‘smart business attire’? Or, perhaps, it’s the habit of professionalism?
What is professionalism?
When I was a child there was a rule in our house about how to greet my father when he got home from work. My sisters and I were taught that under no circumstance were we to make demands of him until after he had disappeared upstairs to change out of his work clothes. Only now, as an adult, do I fully understand why this might have been.
The man who came through the door each night was not my father. He looked identical, but that suited man carrying a briefcase was cold and quiet.
Soon, however, he’d stroll down the stairs in faded jeans and a polo shirt, a grin on his face and, a few minutes later, a gin and tonic in his hand. Only then was he Dad.
When thinking about good habits today, we consider them to be a usual way of behaving, as in “good eating habits”. But in its oldest sense, habit originally meant “clothing” and then progressed to mean “clothing for a particular profession or purpose”.
When my father got home from work he had to shrug off that outer shell; the professional clothing, but also the professional habit.
The habit of professionalism, then, is not so much business attire as it is one of those old-fashioned diving suits from the 19th Century; a sturdy enclosure that allows us to safely navigate professional life.
Why is it so important?
In one sense, professionalism encourages us to act when we would much rather not: to do the planning or marking when everything else seems more interesting; to step back from the keyboard before clicking send; to thank others for their feedback, even when it leaves us feeling sore; to not always have the last word.
It helps us to grin and bear it. To step out into the cold November rain and toil under a school ethos that might not entirely be our own.
But in another sense, it stops us from being our truest selves. School is so often a place where we must hold our tongues and put on a show of reverence for those we may dislike on a personal level.
Professionalism helps us to recognise when it is better to just pretend.
That’s not to say we must be professional always
It is of course healthy to be hauled back to the surface for fresh air in between dives. A lunch break provides refreshment far beyond the nourishment of food and drink – it is a time to pop off the helmet and make the sort of idle chit chat you don’t get to when you’re operating professionally: to speak freely, to gossip, to tease, and to express frustrations behind firmly closed doors. All before taking a few deep breaths and going back in.
I was once told that Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett of The Two Ronnies liked to get into costume as early as possible when rehearsing their comedy sketches. They believed that only once they were in costume could they properly get into character.
I think it should be the same for new teachers too: to get into the habit of being professional as a matter of priority; to quickly put on that diving suit.