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.
I wasn’t. But I could see why the Head of Year 7, having wandered into my classroom on a grey Wednesday morning, had that impression. The class were in pin-drop silence, a parody of student diligence: postured forward, eyes focused, pens poised. Some even had their tongues poking out the sides of their mouths.
The students appeared to be working as if the outcome of the task I had set them really mattered, like it was some all-important test. And while of course it did matter, in as much as any regular writing task in an English lesson might, what their Head of Year observed was a degree of focus he wasn’t expecting to see from thirty eleven-year-olds at the end of term.
I should say that this is not a boast about my prowess in the classroom. I do not consider myself to be ‘good’ at behaviour management. I certainly do not have a reputation in my school as someone for whom it is a strength. It’s one aspect of teaching I have struggled with the most and frequently still do. It was a cause for concern in my initial training and I almost failed my NQT year because of my apparent inability to get students working in a calm, orderly manner.
I was a bit of a liability, truth be told.
So much so, in fact, I was told to attend the weekly ‘Behaviour for Learning’ training at my school. And it was here I got introduced to this one lesson-transforming behaviour management tool:
A really big sheet of paper.
Wait! Come back! Before you judge, allow me to explain how it works:
Step 1: (this is the hardest part) Find a really big sheet of paper – the Art Department is usually a good place to ransack for this.
Step 2: (Before the lesson) Write each student’s name around the outside in a felt tip pen.
Step 3: Blu tack it to one side of the whiteboard.
Step 4: (In the lesson) As the students enter the classroom, put a tick next to the name of each student who makes good choices, rewarding them for the smallest of actions: sitting in the correct seat, getting their equipment out, beginning the task left on the board etc.
Essentially, I’m keeping score of their good behaviour. And the students can see that I’m doing that. These positive marks can then be translated into achievement points or merits (or whichever equivalent system your school’s behaviour policy uses for rewarding good behaviour).
During a lesson I will explain a task, model it, and then get students working. It is at this point the Really Big Sheet of Paper® comes into its own because I can stand in front of it, observing who is on task and start ticking off names.
Within seconds, as if by magic, the class fall in line and get on with what they’ve been told to do.
I also use this to record negative behaviour by putting a cross next to a name. Importantly, I never remove a tick that has been earned, nor do I allow the positive ticks to cancel out the negative crosses. Life simply does not work that way – if I mugged an old lady, the judge would not reduce my sentence if I had then helped her to cross the road.
Really Big Sheet of Paper® spared my sanity (and perhaps my career) when I was an NQT. So I made sure to use it quite often with some tricky classes the year after. And then a bit less the year after that. Soon I pretty much forgot about it, perhaps naively thinking I had outgrown it.
But recently last term, when I couldn’t get most of my Year 7 class to be quiet and concentrate, I remembered this and vowed to unfurl it next lesson.
And without fail those chatty students turned on a dime.
So it’s just a behaviour grid then?
No – I’ve used behaviour grids before and find they don’t work as well. The difference here is that you need to have every student’s name on the board. This is more powerful because it’s a constant source of explicit information for each student on how they are doing behaviour-wise.
On a regular behaviour grid I might board a student’s name in the ‘positive’ column for doing something right, or the ‘negative’ column for doing something wrong. But in a typical lesson the majority of the class might not get featured at all, leaving room for some students to drift along idly.
Really Big Sheet of Paper® allows every student to clearly see where they’re at from beginning to end.
Why it works
This method works so well, I think, because the teacher is making explicit what is so often implied – namely, that we are pleased when students behave well: being quiet, following instructions, working hard etc.
Students, as people, are driven to follow their peers, particularly those who are being encouraged and celebrated. So, when I make it plain early in a lesson that the majority are co-operating, and celebrate that with a tick, the peer pressure encourages other students to join in.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting this is the only behaviour management tool you will ever need. It works best amongst a range of classroom strategies within a good school-wide behaviour policy. But what I find so exciting is that it’s the closest thing I’ve found to a ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to shifting classroom behaviour quickly in the right direction. And, touch wood, it has yet to fail.
Now, where’s that blu tack?
PLEASENOTE: I did not invent the method of managing classroom behaviour described above. It was passed down to me by more experienced teachers and it’s origins got lost in the process.
If you happen to know who came up with this, please let me know. I’d love to credit them here (and thank them from the bottom of my heart!)
While his unorthodox use of syntax would have landed him in deep water during the English skills test, Grand Master Yoda demonstrates over the course of eight Star Wars films that he is an outstanding teacher.
It’s no surprise. Having spent 800 years training almost every Jedi Master in the galaxy, he had plenty of practice.
Like many, I’ve watched the films, but I’m hardly a die-hard Trekkie (that’s a joke! Calm down).
So with a bit of research I looked to see what I could possibly gleam about teaching well from this most famous of sci-fi characters:
‘Size matters not. Look at me – judge me by my size, do you?’ – Yoda
When I first got into a classroom it was tempting to think that if I were only bigger, I’d get more respect from the students.
After all, it’s Newton’s third law: if you weigh 90 kilos, the floor is pushing back with 90 kilos of force. That force is projected out into the room and the students will sense your presence. Right?
Perhaps. But there are clever ways Yoda conveys weighty gravitas (despite his diminutive stature) that we can transfer to classrooms today, in our own galaxy:
“Won this job in a raffle I did, think you? How did you know, how did you know, Master Yoda? Master Yoda knows these things. His job is” – Yoda
Stuart Freeborn, the British make-up artist responsible for creating Yoda, based the character’s appearance on Albert Einstein. What better way to highlight Yoda’s wisdom than by giving him a likeness to one of the greatest physicists of all time?
Good subject knowledge is fundamental for any teacher. Whenever I’ve taken the time to fully understand what I’m teaching I’ve walked into the lesson with a sense of confidence (and even excitement!) to share what I had planned. And the times when I haven’t been so clear, well, the less said about those lessons the better.
Demonstrate to your students you can do something they can’t
“Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice” – Yoda
When their X-wing sinks into a swamp, Luke despairs. He’s been using The Force to levitate stones, but does not believe he can use it to rescue their ship. He tries and he fails. Afterwards Yoda attempts to lift Luke’s deflated spirits with a rousing speech, but Luke sulks and walks off. It is only when Yoda shows Luke the seemingly impossible, by lifting the X-wing back on to land himself, is Luke’s faith in what is possible restored.
I gained a lot more credibility stood in front of a class when I began to show that I could practice what I preached. Show your working out. Draw a sketch. Play the piano. Write a paragraph. Whatever your students strive to master, demonstrating that you are the expert in the room will get the majority to pay attention.
(note: ‘expert in the room’ does not mean you must strictly-speaking be an expert, just noticeably more competent than your students).
Speak clearly in a logical and well-paced manner
“Control, control, you must learn control!” – Yoda
At 900 years old, Yoda would be forgiven for rambling a bit. But he never does. Everything that comes out of his mouth is succinct. No fat whatsoever. All killer, no filler. It’s almost as if it has been scripted…
When stood in front of a class, the less I say, the more I am listened to. And the more my students remember.
Aim to cut out anything unnecessary. Know your subject well and use the time you spend planning to work out how you can explain instructions and concepts clearly.
‘Feel the force!’ – Yoda
Yoda could read the autocue from Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and make it sound dignified. Since his character was portrayed using a puppet in the original trilogy, the puppeteers couldn’t move around very much rooting Yoda to the spot. A happy consequence of this is that by standing very still he conveys a feeling of calm confidence – exactly how you want to appear in the classroom.
If you have something important to say (and you do) stand at the front-centre of the room. Put both feet on the floor, shoulders width apart. Imagine you have a team of Lucasfilm puppeteers under the floorboards, pulling levers and rummaging around inside your legs. You are rooted to the floor. No nervous pacing.
“The boy you trained, gone he is. Consumed by Darth Vader” – Yoda
When Anakin is denied the rank of Jedi Master, he loses faith in the Jedi Order and ends up pledging allegiance to the Sith. It is the birth of the tyrannical Darth Vader.
You can try as hard as you like, but some students, for whatever reason, won’t get on board with the lesson. Know that it’s not you. It’s not really even them. Nefarious forces in their lives have conspired against you both.
Understand that this will happen and don’t blame yourself.
Allow for moments of light-heartedness
“Ow, ow, OW! On my ear you are!” – Yoda
It’s probably George Lucas’ greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker that Yoda is taken seriously despite looking like the inside of a old man’s hankie.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not entirely void of comic relief. In fact, there are a few moments in the saga where Yoda breaks his serious persona to make a brief light-hearted quip. Not often, but they’re there. Such as the time he tells a class of young Jedis Obi-Wan has ‘lost an entire planet, he has’. It’s an obscene notion, and gets a giggle from his young students.
I find humour to be tricky with teenagers and for years I’ve been reluctant to elicit so much as a smirk. But I’m beginning to feel more comfortable with letting go, to not be quite so in control all the time. To let the mask slip occasionally and crack a joke. It shows you’re human (or whatever Yoda is supposed to be).
‘I cannot teach him. The boy has no patience!’ – Yoda
Yoda gets frustrated with Luke’s youthful temperament; his tendency to daydream of future adventure and failure to concentrate on the here and now.
But you know what? Despite his complaints, Yoda teaches him anyway.
I sometimes find myself wishing I had different students to teach. Wonderful imaginary students who pay attention, do their homework, write lots, and listen with intent.
But this daydreaming is a waste of time. They’re not going to change. So there’s nothing to do but patiently carry on.
‘Twisted by the dark side, young Skywalker has become’ – Yoda
Yoda makes some tough calls. None harder than persuading a reluctant Obi-Wan to assassinate Anakin Skywalker once he realises that Anakin has become irreparably consumed by the dark side. This is not an easy decision for Yoda, having helped train Anakin since he was a child.
His decision is based not on what is best for him nor Anakin. But it is the best decision to make.
(If only he had succeeded….)
In the classroom, I sometimes find myself forced into making decisions that put myself and others in an unpleasant spot. Take behaviour, for instance. Giving a child a detention is an inconvenience for everyone. Not only the child, but yourself and their parents: all that recording, reporting, explaining and justifying. Not to mention having to sit there with them when they turn up and chase them up when they don’t. It’s really tempting to, well, just not do it. And in my first few years teaching I sometimes crumbled and gave in to that.
But if there is benefit to be gained in the long-run, making difficult decisions is what we must do.
If anything, when a decision is hard to make, I rest-assured that what I’m deciding must be something worthwhile.
Have high expectations
‘You want the impossible’ – Luke Skywalker
Yoda doesn’t let Luke off easily when teaching him how to hone his telekinetic powers. He starts Luke off small, having him levitate a few small stones. But soon he’s requesting Luke pick up an X-wing with just the power of his mind.
The more you recognise your student’s abilities, the better you can fine tune your lessons so that you’re asking for ever so slightly more than they think they can give.
Yoda reveres children because of their constant curiosity. To learn is to explore; an act of bravery that forces us to admit that we currently don’t (and never will) know enough. It is the arduous task of weighing up our own understanding, find ourselves lacking, listen to feedback from others and get outside of our comfort zone in the pursuit of answers.
I am guilty of not sharing lesson resources for fear of judgment. I still resent having my lessons observed and I’m ashamed to admit I have written feedback from lesson observations that I still can’t bring myself to look at.
The Galactic Empire bears more than a passing resemblance to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; dictatorships which ruled through the violent suppression of alternative views. In Star Wars, as in teaching, investigation triumphs against wilful ignorance.
We continue learning to avoid crossing over to the dark side.
When you peel away the blasters, lightsaber duels, spaceships and alien lifeforms, Star Wars‘ lasting appeal comes from its presentation of Luke and Yoda. Few other sci-fi flicks have shown such a convincing portrayal of the bond between student and teacher. It is a relationship hard-wired into humanity and always will be.
The hiring process is something most people are never taught.
Our knowledge of interview etiquette, how to prepare for one, or even what constitutes a good cover letter are based on myths picked up from the internet, folk wisdom, or word of mouth.
Before becoming a teacher I was a recruiter for a chain of international English language schools and I witnessed first-hand how damaging these beliefs can be to an applicant’s job prospects.
After interviewing over a hundred teachers, here is what I found to be the most commonly held misconceptions about job-hunting:
Myth #1 – You should apply to lots of schools
When looking for a role, the number of jobs someone has applied for is often held up as a sign of their dedication. But applying for teaching roles is not like spinning a roulette wheel in the hope you’ll eventually win big. Just like you wouldn’t kiss everyone in the club hoping to find a suitable partner, you shouldn’t be spamming dozens of schools with applications in the hope that one takes a shine to you. It’s not a numbers game. Show some discrimination and be selective with where you apply.
Myth #2 – You really need this job
Believe me, there are plenty of roles out there you really don’t want. Not all schools have good intentions when recruiting, dropping teachers into departments that are struggling, so pay attention and trust your instincts.
At interview, do the questions you’re being asked seem well-thought through? I was once asked, at the age of 30, how I felt my university degree helped me as a teacher. Their assumption I was a recent graduate showed how little they had even bothered to look at my application.
Does everyone on the interview panel seem invested in who gets hired? I once interviewed with a Head of Department who told me that he’d been asked to ask me some questions and didn’t know what so wondered if I had any questions for him instead.
Did you actually get interviewed? I was once offered a job after a brief informal chat with the headteacher. I don’t even recall him asking me a question. He just talked at me for a while about the school’s troubled finances. When he offered me the job I thought I had gotten lucky, but what I walked into proved to be a nightmare from day one.
As stressful as they are, you want the interview to be rigorous because that’s how you know it’s a decent school – it’s the velvet rope that keeps out the riff-raff.
Myth #3 – Not getting the job is the end of the world
Unless you’re currently barefoot pulling your possessions along in a shopping trolley outside Morrisons, it’s not that big a deal if they don’t offer you the job. Really.
I get it – no-one likes to feel like they’ve been scrutinised and found lacking, but it’s worth remembering that you’re not going to be to everyone’s taste (you never have been) and that’s okay. Schools that take recruitment seriously won’t just be looking for a teacher, they’ll be looking for the right teacher for them. That means some will love you. Some won’t. But for some schools to really want you, you have to accept that there is another side to the coin: others are going to be eager to turn you down. And that is a blessing in disguise.
Myth #4 – You shouldn’t be honest
The best advice I could give anyone before a job interview is to tell the truth. To some this may sound naïve, but you’re not doing anyone any favours by lying.
If you’re afraid that the interviewer is going to discover that you’re basically Homer Simpson, you have worse problems than how to approach a job interview. I’m assuming here that you moderately competent, or at least striving to be so. And so long as that’s the case, you have nothing to hide.
It always surprises me to hear that some people script responses to anticipated questions in advance. I’d steer clear of this. It will make you sound robotic and unconvincing. And there’s a good chance you’ll default to this mental cheat-sheet and not actually answer the question you’re being asked.
Be yourself. Don’t put on a showy performance. Don’t tell the interviewer what you think they want to hear. On the contrary, be as authentic as you can (even if it leads to you not being offered the job!). The interviewer’s only task is to get an accurate read on who you are and what you stand for – not to pass judgement or to make you feel inferior – but so they can hire the right candidate. Not necessarily the best teacher or the person who wants the job the most. The right candidate. And you won’t know who that is, so stop trying to second guess it.
I don’t know anyone who likes job-hunting. It’s frightening and worrisome. Not to mention lots of work.
Be choosy, manage your expectations, and stay truthful.
Between 2012 and 2015 I moved from the UK to Thailand.
The sun rose and set at the same time every day. It was warm. I had a stress-free job that paid me enough to live comfortably. I had lots of friends, holidayed in exotic destinations, and got to sample foreign cuisine. Life was good.
In my youthful naivety, I didn’t know there was a price to pay for all that.
Of course I had expected it to be hard to keep in touch with friends and family while I was gone, but I wasn’t expecting those bonds to imperceptibly erode away like the face of a cliff. We spoke over Skype. We emailed. But it wasn’t enough to keep the relationships intact over those years.
When I eventually returned to the UK, those bonds had well and truly crumbled into the sea. We could make small talk over a drink in the pub, but I felt no sense of love there. We were strangers and it took years to fully win them back round again.
I thought about this recently while trying to put my finger on why teaching online has been so hard.
Like my jaunt to the Far East, teaching from home had at first felt like a teacher’s dream come true: no commute. No classroom management. No duties. No lesson observations.
But it didn’t take long for the bond between myself and my students to unspool.
A few weeks ago I emailed the parents of my Year 11 students who had not yet submitted any work. The responses shocked me – Lies. Blatant lies. Massive plain-faced obvious fibs, slinking one after the other into my Inbox:
‘My son didn’t understand what to do, but now he does,’ read one parent’s reply (Really? Just like that?).
‘My son didn’t do it because he was worried he’d get a low mark,’ said another (What, worse than zero?).
‘My son didn’t see the work. He’s seen it now and will send it to you this week’ (Spoiler: he didn’t).
Not to mention replies I received from the students themselves:
‘Sir, I’ve looked but I can’t find the lesson – when did you ask us to do this?’ (In the lesson… Wait, you mean to tell me you didn’t even attend the lesson?!)
‘Sorry Sir. I didn’t know I had to submit it. Can you be clearer next time?’ (Well, I’ll do my best, but on Show My Homework not only did I select ‘online submission’, I also wrote ‘submit this to me’ in large bold font on the task itself. If that wasn’t enough of a clue you may recall that strange last third of the lesson where I repeatedly screamed ‘SEND THIS TO ME!’).
And then there’s the plagiarism: one boy wrote, ‘Priestley uses the character of Mrs Birling to represent the corrosive influence of power in the hands of unfeeling authority.’ It’s an excellent line, but it’s also the sort of writing that springs from the mind of a student who is on the proverbial ball, not one who has to be chased onto the pitch at half-time.
After a week of quietly stewing (read: loudly complaining to anyone who’d listen) my anger finally subsided, but I’m left feeling depressed by it all. It’s not that my students and I had the best relationship before lockdown, but I didn’t expect things to get this bad so soon. More surprisingly, I didn’t expect to be so bothered by their lying.
I feel betrayed. So much so I’ve even started to question their intentions at every turn. Now, at the end of each online lesson, when I receive a couple of ‘Thanks Sir’ messages I just reply: ‘Et tu, Brute?’
Psychologists argue that this kind of dishonesty has a de-stabilising effect, causing us to question the very nature of reality itself. Being lied to is bad, but if my students are so willing to deceive me, was there ever anything between us at all? Were they all just pretending?
I’m like Macbeth just after he’s murdered Duncan. The betrayal has left me standing disoriented in the dark unable to recognise the familiar sounds echoing around my castle.
Perhaps it’s true what they say: long-distance relationships don’t work. Despite the magical wonders of digital telecommunication, we still need to gather in the same room once in a while.