Six Useful Phrases I Say to Students Almost Every Day

Choose your words wisely

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Over the years I have spoken to thousands of students. What I have found, often to my surprise, is that it was not the meaning of what I said that mattered, but rather my choice of words.

Here are some short, easy-to-recall phrases I find myself using almost daily that I’ve found to be consistently effective in getting students settling down, working hard and back on-side when things go wrong:

“How can I help?”

When a student appears to not be doing any work, I used to remind them of the task and then inform them of the detention they would get for not doing it. The problem I found is that this was laborious to say, sometimes ineffective and would occasionally lead to arguments. When asking the snappier question “How can I help?”, I find that students will open up. They might ask a question they were too shy to ask, say honestly that they don’t understand what to do, or even that they don’t need any help and get to work.

“I need you to concentrate”

I used to say ‘I need you to focus’ which didn’t seem to work so well perhaps because ‘focus’ as a behaviour is too ambiguous. ‘Concentrate’ as a behaviour seems to be understood better. Significantly, the pronoun ‘I’ in ‘I need…’ rather than ‘you’ in ‘you need to…’ strategically focuses the students’ attention onto you for long enough to make your point. But be careful when using ‘I’. If said aggressively it can start an argument. It must be delivered in a cool and level tone.

“You’re probably right”

Students sometimes like to disagree with you, not because they believe what they’re saying, but because it’s fun to challenge authority and it can give them a sense of control. When it’s over a small matter and where there’s no benefit to winning the argument (your interpretation of a poem you’re teaching, for instance, or how they might work better if they didn’t have to wear school uniform, or that school starts too early or that they will never use Macbeth in real life…) this phrase can appease them and allow you to move on without wasting time.

“Shoosh”

Not so much a phrase as a sound, I’ve found that a gentle shooshing from the teacher can sometimes cut through the noise and get quiet in a way that words often don’t. Perhaps it triggers memories of primary school, or even their parents when they were very young. Or maybe it’s just soothing to hear?

“Don’t spoil it”

A great deputy headteacher I observed as a trainee said this all the time, and it always seems to settle a boisterous class. Appealing to their sense of logic, why would they make the lesson worse than it need be?

“I’d like to apologise”

The most wonderful interactions I’ve had with students have started with this. It’s sometimes hard to keep your cool and I admit I’ve had many instances of getting cross and starting arguments with students. Once I’ve reflected on it and found myself at fault, I like to find them before the next lesson and engage them with this opener. I see them physically relax and offer a genuine smile in return. They are often forthcoming with an apology of their own and my relationship with them goes on to be very strong afterwards.

How to Persevere with Teaching

Burn the boats

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When Hernán Cortés landed in Veracruz to begin his conquest in 1519 he ordered his men to burn their ships. Cutting himself off from retreat meant Cortés was staking everything on success. Without an escape plan he and his men had no chance but to fight the battle at Cempoala. His bold plan worked and Cortés went on to achieve his goal of conquering the Aztec Empire.

New teachers could learn from Cortés. I’ve met many who left themselves a plan B just in case teaching didn’t work out. On the face of it, this seems sensible, but when the going gets tough (and it does), this backup option begins to look tempting and often, if someone gives themselves a safer alternative, they will take it.

And most of them did.

Here is what I tell myself when teaching gets tough:

The world will have teeth wherever you go

Teaching is not a uniquely difficult skillset. There will be challenges whatever you do with your life. But you’ll become far tougher a lot quicker by sticking with the difficult. Consider the metaphor of an arch. The keystone at the top is called such because it compresses all the other stones, strengthening the overall structure. It is only because of the heavy load that it is strong. If you were to take this away, it would crumble. Teaching is worthwhile because of its difficulty, not despite it.

Pivot through

It should not surprise you when you fail because it’s something you should expect and plan for. Perhaps instead of calling it ‘failure’, you should consider it a ‘disruption’ since it is only ever temporary. ‘What if…’ or ‘Instead I’ll just…’ are healthy ways of phrasing these setbacks so that you can navigate them calmly and logically to suppress the instinctive feeling to flee.

Love it warts and all

Learn to enjoy all of what you do, the good and the bad. Try to find the joy in everything that happens. That badly-behaved class? They’re teaching you to get better at managing the classroom. Those snotty parent emails? They’re teaching you to better manage your emotions. The high workload? It’s teaching you to prioritise your time. There is value to be found in each and every one of these obstacles.

Don’t take it personally

Listen to how you speak about your problems. Are you putting ‘I’ in front on each sentence? ‘I had planned to….’ ‘I deserve better than….’ ‘I worked so hard….’ In doing this you’ll make yourself feel alone because you’re inflating your own importance in much larger picture. Put yourself in the background with everyone else.

You’re not special

All across the world people have been teaching for thousands of years. Someone just like you has gone through similar experiences with near identical thoughts and emotions. Last year, a decade earlier, or even century or two ago, someone will have even stood in the same classroom as you and felt how you do now. And in a century from now someone else will be in the same position once more.

How Stoic Philosophy Helped Me Become a Better Teacher

Courage. Temperance. Justice. Wisdom.

Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180BC. His reign wasn’t easy: wars with the Parthian Empire, the barbarian tribes menacing the empire on the norther border, the rise of Christianity as well as a plague that left numerous dead. In the last decade of his life he journaled his private thoughts giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his position. What he left behind was ‘Meditations’, a framework for dealing with the stresses of daily life as a leader of one of the most powerful empires in human history. But what could his philosophy which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others help us to become good teachers in the 21st Century?

To speak well of people on all occasions

Gossiping about others is enjoyable, but it will turn you against those you work with. Marcus noted that as rational beings we are made for co-operation ‘like the rows of the upper and lower teeth’. To be vexed with others therefore is an act against our very nature and an act of violence to ourselves. We must instead strive to be thoughtful, see the good in all those around us even if they prove to be ‘liars and unjust’, and consider the consequences of our every action even if it mean that we do not join in when others are expressing strong emotions. When you find yourself judging others angrily, temper this by recalling to mind your own faults.

Help yourself

Manage your own mood by learning to create your own cheerfulness and not depend on what Marcus calls ‘the tranquillity which others give’. It is ‘thy duty to order thy life well in every single act’. The idea that someone else will solve your problem for you is ‘idle hope’ and you will do well to take more initiative if you wish to take better care of yourself. Good fortune comes to those with ‘good emotions, good actions’ and what is good for you will be good for those around you too. To help, Marcus recited a sort of prayer daily in his struggle for self-mastery: ‘it is in my power to let no badness be in this soul, nor desire nor any perturbation at all’.

Don’t worry what others think

The feedback you’ll receive is of course important, but it can be overwhelming and lead you to overly judge yourself. Make sure to concentrate on your own thoughts and actions, to make sure they are ‘just and pure’ and do not concern yourself with the thoughts or actions of what Marcus labelled ‘stupid and ungrateful people’. If you are criticised, Marcus suggests we ‘see what kind of men they are’ as ‘thou wilt discover that there is no reason to take any trouble’.

The reversal of this is also true. It is worth remembering that ‘they who perhaps now are praising thee will very soon blame thee.’ Praise cannot always be trusted and nothing is made better having been praised so don’t worry if your good work is not recognised. Good work is good. You do not need to call out for others to come and see. The only reputation you need is of someone who is simple and modest. It should not be ‘in any man’s power to say truly of thee that thou are not good’. Paradoxically, we love ourselves and yet set less value on our own opinion than on the opinions of others. ‘Everything is opinion and everything is in thy power’. Take away the opinion to find calm.

Focus on what is necessary

You should always be asking: is this task necessary to do now or is there something more important you be doing? Marcus believes there was nothing more important than the work ‘of an intelligent living being, and a social being’. We are afforded the capacity to check our own feelings of arrogance, pleasure, pain, feelings of superiority. He did not believe we were created to enjoy ourselves and should be suspicious of feelings of pleasure. Unfortunately we often chase this, spending a disproportionate amount of our time trying to impress others so that we may cultivate a good reputation or other forms of wealth.  Similarly, and perhaps a more crucial question for your peace of mind: is this thought necessary? If not, let it pass. Don’t beat yourself up or let yourself be turned against others (See above). We often overlook what value we have in place of what we want. Reflect on what you have already and remind yourself of its worth by how eagerly you would seek it out if you did not have it already. Be content when even the smallest thing goes well and ‘consider such an event to be no small matter.’ Always think, as Marcus did: ‘Have you done something for the general interest? Well, then I have my reward’.

Don’t take it too seriously

Always consider the big picture and be pleased and content with whatever happens. After all, life is short. Marcus recommends perceiving any problems you’re having like dreams. He says ‘when thou has roused thyself from sleep and hast perceived that they were only dreams which troubled thee, now in thy waking hours look at these [your problems] as thou looked at those’. You are not your problems.

Expect change

Marcus asks ‘can anything useful be accomplished without change?’ and ‘Loss is nothing less than change’. ‘He who is afraid of pain will sometimes also be afraid of some of the things which will happen in the world.’ All we are given is the present time and we only have the present time to lose.

Don’t look for greener pastures

It is tempting to think that your problems would be solved by going elsewhere, but Marcus disagrees. He states ‘all things here are the same with things on top of a mountain’. Wherever you go, there you are and your problems will follow you too.

Five Ways to Make Marking More Tolerable

How I made my peace with marking

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Some great innovations have come about in recent years to help reduce the overall amount of marking teachers have to do, such as the use of verbal feedback and student-led peer or self assessment. While these have certainly helped to improve my work/life balance, it doesn’t get past the fact that for the average teacher there will still be several hours of marking to do each week.

Over the years I have figured out some ways of making this more bearable for myself:

Remember that the work is not yours

I sometimes felt that the stress of marking came from the sad realisation that some of my students didn’t try particularly hard. In instances like this it is tempting to judge yourself and to feel paranoia – if only I’d explained the task better; if only I had inspired them more; if only I’d reminded them of the consequences of not putting in sufficient effort…. In the end I had to remind myself that I have less influence over students than I might think. The quality of a student’s work was never really my task, it was theirs. Coming to this recognition was the first step towards lightening the burden by detaching myself from their results.

Remind yourself of the overall goal

Why did you become a teacher in the first place? The reason will differ for everyone, but keeping this bigger picture in mind can be motivating when marking becomes hard or feels stale. The passion you have for your job helps erase the suffering of the work.

Be a professional, not a hack

The professional shows up even when she doesn’t feel like. She is the teacher who understands that this is the price you pay to do good work because it means caring about what you do and doing a good job. However, the hack is a teacher who doesn’t care. He will do a passing job with the short-term view to getting it done, but he is not going to impact students in the long-term.

Work deeply

Maximising your concentration will not only improve how well you mark, but also help you get into a flow state. In this state it takes more energy to stop marking than it will to stick with the task in hand. Some methods I’ve found helpful include:

  • listening to white or brown noise (there are many Youtube videos which provide this)
  • unplugging from technology (putting your phone on silent and face down),
  • the ‘Pomodorro Method’ in which you use a timer to work in 20-minute bursts with a 5-minute breaks in-between (again, see Youtube for these).
  • Using an empty workspace that is free of visual cues persuading you to do something less challenging, such as check messages on social media, tidy up. etc.

Reduce friction

Sometimes the actual challenge is not the marking itself, but getting over the hurdle of beginning in the first place. I used to rely on self-discipline to get marking done, which resulted in me not doing very much of it. I’ve since found the it helpful to trick myself into getting started by doing the following:

Stack the marking on top of a daily habit you already have

For example, if you are already in the habit of making a cup of tea at 4pm, you could decide ‘After I make a cup of tea, I will mark X number of books’ or ‘I will mark for 20 minutes’. Once the habit of making a cup of tea is done it’s easier to pivot into the act of marking if you have decided beforehand that this is what you plan to do.

Find a space to call your ‘marking zone’

My desk at school is where I sit to write emails and plan lessons. If I sit at my desk to mark, these simpler, more straightforward tasks will appear more attractive and tempt me away from the important job of marking. So I have a ‘marking zone’ which is an empty student desk in another part of the classroom. I only sit there to mark so when I sit myself down at this desk my brain know it’s marking time and nothing else.

Lower your expectations

If you’re finding it hard to get started, just tell yourself that you’re going to mark two books, or even just one. If it seems easy, you’re more likely to get started. Once you’ve started, you might want to continue. Anything is better than zero.

Associate marking with positive feelings

Re-frame any anxious feelings you have before marking. For instance, you’re not feeling nervous, you’re excited. If that doesn’t work, tell yourself that what you’re feeling is a sign that the work you’re about to do matters. Being more mindful of the language you use when talking about marking can make it seem more attractive. You don’t ‘have to’ mark student’s work – you ‘get to’ mark their work.

Surround yourself with exemplary colleagues

Look for other teachers who already have a regular marking habit or speak of marking in a positive way and avoid those who don’t. This can make marking seem more attractive as you’ll want to fit in and not be the black sheep of the department. Your actions are often a reflection of your identity. If you consider yourself a good teacher, you’re more likely to do the hard work required.

Reward yourself afterwards

The anticipation of a reward (something you’ll enjoy – another cup of tea, a 5-minute burst on Instagram, a chat with a colleague) causes dopamine to release into your brain which will motivate you to act on your good intention of marking.

This is not to say that I now love marking because I don’t. But I don’t dread it like I used to.

What do you think? Is there anything else you do to make marking more tolerable? Let me know in the comments below.

How to Save Money As a New Teacher

Use Pareto’s 80/20 Principle

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A newly qualified teacher starting work in England in 2020 will earn a minimum salary of £25,714 per annum (excluding schools in London and its fringes where this figure is slightly higher).

I never paid much attention to my pay when I began teaching. I spent what I had to on necessities, like food and rent, and refrained from spending anything further for fear of getting overdrawn. Any money I saved sat in my current account, but I didn’t pay much attention to how much (or little) this was.

If you haven’t yet considered how to manage your salary in a way that can offer you some financial security, here is some advice I wish I had known sooner:

Richard Koch in his book ‘The 80/20 Principle: The Secret of Achieving More With Less’ takes the  Pareto Principle (the observation Pareto made that 80 per cent of Italy’s wealth was owned by 20 percent of its population) and notes that this can be applied more universally. In particular, that the minority of your decisions create most of your results.

When we apply this principle to your teaching salary, it means that 80 per cent of your salary should be spent on necessities and the remaining 20 per cent should be saved. These figures are relative though so it could be 90/10 or even 95/5. The important thing to remember is that it’s the the smaller percentage which is going to be of greater value to you in the long-term.

Let’s see what this could look like using 80/20 as an example:

Expenses (80 percent)Savings (20 percent)
Rent or mortgageSave and Never Touch (3%)
Council TaxIrregular Shocks (5%)
FoodBucket List (2%)
Utilities (Gas, Electricity, Internet, Phone etc.)‘You Asset’ (5%)
InsuranceInvestments (3%)
Personal Spending (a trip to the cinema, a meal out etc.)Giving Back (2%)
Pareto’s 80/20 Principle when applied to your salary

These days most bank accounts can be accessed online and with an app. Many even have the function to organise separate accounts (or ‘buckets’) to separate your saving goals. I suggest considering these:

Save and Never Touch

A cash reserve should you ever get in trouble. A decent sum would be six months worth of living expenses. Any extra after this could be shifted to investing (which is riskier).

Irregular Shocks

Cash you can use in case of emergencies, such as an unexpected dentist bill.

Bucket List

Money to put towards any future goals you might have, such as a trip abroad.

‘You Asset’

Money to invest in your personal education, such as courses, books or professional coaching.

Investments

Examples include buying Stocks and Shares, Bonds or cryptocurrency or on a business venture of which you have some knowledge. This is high risk, high return.

Giving Back

Not only could this be donations to charity, but it could also be presents for friends and family. Charity begins at home after all.

Some other ways of saving money:

Shop around

It’s worth noting that a lot of your expenses are negotiable. You can always have a go at haggling when your tenancy agreement is up for renewal. Your monthly food bill can go down depending on what you buy and where you shop. Utility companies are often keen to hold on to customers so if you’re happy to spend a bit of time on the phone explaining that you’re going to leave, you’ll usually get made an offer of a cheaper bill.

Bring your own lunch to school

I cringe to think how much money I spend on ready-made sandwiches in my first few years of teaching. A colleague commented that I must be very well-off, so I quickly started cooking larger portions for dinner at home and bringing in leftovers for lunch the next day.

Take care and repair

Look after your belongings and they will look after you. Instead of buying new clothes or shoes, consider whether they could be cleaned or mended for a fraction of the cost.

Buy or find second-hand

Items bought used are often far less expensive than they would be brand new and often work just as well. There have never been more ways of finding used items people no longer want and are willing to part with for a small sum or for free. I’ve used Ebay, Gumtree, Freecycle and Nextdoor to name but a few.