Five years ago, I did not possess the skills needed of a good teacher. Standing frightened in the headlights of such a realisation led to some behaviour I’m not proud of: I got easily cross with students and staff, I ignored feedback from my mentor, I gossiped about those I felt weren’t being supportive, and I believed some of my colleagues were willing me to fail.
But that’s not the worst part. To feel better I then unconsciously invented clever stories explaining to myself why I did this. These fell into three categories:
The Victim Story. I made myself out to be an innocent sufferer where I left out the role I played in the problem. I told myself that I was being punished for my virtues, not my vices. I exaggerated my own innocence.
The Villain Story. I overemphasised other people’s guilt or mistakes.
The Helpless Story. I thought of myself as someone who was powerless to do anything helpful. I felt convinced that there was no healthy alternative to dealing with the problem, and I felt justified in the action I was about to take.
In order to improve my relationships at work, to feel better about myself and to get better at teaching, I needed to recognise when I was telling these stories so that I could stop. I needed to flip them on their head to tell more useful stories instead; ones that led to a healthy action more in line with the results I wanted. These healthier stories looked like this:
You’re not a victim, you’re an actor
Are you pretending not to notice the role you played in the situation? Face up to the fact that maybe you did something to help cause the problem. Perhaps you were thoughtless? Stop being selective with your perception of yourself.
They’re not a villain, they’re a person
Ask yourself why a reasonable person might do what this person is doing. Replace your judgement with empathy. What if that person was just trying to give you a hand?
You’re not helpless, you’re able
What do you really want? What would you do if that was your true goal? You’d probably openly and honestly discuss the problem rather than gossip. When you refuse to think of yourself as helpless you begin to hold yourself more accountable.
If you can master the stories that you tell yourself, you’ll free yourself of the unhealthy emotions that come with them and will be able to get on with the business of getting better.
As a teacher, you’ll sometimes need to hold difficult one-on-one conversations with students who are not meeting expectations. This could be for ongoing bad behaviour, a bad attitude or poor quality work. For the inexperienced, this can lead to unfortunate arguments which are exhausting and leave you both feeling sour. In order to avoid flared tempers, here are some steps I’ve learnt that have helped me speak to students with more curiosity and patience:
Step 1: Share the facts
Facts are persuasive because they’re undeniable and are unlikely to prove controversial.
Step 2: Tell your story
Your story is your interpretation of the facts. It’s important to make sure that this is presented as a possible story and not a concrete fact. For example: ‘In my opinion…’ or I’m not sure whether you intend to mean this, but I’m beginning to wonder if….’ Or ‘Maybe you think…’. Afterwards you can ask them to clarify: ‘Is that what’s going on?’
Step 3: Contrast
Make your view clearer with contrasting statements. You could say words to the effect of ‘I know you care about…’ etc. ‘My only issue is…’. Be careful here not to apologise for offering your point of view.
Step 4: Ask for their facts and story
Ask the student to share their view. Make it clear you really want to hear what they have to say: ‘What am I missing?’ ‘Do you see it differently?’ or ‘Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I really want to hear your thoughts.’
Step 5: Encourage testing
If they seem hesitant, play devil’s advocate. Model by disagreeing with your own view: ‘Maybe I’m wrong here’.
Step 6: Mirror
If they seem hesitant, play devil’s advocate. Model what this sounds like by disagreeing with your own view: ‘Maybe I’m wrong here’.
Step 7: Paraphrase
Re-phrase, without repeating word-for-word, what they’ve told you to acknowledge that you have listened to them. Do this is in a tone that validates their point and doesn’t not ridicule it.
Step 8: Agree or disagree
Say that you agree when you do. Add any details that have been left out. Compare where you differ. This might sound like: ‘I think I see things differently. Let me describe how.’
Step 9: Decide and assign
It’s best when a consensus is reached where you both support one decision, phrased something like ‘Moving forward I need you to… and I will…’. Make sure you’ve answered: Who? Does what? By when? And how will I follow up? Write these down to show that you’re committed.
Step 10: Hold them accountable
Refer back to your notes. If either the student (or yourself) has failed to live up to the promise they made earlier you’ll need to have another conversation, repeating the steps above.
What might this look like?
Let’s say a student of yours, Stephen, has failed to submit three homework tasks in a row. You’ve used the school behaviour policy of setting a detention each time (which they attended), but their behaviour is not changing and they seem to have become resentful resulting in a few small arguments during lessons. It’s time to have a difficult conversation:
Teacher:Stephen, you haven’t handed in the past three homework tasks [sharing the facts]. It seems that you’re struggling with the topic. Is that what’s going on? [telling your story]
Stephen: No, I get the topic. I don’t know why I don’t do the homework.
Teacher: I know you care about your GCSEs. My only issue is that you might not get the grade you need to do what you want to do next. What am I missing here? Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I want to hear your thoughts. [asking for their facts and story]
Stephen: I dunno. I’m just lazy, I guess. What’s the problem? I come to the detentions, don’t I?
Teacher: Look, maybe I’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Maybe you are motivated to do the work, but there’s another issue stopping you from doing it? [Encouraging testing]
Stephen: I just find it boring. It’s not your fault, it’s just the subject. I don’t really care that much about Macbeth to be honest.
Teacher: You seem unhappy about that. [Mirroring]
Stephen:Well, I know English is important. I’m worried that I’m going to get bad results.
Teacher: So you’re feeling anxious about doing well in English? [Paraphrasing]
Stephen:Yeah, I suppose.
Teacher: Year 11 is a difficult year, certainly. Everyone in the class feels under pressure to perform. [Agreeing] Not doing the homework is only going to make your feeling of anxiety worse [Disagreeing]. You have a homework task due for next week. You know that homework is non-negotiable so I expect that to be attempted. [Deciding] You’ll need to do the task by next Monday. [assigning]
(next Monday) Teacher: Stephen, can I see your homework? [Holding him accountable]
Stephen: Sir, I did the first two questions, but I didn’t do the last one.
Teacher: The homework task was to attempt all the questions. That’s what it says on Show My Homework. [sharing the facts] (Notice how this is the beginning of another difficult conversation and the steps should begin again. Although the situation hasn’t been perfectly resolved in the first instance, progress has been made, which is what you should be aiming for).
Ten steps may seem like a lot to remember in what will probably be a three-minute conversation. To begin with, you could have the steps printed off in front of your to refer to, but the more you do this, the more natural it will be. And the more you engage students in these difficult conversations, the better your relationships will be.
Most new teachers know the horrible sinking feeling that comes with being ignored by students. And while there could be a number of causes, I found that the source of my problem lay in my lack of what the Ancients called ‘gravitas’, meaning a speaker’s perceived weight or seriousness (think of David Attenborough in any of his nature documentaries – knowledgeable, passionate and calm).
We’ve all met memorable and interesting people who have gravitas and while they appear to have accrued this charm naturally, the good news is that gravitas is a learnable trait, some parts of which you might already excel at.
Caroline Goyder in her book Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority sums it up with The Gravitas Equation:
I can recall teaching too many lessons where I simply did not know the topic well enough. I was clearly not the expert in the room so why on earth did I expect the students to listen? These days, whenever I demonstrate that I know something the students don’t and am then able to explain it clearly to them, they listen. Invest your time in knowing inside out what you intend to teach and how to deliver it in a clear and compelling manner. A teacher who knows their subject well:
stands still with both feet pressed into the ground
expresses clear thoughts in a logical and well-paced manner
uses vocabulary that is their own (they know what it means and how to pronounce it correctly)
What matters to you? Whether it’s a love for the subject, the quality of your students’ work or simply a respect for the school’s ethos, show that these are important in your tone of voice and in your eyes. You could:
make eye contact with individual students as you give instructions or explain concepts, rather than broadcasting to the class as a homogenous mass.
speak in a positive, playful voice most of the time. Keep it light and encouraging. Relax and smile to impart a positive tone.
show students’ kindness, compassion and empathy to form a trusting bond that is more likely to move them to action as opposed to simple ‘do as I say’ authority.
Being your passionate self
Your students will figure out if you’re trying to be someone you’re not, so don’t put on a flashy performance or speak in an obviously scripted way as it will give the impression you don’t appear to care about what you’re teaching.
If you truly care you will engage them when you talk about your subject. But if you don’t care, it will scream a lack of confidence and you’ll lack authority. Besides, putting on a façade will make you tense and nervous. Not only is this unpleasant for yourself, the students will feel this tension too. Remember: what you feel, they feel. If you’re tense and holding your breath, so will they.
In order to engage hearts as well as minds you’ll need to be yourself and not someone dryly reading from a Powerpoint slide. Your lesson materials are not the lesson itself. They are there to enhance what you’re teaching, but the students leaving the lesson should think ‘great lesson’. They should not be thinking ‘great resources’.
The students have turned up to see you so don’t pretend. You are enough, flaws and all. Besides, perfection is dull so stop trying to appear so. And when you’re not worrying so much about yourself, you’ll have a greater capacity to help them. And isn’t that why we’re there in the first place?
Letting go of anxiety
Nerves and feelings of self-consciousness stem from a fear of not measuring-up or fitting-in. As a new teacher, we obsess about what we’re not, rather than what we are.
Concentrate on how you are already valuable, not on how you can strive to become so. You need to be able to manage yourself before you can manage a classroom.
Being able to stay calm and confident under pressure will give you gravitas as you won’t feel tempted to get drawn into arguments. You’ll be calm and aware of yourself and others and able to bring yourself back to calm quickly in anxious moments, treating students as your equals and showing interest in them. You’ll be able to accept their perspectives even if you don’t agree with them.
While you may not develop David Attenborough’s charm overnight, with the Gravitas equation you can at least get a few more kids looking at you when you speak.
 Goyder, Caroline, Gravitas: Communicate with Confidence, Influence and Authority, Vermilion (6 Mar. 2014)
When I was a new teacher I found myself overwhelmed with work: lesson planning, writing-up lesson evaluations and observations, gathering evidence, reading, writing essays, sending emails, setting homework, marking… And most of this was done after 3pm when the classroom teaching had been done. Like a lot of teachers, I found myself working late into the evening and often into the early mornings. All of this while waking up early to be at school by 8am. Gradually I began cutting down on sleep. At first this seemed to be of benefit. I was getting so much done! Why hadn’t I thought of this before? But very soon the consequences of sleep deprivation set in and my lack of sleep was a hinderance more than a help. The problems I had were several:
Confusion and brain fog
My difficulty concentrating compounded over time. Tasks were taking longer so I was working more and getting even less sleep than before. It was a vicious spiral. Also, it was harder to learn which stunted by progress.
Unhealthy food cravings
Research shows that not getting enough sleep increases sweet and salty cravings by 30-40%. Personally, I found myself eating entire packs of biscuits after school, huge bars of chocolate on the bus, or even a bag of crisps for breakfast.
Lack of creativity and problem-solving
I struggled to find solutions to the problems I was having causing me to spiral into ever-worsening circumstances.
Sleep improves your memory, halting forgetfulness by 30-50%. My declining memory was frightening and several times I struggled to remember the names of colleagues and students who I had worked with for months.
Reliance on caffeine
Drinking coffee while also trying to teach children meant I was jittery and prone to overreaction when lessons didn’t go well. I couldn’t manage my mood well enough which led to me reacting to difficult situations emotionally.
I looked as tired as I felt. Colleagues (and on occasion students) would comment on the bad impression I gave.
Here’s how I now get more sleep:
Spread your workload
There was once a time when I’d foolishly try to mark 30 pieces of work in one sitting. No more. 30 bits of work over a 5-day work week is 6 pieces a day. Assuming you’re spending 5-10 minutes per piece, that’s a manageable 30-60 minutes every day.
Sharpen the saw
I thought that working more was the answer, but this was short-sighted. I now sacrifice time I could spend working (sawing) trying to learn better ways of working (sharpening the saw) to make myself more effective. An example might be reading a book on behaviour management that could reduce the number of detentions I need to set. The time spent reading the book is time invested which pays of in saving even more time in the future which helps me get to bed sooner.
Get into the habit of going to bed
I got into the bad habit of staying up late to work which proved disastrous over time. Here are some ways I started this good habit:
1. Use your bedroom for sleep only
If this is not possible, reserve your bed as a zone for sleeping only and not as a comfortable place to work, watch television or any other mentally stimulating activity.
2. Keep it simple
The habit of going to bed earlier can be daunting. What if I’m not tired? What if I won’t be able to fall asleep? Initially your task is not to go to bed and fall asleep straight away. All you need to do is get in bed at your chosen time. Once you have done this you have succeeded. Whether you sleep or not should not worry you to begin with. But first, go to bed.
3. Stack the new habit
Plan to go to bed immediately after a daily habit you already have. For instance, perhaps you wash the dishes after dinner. Write down on a post-it: ‘I will go and lie down in bed at 10 o’clock’. Writing this down with a specific time and place makes you more likely to do it.
4. Make it attractive
You’re more likely to go to bed if it feels good. This will depend on personal preference. Some examples might include: putting a book you want to read on the pillow. Putting a cup of caffeine-free tea next to your bed. Getting a comfortable pillow. Personally, when it’s cold I like to put on an electric blanket as this makes bed the warmest place to be, and therefore the place I want to be the most.
5. Get support from those around you
We’re more likely to follow the behaviour of those around us so if possible encourage your family or spouse to also retire to bed at the same time.
6. Create a streak
Put a calendar next to your bed and put a cross each time you go to bed at the time you intend to. Once you do this several times in a row you’ll have started a streak you’ll not want to break.
In Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge eventually confronts the error of his ways after being presented with the sight of his own gravestone. The realisation that life is short leaves him determined to go back to the present and live his life for the better.
If I had the chance to go back to my first couple of years as a teacher, and live it all over again, here’s what I would like to know beforehand:
I can’t say this enough: Stick with it. Write these three words on a post-it somewhere visible on your desk and recite it to yourself daily. Any great pursuit takes years, not months. You won’t master it in your first year, nor your second. Keep going. I promise it gets better.
Find great mentors
Your school should assign a mentor to you, and you should be thankful for them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t seek out your own too. Look around for teachers you admire and copy what they do. Sometimes their methods might conflict and that’s okay. Take a critical view and decide what might work best for you.
When the going got tough I began to disconnect from the job and get lazy. I had to remind myself that I was in the process of becoming a professional which meant showing up and doing my best work even when I didn’t feel like it. It meant caring and remaining emotionally connected to the job, holding high regard for how my work was going to impact others in the long-term.
I used to want to win arguments, to prove to others that I was right and they were wrong. I didn’t listen to what others were telling me. I had to learn how to have important, honest conversations; with my mentors, my line manager, parents and students.
You’re learning so you’re going to make mistakes and annoy most of the people you work with – staff, parents and students. It takes courage to own up to your mistake, and nothing defuses tension quite as wonderfully as saying you’re sorry.
Pursue high quality leisure
When I clocked off at the end of the day I would spend hours of my free time watching YouTube videos. It was a convenient trapdoor to mentally escape from the trials of the workday. But like a lot of internet-based entertainment, it drained me of time, energy and opportunity. I still watch Youtube, but in addition I now pursue entertainment which is more analogue than digital. For instance, when I feel the urge to browse social media, I’ll read a book instead. Rather than watching a twenty-minute video on Youtube, I’ll spend that time exercising.
Remind yourself why
Becoming a teacher is a choice. My reason will be different to yours, but whatever it is, you chose to teach over other ways of earning a living. Keep this reason in mind to help you persist when the work becomes stale or difficult.
Don’t get too attached
Don’t strive for recognition or praise. Doing good work is enough. Your generous efforts, not the results, should be where your focus lies.
The only time I ever saw my NQT mentor smile was when I gave him a bottle of wine to thank him for his help. People like to have their efforts recognised, and even something as simple as a written message of thanks might be kept for a lifetime. If you really want to treat your mentor, give them something they really want: more time. Why not look for something that could be of mutual benefit to you both and offer to help them with it, such as preparing lesson resources you could both use.
The biggest mistake I made when I began teaching was skimping on sleep to get more work done. It seemed to be effective for a short period of time (a couple of days), but eventually I burnt out and it ruined my work.