The Biggest Mistake I Made When I Started Teaching

Sleep is for the week

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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%.[1] 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.

Forgetfulness

Sleep improves your memory, halting forgetfulness by 30-50%.[2] 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.

Poor appearance

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.


[1] Walker, Matthew, ‘Why We Sleep’, Penguin; 01 edition (28 Sept. 2017)

[2] Walker, Matthew, ‘Why We Sleep’, Penguin; 01 edition (28 Sept. 2017)

What I Wish I’d Been Told When I Began Teaching

The Ghost of Lessons Past

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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:

Persevere

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.

Work hard

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.

Communicate

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.

Apologise

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.

Be grateful

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.

Sleep

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.