What I Wear to School

When considering suitable workwear, there are some practical decisions to be made…

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When I landed my first teaching job, I rushed out to a local department store to buy what I thought was ‘suitable business attire’. But the humble off-the-peg suit I came home with ended up being a dreadful choice.

Despite trying it on under the gaze of a sales assistant, it didn’t quite fit properly – the trousers were too short and the jacket was too big. I looked and felt like a child trying on his father’s work clothes.

Made out of a double-digit percentage of polyester, I was sweaty and itchy in warm weather, yet oddly cold in the winter.

It was ‘dry-clean only’ which meant the regular expense of getting it cleaned. There were also days spent without the suit while it was at the drycleaners which were only ever open during school hours.

Not to mention the price – one suit jacket and matching pair of trousers cost nearly two hundred pounds; a painful sum to part with on my modest salary.

After that first year, I hung up the fateful suit choosing to adopt a preferable range of garments. I humbly present to you my daily outfit for school in 2020:

Cotton vest and shirt
Cotton is cool in the summer and warm in the winter
Woollen blazer
The wool naturally repels moisture and stains
Chino trousers
A pair of chino trousers are some of the most inexpensive clothing items a man can buy
Leather shoes
Waterproof and durable

This is not a blog about fashion. Full disclosure: I am not a fashionista and know next to nothing about how to dress well (just ask my wife). So how is this outfit, on at least a practical level, good for a teacher?

Consistency

I have neither the time nor the energy to sit around deciding what to wear each morning. To reduce this so-called ‘decision-making fatigue’, I wear pretty much the same outfit Monday through Friday. I wake up, shower and put it on without any thought. Don’t worry, the shirt, pants and socks change daily, but I’ll keep the same blazer and trousers each day, washing the trousers at the weekend.

Comfort

Cotton is cool and breathable in the summer and warm in the winter. It dries quickly for those moments when you get stuck on break duty in the rain.

As teachers we are very mobile around the classroom. A shirt which is long enough to achieve a deep tuck will prevent it spilling out every few minutes as you move about during the day.

Get trousers that fit you in the waist and leg. Nobody loses gravitas like a man constantly fiddling with his waistband and I can’t afford to look any more of a clown than I already do.

Durability

I wear the same black leather shoes every day. I polish them probably once a month (not every week – sorry Dad!). Once a year I get them re-heeled and re-soled, but they have withstood a lot of use and turned out to be great value for money.

The wool in the blazer naturally repels moisture and stains.

Cotton can be washed, dried and ironed quickly.

Affordability

A pair of chino trousers are some of the most inexpensive clothing items a man can buy. A quick search of the M&S website at the time of writing shows that chino trousers start at £19.50 and go up to a ‘premium’ of £45. Gap, Uniqlo, River Island (to name but a few) also sell inexpensive quality chinos.

My woollen blazer was relatively expensive (around £100), but since I wear it every day it cost feels justified.

Practicality

Dry cleaning is expensive and inconvenient, (not to mention bad for the environment) so buy clothes you can wash yourself at home.

Pockets should not be underestimated. I’ve found that I use my blazer as a quickdraw holster for board markers.

The cotton vest is primarily for warmth and comfort. It also helps absorb sweat to stop staining under the armpits of your shirt.

The black leather shoes are waterproof and durable.

Everyone will choose a work outfit for different reasons. If I had to guess, I’d say the clothes we wear are often more of an emotional response than the cold logic of practicality I’ve described above.

Whatever you choose to wear to school, considering these five qualities shouldn’t lead you too far wrong – at the very least, they’ve kept me warm, dry and comfortable.

But what have I missed? Is there anything else you consider important when shopping for work clothes? Let me know in the comments below.

How to Craft a Bulletproof Email to Parents

Here is an email template to use when writing to parents about bad behaviour

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Having to tell a parent that their child hasn’t behaved in a lesson can be tricky. The parent fears your judgement of their child-rearing and you fear their judgement of your skills as a teacher. It’s a powder keg of emotions waiting to go off.

Over the years I’ve developed a tried-and-tested email that is clear, honest and practical. It gets the detention set-up without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Here is an example of the email (all names are fictional):

Dear Mrs Johnson,

This is Mr Smith, James’ English teacher.

I’m afraid that James was caught talking repeatedly during a silent writing task in our lesson this morning. He had been warned to stop, but persisted.

As a consequence for disrupting the task, James will, with your permission, have a detention after school for 30 minutes on Monday 19th October.

Please let me know if James will be unable to attend.

Kind regards,

Mr Smith

I believe this email works because it does the following:

Uses names

Opening with the parent’s name shows that you’ve taken the time to write to them specifically. It implies that you are personally invested in them and their child. In comparison, an email beginning ‘Dear parent’ followed by ‘your son’ sounds so impersonal it wouldn’t surprise me if the email gets ignored, or worse, provokes a hostile response.

Commiserates

Opening the body of the email with ‘I’m afraid…’ or ‘Unfortunately…’ suggests that you had better expectations for their child and expresses your disappointment in a way that is conflict averse.

Sticks to the facts  

State clearly what you saw, heard and did as these an undeniable. Speculating on why they might have behaved in this way or any other interpretation of the facts is beside the point so there’s no need to dilute your message with it.

Asks for permission

Sneaking this into the middle of the sentence requests permission for the detention without explicitly asking for it. In doing this, the parent will feel that they are being included as part of the behaviour management process rather than being dictated to. Often a parent will reply with an enthusiastic ‘you have my permission’ in response.

Plans ahead

Sometimes there will be a good reason for the student to need to reschedule a detention.  Mentioning that the student might not be able to attend prompts the parent to check their diary and let you know of any possible clashes.

So, if you like the sound of this email, and wish to use the template yourself, here it is:

Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms/Miss/Dr [Surname],

This is [Your Name], [student’s name]’s [subject] teacher.

I’m afraid that [student name] [description of behaviour + when it happened].

As a consequence for [behaviour], [student name] will, with your permission, have a detention after school for [length of detention] on [date of detention].

Please let me know if [student name] will be unable to attend.

Kind regards,

[Your name]

While writing emails is not rocket science, your choice of words really do matter. And if, like me, you find yourself writing lots of these emails, having a template to copy and paste can be a great timesaver – just don’t do what I once did and forget to change the names!

6 Items I Carry on Me at All Times

What should you have to hand?

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If you were to peer into my classroom a few years ago you’d more than likely see me patting down pockets, rummaging through desk drawers or tipping out my rucksack.

My first few years of teaching were a series of hard lessons in getting caught short.

Here are the items I now won’t walk into a classroom without:

Water bottle

If, like in my school, the nearest water fountain is a few minutes’ walk away, it will often be a few minutes you won’t be able to spare. Dehydration adds to feelings of stress, so come prepared.

Tissues

Nothing derails a lesson quite like a student with a runny nose. Having a pack of tissues on you fixes this quickly. I’ve also found this to be a great relationship builder as your generosity will help build good relationships with your students.

Spare paper and pens

Being able to quickly toss a pen or sheet of paper to a student who has arrived unprepared can save a lot of fuss at the start of a lesson. Very handy for yourself too.

Fresh boardmarker

There’s nothing worse than trying to write on a whiteboard with a boardmarker that’s on its last legs. Have a spare.

USB stick

I keep mine on a keyring attached to my school lanyard.  I find it reassuring to have every lesson slide I’ve ever made hanging around my neck.

Make sure to back-up any files on a spare drive at least once a month in case your USB stick gets lost or damaged. After breaking several plastic ones, I now use a metal USB stick for better durability.

Presentation clicker

The ability to stand anywhere in the classroom and switch between slides remotely has given me greater sense of control than being tied to a keyboard or mouse. Most presentation clickers have built-in laser pointers which I find is really useful for directing the students’ attention to particular words or images.

So long as I have these with me, I don’t want for much else. But what do you think I’ve missed? Is there anything else you find yourself reaching for several times a day? Let me know in the comments below.

Six Routes to a Planned Lesson

Where do lessons come from?

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The sun sets on yet another day of teaching and you’re settling down to plan tomorrow’s lessons. You know what you’re going to teach and you already have a lesson planned, ready and raring to go.

And while I’m sure that might be true for some, in my experience, there are five likelier routes to deciding what comes out of your classroom’s projector the next day:

Teach them something they don’t seem to yet understand

You might have recently marked their work and noticed where a lot of the students were going wrong. Or perhaps you assessed their understanding of a topic verbally in your last lesson. You know there’s something they don’t quite yet understand, and you now get to help them understand it better. These lessons can be magic because the students know that you’ve made the effort to figure out what they need help with and you’re taking the time to help them get better at it. Most of the time I find I get better than average behaviour in these lessons as a nice added bonus.

Ask a colleague for a lesson

I wish I had done this more when I started teaching. I suppose I didn’t want to be perceived as lazy, or as someone trying to take advantage of a colleague. But so long as you don’t do this too often, there’s nothing wrong with asking a more experienced teacher to share a lesson with you. Whenever I’ve been asked, I was flattered to think they would want to use a lesson I’d planned.

Make the lesson your own though. Understand the material you’re going to teach. Know what is on each slide without having to read off of it. Nothing made my students switch off more than watching me try to figure out the lesson as I went along.

Dust off an old lesson

If you’re already a year or two into your teaching career, there’s a good chance that you will have previously taught a lesson to this year group about this time last year.

I usually find that the lessons I taught the year before aren’t up to the standard I’d expect of myself now. A great measure of your progress is to look back and laugh at lessons you taught a year or two ago! But there will be a skeleton you can develop with a little time and effort.

And the good news is that a lesson planned today is a lesson you can use again in the future.

Download a lesson

The internet is great for getting topic ideas or for finding different approaches to teaching, but the quality of resources you’ll find varies greatly. Any lessons you find online need to be viewed through a critical eye (just because it’s online, doesn’t mean it’s good). And as with a lesson you might get from a colleague, or one you planned last year, I would never use it without reviewing and adapting it first.

Many sites like TES or Teachit charge for some of their resources. Buying a set of lessons, or even a whole scheme of work, can save you a lot of time, but there’s a value judgement you’ll need to make about the time you save versus the amount you’ll pay. I’ve only opened my wallet for resources a couple of times over the years, but I have colleagues who do so regularly and swear by it.

Plan a lesson from scratch

While starting from a blank page will require the greatest investment of your time, it can also be the most rewarding – especially when it goes down well. Plus there’s always the additional feeling of pride you get from creating something out of nothing.

I have found that I teach these lessons the best. Maybe it’s because they come from the heart. Or perhaps I’ve invested time in their creation and so I really sell it to the students. Since I know the topic and tasks inside out it gives my teaching added gravitas.

And if the lesson turn out to be good and you’re proud of it, why not share it with your colleagues? If you’re lucky, they’ll share theirs with you too.

That’s it; the six routes I take to a planned lesson. Feel free to let me know in the comments which of these routes you use the most, or of any other routes I’ve neglected to mention. I’d love to hear from you.

Like this? Download the flowchart

Could Advice From a US Navy SEAL Make You a Better Teacher?

“The only easy day was yesterday” – Navy SEAL motto

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A few years ago I read a book titled ‘Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win’. The book, written by former US Navy SEAL commander Jocko Willink, set out to teach leadership skills through the training and experience acquired by US Special Forces. And while it was marketed as a business book, I wondered whether his advice might help me become a better teacher.

Here are the book’s key points, written with teachers in mind:

Take responsibility for what happens [in your lessons]

As a trainee I didn’t want to take the blame for the poor behaviour that was happening in my lessons. I shied away from constructive criticism and, needless to say, did not improve as expected.

I had to learn that there was no-one else to blame for my mistakes and failures. When students weren’t behaving in my lessons, I wanted to blame them for their misbehaviour, but I see in hindsight that it was a fault of my poor classroom management. Had I admitted this, stopped making excuses and started to consistently address this weakness, the better off I would have been.

Hold [students] accountable for poor work or behaviour

As a new teacher, I didn’t enforce standards enough and I tolerated poor behaviour and insufficient effort. If homework was not done, I set a detention and moved on. But shouldn’t I have got the student to do it? To actually take responsibility for his work? Students should be guided to know where they need to improve and eventually learn to hold themselves to higher standards.

Really believe in what you’re doing

One of the biggest traps I fell into as a trainee was forgetting that I was part of something much bigger than myself. Teacher training can be a very selfish pursuit where you consider your own abilities and career above all else and this selfish attitude must have emanated from me in the classroom. My actions and words did not reflect someone who really believed in helping the students achieve what they are capable of.

In order to inspire our students, I needed to really believe that what I was teaching was worthwhile. That scholarly pursuits are achievable goals. For this reason I started making sure I knew why I was teaching particular topics. And if you’re not sure, ask your line manager: What is the reason behind this? What is the reason for having the students memorise poetry? What is the reason behind teaching Frankenstein to Year 8? They will have been implemented it as a strategy to help the students achieve so try to understand their reasoning so you can believe in it too.

Remove your personal agenda and concentrate on the mission

When I started teaching, I focused on the wrong things. Rather than concentrating on how to actually become a good teacher, I wanted to be seen as a good teacher. The difference in subtle, but important because it altered my actions. Being perceived as a good teacher meant that I hid my mistakes by blaming others. If only I had shown greater humility: admitting I was wrong and taking responsibility for my development, perhaps I would not have had to endure years that were quite as challenging.

Work as a team

One aspect of teaching that appealed to me early on was the apparent independence; just me, the subject and some students. But the reality is that you’re part of a much larger school community. The success of your students depends upon your willingness to work well with other staff members, to avoid competition with colleagues, or the temptation to portion blame when things go badly. Communicate and support one another.

Simplify complexities

When my students didn’t do a task, or did it wrongly, it was usually because they didn’t truly understand. Instructions need to be clear if your students are going to understand what you want them to do. My instructions were not always simple, clear and concise.

Whenever I’ve created opportunities for the students to ask questions to clarify what they do not understand, they have worked better. Encourage their questions and take the time to explain. Keep your lessons and your communication simple.

Prioritise

Your workload

The high workload teachers experience is frequently bemoaned, and justifiably so. Whenever I’ve tried to do everything at once, it ended badly. So when you feel overwhelmed, stay calm, see what’s most important and give that your full attention.

To help, look ahead from time to time so that you can plan for contingencies. Staying ahead of the curve can stop you from getting overwhelmed.

Your students’ tasks

Helping your students understand what should be a priority for them can make difficult tasks more manageable. If you want them to write an essay, for instance, explain that there is an order to how they should approach the task such as deciding on the over-arching argument before getting into the minutia of the ideas.

Who gets your attention

I used to try to involve myself with every student, but this is too exhausting and not sustainable. Now I just try to concentrate on those who really need it. So that you can assess where your priorities should lie, take a step back and just observe your class working from time to time.

Help [students] become more pro-active

Sometime I have a bad tendency to take too much on myself and micromanage the class.

What I’ve learnt is to inhabit the middle ground and be willing to take control when needed or to step back when appropriate. We should empower students to make better decisions for themselves by helping them understand not just what to do, but why they are doing it.

This doesn’t mean they get complete freedom. But if they feel trusted and they know what the goal is, they should feel free to make recommendations for decisions outside of their responsibility – for instance, the topics they would like to revise, or the sorts of activities they think work best for them.

Plan [your lessons]

The lesson should begin with an objective; a focused aim of what is going to be learnt. You should make it clear to the students that this is what they should learn and the purpose behind learning it so that they buy into it at the start.

That said, when planning lessons, don’t get too bogged down in detail as the students may take it somewhere even better than you had imagined. This often happens in my English lessons. I’ll plan a lesson with my interpretation of a poem in mind, only for a student to throw out an idea that is far superior.

Allow enough time for discussion, questions and clarification. Prepare for  foreseeable problems, mitigating risk, while accepting that there will always be some level of risk in lessons.

Focus on what you can control, which I’ve realised is less than I first believed. You can always adapt your lessons as you go with an internal de-brief after each. What went right and what went wrong? Then do more of what works and throw away what doesn’t.

Consider how your lessons are achieving the overall goals of the school. Is there a big push for literacy or numeracy? Extended writing? Using a word of the week? You can use these whole school initiatives to help guide your lesson planning.

Communicate

With students

Continually communicate with your students to check they understand the lesson objective and how their day-to-day work in lessons helps them to achieve the end goal.

Be calm, but not robotic. It’s okay to show emotion, but you must be able to control it. It you can’t control your emotions how can you be expected to control anything else?

Be approachable. They need to feel cared for so show confidence, but never cockiness, as this leads to complacency.

With your line manager

If you do not feel supported by your mentor or your department head, don’t blame them. It’s your responsibility to convey to them that support hasn’t been allocated. Make them aware whilst maintaining the highest professionalism.

One of the most important roles you have is to support your school leadership especially in front of students. Even if you don’t agree with their decision it is important to try to understand it and execute it as if it were your own.

Tell your department head what you’re going to do rather than asking what they think you should do. They might disagree and ask that you do something else, but part of becoming a professional is finding solutions to problems yourself.

Act decisively

There were plenty of moments when I felt afraid or uncertain which led to inaction. In times of uncertainty, it pays to act with decisiveness. There is no 100 per cent right solution because you will never have all the information. Make an educated guess and be comfortable with that.

While being a Navy SEAL and being a teacher couldn’t be more different, it seems clear to me that being successful in either field requires a somewhat comparable skillset. And not unlike The Teams, you will be more successful as a teacher once you learn to take responsibility, communicate clearly and work towards a goal that is greater than yourself.

Hooyah!