September: a blank page

It’s 12.34, 14 minutes into lesson 4. All of the controlled assessment marks need to be with the exam board by 4.30 and there are piles of papers and to be checked-and-double-checked. The Head’s PA has just called to say he’s invited in an advisor with whom he’d like me to meet during lunchtime. One of the team is off sick and I need to set their cover work. I can’t find my class. They were definitely in C4 last time I taught them. They’re waiting somewhere for me – unsupervised and undoubtedly out of control. I’m running, increasingly frantically, around corridors trying to remember what topic I’m supposed to be teaching them. The office is trying to call me but the line keeps going dead. I look down and realise I’m wearing odd shoes…

This was the night of the third Tuesday of the summer break and a fairly typical mid-holiday kind of a dream to wake up to. The slightly panicky feeling tends to hang around for a couple of hours before I remember to savour and relish the slower pace that is the precious summer holidays. But there tends to always be a little bit of each of our teacher subconscious that is starting to limber up for September, to probe anxieties and polish hopes for what the next academic year will bring.

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the profession or about to enter it for the first time, rest assured the nagging sense that you may well have entirely forgotten how to teach a class of children is widespread and entirely normal. With this new academic year, whether you’re wildly excited or tired and a bit jaded, there is, quite literally, a blank page to begin with. And with the inevitable new challenges that this new academic year will bring, it also bring opportunities for tweaks or major changes to improve our working lives and our students’ experience. I’m reminded of the quote, ‘if you want something you’ve never had, you’ve got to do something you’ve never done’.

In no aspect of my writing or research will I ever suggest that ‘one size fits all’, but I have cobbled together from my research on teacher wellbeing a number of strategies that you may wish to consider when starting the year afresh. Strategies that may help you in surviving – and thriving – the year and, I hope, many more fulfilling and successful years to come as a teacher. And whether you’re starting in a brand new context or entering your twentieth year in the same one, I hope there will be something here, be it a tweak or a new approach, that will boost your wellbeing and effectiveness at work.

Keep the main thing the main thing

This mantra, from Ofsted inspector Mary Myatt, is a bit like an anchor for me, and one that is well worth returning to repeatedly through the school year, as an individual and with teams. At heart, the job is about student learning.

To plan lessons and units of learning, deliver them effectively and monitor student progress according to relevant assessment criteria is the bread and butter of the teacher’s role. They don’t need to be dancing and singing lessons. Especially with the increasing focus on extended writing and examination-only qualifications, it is of great value for students to learn to write quietly and in a focused manner for chunks of time. Building in time for reflection is also invaluable.

Each school will have its own set of procedures to ensure effective teaching and learning take place, and it will be each teacher’s contractual obligation to follow these. However, if there are excessive pressures which you feel are not having a positive impact on learning, make time to have the conversation with your line-manager. There will always be debate and dialogue around the ‘most effective’ systems to ensure learning takes place and a good school will ensure all voices are heard.

Pace yourself

It’s not just about the hours. Teaching requires a significant investment of ‘self’, and there are peak periods through the school year when the pressure can feel greater. This will vary from person to person and context to context, but pacing yourself is essential. Particularly in a new context, you will be bombarded with information during the first couple of days. File it, organise it, but don’t try to internalise it all. As above, prioritise teaching and learning. And the location of toilets and refreshments… Get to know your timetable (but don’t copy it up in colour as there are sometimes changes early in the year!) and note where and when you’re on duty.

Establish your support network

Whatever your role, you are entitled to a level of support in teaching and you need to ensure you are getting it. This will normally come directly from your line-manager or mentor, who will be in charge, not just of ensuring you are accountable, but of knowing your strengths and areas for development and putting in place appropriate feedback and training. There should be regular dialogue and contact. NQTs and leaders at all levels should receive regular face-to-face contact – get this scheduled in and make sure the slot is protected.

If new to a school, use the first days to get to know the ‘key people’ – the cover supervisors, office staff, canteen staff, library staff, support teachers and caretakers. Make time to introduce yourself and keep in regular contact – these are the people without whom the school wouldn’t run. In the first weeks, establish key relationships within and beyond your department. Make time to walk around the school – stalk your tutor group in their lessons, visit the SEN and EAL teams. These key contacts may well become your ‘rocks’ during periods of greater pressure.

Some find going along to pub trips on a Friday a great source of decompressions. Make time to sit down and have lunch with different people – including the children.

With friends and family, talk about your work, but take the hint when it comes (and it will!) and allow your focus to switch to the world beyond your job.

Carve out your time

When conducting my research on balancing teaching and parenthood, a participant raised the concept of ‘razorsharp compartmentalisation’ as the key to a healthy work-life balance. The reality for many of us is that, given the emotionally-consuming nature of the job, it is perfectly possible to allow it to leak into every corner of your life. This is a mistake I have made during more than one period. But I owe it to my family and friends to keep trying. This is the advice I tend to give – and try (not always successfully) to stick to:

  • Try to have one day during the week when you leave soon after the students whenever possible.
  • Try to have one whole day during the weekend when you do no school work at all.
  • Plan your non-contact time at work carefully. It’s so easily frittered away, usually in trying to do more than one job at the same time. Set aside regular hours for marking of books during the school day and find a quiet place to do it. Set aside other hours during the week to talk to colleagues and share ideas.
  • Try to have an hour a day of switch-off time, be it for rubbish TV or a trip to the gym.

You’re never too busy for ‘good morning’

During an end-of-term social, a colleague mentioned that I’d walked past her twice in corridors the previous week without acknowledging her. I was quite mortified by this. ‘It’s ok,’ she said. ‘I know you’re busy.’ But it’s really not. None of us is so busy or important that we can’t smile and say hello. This is something I have sworn I’ll adjust for the year ahead.

Avoid toxic politics

There will be few of us who will make it through a school day, let alone a year, without moments of frustration and impatience. Teachers are, in general, passionate people with strong opinions and conflict is, at times, inevitable. You would be quite exceptional if, at some point in the school year, someone doesn’t make a decision about the way you need to work that you’d disagree with.

As a leader, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself and others that we are, quite literally, ‘in this together’ – that any setback or triumph belongs to the team and not the individual. Even more than this, reminding ourselves that it’s not about us – not about our performance targets or competition between departments or who gets recognised by SLT, but about the young people we teach. They must always matter the most, and if this stops happening, it’s time to recalibrate.

In my twenty years of experience and my extensive research, I have found no evidence of any benefit whatsoever of gossip and toxic politics in school – of talking behind people’s backs, stealing others’ thunder, undermining, belittling or ‘us-and-them’ mindsets. And yes, I know I could easily be writing about Year 9, but I’m not. My biggest stresses and biggest upsets as a teacher and leader have come not from the behaviour of the students, but from the behaviour of adults towards one another.

More than any other piece of advice, I strongly suggest you steer completely clear of what a former head called ‘toxic whingeing’ and negativity. It may provide temporary relief, but I have never seen any evidence of long-term gain. Instead, where frustrations arise, I suggest you first take time to reflect and identify the issues which have caused you to react negatively. Then, ideally, discuss the issue head-on with your line-manager or, where relevant, the person concerned.

Know your ‘safe places’ and your ‘safe people’ for when you are feeing less than positive and need to let off steam. Suggest solutions, not problems. Be prepared to ensure you are heard, and then be prepared to compromise where necessary. Use the management systems that are in place to support you – avoid going ‘over people’s heads’ if you can – this can really exacerbate issues.

If an issue escalates, there are external sources of support which may be able to provide objective advice: the HR team at your school, your union or the people at Education Support. Whatever the issue is, know that you are never alone in this profession – and that if you have a passion for teaching and a willingness to listen and always strive to be better, you are both wanted and needed in this profession.

Avoid over-planning

It can be tempting to ‘nail’ the first six weeks of teaching in your holiday, but don’t be tempted to sit and design intricate resources. Firstly, your school may well have these in place already. Secondly, there will be resources available in all sorts of online teaching communities that you can use and adapt. And finally – most importantly – every class is different and you will invariably find that you need to adjust and tweak from class to class according to your students’ strengths and the gaps in their knowledge.

Plan a holiday

This is something I tried for the first time last year, and it made a huge difference. We booked a few days away somewhere hot in October. This broke up the longest term and gave me something to look forward to as well as ensuring I was properly refreshed for the eight-week run-up to Christmas. If you can do it – do it!

Be a dog with a bone: nail the basics

September is an ideal opportunity to train your students in the habits you want to last the whole year. You won’t get it all sorted, but establish your key priorities with your students early on and be as stubborn as stubborn can be. Establish your expectations clearly – get them involved in clarifying these expectations.

The first time a student has the audacity, for example, to walk into your classroom without a reading book, go for an Oscar in disappointment and dismay. How could they possibly do this to you? To themselves? To their prospects of being well-rounded and successful adults? Sanction early. Involve parents. Repeat as required until the habit is established.

Other ‘non-negotiables’ are likely to include:

  • One voice – never allow a student to talk over you (or one of their classmates)
  • Equipment; out on desks within 1 minute of entry.
  • Presentation of work – titles and dates underlined (and in existence), homework clearly labeled, previous work ruled off)
  • Getting started – what do you expect? Will it be on the board, on their desks or will they wait for your first verbal instruction.

Stationery

Most teachers harbor some kind of stationery fetish. Obviously, your school will furnish you with the basics – board pens and pens for marking. But I find it useful to carry around a notebook – the more bright and colourful, the better – in which to keep (and colour-code during particularly busy times) lists of ‘things to do’.

There are few professions which offer quite such an opportunity for a fresh start every year. Every teacher will have their unique story and their own set of hopes and apprehensions as we enter a new year, with a new set of challenges and uncertainties over which we have little control. There are, however, some things we can control, such as those explored above. Ultimately, our young people deserve the best we have to offer – this won’t always be perfect, but does need to be good enough. As long as we support one another, look after ourselves and serenity-prayer style, change the things we can and should, we have a true chance to improve the life chances of our next generation. And of course, to enjoy doing it, because for all the challenges, teaching young people is, for the most part, really good fun.

Wishing you all the best for the year ahead.

About Emma Kell 

Emma has just been awarded a Doctorate in Education at Middlesex University with her thesis: "Shifting Identities: A Mixed-Methods study of the experiences of teachers who are also parents in the UK". She is a practising teacher, middle/senior leader​ and mother to two girls, aged 4 and 6 and married to an equally busy journalist! You can follow her on Twitter @thosethatcan or read her blog.