Midnight, 31 October. The fog is thick in the sky and you’re walking alone, taking a shortcut through a forest. You hear what you think is a car and turn around…you're greeted with a Mad Max-style onslaught that you try desperately to avoid as you pinball from left to right, dodging everything in your path. You escape with a few cuts, think yourself lucky, and go to sit down…and then find yourself confronted by an army of miniature samurais with not only swords, but also sassy comments (that hurt, but are unfortunately accurate). Your only weapons are a not-yet-convincing death stare and a packet of Lemsip.
Or, to describe it more simply: the first three years of teacher training.
One of the trickiest things about teacher-training programmes is that they don’t always recommend best practice. They do promote exciting ideas that will have children running around looking like they’re learning but not much of the bread-and-butter foundations of effective teaching that you’ll need when you’ve got 25 lessons a week.
So what’s not that effective?
I’m looking at you VAK training – and you, Learning Pyramid. To imply that students remember 0-10 per cent of what they read or hear is dangerous in your early years. It’s also dangerous to imply that unless you let students go for a run, they’ll remember nothing about Shakespeare.
While I’m thrilled with the knowledge-focused approach currently growing in our classrooms, training programmes across the UK are still encouraging these types of practices. A lot of the reading lists feature older pedagogy books that don’t always support new teachers in the best way. My advice is to read often, reflect on research and attend research-based CPD days – it will change you as a teacher quicker, and for the better.
Often students take part in ‘busy work’ during observations. They produce a lot, many things have been cut out or stuck in, and there are multi-directional carousels as far as the eye can see.
But have students actually learned anything? Have key skills, ideas or content been covered, taught, tested or retested? Have students experienced that bit of brain ache that comes with a hard – but great – lesson?
There are some amazing blogs about things teachers have done in their early career that make you feel less alone in your observation-induced madness. I’m still not over the fact that I believed that writing on tables and walls, using emojis and playing board games would definitely embed information better than literally me, the person WITH the knowledge just, er, sharing that knowledge.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to be fun and engaging 24/7 because students just won’t learn if you’re boring. Fun and engagement both come from knowing your subject and sharing its beauty, not balloons, masks or treasure boxes.
The quest for outstanding
Graded judgements are a difficult beast. Obviously, we need some method of measuring how a lesson went, but often we end up doing things that we never, ever repeat, just to get those ticks in that "outstanding" column.
Having spoken to my colleague Luke, who is currently completing his PE SCITT, it’s clear that not much has changed since I completed mine. He told me that it’s hard to focus on anything else when there’s one graded observation in a week: “You become just so focused, obsessed even, with that one lesson that the rest don’t matter…I’m not even doing the best thing for the kids. I’m doing it for the person sat at the back of the room.”
He recently spent almost four hours preparing a revision pong lesson – which he knows he’ll never repeat again. But it got him an "outstanding" grade, which instantly implies that the effort was worth it. Until show lessons stop being graded so highly, it’ll be difficult to change the tide, but try to focus on the long term aims, what you’re teaching students and why you’re teaching them a certain thing.
And what can you change or cut out completely?
Talk, talk, talk
I wish so much that I had talked more in the classroom at first. Do not be afraid of teacher talk time: you might not have all of the nuances of teaching, behaviour or assessment pinned, but chances are you do know your topic really well. Stand at the front and confidently talk them through it.
Test more (and stop more)
Training is difficult because you might only see a class once a week, and it’s difficult to establish those routines. But embedded low-stakes testing is easy, and it gives you genuine assessment moments where you can stop, and re-evaluate where you’re going.
The linear plan of a starter, activity one, activity two, plenary falls out of the window somewhere around September 10 of your NQT year anyway (pretty much as soon as you realise no one is watching), so why try to force it? By April or May, you’ll be able to notice when a class isn’t totally following your lesson. Why wait weeks or months to change it? Re-evaluate straight away and try a different tack.
Differentiation isn’t making 24 different worksheets of varying difficulty, each with their own Pantone-esque colour system that (just about) makes sense to you. It also doesn’t mean using ‘all/most/some’. It isn’t different coloured cups or sheets of paper or any of the other things often encouraged.
Great differentiation happens all the time in lessons – it’s the way you reexplain a concept, the way you rephrase a question, the way you scaffold students in their written outcomes, the way you model… the list goes on. Great differentiation can’t be easily planned for but it can be quickly executed to a level where every student leaves your class feeling successful.
Step away from PowerPoint
This one hurts. I love PowerPoint. I love fonts. I love colour themes. I had a period of my life where I believed the PowerPoint presentation truly was mightier than the sword. Early in your career, you lean on PowerPoint presentations so that you can feel more confident: it is your lesson plan.
But in the last two years, I’ve realised that my whiteboard pen is where all the action is. PowerPoint presentations are amazing as a prompt screen for whatever you’re modelling under the visualiser or on the whiteboard, but it’s not your lesson. It isn’t teaching knowledge, modelling, scaffolding or supporting your students. Stripping your lesson back allows you to take more control and actually, I felt that I became a better teacher and developed my explanation and questioning skills as a result.
Looking back, I can see just how much time I wasted on nonsense activities. I reminisce about the sting of laminator burns and cringe about the apologies I made for over-talking in lessons.
I would have been a better teacher if I’d just followed my instincts. Be brave trainees, free yourself from those card sorts, delete the gifs from your PowerPoint presentation and have a look through Amazon’s latest education bestsellers. It’ll save you hours and ensure you’re genuinely teaching from day one.
Lauran Hampshire is a secondary school English teacher in England