Slow down for a long haul or face burn out

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Sometimes Gerald Haigh has to pace himself and settle for a bog standard day

Working hard at your marking and preparation isn't just the professional thing to do, it's a strategy for classroom survival. That's because there's an equation which says the more you put into preparation (include marking, because it's a particular sort of preparation), the less hassle you'll have in your working day. It's a matter of being ahead of the game - marked work ready to hand back, the next homework up on the board, the projector gently humming, ready to help you snap into the Powerpoint lesson on As You Like It that you put together on Sunday afternoon.

It's what Ofsted inspectors call "pace" and, at its best, it leaves the minimum room for boredom or misbehaviour. The reward for your hard work comes in the warm glow of a job well done.

The danger is, though, that your efforts might also be paid for in an entirely different currency - that of permanent tiredness, a non-existent social life, damaged personal relationships and, ultimately perhaps, stress-related illness. Is all of that inevitable?

Part of the problem is that, as a student on school experience, you probably worked unreasonably hard and long all the time on your preparation. When you're a teacher, though, in a full-time year-round job, you can't keep up that pace. It's not a question of feeling guilty - it's a matter of preserving your health and efficiency for the long haul.

How, then, do you cope?

Firstly, if you find that marking is the problem - piles of exercise books and projects needing grades and comments - then tackle it at source, which is in your preparation. Inadequate or ill-thought out preparation can lead to an explosion of marking- because the easy way out when you're ill prepared is to give the children a lot of textbook or worksheet tasks to do. In some subjects you could walk into class and say, "Turn to page eighteen and do numbers one to a hundred and six." Not much preparation involved there. But it takes its revenge in the marking load.

And you'd better do the marking, too, because if you don't then your credibility will go into a steep dive, and your classes will stop working hard for you.

So, remind yourself that not every lesson has to produce written work. The standard pattern - "Listen to me, then write it down," just doesn't suit every child. Have lessons that include discussion, verbal presentations, or computer tasks, instead of written work. They'll need good preparation, but they may not produce anything at all that you need to take away and mark at home. Some tasks, too, can be made self marking. You go through the work at the end and let the students tick their answers, or you pass round some answer sheets. Some work you can mark with a tick and simple comment as you pass round the room. (You must take the books in from time to time, of course.) If you vary your presentations in this way, not only will your pupils be more interested, and more able to learn, but you will have a repertoire of lessons some of which involve lots of marking and some of which don't. The trick used by all well organised teachrs is to plan the week's work so that the lessons which produce marking happen on the days that suit you. It all involves good long and medium term planning. But it's worth doing, and the task gets easier as the years go by.

Keep the marking under control and you'll have more time for the possibly more important job of lesson preparation. That, too, needs watching if it's not to get out of control. There are two traps to avoid.

One is trying to pack too much into a lesson - a common fault among student teachers, and still evident in many NQTs. The key to keeping a lesson plan under control is to start with a simple learning outcome. What single, closely defined skill or piece of knowledge do you want your pupils to have mastered at the end of the lesson? Once that's fixed - and you'll learn that with some of your groups it has to be very basic indeed - planning how to get there will come much more easily.

The second trap is to try to prepare every single lesson in the same great detail. You can't be superteacher all the time. Sometimes you have to be bog standard teacher. Pick carefully the lessons that need the really close planning - maybe the ones where you have difficult classes, or where your pupils are going to be using equipment or apparatus. Share these lessons out, too. Each of your classes deserves to have superteacher occasionally.

When you're in bog standard mode, that's when you use a worksheet, or some straightforward software, or a series of questions on the blackboard. Don't forget to think about the marking, though, and keep a sense of the overall quality of your work with each class, across a week or half term.

Incidentally, when you're writing your lesson plans remember that your focus is the lesson, not the written plan. Once you've written enough to make clear what you want to do, stop and go on to the next point. You may end up with a list of very brief bullet points, but that's fine if they do the job for you.

You'll never be free of marking and preparation, because It comes with the job. So as time goes on, be conscious of trying to find the most convenient and efficient routine for when you work.

Some teachers like to arrive at school at 7 am, others work in the classroom when the children have gone. Some go home and work straight away, others have a meal first and then get the briefcase out. Work out what's best for you and the people who share your life. This is especially important when you have children of your own.

Too many middle-aged teachers regret missing vital moments in their children's development. Vow that it won't happen to you.

In any event, insist on one evening entirely free of school work - Friday's the traditional choice - and also keep your weekend work firmly within limits. Try to be ahead of yourself, too - keep your marking up to date with a day in hand, and lessons prepared well ahead. It's a tall order, but you'll reap the benefit when a good friend phones or calls to meet you for a drink.

Whether or not you have to turn down an invitation like that is a reasonable measure of how deeply you are trapped in your work.

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