The best advice I ever got

23rd October 2015 at 00:00

You do not have to go far in education to find people happy to give you advice. Rarely has a profession seen such a proliferation of unpaid agony uncles and aunts desperate to hold your hand. Which is lovely, but with such a mix of altruism and busybodying, it’s important to tease the gold nuggets from the sand. For example, no teacher can have avoided being told solemnly not to smile before Christmas; to which I suggest that if you’re a new teacher with your first class in a reasonably difficult school then that’s not something you need to be told, because you won’t be smiling much anyway.

When I look back at my own career, what were the best pieces of advice I was given? I don’t mean life lessons I learned through dodging Pritt sticks, but the homilies passed on by the greybeards of my career’s infancy that time has sieved true.

Here are my top five. I give them as gifts. But only time will tell if I’ve left you a stocking stuffed with gadgets, or a sad sock and a tangerine.

1 Kids hate boundaries… and they crave them

This was from a wise old owl who saw me struggling with a particularly feral class. I knew I needed to set standards with my classes, in order to convey high expectations, but the more I did it, the more they rebelled. I thought kids would appreciate a firm but compassionate hand. They don’t. And my Obi-Wan helped me to understand that this is perfectly normal. Set the boundaries; some will welcome them with ticker tape, some will scorn you. Tough.

2 Call home before you need to

This is hard work but oh-so-valuable. When you get a new class, try to call every parent as soon as possible: “Hi, I’ll be teaching your son/ daughter – give me a shout if you need me.” You will be amazed at how powerful this can be.

3 Don’t do a lunch duty

New teachers are offered what might initially seem like a good deal – stand in the playground for an hour, one or two lunches a week. Sounds easy. But wait until you need to plan three lessons ahead, or you find out the IT is down just before your lesson starts. Your breaks are sacred, and they’re there for a reason. So have a break.

4 Never argue with a student

Ever. This provides them with 3D telly for five minutes. All work will stop. And you will be famous in school, and not in a good way. Children are slow to forgive a sarcastic barb from a teacher. You will never win. Save the speeches for after school.

5 Keep a spare shirt

I didn’t believe this. Give it a few years. I’ve had to change four times.

For the newbies among you, here’s one of mine: you can do this. I was a dreadful teacher to begin with; if I got through the hard times, you can.

And for the veterans, what was the best advice you were given that stood the test of time?

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert

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