Charles Haddon Spurgeon once wrote, ‘begin as you mean to continue’ – sounds simple enough in principal, but often we can find ourselves wishing we knew how to begin. With the myriad of factors to juggle when learning this craft, how do you know which is the ‘right foot forward’ when just moving forward is challenging enough?
Below is a short, certainly not exhaustive, list of some tips around areas of practice that are simple enough in theory, but have proven time and time again to be challenging in execution. However, navigated thoughtfully, these areas need not be additional challenges to your beginning years – instead, they can prove to be a solid foundation of teaching success in well-being, efficiency, respect and craftsmanship.
Sharing really is Caring
The strength in my practice over the years has always come from collegial ‘sharing’ of resources, ideas, time, thoughts and through teaching observation. Whenever I have reflected on a failure it has almost always been because I tried to do something alone. There is no two ways about it: teaching is a team sport, sharing is a two way street, and I like analogies. There is also one more fact: sharing makes you vulnerable.
Aye, there’s the rub. What if I sound silly? What if my resources are sub-par? What if they think I’m just showing off? What if they watch me and I’m no good? These doubts are like a teaching disease, and they stifle the new and the experienced teacher. The solution is simple in its complexity – the doubts must make way for another inner dialogue. I will learn something new. My ideas will be stretched and improved. What if they learn something from me? This last one is of particular importance because – fact number 135 – this is the career of ‘old dogs learning new tricks’. It is YOU, the new teacher, who breathes life and inspiration into this craft, sharing with you is also vital for the experienced teacher. Sharing is the Vitamin C of the teaching profession: the preventative of the oncoming flu of exhaustion, lack of motivation or vanilla classroom practice. If, in your current teaching environment, there is a lack of sharing, then be the change that everyone
wants and needs. Be the first to share, be the first to ask and make sure you stretch your ‘sharing arms’ far and wide.
Finally, like any team sport, you also need a coach. If your school has not already organized for you to have a mentor, find one for yourself – and pronto! Even if you have been appointed a mentor, you may find it beneficial to have another, or several. Seek someone who you respect, who is known to be a good operator and who has experience. Approach them and ask for their guidance. I cannot imagine another professional ever refusing the opportunity to share wisdom. The mentor/mentee relationship is a powerful one with countless benefits for both parties.
Learning to say NO!
If you are like the majority of beginning teachers you are excited, enthusiastic, eager and on-contract. This hearty combination is, like I mentioned earlier, what schools look forward to. The schools employ energetic new teachers to boost the morale and inspiration of the whole staff, and then as your skills progress they snap the best of the best of you up for the permanent positions. The system is what it is; it is not my purpose to promote or denounce the process, but nevertheless, it can be this very process that sways beginning and establishing teachers to take on too much, during what is very important, and often overwhelming, formative years as a teacher. In the UK, new teachers, or NQT’s (Newly Qualified Teachers) as they are known, are not allowed to take on solo extra-curricular projects/tasks,
they have half the playground duties of other staff and they must have a self-appointed school approved mentor teacher. It is no mystery why they do this – teaching is a craft that takes time to hone and their education system recognizes and prioritizes this on behalf of the NQT’s.
However, before anyone jumps on a plane to go to the UK to teach (trust me NQT’s over there have their own set of challenges), or berates our educational system for not mandating the same, or is grumpy for not having a cool nation wide acronym just for you that ends with ‘cuties’, we need to remember that the same power of prioritizing is in our own hands. Because not all newly qualified teachers were made equal, it isn’t fair to say what overwhelms one, doesn’t invigorate the other. Only
you know what feels overwhelming, what is too much, and what you can’t do yet, or alone. Again, the solution is in the risk. The risk that if we say no to an opportunity that we won’t ever get it again, or that it will make us look ‘bad’, or that if we don’t make ourselves ‘seen’ we will get lost. Your craft and your sanity are priceless and they are your priorities. You will be a better teacher for making the choices that you need to make to protect these two things. Remember, there are avenues to explore if you ever feel the pinch or pressure to commit to something that will take too much from you to complete – the union or union representatives are your first port of call for advice around your rights and responsibilities when it comes to your role. If you can and want to spend your time and energy on optional extra-curricular activities, training or additional responsibilities, then do so – but never at your own peril. The stigma of the word ‘no’ needs to shift – when needed, there are many healing properties to this two-letter word.
Watch the ‘Friend’ Talk
Admittedly, this next topic is a little contentious and is more relevant and prevalent in a high school setting, but the notion of building a culture of respect in your classroom is important for everyone. Building relationships with students is undoubtedly the most important aspect of teaching – bar none. Rita Pierson discusses this with significant passion in her ‘Every Child needs a Champion’ TED Talk, but the lines between building relationships and friendships can become surprisingly blurred, and can cause significant complications in the classroom. Establishing a respect culture in a classroom and school environment is vital to set young people up for a society that expects respect to progress, but ‘discipline’ is often given a bad name and balancing this with building relationships can be a daunting concept. This, mixed with the alarming amount of students so very desperate for connection and protection, means that young people will cling tightly to present and available beginning teachers and want to form relationships that have the expectations of friendship – as this is often the safest and most familiar relationship they have ever experienced.
The problems with this are significant. Students’ interpretation of friendship has an expectation of an even playing field, yet, the relationship between students and teachers can never be equal, the balance of power will always be in our favour and this imbalance is discussed in depth in our Code of Conduct (so too is clear boundaries around the use of social media when it comes to students). It can manifest in students expecting a teacher to do more for them than other students, or taking liberties other students wouldn’t, and naturally this can cause unrest and the misunderstanding around the relationship can cause a lot of pain for the student when the teacher attempts to restore balance.
Building a respect culture, a relaxed teaching environment and forming appropriate and powerful relationships with students is possible, but it will take time for you to forge your own path. It is vital to remember that a foundation of respect is trust. They need to trust that you have their best interests at heart, and setting clear and fair boundaries shows them that you know what is required to lead and protect them. Expecting respect shows them how to do the same for themselves. We care for these kids, and the desire to help them in all the ways that we can is real and true, but we must remember that our purpose is bigger and our responsibilities to them are greater – they need us to guide them around these sometimes blurred boundaries.
Well-being is Everything
Teaching is an all-consuming profession. There is never a day I don’t need the 30 min drive home to process the events of the day. There is no ‘leaving the work day at home’ for a passionate teacher or ‘not working on weekends’, but there IS balance. However, balance looks different to everyone. There is obviously a plethora of resources ‘out there’ that can provide strategies and advice on how to balance work and self care, but one resource that has been utilized by professional sporting teams (seriously, what is it with me and sports?) in an attempt to foster a culture of self care and recovery is ‘Recovery Rocket’.
This program developed by Andrew May, an expert on workplace performance and enhancing productivity, is endorsed by psychologists alike and looks at a means to ‘measure’ activities that foster self care, relaxation and recovery with the primary focus being to build in a regular recovery plan to ensure you sustain performance and avoid burning out. Recovery Rocket, and programs like it, solidifies the importance of prioritising your well-being. Burn out is real, and stress can often manifest in strange ways, which means that realising you are overwhelmed is often easier said than done. Using strategies like those outlined in Recovery Rocket, and factoring in time to do the ‘things’ and see the people and live the life you value, is so important for you to be the best teacher you can be – and our students need that more than anything.
This article was written by Jessica Monroe – Teacher, Stretton State College and BETA Committee Member.