“Before, you are wise; after, you are wise. In between you are otherwise”
― David Zindell, The Broken God
I read a great TES article a couple of weeks ago which was based on the conceit of writing a letter to our NQT selves, with the benefit of our experience (see here). I was taken by the idea and it has lingered in my mind ever since. I therefore decided to write one of my very own.
You will begin teaching with a deep seated fear of failure. This lack of confidence will drive you to want to be better and, with time and support, you will be better…thankfully, much better! In fact, your fear is your secret weapon – harness it and make it a positive force that drives you. Eventually it will dissipate and harden into something like experience. People will eventually look to you to develop their confidence in order to conquer their fears (which may seem absurd considering your current state!) and this will become one of your favourite parts of the job. Each struggle you will overcome in your early years of teaching will serve its purpose and show its value many times over.
Uncertainty attached itself to your decision to become a teacher, but your instinct was right. The variety and difficulty of the job will test you daily, but this will mean you are never bored. You won’t lose your passion for helping children and passing on a lasting love for English. Your passion to see children have the same opportunities that you were given will never falter. The job is incredibly hard but more rewarding for being so. Shout loudly about how much you enjoy teaching – too many people resort to easy cynicism that you know to be wrong.
You will realise that the relationship you have with students, and their willingness to work hard for you, will outdo any teaching and learning strategy you can devise. Never forget to cultivate those relationships. It will be one of the greatest pleasures you will get from your career. Quickly, you will realise ‘liking‘ a teacher can be wholly different from ‘respecting‘ a teacher. Don’t strive for popularity – strive for respect. You will develop more and more confidence in your own professional instinct. It will tell you that what you know they need to learn will always outweigh what they think they want to learn.
On your PGCE you went along with the crowd and mocked the advice to be a ‘reflective practitioner‘ as lame jargon repeated ad nauseum – theory not rooted in reality of the taxing day job. You were all wrong. You will eventually give the exact same advice! The job is a maelstrom of emotion, complexity and dizzying change (which is one of its more perverse attractions). Find time to reflect and talk about your practice as much as you can. You will spend hours writing about teaching in the future – ironically, you will be at your most productive and effective as a teacher when you do this. Don’t be taken in by the false economy of not committing yourself fully to getting better because you ‘don’t have the time‘.
You remember watching ‘Dead Poets Society’ and thinking you wished teaching was like this, but knowing that it wasn’t. Well, you were right. But the call to ‘seize the day‘ was undoubtedly true. Only, more accurately, I would tell you to ‘seize the CPD’! It takes thousands of hours of deliberate practice to become an expert. This will not happen on any single training day, no matter how good it feels to you at the time. You will need to read, reflect and retain your passion to get better beyond the parameters of such training and practice. After a couple of years you will plateau and not realise it. Don’t let yourself fall into lazy habits – don’t worry about what others are doing – try to be better than yourself.
Don’t look to OFSTED for answers – they turn in the wind. Don’t try to become the ‘outstanding’ teacher you have the good fortune to observe. Know yourself – that isn’t how you work. Commit yourself to gradual, small improvements (the tortoise can defeat the hare) and be the best version of yourself you can possibly be.
Ten years later you will realise choosing to teach was the wisest choice your young self ever made. Despite the early bumps, particularly your rocky first year, enjoy the ride!
Try writing the letter yourself – it is very cathartic!
Nearly a decade ago I began teaching English (not very well if I remember!). I was a startled rabbit of the most baffled kind. Each morning I would quietly take ‘Rescue Remedy’ in the gents toilets to help conquer my raging nerves, before embarking upon the war of attrition that was every school day as an NQT! University success was a distant memory. I made the usual mistakes, experienced the typical emotional roller coasters, and eventually made my way through it to the other side. Now that I have a leadership role myself, I see that confidence is not just the Rosetta Stone for students to unlock their potential, it is just as important for teachers. Not just new teachers either, confidence waxes and wanes – sometimes when we think we are on the other side we are dragged back in the swim – battered by self doubt!
As a Subject Leader, I have the privilege of experience and the greater self-confidence it typically brings, yet the old ‘imposter syndrome’ never goes away – but, perhaps that is a good thing. I have seen brilliant teachers and trainees wracked by self-doubt, whilst the worst of teachers can be full of conviction in their own superior ability! As a friend, colleague and leader, I suppose it is my job to help guide through that tricky course between two different types of self doubt: one with the attendant drive to keep getting better, and the other self doubt that becomes crippling and destructive for a teacher.
I hesitated in writing any blog posts about confidence, as I didn’t want to betray any professional secrets of colleagues past or present. I discussed this with my brilliant colleague Helen, a young teacher, still fresh from completing her NQT year, who agreed to guest post her personal thoughts. They mirror many of my experiences as a new teacher and it is a refreshingly honest account of why confidence is crucial in teaching:
A few weeks ago my Subject Leader introduced the new personalised coaching ideas which would form the basis of our faculty training time this year. The idea was to focus in on one or two key things that would improve our teaching and work on them in discussion with other members of the faculty– in his words making ‘marginal gains’ to move from good to outstanding. Excellent in theory: I was an NQT last year, I’ve got this reflecting thing down and I have a whole multitude of things to fix! In reality, it was Monday afternoon, Year 10 had been in an entertaining mood and, as such, my reflection on my own practice extended about as far as: ‘What on earth am I doing – it was supposed to be easier this year!’ I survived the session, went home, cried, then composed (although didn’t send) a long and dramatic email to my Subject Leader complaining about the whole situation. So far: so mature. The main thrust of my ramblings concerned the central issue that teaching is wholly personal. And with that it can be potently emotional and even psychological. So a discussion of our areas for development can begin to delve into a whole heap of insecurities which we would often rather keep hidden.
Luckily, I have a very supportive department who spent the next morning soothing my concerns, and a Subject Leader who can generally pick up on my mood within about five seconds of entering my classroom! So, with my Subject Leader, we spent break discussing the roots of my email (which when I showed to him he found hilarious). We came back to the same place we ended up throughout my NQT year. Confidence. Or a lack thereof.
Confidence can sometimes be overlooked in discussions about teaching, but it seems to be absolutely central to everything we do as teachers. Not in a ‘standing up in front of 30 teenagers requires confidence’ way, but in the ‘I need to have a fundamental faith in the decisions we make every day‘ fashion. In my NQT year, the thing I found hardest was not dealing with tricky students (however fun Friday 5 with Year 9 can be!); it wasn’t the piles of marking which seemed to take over my life; but it was the sudden sense of responsibility for my students. There can be debate over how responsible we are for the students in our classes, but as I started my job I seemed to shift from a twenty three year old whose greatest challenge was driving a car and remembering to pay the bills, to having groups of teenagers whose progress in English was pretty much at my door. The Year 11s who needed a C to get into college, and the Year 13s who wanted to get into university, were now mine for a few hours per week and I had to try to get them there. This is an exaggerated way of looking at things and I had an incredible NQT mentor who counselled me down from these hyperbolic heights, but the main thing I had to develop, and will continue to develop, is the confidence that I am making the right decisions and doing the best by my students.
So on an afternoon in October, a discussion of marginal gains collided with a mindset of ‘there are so many things to fix – where do I even start’. I’ve been a perfectionist for much longer than I’ve been a teacher so it’s a tough habit to break. Therefore, it was only once I had admitted this to my Subject Leader – and more importantly to myself – that I could actually get on with the job of coaching and improving. If we fail to recognise this central point then any coaching will be as productive as my initial session – I was there, I was talking, I was listening but I wasn’t making any (to use a buzzword) progress.
It was only following an emotional email, a break time discussion, and a few good lessons, that I could get my head around what I needed to do in terms of my own coaching targets. I can only speak as new (ish) teacher, but it’s an easy cycle to get stuck in: lessons go wrong, emotion kicks in, confidence is bashed and the ability to be positive about how to improve can start to slip out the window. Yet, it is this emotional focus which actually makes it one of the trickiest things to combat. My Subject Leader can give me a range of strategies to improve my questioning but, much as it frustrates him, he cannot wave a magic wand and teach me to have faith in the job that I am doing. It is the ultimate part of the job that requires marginal gains – saving those comments from students and colleagues, taking pleasure from the fact that all my Year 13s did get into university and slowly building up self-belief. Building confidence. It is also something that fluctuates continually depending on the class, the day, the topic, or even the weather!
There are endless discussions over how to improve our teaching, but I know that at the centre of my own practice is a more personal battle: the need to be able to step back and reflect, without losing faith in my instincts. It is easy to put on the confident-teacher mask, but to really move forward that confidence needs to run much deeper. The first step to becoming the type of teacher I want to be, is developing the confidence to believe that I can actually be that teacher.
I am very lucky to share my working day with bright stars like Helen, who care so much about what they do, the students they teach, and the colleagues they work with each day. Perhaps the ultimate paradox about confidence is that teachers who lack it are driven to reflect deeply and become much better for it, whereas the teachers who are too full of it end up becoming gorged on their own self-importance and never become truly great teachers. What Helen’s words remind me is that we teachers must keenly remember that we are human – all too human – that we should tend to one another as we aim to do for our students. We should remember that we all want to be better teachers, but that the process is fraught with fears and other attendant doubts. Finally, and most important of all, that we should be kind to one another. Yes, that is the main thing I have learned working as a teacher. Not just with our students, but with our colleagues too – we must be kind.
So let us celebrate then the humble teacher, struggling to get better each day – building their own wall of confidence, so that their students may do the same. And let us be kind to one another.
In the coming week A level results will come out, followed swiftly by GCSE results. The usual pressures and sleepless nights of the conscientious teacher re-emerge after the well deserved holiday relaxation. Rightly or wrongly, our efforts will be judged by these narrow measures. Talk about falling standards and grade inflation will unfailingly surface and student and teachers alike will largely have their tremendous hard work drowned out by inanities from the CBI, or worse still, Toby Young! Regardless of these annual rites, we should enjoy the moment of our students’ success coming to fruition. We should pat one another on the back and enjoy the new beginnings for our students. We should enjoy what is left of the holiday, then turn our thoughts to doing it all again come September! We should also resolve to do it better than ever before, not for league tables or other such distractions, but for our students and their future success. More than any other factor we, as teachers, can make the difference and we should embrace this fact.
A lot of research has clearly proven that individual teachers can and do make a difference upon student attainment. Students who are taught by the most effective teachers will learn in six months what those taught by the average teacher will take a year to learn. Therefore improving teacher quality is essential and it is reflected by the imperfect measure that is exam results. In my opinion this should not create a climate of fear for teachers (it is important for Senior leadership Teams to foster the right climate which engenders confidence, encourages innovation and worthwhile risk taking), but instead it should empower us with the confidence that we can make the difference for the ultimate success of our students. In the words of Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” We should embrace this positive mindset that we can overcome any challenging circumstances and help our students to believe this as well.
What we must do as teachers is commit to getting better – to embrace coaching and to undertake deliberate practice toimprove and not settle for more of the same. Experience helps, but too often I have seen experienced teachers ossify and become hardened to any source of innovation or improvement to the nuts and bolts of their pedagogy, as if they were the finished article. Cynicism about new labels for old concepts may well have some validity, but too often that is an excuse not to put the effort in to make positive changes of any kind. If we were to expect our own students to improve we would rightly expect them to widen their knowledge base outside of the lessons we teach – we would encourage them to research independently – yet teachers, in the hectic swim of the job, can often fail to engage in the same manner of learning. I think every teacher should also be reading widely to expand their knowledge and to build upon their own learning – why wait for in-school training programmes or see these as the only channel for bettering ourselves? There are a wealth of outstanding texts, like John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’ or Dylan William’s ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’, that are both rooted in evidence and elicit clear thinking; of course, Twitter has also opened doors to new ideas, stimulated powerful debates about teaching and learning and has brought together a network of skilled teachers.
All that being said, it is important to filter down the wealth of outstanding resources and hone down what you want and need to improve upon as an individual teacher (often in the context of a department working on collaborative goals). Any leader looking to coach needs to be conscious that any teacher needs to focus upon two or three strategies with rigour and deliberate practice, rather than attempting an alphabet soup of strategies. As a Subject Leader myself I am also acutely conscious that it is crucial that I am a model coach, as well being someone who is wholly open to being coached. I didn’t become the perfect teacher upon being appointed a Subject Leader, in fact, with the complexity and strains of the job I am sure my teaching has suffered. I want this year to be different and better than the last, both as an individual teacher and for the other members of the department. Having read Hattie, William, Didau and Elder this summer I have so many good ideas swirling about; however, I don’t want to be swept away by trying everything and ultimately not really embedding anything properly. I know what areas that I need to improve upon – I just need to narrow the seven or eight issues down to three! Once this is done I need to rigorously measure and test those strategies – using a range of evidence, like summative assessments (compared against a control group ideally), student voice and peer observations etc. Having read Hattie and Williams I felt it was important to not simply go for a gut feeling or reaction, which may well be a confirmation of my established habits, but rather to rely on evidence – objective evidence.
When we meet again as a department in September I want my team to reflect upon themselves and their practice, considering their individual practice and the collective needs of the department. We can then identify where we can combine our strengths and share our expertise – rather than simply assuming a hierarchical model of coaching. To start the ball rolling each member of my department will have a copy of David Didau’s ‘The Perfect English OFSTED lesson’ waiting for them on their desk on the first day back to read and digest (we will also use it in our departmental training through the year – brilliantly cheap on Amazon!) – hopefully sparking that crucial reflective state that is essential for us to begin to improve and get better…better than ever!
Luke Donald, the number one golfer in the world, tweets with a great hashtag we could all live by as teachers – put simply: #keepgettingbetter