My Old London Job Made Me A Better Teacher

Many teachers take the long way around to get to teaching.

rachel-blesshardWhether they have a credible career in academia, a failed one at writing or maybe don’t quite hit the mark as a professional sportsman – the noble profession of teaching is always ready and waiting to take skilled professionals and turn them in to winning educators.

Of course, there are thousands of teachers every year who successfully achieve their life goals of becoming teachers.

Regardless of how we come into the profession, there comes a time in every teacher’s career when they feel that their skill set has become somewhat one dimensional.

If you’re a few years into your teaching career and feel like you’re flagging, remember that there is more to your skill set than what your PGCE course has taught you.

I’m only a few years into my teaching career but, whenever I’m feeling a little low, I remember that I am a sum of my experiences and those experiences are what makes me prepared and ready to teach.

happy-middle-aged-peopleBefore my PGCE, I worked in broadcasting. A fast paced client based occupation, it was a stressful job where first impressions and people skills were paramount.

However, before I took my first steps into the world of corporate London, I had a stab at starting my own business.

The fact that I’m writing about it now on a Teaching blog, is evidence alone that it didn’t pan out too well.

vintage-magsBut, I’ll tell you what I learnt in the one year I spent running my own business and how it gives me confidence in my teaching today.

As I was the sole employee of the company I had created, in the year before I left for Cambridge, I had to balancing my own books. Although I’m an English teacher by trade today, there’s nothing like dealing with your own accounts to remind you of the importance of mathematics. Having that skill in my stable has helped me feel like a rounded teacher, with skills to spare.

Although my business was a basic online vintage clothes store, I still needed to market myself in order to bring in trade. Although I’d designed the logos and website myself – I still needed help to increase my online presence. Thankfully, I had help from a SEO Liverpool company – so I always stayed visible to the people that matter. Although teaching almost always places us in a stationary position, it never hurts to remain an active online professional profile – you never know when a new opportunity can turn up!

One of the last and most important lessons I learned whilst running my own business is that people are important. No business can function without people talking properly and teaching is just the same. Our students are constantly developing their communication skills and it’s up to us to show them what to aspire to. So this means dressing professionally every day – don’t live up to the stereotype of a ramshackle patched tweed jacket teacher, dress to impress!

tired-teacher

Our job is a fresh and exciting one, with new developments and ideas constantly changing the way we perceive our role as practitioners.

We are all more than a sum of our experiences, more than just teachers.

So be proud of your past achievements and use the skills you’ve accumulated to your advantage.

The Great Gatsby and Cockney Kids

There’s a strange kind of camaraderie that exists between a teacher and his students.

wishallFormed through cumulative months, and sometimes years, of time spent working together – if you’re lucky you’ll get to know each and every one of your class members as well as your own children.

If you’re really lucky, then the friendships formed between your students will help form strong memory bonds between the discussions you have in the classroom and the material that they are eventually tested on.

One of my earliest classes was a wonderful group of inner city London kids.

Their collective attention spans would struggle to match that of a group of children half their age, yet their energy and enthusiasm could beat the rowdiest of football hooligans (a trait they no doubt learnt from their passionate football obsessed parents).


Our subject material, that they would be tested on come the Summer exams, was The Great Gatsby. One of my favourite novels, Fitzgerald’s shimmering story of unrequited love had always been close to my heart. Little did I know that it was due to be summarily torn apart by a group of 30 cockney school kids, half of whom averaged 2 books a year – max.

Many teachers will tell you that asking your students for their honest to God opinion is a bad idea.

attentive-class

They’ll say that you’ll start off an endless discussion that leads nowhere, and you’ll only waste your time and that of your students. To those prudes, I respectfully beg to differ.

English is one of those fantastic subjects that lends itself to debate and discussion better than any others. There’s nothing more satisfying to witness than an entire class deeply engaged in discussion of the intentions of a legendary writer. It’s wonderful to see a book, that was written nearly 100 years ago, creating such dynamism and excitement in the classroom.

That a group of 30-strong semi-illiterate inner-city kids were so charmed with the luminous charm of Jay Gastby was to be expected. However, it was their fascination with Nick Carraway – the narrator of the novel – that surprised me the most.

nick-carraway

Nick is a strange, unreliable narrator. A rank outsider amongst the Upper Classes of West Egg and evidently at odds with the exorbitant wealth that Gatsby aspires to and the Buchanans embody – he made for an ideal touchstone for the young readers.

Although they were pleasantly surprised with the revelation of Gatsby’s true identity – they still felt Nick’s plight more.

A Mid-Western veteran, not so much scarred by the war as indifferent to it – Nick’s story is told on the periphery of the novel. He’s more concerned with Gatsby’s journey and, worryingly, obsessed with the happiness of his cousin Daisy. His discomfort in social situations is something that is telegraphed many times in Fitgerald’s delicate writing and a quality of his character that my class of teenagers seemed to chime with.

daisy-buchanan

Before you write off the attention spans of your inner city classroom, take a look at how you can present them with a different perspective of the characters in your subject material. Even though some of these texts may feel old and tired in your minds, there’s always a way of drawing them in a fresh light.

You never know, your class might just end up teaching you a thing or two.

No Rest For The Wicked Teacher

After over 30 years teaching in schools, it can be hard to step out of the mind frame.

subsWorking as a substitute teacher was exhausting work. Hours of travelling through the winding roads of Scotland, continually having to meet new members of staff and students, meant that I was perpetually in the deep end – something I cherished at the time.

However, when it came to attempting to life in retirement, I found more challenge in ceasing daily activity than continuing it.

Like all workaholics, I had got used to a certain style of living. A life of perpetual motion was exciting, meeting new people every day was thrilling and I soon found life spent in retirement lacked both of those things.

fastlaneTo break up the endless monotony of retirement, I booked myself a weekend break to Barcelona. I’d heard so many good things about it’s stunning architecture, vibrant culture and excitable people – it sounded like just the thing to get me out of my rut.

Years of advanced organisation as a substitute teacher meant that I’d developed a crippling habit of over planning. As a result, when it came time to fly out from the North, my bags had been packed and checked for a week, I’d booked my John Lennon Airport parking and my route to John Lennon Airport had been thoroughly planned – with no room for deviation.

I had prepared for pretty much every eventuality – at least that’s what I had thought.

school-tripAs Steinbeck, and his magnanimous readers will no doubt be thinking now: ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’

What I hadn’t prepared for was a car load of Spanish school children – separated from their group and in desperate need of transportation.

There truly is no rest for the wicked teacher.

Stopping at a service station on the way back from London on the way to Liverpool, they had strayed into a video games arcade and been left behind by their tour bus.

john-lennonLending them my phone to contact their teacher, it was hastily thrust back into my hands as a frantic teacher, hurtling down the motorway 50 miles away and already late for their flight back to Spain, desperately pleaded for me turn to carry her lost charges the rest of the way.

I’d not had the chance to teach abroad, but eagerly relished the opportunity of helping these kids and a fellow teacher in need, so there began a rather strange road trip with Pedro, Rodrigo, and Santo.

My Spanish was poor and their English wasn’t great but we just about managed.

Having to control them on a couple of occasions, they were otherwise very well behaved – singing songs and listening attentively to the chatter of the radio DJ.

We had to travel at break neck speed to get to Liverpool on time and their teacher was waiting for us at the Terminal when we arrived. Frantically thanking me and shaking my hand, she ushered off her excited students to their gate.

barcelona

My holiday in Barcelona was pleasant. The buildings were beautiful. The culture was vibrant and the people were excitable, but the most excitement I had was on the road trip to the airport.

I decided to continued to work as a cover teacher throughout my retirement.

A couple of classes a week are great to keep me mentally active and on my toes. Although kids can always be a hassle, I’ll always have a soft spot for them.

And the classes of Scotland will always be in need of teachers.

Drama: The Doss Subject?

Drama may well be considered a low-priority subject by our current government, but there’s no reason why your students should feel the same way.

man-40sAlthough it may well have a reputation amongst teaching communities as the subject that is more prone to cow shy students than encourage them, I’ve found that with the right techniques, you can turn the ‘doss class’ of the week into an inspiring hour-long session of productivity.

Handled properly, a Drama class can bring the quietest of students out of their shells and into the spotlight. Handled haphazardly and you risk giving your students a weekly hour of carte blanche to do as they please – wrecking their chances of continuing the subject.

So, just how can you keep your class focused and attentive during, what can often be, the most relaxed time of the week – the dreaded Friday afternoon period?

drama-studio

When a student steps into the the Drama learning space for the first time, they are usually dazzled by the starkly furnished space and surprised by the dark black of the walls.

These markers tell the intuitive child that they are entering a very different learning experience and that they should alter their behaviour accordingly.

It’s up to you, the Drama practitioner, to guide them into the suitable avenues of behaviour and to encourage them to channel the novelty of the scenario into creative movement and expression.

The lack of tables and chair may well intimate a void of order to the students, but you can quickly assert this by gaining the upper hand in the relationship. Having the students seated on the floor, whilst you orate to them, is a great way to assert dominance and instate a teacherly aura. This will remind them that is still a traditional class like any other.

drama-lesson

When it comes to rehearsing and improvising small performance pieces, it’s imperative that you emphasise the pressure of performing.

Although it might well feel like the best way to dissuade more reserved students from participating – this will, on the whole, have a positive effect on your class room.

Knowing that they will soon have to perform in front of their peers, students will be encouraged to make the most of their rehearsal time – instead of using it as a time to socialise. A solid work ethic can be instilled in students by fostering an element of competitiveness that is inherent within every child’s psyche.

acting

Most children yearn to be the ‘class clown’: a lively character that carefully treads the line of decent behaviour and somehow manages to entertain the whole classroom, teacher included, without disturbing the flow of the lesson. A drama lesson is the opportunity for every child to have their chance to play this character – giving them the time and space to rehearse their lines and hone their timing.

The simplest of jokes can often land with the most impact when they are performed by students who prefer to stay silent throughout traditional lessons.

These unsung heroes get a much needed self-esteem boost in these moments, opening their minds up to the idea of performing again as well as raising their confidence in communicating more with their peers.

By harnessing the liberating nature of performance, you can draw the quietest of kids out of their comfort zone and encourage them to apply what they’ve learnt to their lives outside of the classroom.

Taking The Step Down To Secondary

My parents thought I was going to be the next Stephen Hawking.

No, I didn’t develop a motor neuron disease in my teens.

smart-ladyI also didn’t have a firm grasp on the nature of quantum theory by the time I hit my twenties. Although I was successful at University, I failed to formulate any groundbreaking theories of Cosmology during my PhD.

When I made the 400-mile or so journey up North to Edinburgh University, I was simply a smart young girl looking forward to studying Advanced Mathematics for 4 Years and maybe drinking a few pints along the way.

In the eyes of my parents, my path to success was on the same trajectory as Mr. Hawking’s.

I feel like they must have been a little disappointed to find out that I was ‘settling’ for a job in teaching.

swimming-poolPerhaps they’d dreamt of their high flying only daughter discovering the secrets of creating Warp Drives (my Mother is an incurable Trekkie, who believes the technological advances exhibited in that show are just around the corner).

With the money from the Warp Drive Royalties, I’d buy my Dad the outside swimming pool along with the swimming pool cover he’s always wanted.
 

 

For as long as I’ve remembered, my Dad has always wanted a swimming pool in hour back garden.

It’s really not big enough for one, but he’s always been adamant – ever since the his friend from across the road had one installed. Jim Carswell is a Bathroom’s Salesman with a garden that is 4 times the size of ours. He’s a single man who lives a strange playboy existence but evidently relies on my Father’s admiration to keep his fragile self esteem in touch.

I’ve digressed.

That’s something that happens quite a bit when a Maths practitioner is given the opportunity to write an article that’s about 10 times longer than their average yearly report

teaching-meme-8

Us Secondary teachers aren’t often given the chance to express our thoughts and opinions in anymore than a handful of words. Head Teachers prefer us to keep out reports short and simple, so that the student can quickly grasp what they need to do to improve. Then when it comes to writing reports for the Head Teacher, or even the Board of Governors, they prefer a spoken presentation of no longer than 5 minutes.

 
In order to gain my PhD in Advanced Mathematics, I not only had to seek funding for my multi-year research project – I also had to present the final product to a board of peers and superiors. To gain the title of ‘Doctor’ I had to talk for over an hour, and ask questions for another forty-five minutes after that.

I love teaching.

My school is an institution that I have helped to mould over the past 4 years, I’ve got a strong emotional connection with the hundreds of students that I have taught and disciplined.

happy-teacher

My fellow teachers are wonderfully supportive, compassionate, people that not only understand the needs of the students – but are still driven to satisfy them, despite having decades of cumulative experience in an education system that has not always been 100% behind them.

Despite all these overwhelmingly positive factors, I still can’t help but feel that I’m not being intellectually challenged as much as I could be.

Perhaps I should have followed in Mr. Hawking’s steps after all…

 

My First Day On The Job

Although my first full day as a teacher is now a long way into my past, I still remember it as if it were yesterday.

rachel-blesshardI’m sure my fellow writers and readers would agree, that your first day in charge of a classroom is one fraught with nerves, power struggles and watershed moments – when you’re truly given the opportunity to test your mettle.

For me, it was a particularly nerve-wracking time, having recently completed my PGCE, I had yet to truly feel like a teacher.

I’d made the decision to become a Secondary teacher after spending a year working in Broadcasting in London. The job has been a a dream for some time, but the endless hours and relentless boot licking was not something that I had prepared for.

graduateMy Cambridge education had given me the confidence to attack any new challenge I could find, so when a friend talked about teaching I jumped at the opportunity to try something that would truly put my skills to the test.

My friend laughed at the idea of me controlling a classroom, imagining my, now well defined, high-end ‘London’ office chic entering into the immature land of the teenager.

My PGCE had taken just 9 months to complete.

teacher-traiing9 months that had zoomed by in a flash. I’d enjoyed being a student again and I felt like I’d dealt with my practice classes with aplomb. But the real challenge was yet to come.

Of course, it’s a completely different kettle of fish when you’re entering into a class in a school that you’re going to be spending the next 2, maybe 3 years in!

You’ve interviewed around the country, you’ve bought a house and moved hundreds of miles – just for this one job. What happens if the first day is a disaster? What if you make some terrible gaff that destroys your reputation on day one with kids you’re going to have to see for the rest of their secondary education?

old-school-corridor-1024x768As I walked down the corridors of my school; the smell of bleach, the faint whiff of deodorant and new books put me right back into the bag of nerves that I’d inhabited on my very first day as a secondary school student.

What if I walked into the class room and my students had reorganised the desks?

What if there was a ringleader willing to risk a visit to the Principal’s Office for the sake of ruining my day? What if they started the dreaded ‘whistling’ prank?

pranks

In the end, the only nuisance I had to deal with upon my entrance to the classroom was the usual chitter-chatter and occasional squeal of excitement as old friends swapped stories of their Summer holidays.

I had forgotten the essential case of insular thought that runs throughout teenaged minds – they’d not even expected a brand new teacher to be entering the school.

chich-woman-gurrrlHalf of them barely noticed as I entered the room, animatedly continuing their conversations, the others fell silent as I gazed around with, what I hoped was, an authoritative air of cool.

“Are we quite done?” I had no idea at the time, but this would essentially become my catchphrase for the rest of my teaching career. Something that both staff and students would come to expect of me, a way of silencing all needless chatter.

The classroom fell instantly silent as my new students assessed their new teacher.

I like to think that I proved my friend wrong on that first day and I’m certainly glad I pulled out my slickest business suit for the occasion.

Nothing says ‘Listen to teacher’ like a £1000 Armani Suit and Jimmy Choo stilettos.

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