Reflecting on my first year in the classroom

The Profession
Author: Katie Izzard-Clark
Date:

Reflecting on my first year in the classroom

My motivations for becoming a teacher after a successful career in industry were numerous. Like most professionals entering the world of teaching, I wanted to make a difference to my students and inspire more of them to grow through my subject. However, once I got into the classroom during my first ITE placement, I remember thinking that teachers were like circus performers – they were seemingly able to juggle many things at once, all whilst walking through fire. I observed this and thought, ‘How am I ever going to manage to do all of this?’

Fast-forward three years and when I look back to where I started, the pace of progress I have experienced is staggering. When reflecting on that first year and what advice I would give to myself right at the start, a few experiences – from which I started to learn how to juggle and walk through the fire without getting (too badly) burnt – instantly leap to mind.

1. Lead by example

One of the key memories etched into my mind from some of those first lessons occurred once the lessons had finished. After excitedly collecting the students’ books up for the first time, I expected to see beautifully laid-out work with learning objectives clearly demonstrated, ready for me to give a big tick. Reality bit when what I saw could best be described as a ramshackle mess. I’d spent hours planning and thinking through how to approach this piece of work and had provided immaculate, differentiated prompt sheets with varying degrees of scaffolding.

However, less than half were even present in my lesson and it seemed that no one bothered to use the sentence starters from my lovingly prepared worksheet. I was crushed. But on reflection I realised that I had made a crucial mistake. I had assumed that the students knew what they were doing. I hadn’t thought to teach them how to work through the thought process required to complete the investigation. Do not assume that students know how to explain their answers or how to structure an essay. Take the time to model answers on the board or, even better, directly into an exercise book by using a visualiser or a webcam. Show students exactly what you want them to do and, most importantly, talk through your own thought process whilst doing it.

2. Get to know your students

Fostering good relationships with students is one factor that can influence their future attainment (e.g. Hattie, 2009; Cook et al., 2018). This became particularly evident to me during my second placement at an all-boys grammar school. I was given a particularly raucous group of mixed ability Year 9s, with whom I initially struggled to get on. They questioned my authority and my subject knowledge at every turn so passive-aggressively that it really started to affect me. I remember discussing this with my Associate Tutor (AT), who was always incredibly supportive, providing me with encouragement and confirming that my consistent approach of using the behaviour policy was a good starting point. However, after a couple of weeks, 10 detentions and not much improvement later, she suggested that I try to find some common ground with them. ‘You don’t need them to like you, but they need to be able to relate to you, at least on some level,’ was her advice.

The approach I took won’t work for everyone, and it certainly doesn’t replace the need for consistent behaviour management, but it seemed to help me to connect with my pupils. Rugby was
a big deal at this school and fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your preferences) I’d always been a Bath rugby supporter. Whilst talking through my predicament with my dad one night, he suggested that I tell my students about this, despite the school being deep in Gloucester territory: ‘They would love that you support the enemy.’ Although I didn’t feel especially confident about this, I thought that at least it couldn’t get much worse. Later that week I took the chance of letting them in on my secret. I was amazed at the response. Finally, they were asking questions that didn’t try to outsmart me or prove that my subject knowledge was wrong. I had found common ground.

I then started writing problems that included the names of players from the Bath and Gloucester teams, but engineering them in such a way that the Bath players always won. This not only gave me lots of personal amusement, but it also had the effect that some boys started writing their own problems to make the Gloucester players win. This meant that some students had gone from being seemingly disengaged in my lessons and doing the bare minimum, to doing extra work. As Bush and Godden (2019) discuss in Impact, relationship-building can improve your experience in the classroom and help to support student progress.

3. The most important time management is time management of yourself

I will always be thankful to my first AT as it is because of him that I am no longer a perfectionist. He taught me to accept that no lesson will ever be able to be pre-planned to perfection and that that’s okay. Initially, I used to spend hours finding or making just the right PowerPoint or worksheet and agonising over how to present a new concept to a class so that they would ‘get it’ right away. This was at the detriment of almost all my evenings and one day a weekend, instantly throwing away any work–life balance. However, I quickly learnt that spending hours on a lesson didn’t necessarily equate to the success of that lesson. Curveballs such as gaps in prior knowledge or an unruly child derailing the first 15 minutes of the lesson all provided valuable experience in learning to think on my feet. Being flexible and adaptable are vital skills for a teacher. If you stick too rigidly to a pre-prepared PowerPoint, then you are unable to respond to students’ needs in real time. The ability to do this will take time, but the ability to simply remain calm in these situations and think yourself out of them, rather than react, is much better done when you are not tired and completely stressed out. You only have so much time and energy in the day, so maximise your efficiency in this time.

My advice is to strive to make lessons fit for purpose and, wherever possible, based on evidence-based practice. Do not try to do everything from scratch; work collaboratively with your colleagues. My AT lived by the mantra that ‘an energetic, enthusiastic teacher is better than an exhausted, stressed teacher who has the “perfect” lesson, but nothing more to give’. As a previous perfectionist, this was the hardest lesson to learn, but has been by far the most valuable.

Key takeaways:

  • Model everything. Demonstrate in detail exactly what you want your students to do and don’t worry about messing it up. It almost makes it better if you do, as it allows students to learn how to correct themselves.

  • Get to know your students. Whether this is by directly asking them something about themselves or by putting up the flag of the team you support in your classroom, the smallest things can sometimes make the biggest difference.

  • Time management is key. Energy and enthusiasm are valuable for effective teaching.

Katie Izzard-Clark is a physics teacher and assistant head of Year 8 at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School in Bristol. Prior to becoming a teacher, she worked in renewable energy engineering as a project manager, before completing a PGCE at the University of Bristol.

References

Bush S and Godden E (2019) Relationship-building from day one: A simple technique to build rapport and recognise new students’ needs. Impact 5: 22–23. Available at: https://impact.chartered.college/article/relationship-building-from-day-one-simple-technique-build-rapport-recognise-new-students-needs (accessed 3 June 2019).

Cook CR, Coco S, Zhang Y et al. (2018) Cultivating positive teacher–student relationships: Preliminary evaluation of the establish–maintain–restore (EMR) method. School Psychology Review 47(3): 226–243.

Hattie J (2009) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. New York: Routledge.