by Susan Keenan,
PD (Lancs) TLA
I have recently joined a North West Professional Exchange Network for Teaching, Learning and Assessment. Our first meeting was fascinating as we discussed the common issues and challenges of working in FE. One of our topics of conversation focused on how important it is to look after teachers working in FE and help them maintain their professional confidence as they work long hours with a large groups of learners and ever decreasing budgets. Retaining and recruiting FE teachers is a huge challenge.
Since that meeting I’ve been reflecting on my own career, with many years spent in FE. My teacher career has been fascinating and diverse; I’ve taught in primary schools in Manchester, a secondary school in Ghana, many years in prisons, I’ve taught unemployed adults, teenage FE students and trainee teachers. A wide range of different and fascinating settings, but in all of this rich experience there have been commonalities of ‘when it’s worked’ and ‘when it hasn’t. This of some of the key learning over my career that might just be of interest to teachers in their own practice.
Be authentic – When I first started teaching I observed and worked with loads of great teachers. I thought if I did exactly what they did then that would be the key to success. It wasn’t. I learned that you have to be ‘you’ in your classroom and you can only really find your teaching ‘you’ through practice. Some days were howlers; I got frustrated and demotivated. With practice and experience came confidence and the beginnings of my professional identity.
Enjoy it – This life is precious and too short to spend time wishing you were somewhere else. I’ll fully admit there have been times in the classroom where I’ve wanted to be lying on a beach miles away, but the best part of the job (and there’s a lot to the job) is the classroom teaching. The learners in your class of any age have stories to tell and potential waiting to be unleashed. To teach is a privilege and it’s easy to forget this. Find the fun; it is contagious.
Get rest – This is said often but it couldn’t be more true. There is always something else to do when you are a teacher, you never get to the end of your list. You need to stop, go home, go to the pub, get exercise, go dancing, spend time in the outdoors. It really is time well spent and ensures that you are healthy and well. One of my questions to myself when work is piling up is ‘Will the place burn down and anybody die if I don’t get that finished today?’ If the answer is no, then it’s probably something you can leave for a while.
See other people – At one stage of my life I lived with teachers, worked with teachers, spent my social life with teachers. This can be great; it provides you with a supportive network of friends who understand your job. But it can also become all-consuming and perhaps make you a little insular with a very teacher focused view of the world. Spending time with people who do other jobs gives you a sense of perspective on your own world and gives you some new, refreshing topics of conversation.
Know what you’re talking about – but you don’t need to know it all – I’m a big believer in evidence based teaching and being credible as a teacher has a very high effect size according to Hattie (2012). I get this, learners get this. I get frustrated when I’m in a training session feeling the trainer doesn’t know what they are talking about. Learners need to feel confident in you. They are wanting something out of the class or course, whether it’s a qualification or the stepping stone to the next stage. But you don’t need to be an expert in everything, it’s impossible. One of the keys roles of a teacher is to facilitate learning. Some of my best lessons have been the ones in which I’ve done least. Show the learners where the information is and then let them rummage around in it for themselves. They’ll make their own meanings from this and you can help them process and discuss this.
‘Get your teaching pants on’ – sometimes, you just don’t feel like it. You’re tired, you’re not motivated, you’re worried or distracted. The learners are there, they’ve turned up with some expectation and so you need to ‘turn up’. I like the metaphor of getting your ‘teacher pants’ on. There are a bit like WonderWomans or Supermans – they give you strength and presence, they help you to go in there and generate some energy and enthusiasm. My colleague and I use to work with a trainee teacher who we likened to the character ‘Sadness’ from the film ‘Inside Out’. This teacher had so little enthusiasm or motivation we felt depressed within five minutes of observing their lesson. Breaking news: the learners didn’t enjoy it either. Teach like you mean it, you can take your teaching pants off later and lie on the couch.
Do smile before Christmas – In fact smile a lot, it is not a sign of weakness. Learning and teaching are great; they are what makes us who we are. I am a parent as well as a teacher and my kids have had some brilliant teachers who smile, laugh, are interested in them and are helping them to become who they are. They’ve also had some grumpy, tired, demotivated ones too. It may be cheesy, but the teachers who inspired, and continue to inspire, me are the ones who made it fun, let me explore, knew their stuff and had some passion for life.
I’ve worked with trainee teachers and experienced teachers who have some brilliant ideas and energy, but many get worn down with the relentless pressure of the environment they are in. Teaching is a brilliant job but too many people are leaving. It’s a crisis for our children. New and aspiring teachers – look after yourselves, you are valuable and precious. Wear those teaching pants with pride but make sure they go in the wash at weekends.