New Year’s Resolutions: three honest reflections on my own practice

This time next week I will be welcoming back students into my classroom and I feel okay. I don’t have the knot in my stomach I did last year before I began NQT, I know a lot of my students already, I know what my classroom looks like, I know what our schemes of work are. All of that gives me the chance to reflect on my practice over the last year and come up with some New Year’s Resolutions for the 2019/20 school year. I’ve decided to be brutally honest about my own critical reflections last year in the hope it will help some people do the same. So here they are:

 

1: I will devote more time to recapping last lesson’s knowledge.

I move on too quickly. I guess it’s good to be able to identify such a big flaw in your own teaching because it means you can fix it and become a tangibly better teacher. This last year I have had my scheme-of-work set out before me with a big deadline of an assessment or the end of term and I felt stressed about fitting in all the content so I tried and move through as quickly and serenely as possible. About two-thirds of the time I was getting to the week before half-term and thinking of a video to play or some other way of filling time. That’s me being brutally honest and saying I’ve not been the best teacher but then that’s why this is top of the list of ways to improve.

This year I will spend more time on recall and re-cap at the start of lessons. Mark Enser writes here, in the first chapter of his new book, about the value of recap and recall over the previously lauded ‘starter activity’. I already use my RE version of Retrieval Roulette and I have been using recall quiz slides in KS3 for a good few months but I want to add in time after these activities to respond to the results of the quiz. It seems blindingly obvious that we should be recapping last lesson’s knowledge and explicitly showing students where today’s knowledge fits in with that but when I’ve done the register and scored the quiz and settled the class that idea seems to leak out of my brain and I just leap into the work for today.

How am I going to practically ensure I bring more recap into my lessons? Where I’ve got my lesson notes written out on A5 paper I am going to add a post-it with the key points from last lesson and stick it over the top. I’m also going to try and stick more to a semi-formal lesson plan of recall > recap > explanation > questioning > modelling > writing. I will write that somewhere and stick it on my desk to help me keep on-track.

 

2: I will stop seeing feedback as an irritation and start seeing it as an integral part of learning

Okay so continuing with the theme of me being honest about my own failings: I have failed to use feedback effectively last year. I know how important feedback is and I have spent time on feedback from assessments and other pieces of work but I have too often viewed it as an irritation standing in the way of getting on with the “proper” work of delivering new knowledge. This year I’m going to see feedback, in all its forms, as an integral part of the learning process and something to be relished, not dreaded.

In Making Every Lesson Count the purpose of feedback is “fairly straightforward. Following the identification of a ‘learning gap’, the resulting feedback should be aimed at closing this gap”. I think it’s actually quite easy to identify the learning gaps in my classes, it’s hard not to when you’re marking 30 12-mark questions or looking at the results from 28 recall quizzes but I’ve often been too hasty in getting a bit of green pen into exercise books and calling that gap closed.

This year I am going to make a note of what I think those gaps are alongside my feedback to classes so that I can explicitly see that they are closed before moving on to another form of assessment. I’m fortunate that we have a pretty sensible marking and feedback policy in my school so I’m going to utilise it and see what works best. Whole-class feedback will definitely be playing a major role as I move from marking for its own sake towards quality feedback.

 

3. I will be warm/strict

I started my NQT on the wrong note and it very nearly led to the end of my teaching career before it even started. Reverberating around my head were the words of PGCE mentors about “too much teacher talk” and “behaviour is always communication”. I made an expectations slide covered in emojis and I thought I’d be a different kind of NQT, I didn’t need to be strict because I was young and passionate about my subject and I would make my lessons so interesting that they wouldn’t have the chance to misbehave. I then spent six weeks trying to teach Year 10 set 3 Buddhist Beliefs and I crumbled.

This year I have an overarching idea behind my approach to behaviour, relationships and expectations and it’s Doug Lemov’s warm/strict approach from Teach Like a Champion 2.0: “we’re socialised to believe that warmth and strictness are opposites: if you’re more o one, it means being less of the other. I don’t know where this false conception comes from, but if you choose to believe in it, it will undercut your teaching”. He argues that we shouldn’t seek to be strict then warm or warm then strict but both, exactly at the same time. I will be photocopying these two pages and putting them in clear sight of my desk so I can more consciously and explicitly think about how I deal with poor behaviour and difficult students in the moments where that behaviour is occuring.

Some smaller resolutions

4. I will use my (significantly reduced) PPAs to actually do planning and marking and not just sit and read EduTwitter and the Guardian website

5. I will find some way in which that thirty minute afternoon form time does not just become a colossal waste of time again

6. I will try and use social media with more grace and good faith and stop seeking out people to disagree with

A very short ‘trad’ reading list – five books for NQTs

I’m not going to spend long going into the taxonomy of ‘trad’, you can read my defence of the pedagogy and my dislike of the terminology here, The Radical Case for ‘Trad’ Education. Instead I’m just going to accept the term (and the division between trad and prog) as something that (a) really exists and (b) something that is quite a useful way of describing a certain set of ideas about teaching. If you’re curious to learn more about ‘trad’ ideas, keep reading.

I wrote recently a short thread of tweets about how reading ‘trad’ teaching books and becoming more of a ‘trad’ teacher liberated me from a lot of anxiety and disappointment about teaching during my NQT year. As a result a few people reached out and said they would like to know where to start reading about ‘trad’ ideas so here’s a very short introductory reading list. Not every book on here is 100% trad and not every author would happily use the term, they are merely the books that have had the biggest impact on my teaching this year.

A Five Book Reading List

Rosenshine’s Principles in Action by Tom Sherrington

I think if I could only recommend one book for NQTs it would be this. Firstly it is short, secondly it contains the original paper in which Rosenshine put forward his Principles of Education which are, for me, the absolute backbone of everything I do in teaching. You’ll read them and, if you’ve not come across them before you’ll most likely have the same realisation I did: I already do so much of this! What Tom Sherrington then does is show you practical ways you can improve your practice in areas like retrieval practice and presenting knowledge. For me realising I did most of this already but could do it better, more efficiently and more often was the key to regaining my confidence in teaching.

Making Every Lesson Count by Andy Tharby and Shaun Allison

For me this has to be one of the most important and frequently-thumbed books on my teaching bookshelf. It builds on Rosenshine and brings others into the mix and provides an easily adaptable formula for teaching day-to-day lessons which I have found absolutely indispensable. There is a whole series of these which make the points specific to different subject areas which are really great for very specific, subject-based advice.

Trivium 21c by Martin Robinson

For me I think I’ve always been a bit of a ‘trad’ at heart. When I came to choose my degree I went with a liberal arts degree which focused on the Great Books and the Trivium and Quadrivium of the liberal arts. Those are the ancient and medieval ideas on which Western education was based and what Martin Robinson does is reclaim them for the 21st century. You don’t have to be a head of department or deeply involved in curriculum planning to enjoy this book but it will change the way you see value in knowledge and, for me, it really re-ignited by love for passing on knowledge from the past to my students in the present day.

Understanding How We Learn by Megan Sumeracki and Yana Weinstein

At the heart of ‘trad’ pedagogy is a strong bedrock of cognitive science. I can’t say psychology or science is really my strong suit but I do think it’s important that all teachers have some awareness of cognitive science and how it affects our teaching. This guide is really nicely illustrated, with quite complex ideas simply explained and it’s relevant to the classroom teacher.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers edited by Katherine Birbalsingh

One thing I’ve quickly learned is that you don’t have to be right-wing to be a ‘trad’ and that you don’t have to love everything about the famous Michaela School or free schools or anything else, it’s important that there’s debate and dissent within the movement for traditional teaching. That said there’s no doubt that Michaela, small as it is, has changed the way many people teach and understanding what happens there (beyond the headlines and hype) is vital. This book is an impassioned defence of traditional education and even though I disagree with chunks of it I think it’s a written by teachers with great passion for their work and it is a fascinating read.