Twitter at its best can be a wonderful place for teachers. Generally, people are willing to share their insights, experiences and – most helpfully, in my view – their resources. Granted, there are a few muppets, but that’s the case in life. The beauty of social media is you can easily block them.
But while Twitter is a great asset, it can also be overwhelming: I’m about to finish my sixth year of teaching. I like to think I sort of know what I’m doing. My career has not been stellar, but it has broadly followed an upwards trajectory.
And yet – and yet – I sometimes have to shut off Twitter because, well, my God does it makes me feel inadequate.
Perhaps I am a singularly sensitive soul – but I doubt it. I expect others feel the same, particularly those in the early years of their career.
There are so many people doing so many brilliant things: running online CPD, creating beautiful workbooks, planning schemes of works with scholarship at their heart. And to be clear: all of these are valuable, laudable and useful.
But like a Soviet peasant suddenly dropped into an American supermarket, the vastness of the choice can leave one wondering where to start.
Thus, for anyone who needs it, here is what I would think about if I was about to start my teaching career.
- Behaviour management must come first
This seems pretty fundamental (and strangely absent from my Twitter feed – but maybe that’s because of who I follow). Put simply, if pupils don’t behave for you, good luck teaching them anything.
Carl Sagan used to talk about how astronomy was a ‘humbling subject’. Teaching is too. A class doesn’t care about your first from Oxford or your immaculate grades. If you’re a career changer, they likely won’t care who you were in your past life. (In fact, from conversations with career-changing colleagues, this often seems one of the most challenging aspects: you go from being a ‘someone’ in a former life to a nobody in this.)
Getting pupils to behave must come first.
I won’t linger much on behaviour management here; there are plenty of better blogs for that (for my money, this summary of Bill Rogers’ ideas is one of the most useful).
But if I was to give one piece of advice it would be about the importance of praise.
It is easy (and, I would say, natural) when you’re getting verbally beaten up by 32 teenagers (see: most of my first year of teaching) to resort to threats of sanctions. This is understandable – but it also leads to a negative spiral with your classes.
This is the really important point: If you can remind yourself to praise the good stuff that’s going on – and if you look for it, you will find it – you will be stunned at the results.
That maybe shouldn’t be surprising when you think about it – after all, everyone (especially adults) love praise – but put it at the heart of your practice and it can only be a good thing.
2. Subject knowledge is important – but be realistic
A few years ago I did some work for Teach First helping train new teachers during the Summer Institute. One of the days was set aside for a long session with a distinguished educationalist.
The day was excellent; full of rich-insights and interesting ideas. But what I remember most was the last part of the session where everyone assembled was asked to read through part of the introduction of Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers. The point of this exercise was to remind all the trainees of the imperative of staying up-to-date with the latest scholarship.
At the end of the session, one of the trainee-teachers, who looked slightly overwhelmed, turned to me and said: ‘Do we really have to engage with historical scholarship like this to be good teachers?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘Certainly not in your first year.’
I stand by that advice.
In your first year of teaching, particularly at Key Stage 3, you need to know a bit more about the content than your classes. That is a realistic goal. To this end, I would suggesting buying second-hand copies of general histories like Simon Jenkins’, ‘A Short History of England’, and other similar works by the likes of Simon Schama, Peter Ackroyd and Robert Tombs. (Tombs’ book is wonderful because it’s all in one, hefty volume.)
For GCSE topics, try and get your hands on A level texts that cover the same content. The ‘Access to History’ series is great for this.
If you’re lucky enough to teach it during your first year, A level is perhaps the area you will need to do some extra reading. But again, be realistic and selective. For starters: use the textbook(s). Lots of them are good.
If you want to go further, perhaps pick up a bunch of second-hand books on the subject from the leading authorities in the area and dip in and out of them when you need. That will probably do. Perfection can be the enemy of good.
To be clear, I’m not writing this to bash reading scholarship. Of course history teachers – indeed, all teachers – should aim to stay engaged with their subject.
But the demands of your first year in teaching are many and you have to prioritise. If you can get your classes under control and make sure they leave knowing more than they did when they arrived, then you are probably doing something right.
If nothing else, you will certainly have accomplished more than I did, and so you at least won’t be the worst teacher this country has ever seen.