If you could give one bit of advice to a new teacher…?

About a month ago I asked the teachers at the British International School of Houston to contribute to the following online discussion question: If you could give just one bit of advice to a new teacher that would enable them to be effective in the classroom, what would it be? This could be a teaching idea or strategy, habit or philosophy, general to all schools or just to this one. However, it must just be  one thing that you think can make a difference in making them a more effective teacher. Set out below are the responses which I believe would be of great use to any teacher starting out in the profession. Please add your own to the comments section.

A couple of teachers focused on subject matter and a teacher’s own passion… 

  • ‘I think the most important part of the lesson is the subject itself. This may sound obvious but sometimes to much focus goes into pace, the process of teaching, classroom management etc that it can take away from the subject. The teacher is the expert in that subject, sometimes you can make the lesson engaging by just your passion and knowledge for the subject. I now spend my time looking for interesting  news articles and antidotes to make geography real and relevant to the students and so they can make wider links.’
  • ‘Enthusiasm for your own subject is the key – be passionate about what you are teaching and keep the students motivated to constantly want to learn more to improve. Treat every student as an individual and ensure everyone achieves something in every lesson. Have a personal goal to work towards in terms of whole class achievements, particularly with examination groups.’

Target setting, challenge & high expectations was highlighted by others…

  • ‘My advice would be target setting. Set yourself and students realistic targets that are challenging and attainable. Ensure you give yourself/your students a chance to meet these targets and take time out of your day/lesson to allow acknowledgment that the targets have been met.’
  • ‘One tip that I think is really valuable is to challenge your students appropriately. Having low expectations of pupil achievement can act like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Geography I like to engage students in the issue at hand with an interesting enquiry question, debate idea or news story. Develop their ideas through discussion, role-play and investigation. Spend enough time building up their confidence and understanding and give them opportunities to explore on their own. Set a piece of work that is demanding, but well guided. Highlight successes and provide a constructive critique – also let students know if their work isn’t meeting your standards. Give them opportunities to review and improve. And finally, celebrate a job well done and set targets for the future.’

Organisation and planning was a popular topic…

  • ‘I find that organisation one of the most important aspects of teaching that people struggle with when they first start Teaching (I was dreadful!). Schemes of work are not always in place when NQT’s start to work in a school. This can lead to ‘hand to mouth’ planning and planning day by day, with no clear long term outcome. I find it helpful to be planned and resourced a week in advance which can really take the pressure off on the evenings when you have had a particularly challenging day and you have had enough of work. Knowing exactly what you will be assessing, and teaching specifically towards that assessment helps organization and planning and will create more meaningful outcomes and encourage rapid progress.’
  • ‘From a practical subject perspective if you have not tried an experiment/ practical before, do so before the lesson! This sounds really obvious but when I was an NQT I learnt lots from doing this. Firstly you are trying to see if it works and that it produces the results you expect it to give. From a health and safety point of view it also allows you to think about the parts of the experiment that could be potentially hazardous. If you are trialling a demo you can also plan your questions carefully around the different parts. This can generate discussions which can further enhance learning in the classroom.’
  • ‘Like some others already said, I think that a good preparation (preferably a week ahead) is a key factor to good teaching. To really know what you are talking about and try to forsee lots of questions and issues, so that you can respond to it without being totally distracted or stressed. It gives you direction and a “red line” to follow. As strange as it may sound, it also opens up the way to leave the path for interesting things that occur in class. It makes me more relaxed, because I know that in the end I taught what I needed to teach.’

And plan to get them thinking from the start

  • ‘My advice to a new teacher would be to have students “Doing” as soon as they enter, preferably something cognitive. I try to avoid something mundane such as “Title, Date, Objective” and go for something more engaging that will involve thinking and/or discussing (The title, date and objective can be written at any time).’

…and be clear about what you are learning 

  • ‘Being a new teacher is a very stressful experience with so many things to manage.   A key component I believe to aid retention of knowledge is context.  Having a clear title and focus to your lesson, helps to  provide a framework in which the discussions and digressions  can refer back to.  I often refer back to the ‘title’ of the  lesson (which can be framed as question) at the end to cognitively embed the drive of the lesson itself.’

And take risks!

  • ‘I think that as a new teacher you need to be prepared to get things wrong and not fear it.  And then to carry that on through the rest of their career.  If you show no fear to get things wrong then that will transfer through to your children.  As a new teacher everything is daunting and there is a fear factor for everything but that is a good thing and a new teacher should accept and embrace that as early as possible.  In line with this, and again it can be difficult to do because everything seems to flow at a million miles an hour as an NQT, you should constantly evaluate yourself in order to know and understand what went wrong or right and then to build on that.’
  • ‘Try new things and continually try them throughout your career. Whether this be a new activity, ICT method, topic e.t.c.  If it goes wrong, evaluate, learn from it and adapt it. As a teacher you should never stop learning so don’t get stuck in a rut – you will get bored and the students will know this.’

The willingness to be flexible was advocated by several teachers 

  • ‘I would say have the faith in yourself to stop a lesson if it’s not going to plan/the children aren’t engaged/are struggling with the concept you are teaching and be adaptable to change tack or re-teach.’
  • ‘It’s easy to end a task too early or to let it drag on too long. If you’ve started off the lesson with a ‘doing’ activity, you’ve motivated the students – don’t let this fall off because you’ve let you pace go. This ties in to planning, resources, organisation and the rest of it. I’d also say don’t be scared to ask for help! It doesn’t matter where you are in your teaching career, you never stop needing fresh input from others (even outside your specialist area).’

The issue of pace was also raised here…

  • ‘One thing I remember, and have seen to be challenging for a new teacher is pace. Already referenced in this forum but I’d like to add to it. My advice goes back to planning:

Put yourself in a student’s shoes and walk/talk/visualise your lesson when planning it. By carefully imagining your lesson first, you are more likely to foresee any issues (behavioural, comprehension, the learning environment itself), as well as have a better understanding of how much time you need to allocate to activities, therefore addressing pace. If you take the time to rehearse in this way, you should be able to see how you’ve structured the time to support their learning. If you can’t see this, it suggests the lesson lacks a sense of cohesion and may be a series of ‘doing’ with little benefit.’

Have patience and take your time

  • ‘Time and developing probing questioning skills. I don’t mean time for you (although that is very important) in the context of a lesson giving students adequate time to answer questions and give verbal responses. When I did my training year we were told that when a teacher asks a student a question on average they wait just 2 seconds for a reply! We sometimes forget that not all questions are quick-fire; they need time to form and develop an answer. This has been something in my lessons that I found very useful and it has gotten easier as the years roll on. Learning to be patient and confident enough to WAIT for a reply from students. This has had the effect that my students are more inclined to think about the question and develop an answer and give responses. Have a backup of follow up probing questions- when you don’t get an answer don’t worry and just spill out the answer, have supporting questions to help guide them to tease out the answer you are hoping for. Collective understanding is often more useful than just one student getting the right answer! Get used to rephrasing and repeating good points or answers and ask others to develop it in more detail if they haven’t quite hit the nail on the head.  If there is an awkward 2 minutes and still no resolution, get them to discuss it with the person next to them and then see if between them they can come up with an answer. Also, try to chose different students to answer questions- not always the first that pops their hand up, as it is important for students to know you value that they have considered the answer and now come to a conclusion that they want to share. This helps to create a safe environment where students feels they can contribute, and also that you won’t just give them the answer! (As we all know more learning happens through figuring this out themselves and not just us dictating information at them.) This act of discussion usually ensures students really understand a concept- then consolidate all that good discussion with writing down the concept in their own words in books.’

Get them moving

  • ‘My other piece of advice (and this is more relevant to Secondary, I think) would be to keep lessons as physically active as possible. I think we sometimes forget that some days students potentially go from classroom to classroom and sit at desk after desk. In my opinion, any opportunity for movement can only be positive, even if it just means standing up for an activity, swapping partners, using white boards, get students up to the front, writing as a group work activity on a big piece of paper on the floor rather than in their books etc. It keeps students alert, makes them more engaged and allows for a less rigid classroom atmosphere (and they generally have more fun!)’

Prioritize in the classroom

  • ‘To an NQT, my advice would be ‘Let yourself feel overwhelmed and be ok with it’. I can’t comment from a secondary perspective, but from a primary point of view, quite often the class teacher can be the centre of pressure from all angles, each one claiming that their priority should be yours. Get a clear understanding of what is important to you and your class. Ask yourself, what will make the difference and focus on those things. At the end of the day/ week/ term there will always be things you didn’t quite get round to or complete to the high standards you expect of yourself. As you become more experienced, more things will become second nature and you’ll be spinning more plates without realising it. Do what you can to the best of your ability that time allows. If there is anything left to do, then what you were asked to do was unrealistic in the timeframe given. Don’t beat yourself up for not achieving the impossible.’

..and outside…

  • ‘It is important to have a work/ life balance from day 1 to avoid feeling overwhelmed and swamped leading to increasingly negative feelings about the profession.

* Don’t try doing everything in one go. It takes time and experience to find your feet and what works best for you and your pupils.

* Don’t be afraid to lean on your team and ask for support and guidance.

* Prioritise. Decide what is important and what can wait. Choose what will have the most impact on your children’s learning.’

Work smartly and don’t let it get the better of you

  • ‘My advice would be to not sweat the little things. It is easy to become overwhelmed about every aspect of teaching but it is the bigger picture and the impact on learning that the students (and you!) remember ultimately.’
  • ‘Also, do not try and reinvent the wheel. There are hundreds of brilliant resources already out there so use them – it does not mean you have failed as a teacher if you have not stayed up until 3 am making them all from scratch!’

Watch how you talk

  • ‘Learn to talk properly. I could leave it there and make it sound like a massive insult, but I suppose I’d better explain…..Too many teachers use the wrong voice when talking to students. They inhabit their ‘teacher’ character, and speak to them accordingly. Speak to your children the way you’d speak to colleagues – don’t dumb down your vocabulary, and stretch yourself in terms of the vocabulary you use. Also remember: you’re not their friend. By all means be friendly, but you’re the adult in the room. You can establish the behavioural expectations in the room through the tone of your voice and the language you use, and you’re demonstrating (hopefully) a more correct form of speech and a level of articulacy that they should hope to match, and which should also then filter through to their written work.’

Others talked about the importance of feedback

  • ‘My advice would centre around feedback. More and more attention is being drawn to feedback as part of CPD and it has become a education ‘buzz-word’ BUT any teacher of any quality, and certainly in a creative-based subject, includes feedback in every lesson: a little comment about how to improve, some advice, a demonstration, encouraging peer assessment etc. What I would advise to a new teacher would be to keep a track of the little comments and feedback given to students. Whether just developing a great memory or creating an area where your comments are recorded (perhaps even physically audio recording them on a dictaphone), knowing what you have said to each student not only helps you to better assess improvement but it gives the students a little more incentive. If they know that the teacher’s comment is not a throw-away remark but something they will remember and reference it to challenge the student later will mean the student is more likely to remember and act on the feedback.
  • ‘We just recently carried out pupil interviews across Primary and all year groups identified individual feedback (especially immediate and verbal) as something they feel had a major impact on moving their learning on. Building in time for students to respond to written feedback was also highlighted as important by the students. Many classes in Primary have set times (‘Feedback Friday’) in which students can reflect and reply to comments made by their teachers, which works particularly well.’
  • ‘I think ‘TIME’ is key on many different levels. Allow enough time for students to explore concepts, tasks etc. Allow enough time for students to act upon feedback that you have given. In my old school we had a ‘level up’ policy which was incorporated in lessons on a regular basis where students (like the Primary feedback friday) acted upon the advice given by the teacher and worked to achieve the next level. Time for students to answer questions effectively. Time to reflect on your lessons and the learning achieved by the students.’

Fostering independence was another popular topic of advice

  • ‘Possibly one of the most common things teachers encourage in their students is an idea of dependence upon the teacher for the right answer or the right way of doing things…and there’s often more than one effective, successful strategy or response. If you want students to become self-reliant, independent learners, then it is important that you try to phrase your help in ways which force students to think for themselves and reflect upon their own concepts and ideas, rather than just giving them the right number or the correct answer from the markscheme, which just reinforces the idea that “if I get stuck, I’ll ask Sir”.’
  • ‘When asked a question to which I think the student knows the answer, I often ask the same question to them, maybe phrased slightly differently, and am still amazed at how often they can answer – i.e. they have answered their own question! I rarely answer student’s questions directly, instead guiding them down the right path by asking them questions.’
  • ‘My bit of advice – Involve and encourage students to take ownership of their own learning. Try to get students to realize that they have an important role to play in their learning and it is not just the responsibility of the teacher to help them to achieve the best that they can. Through careful planning of lessons, give students the opportunity and practice to be proactive learners and assess their own learning. Support them by giving them ideas of strategies that they can use to bridge gaps they might have. For example, it might be to encourage students to access certain learning apps on their iphone, ipad etc (such as quizlet) without prompting from the teacher. It will take time, positive reinforcement and for many students, perseverance, but in the long run this will help to encourage attributes of a high performance learner.’
  • ‘My advice to new teachers would be about not over extending themselves.  Do not try to develop all the resources during the first year.  Students will give you some brilliant ideas to help you improve topic discussions and the weak areas might not be where you expect. Make a note about which resources need work or which ones worked well.’

Build relationships by getting to know your students 

  • ‘One of the best pieces of advice I was given and that I stand by, is learning students names. There’s a lot to be said about feedback, but as good as that feedback might be, it could become lost becase it is impersonal without that “Name Tag”.’ On top of that, as a new teacher to a school, building relationships (with colleagues as well as students) as quickly as possible through learning names is priceless.
  • ‘As an NQT we are keen to set boundaries and establish ground rules in class to avoid discipline issues. This is essential in creating a good learning environment. It is also important to be an ‘approachable’ teacher, therefore striking up this balance can be challenging although it can equally be beneficial…Smile!!’
  • ‘My advice would be to take a while to really get to know your class. Once you work out strengths, weaknesses and interests your lessons become a lot easier to plan and differentiation and targets are much more realistic. The children benefit as the lessons can include their interests and the level of work is appropriate.
  •  ‘I try every day to relate to my children as a human being as well as a teacher. They know I’m in charge and respect my role but when I make mistakes, do things wrong or am feeling a particular way, I don’t try to hide it unless absolutely necessary. Sometimes I feel like singing, so I do. Sometimes I feel like looking bored, so I do. Sometimes I want to recite random poetry so I do.  Are the chn still learning  – yes, but they are also seeing me for what I am, a human like them!’
  • ‘Give a little bit of yourself.  Let the students know that you are human.  Talk about your own family and your own life.  This will make you more relatable and therefore more credible.’

…and have some fun whilst you’re doing it….

  • ‘We also believe it is really important to create fun, exciting and relevant lessons so that everyone can get enjoyment out of our subjects as well as knowledge and practical skills. We often find that as we get to know the students we often ammend our schemes of work which makes the lessons more personal to each class….so getting to know the pupils and building good working relatoinships with them is paramount.’

..and don’t forget about the parents…

  • ‘Given that I spend a great deal of my time working with parents, my advice is about the way that we relate to parents… Build good professional relationships with parents. They are much more productive allies than enemies. Learn how to have difficult conversations and be honest about their child. It’s really ok to tell a parent that their child is struggling in a certain area or subject. But be specific about what the way forward is for the student and what your intentions are in helping them progress. If what you’ve been doing isn’t working for them, don’t suggest more of the same! Telling a parent that their child is struggling with spelling, but you don’t have a plan as to how they can overcome this will make an anxious parent. An anxious parent can get up to all sorts of mischief. Practice difficult conversations, ask a colleague to be a critical friend, rehearse what you are going to say and choose your words carefully, as they will remember every comment you make and if your message has not been received clearly enough, they will go home with all sorts of misinterpretations. The way that I relate to parents has dramatically changed since I became one, I have a lot more sympathy for them now wink Be kind, but be honest.’
  • ‘Many new teachers find interactions with parents quite daunting at first.My advice on this would be to make sure you are well prepared for meetings with parents and that you are really certain about the information you share with them about their child. Remember that every child you teach is someone’s precious son or daughter and that if a parent appears angry or aloof or confrontational they are probably worried or frightened. Don’t take parents responses personally! Take time to listen and to try to understand their perspective. Be calm, confident and understanding and try to work with the parents to find solutions to their concerns. This is just the tip of the iceberg and there’s lots more to say on this topic but  remember …happy parents=happy child= less stressed teacher!’

Some said work closely with other teachers and don’t be scared to ask for help

  • ‘Ask for help! I have seen so many new teachers try to ‘go it alone’ as they don’t want to seem ‘weak’ by asking for help! The best ideas come from discussion and challenging each others ideas.’
  • ‘Watch other teachers teachsmile It may take a bit of effort on both your part and somebody elses. But do it, even if it means you have to miss that essential free you’ve been clinging on to all week. Do it during your planning time, too. Great teachers will be completely flattered when you ask permission to sit in their classes for 30 minutes or so. Once you watch a dozen other teachers, you’ll have a baseline for measuring your own successes and mess ups, plus a bucket full of field-tested techniques and teaching styles. It’s a great opportunity for sharing- and sharing is caring. I didn’t feel so alone once I started doing this and I wished someone had encouraged me to do it earlier. I am amazed by what I see simply by just visiting another classroom in this school. We should all do it more!’
  • ‘The Creative Arts Department believes that it is absolutely key to share good practice with your department on a regular basis. We firmly believe that through team discussion and regular positive communication you can help you broaden and refine your creativity and ideas as well as building good working relationships with your co-workers.’
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