Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati
My PGCE year was like a year of absolute hell. I thought I was ready to be a teacher before I embarked on the year-long course. I wasn’t.
I was kicked into shape, lesson-by-lesson, with merciless feedback from every lesson observation along the way (i.e. every lesson I taught). One day it got so bad that I wanted to walk out.
I didn’t, thankfully, and fourteen years later I’m still doing the job that I believe I was put on this planet to do: to help young people as best as I can.
I need to be a little merciless in this blog post. I need to tell you the unadulterated truth: not a fairy tale of what should make you better at your job, but the real stuff that actually matters. The stuff that changes everything.
1. Get out of bed a lot earlier
I like to set my alarm clock to go off at 5 am. This gives me 2 hours before I have to leave for school.
That’s golden time.
I must admit, it’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.
I set my alarms to ring so that I have to get out of bed to switch them off. I used to put them across the room, but now I put them in another room altogether.
When those alarms go off there are days when I feel like a total zombie – that’s the only adjective that accurately describes how I feel. My face is puffed up, my head hurts and my muscles ache. I can’t even walk properly.
But stumble, I do, to my dining table, where I sometimes sit in a daze for fifteen minutes or so. I will not climb back into bed – I’ve done that too many times in the past and paid for it severely.
You see, I used to be the ‘snoozer loser’ – the guy who kept pressing snooze multiple times because he was so exhausted. It made me wake up late, rush a shower, skip breakfast, arrive at school late and start my day in a big mood.
My body wasn’t physiologically ready for a day at school when I was a snoozer. My nervous system wasn’t ready. My head wasn’t ready.
Then, one night, there was a big thunderstorm in Bangkok. It was so loud and magnificent that I watched it on my balcony in amazement. When I tried to sleep that night I simply couldn’t. It was too loud. I decided ‘Forget it, I’ll just stay up’.
Bored and frustrated, I decided to pass the time in the early hours of that morning by ironing my clothes, reading through and modifying my lesson plans for the day and writing a list of tasks/goals for the rest of the week. I had some breakfast too.
That was an amazing morning because, despite my lack of sleep, I was more ready for my day ahead than any other day prior to that in my career. I knew exactly what my kids would be learning. I knew exactly what I had to do that day. I had time to prepare resources. Hell, I even had resources uploaded to the VLE in advance of the lessons for that day.
Since that fateful night I’ve snoozed once or twice, but that’s it. I’ve been up early and ready for the day ahead on almost every occasion since.
If you only take one tip from this blog post today, then take this one: when you’re up early and fresh you’ll be more prepared for the school day than the overwhelming majority of your colleagues.
Your students will notice the difference immediately.
Note: It’s worth getting intimate with your sleep-cycles/circadian rhythms. The experts say that adults should get between 6 and 8 hours of sleep per night, but this varies from individual to individual. I know, for example, that if I only get 6 hours of sleep for several nights in a row then I won’t be able to function properly by day 3. I know that my body must have 8 hours of sleep per night, so I make sure I’m in bed early enough to get that.
I told you these tips weren’t easy. But this one is definitely simple, for sure.
The strange thing about exercise is that it defies logic in it’s effects. When I wake up feeling like a zombie, for example, one would think that a 20-minute run around the streets would be a stupid idea – I’ll just be using tons of energy when I’m already exhausted.
It doesn’t work like that, however. After that 20 minute run/jog/walk (yes, sometimes I need to walk-out the last km or so), I feel fresher than ever. A cold shower afterwards really serves to electrify my nervous system too.
Things went to the next level when I joined a gym, however. I currently train at Fitness First, here in Thailand, around 4-5 times a week. It’s expensive, I’ll admit, but I found that to be a good motivator: “I’ve paid so much for this damn gym membership that I’ll have to go, otherwise it’ll be a total waste of money”.
As my body has become stronger, faster, leaner and more flexible over the years I have found that the same effects have happened to my mental faculties: I can think faster, clearer and stronger. I can recall information more quickly than when I was the lazy-NQT who never went to the gym.
I hate to tell you the bold truth, but if your body is out of shape then you’re going to get ill more often than if you were in-shape. Your mind is also not going to function as effectively, which will definitely have an impact on your teaching.
The photograph shows me at the gym today. I like to do a mix of boxing, cardio and weight training.
3. Give equal focus to relationships and techniques
Teaching techniques (such as differentiation and quick starters) are important, but they lose their effectiveness if a good rapport/connection is not present between you and your students. Your kids have to like working with you, and they have to enjoy the subject, in order for you to be an effective teacher.
Try using the following techniques to build-up this essential rapport (links to separate articles given in the list):
- The Four Rules of Praise
- Subtle Reinforcement
- Showing that you genuinely care for your students
- Gathering professional intelligence
4. Work with parents
Parents are our allies, not our enemies (most of the time).
I truly believe that the parental domain is not being explored enough by schools, as it can be a really powerful outlet for a number of benefits:
- Sharing praise with parents can reinforce the love for your subject and your teaching style at home
- Sharing points for improvement/disappointments (in a polite and respectful way) can sometimes cure a problem before it grows into something bigger
- Parents often have a lot of skills and contacts that they can bring to the school, offering new opportunities for your students
I’ve recently seen the massive power that working with parents can have on my students.
I run a CREST Award ECA after school every week, and one of my students is now on her Gold Award. A big problem, however, is that she needed a university mentor to help her with her biochemistry project.
In a chance conversation with a parent at our school’s coffee shop, I discovered that another CREST Award student in Year 7 was getting access to lab time on weekends at a local university. I found out that his mum had a professional relationship with a team of scientists here in Thailand.
After liaising with this parent over the course of a few weeks we finally got the green light to go along and see a famous scientist in his lab. The result of all this:
- My school now has a professional connection with a great university
- We have a mentor for my CREST Award student
- The university will send staff and resources to our school to support our Science Week and STEM day
- Our CREST students will be visiting the university in the very near future
And all of that from just one parent! The gratitude for her help goes through the roof for this.
I wrote a separate blog post about working with parents here (well worth a read)
5. Plan everything
It sounds easy and I apologize if it’s a little patronizing, but not every teacher plans their lessons in-advance. This is especially the case for the ‘snoozer losers’, of which I was once an active member.
When planning lessons, think about:
- The long-term plan for this class (where they should be in three months time, for example)
- The location of the students at different points in the lesson (will you bring them to the front? Where will groups sit? How will you assign groups?)
- Incorporating EdTech (see my blog posts here and here)
- Your physiology (is your body ready, biochemically and physically, for the day ahead?)
- Your relationships with students and parents (and colleagues)
- The teaching methodologies you use
Follow the advice in this blog post for immediate results. It’s not easy, but it is simple.