While normally associated with January 1, for teachers New Year’s Resolutions perhaps are more appropriately made in September.
The start of a new academic year brings with it a similar sense of hope, optimism, and new beginnings for so many of us in the teaching profession.
However, like in January, the best intentions of becoming a better person are often hard to maintain and after a month or two we have usually reverted to type. Not always, but how many of you can honestly say you have stuck to a New Year’s Resolution?
Changing behaviour is a hard thing to do. Especially when you’re so busy. And teachers are some of the busiest and stressed people there are.
So here is my guide to simple and sustainable New Academic Year Resolutions for teachers that will improve your practice in the classroom, keep your work/life balance in check, and your morale sky high!
Choose your attitude
I once listened to television presenter and all-round tough guy Monty Halls talk about the approach his exploration teams took when times got tough on expeditions.
They used the mantra “choose your attitude” to keep everyone positive, spirits high and focused on goals.
The teaching profession could learn from this approach.
Teachers have had to deal with so much educational policy reform in recent times that some might be saying “why bother?”
But what we need to be doing is choosing our attitude, being positive, rolling our sleeves up and reminding ourselves that whatever the latest initiative, proposal or policy change may be, we should continue to strive to be the very best we can, and that ultimately we are in it for the young people.
Do simple things better
Quite simply this is about dedicating more of your time to doing the simple things more effectively. I have read some excellent work by Zoe Elder (@fullonlearning) on using the Dave Brailsford “Marginal Gains” technique in education, and have seen Sir Clive Woodward talk eloquently about using “critical non-essentials” to improve oneself.
Teaching is often over-complicated by practitioners, school leaders and politicians obsessed with the latest craze. If we spend more time doing the simple things as well as we possibly can, the more complicated aspects of teaching become so much easier.
So be continually positive with your students, greet them at the door and welcome them to your classroom, be excited about your subject and tell them “we’re going to have a great lesson today”.
Give them specific praise and “catch them being good”. Be a positive role model for your students and be honest with them.
These simple things can help keep your own, and your students’ morale high and in a positive frame of mind.
Build positive relationships
This comes easily to some teachers. You know the ones, they seem to bond with students with ease and students respond to them in ways in which they won’t for others. It can be incredibly frustrating.
The most effective way of getting students to respond in the way you want them to is to build positive professional relationships with them. Get to know their interests outside of school, ask them questions about what they are interested in, and generally find out about them. Tell them about yourself too.
Revealing aspects of your personal life and your interests might be uncomfortable for some teachers, but it reveals to students that teachers are actually human beings! Much of this work goes on in the canteen at lunchtime, or in corridor conversations and it can have a significant impact.
Teachers will invariably say that this is the aspect of their jobs they like the least. It is time-consuming and quite frankly boring. But it has to be done. Students need feedback on their work and it needs to be high-quality.
So how can we mark smarter? First, I know that teachers will spend hours marking books only for students to give the comments, grades and suggestions a cursory glance. This is pointless marking. This type of marking is only done to appease the head of department or leadership team. What impact is it having on learning? Minimal.
The teacher may have a clearer idea about where that student is at and can plan future learning accordingly, but the student is not centrally involved in the process, and it is absolutely crucial that they are.
So marking smarter will involve the teacher spending time with students at some point in a lesson where their marking comments, grades and suggestions are consolidated by the student, and then the students subsequently act on the advice given by the teacher to improve their work.
Involving students in the marking process is nothing new. Self and peer-assessments are common practice in most classrooms, but tweaking this practice can make it more effective and efficient for the teacher.
The beauty of these techniques is that it encourages students to analyse success criteria, therefore developing their understanding of what is required.
Effective application of this type of marking could involve a student marking a partner’s work, giving the book to another student who then evaluates the quality of the marking, and then the original student has time to make any suggested improvements. The teacher’s job is then to comment on the quality of improvements and to ensure that the advice given is appropriate.
Be more reflective
This is the hardest thing for many of us to do. Admitting we are wrong or that we could have done something better is difficult, but if we are to continually improve (and our profession requires this) then we need to be truly reflective practitioners.
There are many ways in which we can self-evaluate. A modern approach might be to blog your reflections on how your lesson/day/week has gone and how you might go about making improvements. Blogging is becoming increasingly popular with students and teachers alike and I regularly read the blogs of many teachers via social media. This approach is a brave one and it shows honesty, reflexivity and openness.
Furthermore, asking a “professional friend” to observe you teach is a great way of receiving feedback from a trusted colleague in a non-official and completely open environment, which then of course can be reciprocated.
And of course, you could always ask your students. Leave five minutes at the end of a lesson to say “okay, if we were to do that lesson again, what could I change to make it more interesting for you?”.
Again, this is both bold and brave, but you will be surprised at the astute comments students will offer, and it demonstrates to them that you are not scared to ask their opinions.
Be a lifelong learner
A danger for teachers is that once we complete our degree and gain qualified teacher status (some may even have Master’s or PhDs) we think: what else do we need to know?
The best practitioners are those who continually learn about pedagogy, their subject, youth culture and the boring stuff like educational policy and reform. Staying in touch with all of these things is important for teachers to be able to deliver relevant and interesting lessons.
For me, there is no better way of keeping up-to-date with education policy and practice than via Twitter. Social media gets a tough time, but having a professional online presence has enabled me to learn and develop as a teacher and school leader significantly during the past three years.
So, if you are planning to turn over a new leaf, or intend to change, adapt or refine the way you work in 2013/14, do it for the right reasons and have the students’ progress as well as your own work/life balance at the heart of everything you do.
Ben Solly is vice-principal at Long Field Academy in Melton Mowbray. You can follow him on Twitter @ben_solly.