Memoirs of a second year teacher

Sometimes I have to pinch myself.

Was it really me this time last year in a frenzy of worksheets and with anxiety swirling in my stomach every time I thought about my Year 10 class?

Already halfway through Term 1, this year is flying past. My new goals and the new focus of my teaching, however, has left me wondering rather than worrying. My stress has turned to motivation and at the end of the day I am brimming with stories of enthusiasm rather than horror stories (mind you, there have been a couple of those recently).

This has made me wonder several things:
1. Will I start taking my brilliant classes for granted and become hardened?
2. Is my bubble about to burst? and
3. Seriously, this is considered WORK?

Dilemma #1

I have an Advanced Year 11 class and an extension Year 10 class this year. The biggest issue for students in both classes is the level of confidence they have and their willingness to attempt new things time and time again, even when they fail. I am studying the poet Donne with my Year 10 class and they are loving it, but they baulk every time they come across an unfamiliar word. I’m trying to teach them to read in context, and slowly, slowly they are catching on. I do love their enthusiasm though (and their giggles as we talk about sexual innuendo). They are also far more willing to take creative risks that my Year 11 class-we wrote conceits of our own last week and they embraced the challenge.
At the beginning of the year I was amazed by how much I enjoyed my classes; I was intellectually stimulated by the questions they asked and I could concentrate on teaching and learning rather than crowd control. Now though, my expectations are different; I’m disappointed when the kids don’t appear to be enjoying the learning, I’m disenchanted when getting through the material takes longer than I expected, I’m disheartened when I feel like continuity has been broken or when I’m unable to get the students to connect their learning.
Whereas, last year, small wins in my troublesome classes were so rewarding, now it takes something astounding to feel as though I’ve made a tangible difference for these kids.

Dilemma #2

When I had a meeting with my Head Teacher recently, she mentioned that the stress of an advanced class was yet to hit me as it was more about the pressure teachers of these classes place upon themselves rather than the pressure from external forces. I have this ominous feeling which seems like a hawk that’s circling, closing in.
What I do know is that my Year 11s have improved tenfold since the beginning of the year. We’ve focused on specific things and there has been rapid growth in those areas. Their confidence is increasingly, albeit incrementally, but they are still reluctant to volunteer information or discuss. Everything I get from them must be drawn out painfully.
I just wonder, when they submit their first assessment task, will how hard I have pushed them be hard enough? Will the amount of GROWTH matter, considering there is no real measure of growth? Or will the reliance on raw scores be my undoing?

Dilemma #3

I think I’m annoying people at work; I walk (sometimes I skip, I kid you not) around the school with a grin plastered on my face in the mornings. I love being there. I’m relaxed, I’m confident in what I’m teaching, I’m not paranoid that there’s always someone at my back, waiting for me to do the wrong thing (I mean, that person is possibly still there, but I’m far more willing to take them on than I was before!) and I’m much more assertive with both students and staff members.
The kids make each and every minute of my day, whether it be that they make me annoyed, they make me laugh or they make me think, they are the centre of my school universe.
It annoys my friends and family no end that I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting than doing school work. Not only do they think that I need to seek counseling about an inability to separate work and home life, but they is also jealous of the room that school occupies in my headspace constantly. Because it’s something they can’t relate to, could never understand nor sympathise with my genuine interest in the kid who serves me at the supermarket, whom I stop to talk to for 10 minutes when they want to go home, nor the way I respond instantly to kids’ emails or edmodo comments, yet can take hours to answer their texts (oops!).

There we are then, the perils of being a second year teacher. No more am I likely to be pushed out a window… but the challenges presented by this year in my career are, in some ways, even more daunting.

Memoirs of a First Year Teacher

I have finally completed my first year as a teacher!
And what a year it has been. The good thing is, I feel like I have been teaching all my life now and I feel completely comfortable. I have learnt to be more flexible as I’ve become more confident in my own ability and I’ve become more resilient, no longer taking all the bad days personally, but still able to cherish those special moments.
The biggest challenge for me came in first term when I had to readjust my expectations of both my students and myself. I quickly got a handle on this however, and with the help of my #staraday was able to see the progress I was making each day.
After that steep learning curve, I focused on my classroom management. Something I would recommend to first year teachers is the observation of the old “don’t smile til Easter” tip. Once my first class ran riot on my on my first day I came down hard on my other classes the next day. In fact, listening to myself I could have been mistaken for something from Jane Eyre.
In Term 3 I could relax slightly, having earned a certain amount of respect from the kids through consistency and having completed my first reports. But man, being consistent is tough! Outlining the rules at the beginning of every lesson with year 7 and 8 is the easiest part of it. Ensuring you see and respond to everything is exhausting. Dylan, stop swinging on your chair, Corie, turn around and do your work, Zac, get your book out. I made a rule early on that for every correction I made to a child’s behaviour, I had to praise someone who was doing the right thing so as to provide a model for the other student of the appropriate behaviour. Eventually, my corrections just became names, pointing or a long stare, short cuts which ensured my delivery of content or instructions was not interrupted.
I also enforced 5 minutes “thinking time” with year 7 each lesson, which was 5 minutes students had to work in complete silence to establish their concentration. Sometimes this was purely for my sanity as toward the end of third term they became extremely boisterous. It also gave me a chance to check student’s homework or progress on activities.
I will also, next year, use a roll for my junior classes to check who did not complete their homework. This year I wrote lists and kept students back to complete unfinished work, but it would have been handy to have an ongoing record so I could follow up with parents.
Playing weekend sport in my small town gave me an opportunity to meet some of the kids’ parents and get to know my students outside of the classroom. Amazingly, this lead to a complete turn around in my year 9 class. They became angelic overnight as though I had passed initiation.
Having just one class which lights up your day can make all the difference, and by the end of the year I was lucky enough to have 3 classes I will miss next year. I was almost in tears when I had to farewell my Year 9s! Seeing the growth in these kids from the beginning of the year until the end was something so rewarding; I was really pleased that the majority of the reports I wrote at the end of the year were very positive ones, even for those students who had caused me anguish at the beginning of the year.
Being the occasional speaker at my old high school presentation night was a great way to cap off the year; it allowed me to express the gratitude I felt for the teachers and system which made such an impression on me and it also allowed me to reflect upon why I have found teaching to be such a comfortable fit. One of my ex-teachers cried because he was so proud of me becoming a teacher, which was just a phenomenal compliment as he has been my idol for years.
I will progress up the ladder next year as we have another first year teacher coming into the staffroom next year, and so I am going to pass on all of this useful advice to her. I will make it known that the only way she will get through the year is by slogging through it as it is HARD work, talking about her hesitations and experiences and accepting that she doesn’t know it all, can’t POSSIBLY know it all, and that she needs help.
She is lucky though, she enters a faculty which shares knowledge, resources and a laugh, and are generally good at spotting when you are struggling.
And so, I can breathe a sigh of relief, having shed the label of “first year teacher” now.

Year 9 Media: Gruen Challenge

Year 9, as an introduction to their media unit, completed a Gruen challenge over the course of our double period on Friday.

After discussing the purpose of advertising and some of the most common strategies they had noticed in ads lately, students were asked to brainstorm what sorts of things would be the easiest and hardest to sell as an advertiser. They came up with some interesting answers, like convincing people to re-elect George Bush (hard to sell) or convincing people that Apple products were better than Microsoft (something they thought would be a piece of cake).

Students were then shown the clips of the Pitch segment on Gruen, in particular the “sell the invasion of New Zealand” and “sell banning religion” advertisements. We then discussed the different approaches taken to the task: playing on emotions (guilt, anger, sympathy), intellectualising the topic and humour.

They were divided into groups and given their brief: they were asked to sell the shut down of either Facebook or YouTube.

There were three parts to the task. A brainstorm sheet on which they were required to come up with an approach (humour or appealing to emotions) and then formulate 3 ideas for a theme or plot for their ad. They then had to produce a storyboard for one of these ideas, planning 9 frames plus narration.

Students then had to use a computer (limited to PCs due to our wireless being down) to produce either a video or a PowerPoint vaguely resembling what they wanted their ad to look like. They then had to present their storyboard and ad to the class.

There were prizes to be awarded for: the best ad as voted by peers, the most original ad, and best group work during the creative process.

It would have been great to have been able to give students more time on this task. Most were extremely enthusiastic and I had to award 2 group work prizes as many students really worked well together even though I had mixed up peer groups.
The most original award went to a group who turned YouTube into a disease and interviewed a (fake) doctor about the symptoms. The best ad as voted by peers went to a group whose ad demonstrated how easy it was to hack a Facebook account, thereby leaving you susceptible to all sorts of nasty things.

We also got the chance to discuss their digital footprint and responsible online behaviour during the presentations.

Why I Blog

Recently, whilst writing the comment “Must practise writing analytical and creative responses” numerous times on reports, I realised that as an English teacher, it is also my professional responsibility to ensure I too am regularly writing. And I’m not talking about modeling paragraph structure in class or writing examples to show students. I’m referring to writing analytical and creative responses to a university standard.

Blogging is something which keeps me mentally stimulated and engaged in my teaching. I not only get the chance to write analytically and reflectively, but, as we always encourage kids to seek out, it is for an authentic audience which also places certain demands upon a writer.

I will often also engage in creative writing when I set my classes a task. For example, during writing journal time if the students are settled and confident in what they are doing, I will also complete the task. However, I feel that this is something I don’t do enough of, and it is a professional development opportunity I will definitely be seeking out in 2013.

Teaching the littlies

This year, our head teacher (Robyn) came up with a great idea which has gradually been shaped by the staff in our faculty, and then by other faculties at the school, into an official program. Once a fortnight, teachers in the English faculty go to one of the feeder primary schools in our town and teach a watered down version of a high school English lesson to year 5s and 6s.

This came up in response to the lack of information (and the resulting chaos in terms 1 and 2) provided to teachers about the students in year 7 this year. Considering that upwards of 30% of them have high literacy needs, as well as behavioural needs or other forms of organisational or physical education needs, this meant that teachers of year 7 (me being the teacher of 3 classes of them) were overwhelmed by catering for such a wide range of needs in the mixed classes.

Teacher’s aide time with year 7 classes increased, and another English teacher and I worked with the STLA to formulate alternative programs for Italian and English for certain students in these classes.

However, keen to put in place procedures to ensure this did not occur again, our head teacher delegated the volunteers in our faculty a primary school and suddenly we were in front of a class full of little people.

Throughout the year, I taught things which ranged in complexity from text type construction, like recount writing, to complex “high school” ideas such as how layout and structure affect the meaning in poetry.

Having access to the new curriculum for years k-10 has also been helpful in seeing where along the continuum these challenging students fall, and what they should be learning in those stages that they have missed/forgotten/not been able to grasp. Interestingly, I found that a number of year 7 students could not even achieve stage 2 outcomes according to the new syllabus.

We were then given a say in the structure of year 7 classes for 2013, given access to proposed class lists, and the opportunity to find out additional information from the teachers of those students this year in a more informal manner (ie having a chat while the kids are working).

Hopefully this program will prove successful and next year’s cohort’s literacy needs will be able to be addressed more effectively and more immediately. This should also mean that the program which was the brainchild of Robyn should be replicated in other areas which are finding literacy (or numeracy) a challenge with their year 7 cohorts.

You give teaching a bad name (insert guitar solo here)

On my recent holiday journeys I happened upon several teaching friends who have become disenchanted with the system. Not because they are burnt out, not because they have lost their passion, not because the pay conditions for teaching staff and schools seem to be low on the government’s priority list, but because they are tired of other less competent, and frankly, more apathetic, teachers who are, in the words of one friend “turning the kids against us”.

When you look around your staffroom, are your fellow teachers working hard for the students they teach? Or do they just float in and out without planning any lessons, without providing any guidance or leadership, and without giving the students the impression that they have their educational interests at heart?

I know that there are lazy people in every profession, but perhaps the closed classroom door makes the laziness of those in the teaching profession easier to hide. I was shocked by some of the stories my casual teacher friends were sharing with me and they themselves were outraged at the work left (or the lack of work in some cases) for the classes.

I was also surprised because I work in a faculty in which everyone works hard, and no one exhibits the kind of attitude my friends were talking about. And I have no doubt that were anyone in our faculty to display a lack of consideration, empathy or interest in their students, our head teacher would pull rank swiftly.

Unfortunately, it is this minority which seems to characterise the teaching profession for the greater public. Perhaps the public would benefit from knowing how much regard those of us within the fold have for this type of “teacher”.

Context as a precursor to critical thinking

Year 10 are part way through their novel study unit and with my low literacy class we are looking at the series Bloodlines, which involves following characters through various world wars and conflicts.

This was a perfect novel through which to study context, because it involves a lot of investigation by students of different battles, developing research skills, and also involves them thinking about how the context of the author shapes the story.

We spent a couple of lessons investigating WWII from different perspectives, with students having to then produce a newspaper article from one of these perspectives.

We then moved on to reading our first novel, which the students LOVED.

This week, we have been looking at the historical, geographical and personal context of the author and separating this from the contextual information required to understand the story. As part of this, students were required to reflect upon their own historical, geographical and personal context.

Students then had to investigate a context different to their own (some chose a different culture, some chose a different historical period) and write a narrative which used jargon in the same way as our novel, to give the reader an understanding of the context and give their story a sense of authenticity.

This week students will finish their narrative and we will reflect upon, as a class, how the context of an author shapes the plot, the narration style, and the themes of the novel. Students have already made the preliminary links in this critical thinking process, recognizing that having the main character as a war hero is shaped by the author’s occupation and experience as a veteran and the knowledge this entails.

We will then look at The Diary of Anne Frank, and contrast the points of view, forms of the text and how the different contexts of the authors shaped the content and themes of the two novels.

For these kids, critical thinking is something I have tried hard to embed into their teaching and learning programs, and in this unit in particular, I have tried to get them to think critically about both the content (why write about a war? What is a “hero” in war? Whose side in a war is “right” or the “winner”?) and the writing style of the novel (whose story is told? How are the nazis demonized?). I have used a lot of literacy strategies to do this, in particular graphic organizers, predicting activities, and teaching students to recognize different types of passages, sentences and words which give clues about character, context and themes, as well as narrative perspective.

Fun with Shakespeare

 This term, my low literacy class and I faced the prospect of battling and struggling through Shakespeare for 8 weeks. Instead, it turned out to be an experience students thoroughly enjoyed through utilising Elizabethan culture to make scenes from Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth concrete, understandable and accessible for the kids.

I focused our study of Romeo and Juliet around the class and gender division in society at the time and how this manifested in things such as celebrations, food, language and clothing. We looked at the scene at the language used to address each other in Romeo and Juliet (especially the servants, the way the nurse could be taunted without consequence and the way the older rich males were spoken to and obeyed) and the scene in which Romeo is asked if he can read by a servant. This gave context for an investigation and discussion of the education in the time of Shakespeare. 

Next we looked at the ball scene and how it explored the entertainment of the upper classes during the period. We read/acted out the scene and then it was the students’ job to design a feast which would be eaten at this ball ( see worksheet: Design a feast for the Capulet Ball). To give them the background to do this, we watched an episode of the series ‘Supersizers Go Elizabethan’  available on YouTube, which provided them with information about eating habits, courses and meals.

We then used Macbeth to investigate All things unnatural including witchcraft, religion and kings and queens as ‘gods’. Students divided into groups and investigated something which interested them about the sentences delivered to witches, the kings and queens of the time, or the religious wars which waged. Students then examined the original script and the representation of the witches in 3 different productions of Macbeth using a YouTube clip, and after this had to come up with the staging and costuming of the first scene in the play for a Shakespearean audience(see the Globe stage diagrams I developed). In order to be able to do this, students needed background about what the Globe Theatre was like in this period. They used this The Globe Theatre interactive site and digital worksheet to investigate this.

Please feel free to use the resources I developed during this unit which are attached on this page, but do give Creative Commons credit where it is due.

Reflection not rumination

Recently, one class in particular has been causing me endless anxious and sleepless nights thinking about how to tackle their behaviour, literacy and self regulation problems (er… I mean, “challenges”).

I realised that part of my anxiety was the perception that I owned the problem. I wasn’t aware that this was what I, in fact, thought, until it was brought to my attention by my head teacher. I was convinced that it was my problem and that my actions alone could solve it if I just worked hard enough. It was a very soul-sucking and sleep-depriving trap to fall into.

Unfortunately, this attitude comes from being pummeled with the “reflective practitioner” model at university. Whilst it has been ultra helpful for me to reflect upon good and bad lessons to improve my teaching, I’ve taken it too far with this class. My reflections have crossed into the dangerous territory of rumination, a classic symptom of any type of anxiety disorder or maladaptive thought pattern.

Something I’ve learnt from this realization is that when the “reflective practitioner” model is being plugged to NSTs, it really needs to come with a disclaimer, warning or qualifier, that reflecting is only healthy whilst it is constructive. As soon as it becomes a source of anxiety, it is no longer helpful to your teaching practice.

Whilst I accept now that it’s my responsibility to ensure that these kids learn, there is only so much in that classroom that I am able to control. I can provide the engaging activities, I can provide the very structured environment, I can provide the consistency, I can explicitly teach and model appropriate behaviour, but I cannot control the kid’s motivation or hormone levels, the amount of sleep they got the night before, the time of day I have them, their poor peer relationships or social skills.

This was hard for me to accept at first, making me feel as though I was doomed to suffer through this class for the rest of the year. However, now it is liberating in one sense. I know that I don’t “own” the problem, but that I can try new things to attempt to make changes.

A big thanks must go to Paula Madigan who has given me brilliant suggestion after suggestion to deal with this class, and my HT, who gladly gives me respite from those kids in this class that are just in the too hard basket some days!


Research in the classroom

Recently, I have been participating in research through a Melbourne university run by a colleague. It has been a valuable learning experience for both myself and my year 8 English class, who have been the participating class.

Run within our media, persuasion and rhetoric unit, students have been learning about the “zine” text type and analyzing the way elements of this text persuade their audience and shape meaning for their readers and viewers.

The kids have LOVED it. I have ensured that, like usual, the appropriate amount of scaffolding was provided, but the unit has allowed many of the students to show their more creative side.

The kids are, this week, pitching an idea to the rest of the class (who are members of a board) to persuade them to publish their own “zine” after watching the Gruen Transfer‘s “pitch” segment.

Most kids group work skills have improved out of sight, and many kids who struggle with other tasks have shone during the program.

Next week we have professional guest speakers in to talk about how professional publications persuade readers and viewers. We will then start our poetry unit, in which students will learn about different forms of poetry and apply this knowledge to publish poetry in their “zine”.