Tis the Season of Assessment…

It’s about this time in the term when you start to feel a bit like the honeymoon is over; the kids start to tire of your puns, the first assessments are due and the workload piles up.

This week, I’ve been marking Year 12 Advanced speeches for Module A and it dawned on me that when students hand in assessment tasks, that’s when I do my most effective teaching. That’s when I truly take stock of what students have actually learnt and where the holes are that I haven’t filled. It’s when I get the chance to provide feedback that they are guaranteed to read and consider important. It’s when I get to congratulate students on what they’ve done well. It’s when I can plan where I will take the students next. Not that I don’t do all these things during the teaching of the unit, but the formal assessments provide a more explicit avenue for me to reflect upon these aspects of my practice.

With this new appreciation of the integral role of assessment in MY learning, I’ve approached assessment in a new way this week: with excitement! And I’ve even infected some of my students with the same attitude; one of my Year 9 students has been diligently working away on her assessment task, which is an original poem, visiting her elders in the community to research the impact of the Stolen Generation on Indigenous people in our town. Obviously, she is aware of the valuable opportunities assessments provide too!



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.

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”.

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!