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20 things I learned teaching secondary – just before I leave

As Tom Starkey prepares to exit Teach Secondary stage left, there’s just time for him to deliver one final blast of ‘raw teacher knowledge’…

  • 20 things I learned teaching secondary – just before I leave

So this is it, my last column.

I’m moving away from the brilliant, yet insane world of teaching and heading for the brilliant, yet insane world of Higher Education, and it wouldn’t be right to keep blathering on at you about the sacred art of ‘child coralling-whilst-getting-them-to-know-a-few-bits’ when I’m really not going to be doing very much of it any more.

I’d like to thank everyone at this here most excellent publication for demeaning it with my mere presence over the years. It’s been an absolute blast, and I’m sure you’re looking forward to not having to hunt me down like a cunning fox each month to try and get hold of my mad ramblings.

So, before a set of burly men come and wrestle me off my soapbox, I’m going to try and pass on as much raw teacher knowledge as I possibly can within the 650 words I have left.

Teaching Standards be damned, I’m free dammit! FREE! Strap in, you lot, because who knows where this is going? Not me, I’ve never drafted anything in my life.

Here we go!

The knowledge of the teaching an’ that

by Tom Starkey – philosopher, raconteur, and education’s answer to a question no-one ever asked

1. Building relationships is great. An enforced behaviour policy is better. Build that first.

2. The likelihood of the world collapsing if you don’t get that set of books marked is minimal. But it can cause hassle.

3. It’s just a job. Anyone who says any different is either ashamed of doing it or can afford not to.

4. Most CPD in schools is pretty awful. You’re smart – go find your own.

5. Kids are great. They’re also not. You don’t have to like them all the time (but you still have to do the job).

6. Anyone giving advice to teachers who isn’t a teacher is to be given maximum side-eye until they have proved they have a modicum of knowledge of what they’re on about. Even then.

7. It’s been my experience that students who have surnames as first names score high on the cheek-o-meter. But…

8. Don’t generalise. Not because it’s unfair, but because in a school setting it’s pretty much useless, as there’s always something that’s going to surprise you. Prepare to have your expectations regularly flummoxed.

9. Don’t touch my milk.

10. No, seriously.

11. Don’t touch my milk.

12. Schools rely on the willingness of staff to go above and beyond for the students. If this isn’t recognised by those running the school, there’s a serious problem.

13. If there are serious problems at your school, make plans to leave at the earliest possible juncture.

14. Self-sacrifice isn’t a viable career option – unless you’re trying to summon a demon – so it shouldn’t be part of your thinking in reference to educating young ‘uns (because 3).

15. There are different ways of teaching.

16. The way that you teach doesn’t inherently make you good or evil.

17. Unless it’s group work. In which case you’re evil.

18. Many people in education will go out of their way to try and convince you that what you’re seeing in front of you isn’t happening. Disregard their BS.

19. You have no influence over your student’s home life, and that home life is probably the biggest factor affecting how they get on. This can be a tough realisation, but it’s also freeing.

20. Do your best. Or if you can’t, do your most competent-est.

And I reckon that’s just about it. So, as the last bell rings out and I pick up the exercise books off the table in this here empty classroom, I sit in my slightly bigger plastic chair and reminisce about the time I’ve spent teaching.

I’m filled with neither relief or regret – it’s been such a part of my life for so long that I can’t really pin it down to one emotion. I’m still not sure if I was even any good. It usually depended on what class it was and how many coffees I’d had.

But it was certainly fun. And it’s been fun to share it with you. So thank you. And, as ever,

Thanks for reading.


Tom Starkey worked in schools and other education settings for 18 years. He currently resides in HE but still tells students to tuck their shirts in.

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