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5 Lessons that Teaching Taught Me

No matter how new to the profession – or long in the tooth – you are, these insights from Victoria Hewett could take you from surviving, to thriving...

  • 5 Lessons that Teaching Taught Me

Teaching is hard. Full stop.

But it’s also incredibly rewarding, wonderfully enlightening and a stimulating career that offers opportunities for development and plenty of variety.

Yet despite this, the profession has a recruitment and retention crisis, with those most likely to leave being teachers in their first five years.

Statistics published in June by the Department for Education revealed that more than one in six of those that qualified in 2017 left the profession after just one year of teaching, whilst the number of those that have remained in teaching for five years has fallen again, from 68.5% in 2018 to 67.7% this year.

During my 4th year of teaching, I almost became one of the early career statistics when I reached breaking point, experienced burnout and went through a breakdown.

I thought that May 2016 was going to be the point at which I ended my career as a teacher.

I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing about my love of teaching several years later – but here I am, not just surviving but thriving in my job and the profession.

How have I done it? Hard work, determination and a realisation that teaching is a job not a lifestyle – along with a few workload reducing strategies.

I learnt a number of very hard lessons along the way; some changed my practice, others changed my views and outlooks. All have helped me to go from surviving to thriving… and the following are my top five.

Lesson 1 | Teaching is a job not a lifestyle

In my early career days, I tried hard to be a ‘teacher’. I thought being a teacher defined who you were, I thought of it as a lifestyle and therefore I was a teacher before anything else. Now I recognise it’s a job and that’s all it is. It’s an important one, but it shouldn’t control my life.

Once I started to think of teaching in this way, I realised that there was only so much I could do in the time I had available. It took a change of mindset; I could not do everything I needed to do, I was not going to continue dedicating every waking minute to the job and I shouldn’t continue to try to complete the ever-growing to-do list. Realising this helped me to better manage my workload, control my working hours outside of directed time and improve my wellbeing.

After all, if we are to look after and provide the best education for our students, we have to spend time refuelling and looking after our own physical and mental health.

Making teaching a job and not a lifestyle meant taking time to do the things I enjoyed again; it meant spending time with family and friends, getting outside and enjoying the world I teach about. It meant explicitly saying no to myself.

Lesson 2 | A school can make or break you

When you’re an early career teacher, a lack of experience can make you think it’s the profession that is the problem. It’s not. Whilst there are elements that need addressing nationally – accountability, workload, funding and the like – it is the school’s implementation of top-down policies and expectations that matter. The school can make all the difference.

I didn’t realise this until I gave my third school a try. I didn’t want to apply at first, I was concerned that it would be more of the same, high workload, scrutiny and long hours. But it hasn’t been. Yes, it has its own pressures and stresses, but they are manageable, and I feel well supported in dealing with them.

There are many schools that make their students and staff the focus of everything, not Ofsted or league tables. There are schools that put wellbeing at the heart of the community. There are schools that want their staff to have a work-life balance.

Not all schools are the same, you are not obliged to stay at any particular place (so long as you haven’t tied yourself into a retention package). You can change until you find the right fit for you, the one that allows you to thrive and not just survive from one day to the next.

Lesson 3 | Plan learning not lessons

In my early career, I planned lessons. I failed to look at the big picture and where the learning was going. Many a time I found a resource or activity I liked and planned the lesson around it, finding a way to make it fit the scheme of work or lesson objective. Once I became head of department, I realised you have to plan the learning not the lesson, considering the outcomes for the end of school, Key Stage, year, topic and lesson; you have to look at progress over time.

By thinking in this way, my teaching has been simplified. I plan backwards from each end point. Instead of lots of engaging, interactive learning activities, I opt for one learning activity which develops through the lesson or through a series of lessons. Not all students will start at the same point, dependent on their individual competencies, and not all learners will reach the same outcome by the end of the activity. But all of them will progress, be challenged and experience success.

To plan learning, you’ll need to think big and work backwards, planning the small steps to the final destination.

Lesson 4 | Being good is good enough

The fear of scrutiny, the need for approval, the performance management process – all of these impacted upon my workload. Whilst a lot was asked of me, I also feared failure in my early career and didn’t want to let anyone down. I thought this meant I had to be outstanding, permanently, and as a result I put pressure on myself to be just that.

If you try to be ‘outstanding’ 100% of the time, it will result in burnout. But if you’re consistently good and thus demonstrating high-quality teaching and good standards of practice that inspire, challenge and promote positive learning, then that makes you an exceptional teacher in the long run. You don’t need the label of ‘outstanding’ to be a great teacher.

Lesson 5 | Be proactive

For a while at my last school I worked towards reducing my marking workload by introducing a variety of feedback strategies that still allowed me to meet the expectations associated with performance management, but meant I spent less time marking.

When I moved schools in September 2016, I continued many of those strategies and implemented a variety of other workload-reducing approaches to my day-to-day school life such as using template banks, setting time frames and creating resource stations.

In doing so I’ve been able to cut my workload – and whilst part of that has been the result of systems in place at my current school, it has also been a result of my own efforts to simplify what I do.

Remember to share; if you can see evidence of strategies working, pass them along to colleagues and help each other to work less.

...Final thoughts

My first five years of teaching taught me a lot, too much to fit in this piece to be honest. But the one thing that stands out is that without the negative experiences, I wouldn’t appreciate the positive.

I wouldn’t now recognise that I’m thriving, that I love what I do, and how much I want to continue working in the profession – because ultimately, it’s a fantastic one to be a part of.

Victoria Hewett is subject leader for geography and environmental systems and societies at Tonbridge Grammar School. She tweets as @MrsHumanities, and is the author of Making it as a Teacher (Routledge).

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