Finding your place

March 2010

 

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Fitting in is an important part of teaching, suggests JOHN TAYLOR

If there’s one key piece of advice John Taylor has for beginning teachers it is to ensure they are working at a school where they fit in.

“Find a school where your personal beliefs about classroom management and about kids fit with the school culture, because if you don’t it can be a very miserable existence,” he says.

It’s advice that Taylor imparts to every new group of students at the University of Otago’s College of Education, telling them that they need to find their own ‘place to stand’ in the education system.

Taylor is co-director of the college’s graduate diploma of teaching (secondary) and has a good 20 years experience as a secondary teacher and head of department behind him.

He says that beginning teachers also need to find out what a school’s systems are, particularly in terms of classroom management and discipline. For example, does the school have a system of referring students who misbehave to more senior staff? It’s important that whatever you do in your classroom is not out of kilter with what is happening in the rest of the school. If it is out of step, teachers can find that either students ignore their approaches to behaviour management or that they are not using the school’s systems as well as they might, Taylor says.

Schools have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide support for beginning teachers and it is a good idea to find out in advance how a school plans to provide that support, Taylor says.

“The beginning teachers’ programmes that are run in schools are generally very good,” he says, noting that this should include a buddy, a beginning teacher coordinator and bi-weekly meetings. The buddy is a more informal form of support than the beginning teacher coordinator, Taylor says – the sort of person you can ask day-to-day questions such as where to find whiteboard markers – while the beginning teacher coordinator is more of a mentor on professional matters. Support should also come from a new teacher’s head of department who will want to discuss content, programme and assessment matters.

Professional distance is an important issue for secondary teachers, particularly those who graduate aged about 22 and then go to work in classrooms with 17-year-olds. “It is quite difficult to maintain that friendly but professional distance,” Taylor says. Teachers might be asked if they have a girlfriend or boyfriend or whether they were out drinking on the weekend. Taylor recommends a cautious approach, telling students that such information won’t be shared.

“If in doubt, act a bit conservatively,” he says. But he agrees it is not an easy balance to find, particularly for new teachers who have to make good decisions on the fly.

Time management and self management are important skills for teachers. The job can be very stressful for new teachers, though Taylor observes that younger teachers are often so full of passion and drive that it does not get to them. “We do run stress management sessions here at the college – half the people love it and find it valuable, the other half don’t know what we’re talking about,” he says.

That passion and drive is a valuable thing. Taylor says almost every teacher education student cites a desire to ‘make a difference’ by becoming a teacher. He notes that some new teachers can become disillusioned if they feel they are not making that difference after all.

Another issue for new teachers can be the relentless nature of teaching – day after day, teachers have to go and teach. “If a lesson goes badly, they have got to get up the next day and face the same class again. It’s difficult not to take it personally.”

A related issue is health – first-year teachers tend to get sick, particularly during the winter terms and it takes time to build up the resistance to illness that more experienced teachers seem to have.

Beginning teachers should make good use of their time allowance, Taylor suggests. For example, following one of their classes of students to see how another teacher works with that class. Specialist classroom teachers are a great resource for new secondary teachers and can observe their work and give advice.

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It is a school’s responsibility to provide a proven programme of advice and guidance for beginning teachers, but those teachers need to be proactive about ensuring they get that programme, John Taylor advises.

They should make sure they are getting weekly meetings with a mentor and they also need to keep the records that show they are a reflective practitioner. This includes evaluating lessons at least through notes on lesson plans but preferably in a dedicated journal. Though schools and teachers can be audited on these requirements, Taylor says the expectation that new teachers become reflective practitioners goes beyond the demands of mere paperwork. After their first two years, new teachers’ advice and guidance programmes come to an end – if they have not learned by then how to reflect on their practice and improve that practice then they will not go anywhere but downhill, he says.

Teachers should also keep documentation on their planning. Heads of department will want to see it and the Education Review Office can ask for it.