A good teacher is always learning.
My first full year of teaching is now officially over! It’s hard to believe how quickly things have gone this year and how many different stories and experiences I have had. Obviously, I will not be able to cover all of these events in one blog (that would take up my entire 6 weeks off!) but I feel that reflecting on the year that was is an important part of improving myself for the year to come. Unfortunately for confidentiality reasons I can’t name the schools I worked at in a public forum such as this, so you will have to bear with me as I describe my adventures around London.
When I first began teaching October I have to say I was quite overwhelmed. I was entering not just one unfamiliar environment, but several. It was truly a baptism by fire and I was jumping in with both feet. Not only had I recently moved to a new city and a new culture, but I was also making my first entry into a school environment, in a system and age group that I had not been trained for. This led to somewhat of a rocky start for me especially when teaching the lower age groups as my classroom management strategies that would have worked well for 16 year olds did not quite have the desired effect on 5 year olds! What I did quickly realize though is that it was still teaching and that as long as I kept at it I knew that I would be able to adapt. This didn’t happen immediately however, the learning curve was very steep and those initial days were extremely tough, but I feel as though I made a lot of headway this year and the experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one.
The most unexpected part of the first few teaching days was seeing the amount of poverty that exists in London and learning to teach in an environment I had very limited exposure to growing up on the Westside of Vancouver. The first month in particular was incredibly emotional for me as day after day I would hear the stories of a particular student and feel for them. In teacher’s college we were taught to make sure we had a good support system during our first year of teaching, but as a supply teacher, and a foreigner, this was a very tough thing to find. I am fortunate enough however to have a strong family background in teaching and this was where I was able to turn to in these first few tough weeks for support. Frequent Skype calls to my parents as well as chatting to my sister really helped me get through those first few weeks.
It wasn’t until my third or fourth week teaching that I realized that instead of feeling sorry for these kids, I have an opportunity in front of me. An opportunity to make a difference in their lives, however small it may be. This was really put into perspective one day in the staffroom when I was chatting with a teacher at a “last chance” school in Brixton. The teacher explained to me that as teachers it is our responsibility to say to these kids “ok, you’ve been dealt a poor hand in life so far, how are you going to make the most of what you DO have?” This got me to thinking that I can’t go around feeling sorry for these kids, I need to work with them and try to turn them into respectable human beings at the very least. In some schools I noticed the teaching was not so much about maths, or literacy, but rather it was about discipline, respect, and simply making the right choices. The attitudes many of these schools have taken is one of keeping kids out of gangs, or keeping them away from drugs, rather than pushing them towards (almost) unachievable goals such as going to Oxford or Cambridge.
It wasn’t until around Christmas time that I truly got into the teaching routine and finally began feeling comfortable in the primary classroom environment. By this time I had experience teaching every year group and had lessons to fall back on if need be – a crucial part of supply teaching. In the lead up to Christmas I was working quite frequently at two rather low performing schools, one in Hackney and the previously mentioned one in Brixton. At first these were eye openers for me, but as I learned the personalities of the students I really began to enjoy both of these schools. The teaching was very challenging, and the classroom management had to be top notch, but what I really enjoyed was seeing the improvement. Not only did I see an improvement in the students, but I did in my teaching style as well. The kids, who initially would play up because there was a supply teacher, began to warm up to me and the classroom environment improved drastically. When I moved on after Christmas to higher performing schools I became very thankful I had learned what I did in November and December.
The Christmas holidays hit at just the wrong time for me this year from a professional perspective. I was really starting to get into the rhythm of teaching and despite working at a different school every day I was actually establishing some semblance of a routine. While the two weeks off at Christmas were a planned holiday, the week and a half of very little work that followed it was what really set me back. I began working for a new agency at this time and effectively spent the next few months juggling a few agencies and teaching at close to 40 different schools. That time in January however was the last exceptionally slow period I would have the rest of the year as I spent much of my remaining time with guaranteed pay (giving me financial stability), and once I got over the adversity of my step backwards I was able to really take a significant leap forward throughout the remaining six months.
It wasn’t until April that I was able to find another school where I felt as comfortable as I had in Hackney. I spent a lot of the winter visiting schools for a day or so but finally after 3 months I began working a lot at one school in Tower Hamlets. Tower Hamlets is a very interesting community located right in the heart of East London. While many east London communities are known for their behavioural issues and low performance this borough is overwhelmingly very respectful and the students are quite eager to learn. At this particular school this was even more profound as it was extremely well run and demanded a lot of everyone, supply teachers included. Sometimes high expectations lead to high rewards, this is what worked for this school, but at other schools around London this theory would have been tough to duplicate.
It was in Tower Hamlets that I finally began to really feel accepted at a school. The staff treated me as though I worked there, the students seemed confused as to why I always wore a “visitors” pass, and I even began helping out with the after school programmes. This was easily the school I most enjoyed going to and it led me to develop as a teacher in many different ways. The classes I had at each level were so well behaved that classroom management became rather different. I could allow the students much more independence and freedom while still maintaining control, something I much prefer to do as a teacher. This school is also where I was able to try many different techniques of teaching. I was able to figure out what worked for me, and what I could make work with a few improvements. This will undoubtedly benefit me down the road.
If there is one thing I learned that stands out above all the rest this year it is adaptability. When you are teaching you need to be able to adapt in almost every situation because of the simple fact that every child is different. Certainly routine and consistency are important parts of a classroom structure, but any teacher that is not able to change something that is clearly not working is not going to be successful. Supply teaching was an excellent way of learning that flexibility as I would have to learn the dynamics of the classroom, the school, and the borough I was in that day to truly be able to run my classroom effectively. No two days are ever the same as a teacher and no two students are ever the same, which is one of the things I truly love about the job – it never gets dull.
My first year of teaching was certainly one that I will never forget, it was emotional, difficult, rewarding, exciting and interesting but most of all I truly feel that teaching is the vocation for me. I never once dreaded going to work, as I did so much during my construction days, and even on those days that didn`t go well I would still leave the school knowing that I truly love what I do. Not everyone gets to work in a career they enjoy and I consider myself very lucky I have this opportunity. While I feel as though I have learned a huge amount this year by no means is the learning curve anywhere near complete – it never will be. Next year I hope to secure my own classroom long term and that will no doubt be another steep learning curve, as will getting back to teaching secondary school, something I really want to do. I hope that next year will be as enjoyable as my first one!