8 (of the) things I have learned in my first year as a HoD

Below is a not at all exhaustive list of 8 (of the) things I have learned in my first year as a Head of English. It’s been quite a year, and I was going to blog about it in more detail, but obviously enough, things happen every day and the real complications of the job come in the minutiae of it. These, by extension, don’t make for very interesting reading. My hope is that this blog will be like one of my starters on grammar. It will either be quite interesting, or at the very least not take too long.

8. Little and Often
I’ve tried to make these three words the cornerstone of my philosophy this year. For marking, for intervention, for pastoral care, for tutor meetings, for grammar and punctuation teaching, for meetings with colleagues, for exercise, for writing blogs (which I totally haven’t done), for trying to make my mark on the school in some positive way. It’s the way forward. Little, and often. Keep everything moving forward, all the time – little and often.

7. Leadership doesn’t feel like a thing
I’m a ‘middle leader’ now. What does that feel like? I sort of expected to get a special ‘Head of English’ suit that I could wear, and it would maybe have special powers, like giving me ultimate control of the semi-colon, or speaking purely in Iambic Pentameter. Turns out, you don’t get one of those. I thought at the very least, people would need to do a special knock at the door if they wanted to be granted a moment of my very important time. Nope. I thought that people would come running through my door with a piece of paper saying ‘My god Paul, we need your signature on this immediately!’ or ‘Quick, you need to make an important decision!’ Actually, it’s not like that at all. There’s plenty to do, and I’m happy and proud to be the one who gets to do it, and that’s it. I don’t feel any different. I am, though, working on getting a red phone in my room that goes straight to the Head’s office, or some kind of nuclear hot-button on my desk that I can press to launch an Oxford Comma at the primary school down the road or something.

6. You are not finished
When I started teaching, my mum (who had been teaching for many years) gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten. She said ‘you have to decide when to stop, because you will never run out of things to do’. She was so right. This year, taking on a new responsibility has not (funnily enough) reduced my to-do list. I’ve got a brilliant to-do list book and have taken recently to writing down just about every little tiny thing I have to do that day (Mark Y10 books, email that parent about that question, walk to the staffroom, eat a banana, write this to-do list – that kind of thing) just so I can have the very satisfying feeling of ticking things off as completed. On the Wednesday of the last week of term, I ticked off about 18 things I had on my short-term to-do list, and a few things I’d had languishing on my ‘longer-term’ list (which I keep hidden away so I don’t have to look at it too much) and felt very satisfied and completed all round. I then I proceeded to add about 20 new things, 16 of which still remain on my list now the holidays have started. C’est la vie. Actually, one thing still on there is writing this blog, so I’m looking forward to ticking that off.

5. Do what you can, when you can, as well as you can.
This year, despite the overall tone of this blog and my current mood, has been very difficult. Really, really difficult. I’ve had a very supportive department, a supportive leadership team, good kids, and a nice school to work in and it’s still been really hard. The aforementioned ‘to-do’ list has often been an intimidating one, and too often I have gone to bed kicking myself for all the things I hadn’t done, or the things I hadn’t done as well as I could have. With that in mind, I have tried to maintain this motto as much as I can. I can’t be perfect, and I can’t get everything right. I would love both, I really would, but actually sometimes good enough has got to be good enough. So, no matter what, I will do what I can, when I can, as well as I can. If that means some things are left unfinished at the end of the day, so be it. This all leads to my next point.

4. Don’t sacrifice yourself
I didn’t like many teachers when I was a kid. This, of course, doesn’t really matter. Some of them were good, some of them weren’t, and none of them were my friends anyway, so liking them had very little to do with anything. Well, actually it did, but that’s for another blog. The point is that some of my worst teachers and the teachers from whom I learned least seemed to have nothing in their lives other than teaching. I’ve seen it since I became a teacher myself. The colleagues who work until 1am marking books and then are up again at 5am to come to work and slave themselves silly chasing whatever paradigm of perfection the school (or more likely, Ofsted) have decreed is the Holy Grail of Education for that half term. Don’t get me wrong – if this technique made them into incredible teachers, or interesting human beings, I would be on board straight away, but it doesn’t. It saps them of their strength, it saps them of their je ne sais quois, their joie de vivre, their raison d’etre and it saps them of various other French idioms. Here are the facts, as I see them. Nobody is going to give you a medal for being a hardworking teacher. We are all hardworking teachers. If you got into teaching for praise, get back out of it quick. You work hard, you push yourself, you push the kids, and then you go home. If you do it well enough, they will be happy, your bosses will be happy, your colleagues will be happy, you will be happy, and then September comes and you start again. This is not a moan – I’m perfectly happy for this to be how it is, but what it means is you must remember to be someone else as well. As well as being a teacher, I am a pianist, a singer, a film geek, a documentary nerd, a reader, a lover of walking, a (fairly scrappy) badminton player, a husband, a son, an uncle, and a small motorbike. The thing is though that being those things makes me a better teacher, I think. I’m also a human being. The kids can relate to me. Not actually, because I’m not trying to be down with the kids (I’m self-deluded, sure, but not that deluded) but they at least see that I’m not just a grammar robot who’s also read Of Mice and Men. I LOVE the subject, and the only way that will ever come out is if I also do the other things I love to do. Enthusiasm takes work, but once you catch it, it’s contagious and utterly incurable. I want to infect everyone I meet with it, and I can’t do that by sacrificing myself to things that either don’t matter, or can wait.

3. Say ‘Yes’ and then MAKE time.
Here’s a newsflash for anyone who is new to teaching. You haven’t got time to read this blog. You haven’t got time to write this blog. You haven’t got time to do ANYTHING. Tough. Make time. There’s an oft-shared poster that floats around on the internet that points out that you have as many hours in a day as Beyonce does. This is a reasonable point, and presumably one that is meant to make you more motivated to accomplish your goals, or write ‘Bootylicious’. I think this is a reasonable point, in that you do indeed have the same number of hours in a day as Beyonce (and lots of other people, for that matter) but it won’t feel like you do. The trick is this – find your limit by pushing yourself to it. Here are some of the things I have not had time for this year. Playing badminton, going to NRocks15, Twitter, taking a trip down to London, taking a trip to the theatre, singing with the choir, playing Tennis, spending all lunchtime talking to two tutees about why boys are weird and trying to reassure them that it won’t last forever (while not entirely believing myself, sadly), losing weight, going cycling, regularly playing in a band, going to the gym, reading 50 books, running a lunchtime ‘Articulate’ club, writing songs, going to concerts, visiting family, making new friends, that pub quiz on a Thursday, and writing this blog. I haven’t done them all in one day (thankfully – that would even floor Beyonce, I imagine) but the point is this – someone asked me if I wanted to do them, and I said ‘Yes’. I DID want to do them, so I made time. Did it come at a cost? Yes. Was it always the right decision? No, but actually yes. Has it helped? Immeasurably. It’s hard, but you have to make the time – otherwise you can slip into the Teaching Twilight Zone where you are no longer a person, but at least your books are marked. Oh yeah – I forgot, all my books are marked too.

2. Don’t forget what it’s like to be a student.
Have you ever sat in a CPD session, or an external training session and thought that if Ofsted got their hands on it, it would get a 4? Maybe a 5 actually. That’s right, Ofsted would find it so interminably awful that they would invent a new category for it? Thankfully, I haven’t had to suffer this much during the year; our CPD sessions have been pretty good and there’s always been something to learn, but I have been to a few external sessions that have left me questioning the purpose of existence and hoping faintly that the building might collapse so we could all leave. Have you ever had a moment in your professional career when you haven’t been sure what your colleagues thought of you and (while you knew deep down that it didn’t matter) it mattered? Again, thankfully these moments have been mercilessly brief this year for me, but nevertheless, as a new teacher in a new school, it happens. Have you ever wanted to throw something through a window (perhaps yourself) in frustration as you tried to get the hang of something but it just wouldn’t come? These questions are, of course, rhetorical. I imagine you have all felt/experienced these things, probably in the last 12 months. Ok, fine – now remember that our students have to go through all of this, every day, while being taught 30 lessons a week with few breaks from studying and no breaks whatsoever from having to be teenagers. John Tomsett says that in order to achieve our potential as educators we need to love our students. This is not an easy task. After all, they are someone else’s kids, but personally I find every day of work an interesting test of my rational side vs my empathetic side. I know, and firmly believe, that the kids need to be pushed (metaphorically, of course) and stretched (metaphorically, of course) and challenged (not metaphorically, though feel free to do that as well) every day, and that they don’t always know what’s best for them (if they did, they wouldn’t keep asking me if we could watch ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop’ at the end of term) but at the same time, it is so easy to forget that they are only small, and while many of them have a maturity (and sometimes sheer height) that belies their years, you should not become complacent about them. They are walking contradictions and, however frustrating we might sometimes find that, we should never forget to remember how frustrating they must be finding it too. Our lessons need to engage them – they are not like us, and sometimes I have read/seen teachers saying ‘why not try this with your students?’ and the answer has seemed painfully obvious to me. Because they will hate it. I’ve done it myself – planning a task the night before, thinking ‘they are going to love this’ only to find that they emphatically do not love it. Why? Because they’re 14 and I’m 32 so I have advantages that they don’t have. I love learning, I understand the process of learning, I’m fascinated by the intricacies of how we learn, my brain has fully developed, and there isn’t a hormonal nuclear war going on inside me. But try telling that to my year 9 class on a Friday afternoon. They were willing, bless them, but they were never going to enjoy it. The struggles kids go through can frustrate adults. ‘Oh, I know your boyfriend held someone else’s hand at the party last night but don’t worry, it’ll all be alright’ is well-intentioned, but ultimately useless. Of course we know it’ll be alright. The number of times this year kids have come into my classroom crying and I, upon finding out the reason why, have dismissed their tears as ‘daft’ (not to their faces, you understand) is a little bit shameful. Plato once apparently said ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ We have come through the other side of being teenagers, and not many of us would go back there willingly, I’d bet. So let’s not forget as we keep our professional distance that their battles are very hard, and they don’t yet know that it will be alright one day. After all…

1. The students make it all worthwhile.
They are, in equal parts, wonderful, fascinating, infuriating, motivated, lazy, beautiful, disgusting, adults, babies, confident, insecure, fast, slow, strong, weak, confused and confusing. For all that sense of there being a class full of jigsaws scattered before you, it is a daily treasure and a wonder to get to work with these kids, and I hope all of you get to experience that, and none of you ever take it for granted. I got some presents at the end of the year, which was really nice, but my most treasured one will be the photo my tutor group and I had taken to commemorate the end of a long, occasionally fraught, but ultimately rewarding year. Just like the year itself, I can’t eat it, I can’t wear it, I can’t do anything with it except look back at it and feel proud.

Here’s to 2015/16. May it be filled with activity, progress, joy and wonder for you all.

Paul

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About PS

English teacher in Shanghai.
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