Guest writer: Kitty Ussher,  Now Teach cohort 2017 

Two years ago I took the plunge into the classroom, teaching maths to 11-16 year olds in Brixton.  Here’s my top tips for those starting the Now Teach programme this September.

1. Be humble 

You know nothing and are here to learn. For a whole year, my computer password was “humility”. Having done a lot of communicating to adult audiences in my previous career I thought I would have transferable skills but it turns out I didn’t. Coralling a group of teenagers has a completely different set of rules and I was in awe of those who could do it.  

Good phrases to use:

  • ”Hello, I might look old, but actually I am a trainee. Please could you tell me how to design a classroom seating plan?”
  •  “Hello, please help me, I am about to give my first lesson and I can’t turn the computer on.”  

Bad phrases to use: 

  • ”Look, I’ve run an organisation/managed a massive team and this is NOT how to do it."

2. Set yourself realistic micro-targets

Doing something complicated outside your comfort zone requires a lot of working memory and you don’t have enough for this task. It feels like playing the organ while doing the crossword with 25 people shouting different things at you at the same time. So you need to work hard to automate as much as possible. Choose the lowest hanging fruit and work at it until you have nailed it, and then move to the next. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to nail each new skill, as long as you actually do. That way you can’t help but make progress. So your personal targets need to be small and specific such as “set homework on Wednesdays”, “use a timer” or “get the students to discuss the question in pairs before picking someone”.  Work with your mentor to identify what these are and gradually more and more of the lesson will start to work. 

Good phrases to use: 

  • ”Please come into my lesson for 10 minutes and give me one piece of advice”. 
  • “Thank you for your feedback. What do you think I should work on first?”

Bad phrases to use: 

  • “I can’t do this.”
  • “This time next week I’ll have it nailed.”

3. Enjoy the learning journey

Observe how long it takes you to learn your new skills and use it to relate to your students’ own unfamiliarities, be it of the syllabus or what behaviour is expected in lessons. Accept that learning comes from focused repetition in order to create new neural pathways in the brain. Design these opportunities for “deliberate practice” into everything you do – for you, and for them. Learn to spot when something has become automated because that’s when there’s an opportunity to push to the next level.

Good phrases to use:

  • “How can this become the new normal?”
  •  “How will I know when this has been learnt?

Bad phrases to use: 

  • “Well of course they know how to do that, I spent a whole lesson telling them!”
  •  “Sorry, we need to move on.”

In my second year, I changed my computer password to “proficiency” - more as an aspiration than a reality. In fact, if I’ve learnt anything it’s that the aspiration to improve is what it’s all about: making sure you are on a positive trajectory, and having the resilience to keep trying something new (and asking for help) if you aren’t happy with how things are. What changes over time is that your own personal armoury of options increases, simply from having experienced more situations. What’s tricky is that the only way to get that experience is to start.