We are coming up to Christmas and one festive tradition is for people of faith to gather and hear stories about the fall of humanity, the arrival of the messiah and birth of Jesus. At least, that’s what Wikipedia tells me. Having not been to a church service since I was eleven – unless someone passed either away or into marital oblivion – I forget the detail of these tales. However, I thought I could tell some tales of lessons I have learnt in my first term as a trainee secondary school English teacher. I’ve only been doing this for around three months so some of this is quite possibly pedagogically wrong, but it’s what I’ve learnt and I plan to keep on learning. I don’t know enough Christmas carols to accompany them so have selected my own secular songs on similar themes.

Lesson 1: The worst day at school is only one day.

My birthday this year was dissimilar to any other birthday throughout my working life. Normally, I’d take the day off, eat too much food, do something for me. Spoil myself, because – y’know – frankly, I deserve it. Not so when you’re a teacher. Off to school I went, as does every other teacher with a weekday birthday, with two English lessons to teach and a drama workshop to lead.  

The first lesson involved a formal observation by my mentor and it felt close-to an unmitigated disaster; I had to hand the lesson back to my mentor ten minutes before the end because I had no idea how to undig the hole I had dug myself into. The second lesson was one I covered for a colleague, the feature of which was an hourlong battle of attrition with a twelve-year old who refused to engage whatsoever with my teaching as I would not let her go to the toilet – despite proving she didn’t need the toilet by continuing the stand-off throughout her break-time and my coffee break. This resulted in my first ever ‘on-call’, where a senior teacher removes a child from your lesson and sends them into isolation for the rest of the day. Teacherly rite of passage ticked off. Happy birthday to me.

Finally, I led a drama workshop with the class split evenly between those who wanted to be there and those who categorically did not. “Behaviour points for all who disobey me!” I declared, “And detentions for the chosen few!” We all waited hopefully for the lesson to end, in fear that my anxious proclamations would become evermore Dickensian.

Thankfully, the school day did end. I went home, ate curry, saw family and was in bed by 9pm. The wonderful thing, though, is that each day really does only last twenty-four hours and each school day ends by around 4pm. I woke up the next day, decided I was going to have a good one whatever happened – and, surprisingly enough, I did.

Carol: Mama Said (There’d Be Days Like This) by The Shirelles (1961)

Lesson 2: You are probably not the worst or best teacher in the world.

Across the course of one day – and sometimes across the course of two minutes – I can go through a thought process that includes the following sequence of statements and rhetorical questions:

1. “You’re the worst teacher in the world” 2. “You’re the best teacher in the world” 3. “Whose stupid idea was it that you should train to be a teacher?” 4. “These kids think you’re an idiot” 5. “Your mentor thinks you’re an idiot” 6. “All teachers everywhere think you’re an idiot” 7. “You’re an idiot” 8. “Gosh, wasn’t it so much better when you were a theatre producer?” 9. “You really can’t do this and you should probably go home” 10. “You’re the best teacher in the world!”

The answer to question three is “Mine” and the answer to question eight is “Sometimes”.

None of the other statements are true, but sometimes I forget.

Carol: Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream (1993)

Lesson 3: When you’re in the classroom your emotions do not matter.

On the twelfth day of this half term my mentor gave to me the following piece of advice: “Last half term you developed a determinedly calm persona in the classroom, even when behaviour was difficult to manage. I’d really recommend you try to get that back because it worked so well.”

This advice followed a lesson where I’d taught a behaviourally challenging class who had seemingly no respect at all for the lesson I’d spent hours preparing and was really looking forward to teaching and thought they’d really like and goodness knows why on earth I bothered as they couldn’t care any less and it’s so unfair because I was being observed for this lesson and surely the absolute smallest most miniscule insignificant really very least thing they could do was pretend to learn something for the benefit of my formal observation!

Alas, I’d forgotten that, in a classroom, how I feel really does not matter.

When you’re trying to teach, understand, navigate and moderate the responses of thirty children your own feelings are unhelpful. They are, frankly, a luxury that you cannot afford. That’s what the staffroom is for. That’s what your mentor is for. That’s what your partner’s for. Your mum, dad, sister, brother, cat, dog, therapist, benevolent aunt, best friend, next-door neighbour, I don’t know, dentist, newsagent – whoever. But not the kids. They don’t understand their own emotions so you can’t make them handle yours.

I forget sometimes, because it’s easy to, that the energy you put into the classroom will soon become the energy of the classroom. The behaviour you model can become their behaviour. Become irritable; they get irritable. Wish you were somewhere else; so will they. Show anger; they’ll throw anger right back at you. Teach lethargically; they’ll learn like a slow loris.  

I’m learning that if I inject energy they’ll become more energetic; if I talk passionately there’s a chance they’ll passionately engage; if I remain determinedly calm I can help ease agitation; and if I get excited about my subject it might just excite them.

Teaching is a masterclass in emotional regulation and, if you don’t feel it, fake it.

After all, heartbreakers gonna break, break, break, break, break And the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake I shake it off, I shake it off.

Carol: Shake It Off by Taylor Swift (2014)

Lesson 4: Persuading children you care about them is your most valuable tool.

The first time I taught a particularly challenging year eight class the vice-principal was sat at the back of the room observing me – and them. Their behaviour, as a result, was unexpectedly good. The second time I taught them I did so on my own. We took a stalling, frustrated, fairly adversarial journey through roughly twenty per cent of the intended lesson content and I dished out multiple detentions in line with the Academy’s behaviour policy.

Shell-shocked, I walked down to break with one of my detainees and pursued what I now understand to be a ‘restorative conversation’.  

“Explain to me why I gave you a detention”, I ventured, hoping that I could remember in case he couldn’t, but his reply took me by surprise. “Because I’m naughty”, he said. I quickly checked through my working memory to see if I could recall how I’m supposed to respond to such a statement, but turned up blank. “You’re not naughty”, I said, remembering I needed to separate the behaviour from the child, “but what you did in that lesson wasn’t appropriate. Do you remember what it was?” I’d given out four detentions to four different students so didn’t want to conflate one with another and really hoped his memory was better than mine. “I was talking and laughing when you told me not to”, he said. Quickly, perhaps too quickly – grateful for the memory prompt – I said, “That’s right!” and then, remembering that triumphant wasn’t the tone I was trying to strike here, continued calmly, “That’s right, thank you, because you know not to do that, don’t you?”  

Looking down at his feet, giving away his weariness and disappointment at having to have so many of these types of conversation, he said, “Yes, sir, I do”.

“Look at me for a minute”, I say, gently, “just for a minute”. The journey his eyes follow rolls fully through three hundred and sixty degrees, taking ages, but my instinct puts it down to embarrassment rather than defiance and so I wait, patiently. Eventually he looks me in the eye, sort of, and before he can look away I throw the question at him, “Do you know that I care about you?”  

His response, a cat-like reflex: “No”.  

He doesn’t have much reason to know that I care about him because we only met properly today, really, so why should he? I continue. “Well, I want you to know that I do. I don’t want to give you detentions. I want you to do well and enjoy being at school. I do care about you. Do you think you can trust me on that?”  

He looks me directly in the eye, very briefly, and says “Ok, sir”.  

It’s no Robin Williams moment. He is not stood on a desk. I doubt I could persuade him to say “Captain, my captain!” if I tried. But it’s enough. In our next lesson together he pays a little bit more attention to me and, in turn, I don’t have to give him a detention.  

I hope he remembers our conversation, but I’ll try to remember to remind him if he doesn’t.

Carol: The Greatest Love of All by Whitney Houston (1985)

Lesson 5: Children who seem not to want to learn probably do.

Over twenty years ago I went to a school that was mixed in every sense. It’s fair to say, I think, that learning wasn’t a high priority for a lot of my classmates; at least, that’s what I thought then and resolutely continued to think, even if not deliberately, for the rest of my life until now.

I watched a fantastic teacher teach a lower ability class in my first fortnight in school this September and realised that I’d been completely wrong for a couple of decades.
By giving several kids in his class early opportunities for success in the lesson, with an affirmative comment and an effort stamp to back it up, he’d got them; he’d drawn them in, got their attention and they remained engaged throughout the rest of the lesson. I saw another great teacher with them the next period who prompted a notoriously disruptive boy to answer a question with the comment, “I know you weren’t here last lesson, but I’m 92% sure you know the answer to this one”. The boy answered it correctly and, again, the teacher had him for the rest of the lesson.

Afterwards I asked the teacher, “Did you know he knew the answer?” He said, “No, it was a bit of a punt to be honest. But, either way, with him he needs to know I think he can do it before he’ll give anything a try.”

That was a revelation for me: children who seem not to want to learn probably do, but often they don’t think they can.  

It’s staggeringly simple so much of the time, I’ve since realised, to nudge an apparently disengaged or disruptive child towards a task you’ve set them. All it takes sometimes is a sideways “You know the answer to this one”; or a “Give it your best shot”; or maybe a “You wrote such a good response last time”; or perhaps an “I don’t mind if it isn’t quite right as long as you try”.

Levels of confidence in some children can be so low and praise can be so absent from their lives that it can be deceptively, heartbreakingly simple to bring them round to learning.

Tell them that they’re capable. They want to hear it as much as we do.

Carol: Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd (1979)

Lesson 6: Admitting ignorance is strength.

Orwellianly counterintuitive maybe, but the crucial word of the lesson is the first one.

I spent approximately thirty-three years of my life not knowing that the three words “I don’t know” are among the strongest available in the English language.  

I expected that I should know the answer to everything and that, if I didn’t, I was probably not good enough and should give up because I never would be. Most of the time I’d be the one punished by this misguided idea, but occasionally it could also make me behave like a bit of a prick whilst I tried to cover up the fact I didn’t know at others’ expense.

Thankfully, training to teach has compounded my belief that using these three words fairly regularly is a really great idea.

I’m a trainee English teacher.  I have never taught before.  I have a drama degree.  I do not have an English degree.  There is a lot I do not know.  If I say “I don’t know” people can help me.  If I pretend I do they can’t.

Carol: God Only Knows by the Beach Boys (1966)

Lesson 7: Comparing yourself to other teachers will not help you.

I can have such a short memory.

I often observe other teachers teaching and forget that I’ve been teaching for less than two half terms.

I ask myself, “Why do the kids behave so well for them and not for me?”

I answer, “It might be something to do with the fact that they’ve been teaching for twelve years, have taught these children specifically for two years, that they are the vice-principal of the school and you are not.”

I ask a follow-up question, “But why can’t I be brilliant immediately?”

I answer, “Because that’s not how this works.”

I am satisfied.

The following week I observe another teacher teaching one of the classes I teach.

I ask myself, “Why do the kids behave so well for them and not for me?”

I am exhausting.

Carol: I Am What I Am from La Cage Aux Folles by Jerry Herman (1983)

Lesson 8: There aren’t any bad kids.

All children are fantastically full of potential.

All children are a product of their home environment.

Carol: Consider Yourself from Oliver! by Lionel Bart (1960)

Lesson 9: If you answer “Yes” to “Did I help kids today?” then that’s enough.

I sometimes need to remind myself that this is single most important question needing to be asked and honestly answered each day.  

Answering “yes” means the day has been a success.

Carol: The Only Way Is Up by Yazz (1988)