I was recently reading a blog by a fellow Science teacher (teacherofsci) in which he shares tips for running an engaging Science classroom. He suggests that the most important things are to be fun, be yourself and be active. I agree with him whole-heartedly and thought I’d share my measly two cents.
I’ve been teaching two subjects for seven years now and on Monday I will say goodbye to my form; a group of 25 pupils I’ve looked after and cherished for half a decade. It’s definitely time to take stock of my life and think about what I’m doing. Last time I got in a mood like this I wrote a blog about why I’m a teacher (here's why), today I thought I’d write about what I’ve learned as one.
I’m not going to write “top ten tips for the Science classroom” because I don’t think I have anything worth sharing. Every teacher, every class and every lesson is unique, so it’s foolish to give guidelines on what you should or shouldn’t do. There is no “magic bullet” that will work in every situation.
What I can share, however, are things I wish someone had told me when I started. If you’re thinking of becoming a teacher then maybe this will be helpful, and if you’re one of the people who trains teachers... don’t forget to mention this stuff.
1. You can't win every kid
You love your subject. You can remember when sparks started to fly for you, often because you had an inspirational teacher, and you want to do the same for someone else. You want to show the next generation how beautiful your subject is.
But instead of the subject you love, I want you to think back and visualise the subject you hated. For me that was art. I remember my teacher Mrs Williams trying to explain how important art was in the hopes of engaging me at the age of 14, but she needn’t have bothered. I knew art was important and I appreciated it just fine.
Art is a truly wonderful subject and I respect people who can do it. I just wasn’t interested in doing it myself and nothing could have changed my mind. Mrs Williams wasn’t a bad teacher, she just couldn't beat my hard-wiring. You probably had your own subject you didn’t care about. You dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to get the teacher off your back, and that is how some students feel about your subject.
I am in love with Science and cannot fathom how anybody couldn’t be. But some people apparently aren’t. I’ve seen students daydreaming and yawning during lessons on black holes, quantum phenomena, the human brain and the chemistry of dynamite. I’ve done lessons where I have literally set fire to my arm and students have been checking their phones.
It’s tempting (and human) to take it personally, but sometimes it’s not you. Some students aren’t bothered about your subject because it's a part of who they are. It sucks because you know they’re missing out but you have to make peace with it.
This doesn’t mean you should give up trying to make your lessons engaging or blame the kids if they lose interest. You still need to keep busting your guts every day, but you need to accept that you will still fail sometimes. Even your best effort won’t be enough.
2. There are five kinds of student...
A – Students who love the subject already
B – Students who don’t love the subject, but will discover it with your help
C – Students who don’t love the subject and never will, but want to pass it
D – Students who don’t love the subject, but will suddenly care at the last minute.
E – Students who don’t love the subject, never will and genuinely don’t care if they pass.
Teaching student A is easy. You don’t have to put effort into convincing them your subject rocks, you just need to provide answers to their questions. Be warned though: you’ll unconsciously find yourself putting more effort into student A because you feel you’re getting more of a response. It’s a common mistake, particularly in the first few years, so be wary; all students need your attention.
The most emotionally rewarding moments in teaching tend to be with pupil B (for me at least). There’s something powerful about helping someone discover a passion. It doesn't happen all the time, so relish these moments.
Pupil C are the ones I'm most proud of. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching students who appreciate my subject, but I respect students who work hard at something they don’t like. I’ve had many kids tell me they just don’t get Chemistry or Physics but gave it their best shot regardless and it's always nice to see these kids doing well.
And then we come to D and E. I will say that E is fortunately rare. I’ve taught very few students who genuinely didn’t care and it's impossible to tell, ahead of time, which students will suddenly start to work hard when the end is nigh. Often you’re surprised.
Student D can be really tricky of course. They hate your subject, they’ve put no effort in all year and have probably been rude to you. When they suddenly switch on in the last few weeks it’s tempting to say “you're on your own.” It’s human to feel like they’ve ignored your help all year so how dare they click their fingers and demand you jump to attention and help them. But guess what…that’s your job.
Your need to keep student A’s passion alive, convince student B your subject is worth their time, help student C jump through the exam hoops and give support to any student who comes to you...including student D.
3. You're a person
I got told a lot during training that “it doesn’t matter if the kids get on with you” and it’s a poisonous lie. It’s one of the most important things. There’s a fairly obvious reason too: it’s easier to learn from someone you get on with.
If your students have a good working relationship with you, not only will they feel respected in your classroom, they are more likely to ask questions. If they’re afraid of you, they aren’t going to stop you when they don’t understand something. You won’t be teaching them at that point, you’ll just be talking at them.
Teaching, at its best, is a two-way street where students explain what you need to teach and what isn't working. If they think you aren’t human, they’re less likely to have that dynamic with you. I’ve also found (as I’ve mentioned on another blog) that relaxing and being yourself tends to make for better lessons anyway. Some might argue this is a waste of time because it’s not teaching them anything. But I disagree because your job isn’t just to teach your subject.
Like it or not, you being the “adult” in the room means you’re showing students what an adult looks like. We notice personality traits of people around us and if teenagers see all their teachers as personality-vacuums, it doesn’t paint a very optimistic picture of being a grown up. So be yourself. Be human.
4. They're people too...not exam machines
When you train as a teacher, you hear about how to assess immediate learning, monitor academic progress, calculate benchmark grades etc. etc. but there’s little emphasis on the fact you’re dealing with human beings who have lives outside your classroom.
When I was a teenager I was busy forming lifelong friendships and growing a sense of humour. I was questioning how much of my parents’ lifestyle I wanted to adopt and reject. I was working out my political and religious beliefs. I was discovering my taste in music, movies, art, books etc. Not to mention the infuriating distraction of suddenly being attracted to girls. In all honesty, school was a secondary concern during my teens and I was one of the “motivated” kids.
The people in your class have stuff going on in their lives which are more important to them than your lesson objectives. And that’s normal. I’d be puzzled by a teenager who wasn’t dealing with a bunch of stuff outside of school.
As a teacher, you’re the person with knowledge. Your job is to get that knowledge into the brains of as many people as you can and brains aren’t calculators. Brains are emotional, messy networks of illogical consciousness. People have insecurities, fears, hopes, anxieties, loves, mood swings and it’s worth remembering that. It’s a good idea to find out who you’re trying to help before you figure out how to help them. So treat your students like they’re people. They are.
5. They're also teenagers
Teenagers are not the same as adults. For one thing, their circadian rhythms are out of sync with daylight. The adult body-clock tends to wake up in the morning and fall asleep during late evening, but adolescents are biochemically inclined to fall asleep around 1 in the morning and wake up mid-day. Contrary to pernicious and slanderous myth, teenagers aren’t lazy, they’re just tired by 9–5 standards.
In Britain, the school day starts at 8:45 which is fine for most adults. But imagine if, as an adult, you were forced to start work at 4. You might be a little grumpy, a little lethargic, a little on edge, even a little emotionally drained. It’s no secret that depression is common among teenagers and lack of sleep is a significant factor.
Another thing worth remembering is that the adolescent brain is different to the adult brain. Teenagers have surplus hormones flooding their system, which can lead to extremes of uncontrollable emotion and their pre-frontal cortex (a part of the brain in charge of behaviour regulation) is still growing. So cut them some slack. Teenagers are more complicated than adults and you need to appreciate that.
Oh, and let’s not forget that today’s teenagers are growing up in a different world to the one their parents grew up in. The internet has changed our culture in a marked way. I don’t need to list all the ways it has revolutionised our culture because it should be obvious. But if you sometimes wonder why teenagers are different to “what it was like in my day”, that’s because the world is different to your day.
6. Everybody struggles with bad behaviour
My youngest pupils are 11 (upper end of children) and my oldest are 18 (adults). Every class in between is a mixture. Some of your kids are wanting to play on the swings while others are wanting to discuss Kantian empiricism. Pitching to such a diverse range of people is a challenge.
Also, remember you’re there by choice. They aren’t. 11 – 16 year olds are in your class because the law says they have to be. You’ve got people who are forced into subjects they don’t like, many of which they will never use again, they aren’t paid for it, they’re on an emotional roller coaster, discovering their sexuality and identity…and they’re tired. It would be surprising if they didn’t act out.
Some teachers have a reputation for being good with behaviour management but there is no such thing as a teacher who gets perfect behaviour all the time. I know a teacher who is beloved and respected by all students in his school. You never hear him being bad-mouthed. And yet he recently had a group of boys vandalise the front of his house. The reason wasn’t because he had annoyed these students…he doesn’t even teach them...it was because he was a teacher and therefore “the enemy”.
It sounds a little defeatist but I’m being realistic. Even great teachers get challenged by students sometimes. It’s not necessarily anything the teacher has done, it’s because a lot of teenagers hate going to school and some of them will make this plain.
I’ve had cans of coke thrown at my head. I’ve had bike-chains whipped at me. I’ve had students give me the middle finger and tell me they hope I get “raped and shot,” and that’s mild. I know teachers who have had their water bottles poisoned. I’ve known teachers get air rifle bullets through their windows and I even know one teacher who, years ago, had a student try to blow up their car.
I’m not trying to excuse or defend these extremes of behaviour. But difficult behaviour is inevitable. Often in teacher training they suggest strategies for behaviour management and give the impression it will magically make your lessons run smoothly…it won’t. I feel like when trainee teachers are being given all these ideas for managing behaviour it should be prefaced with the message “this will work about 40% of the time.”
Again, it’s about managing expectations. If you think you can be the teacher who never has a kid misbehave you’ll get frustrated quickly. You might be really good at controlling things but you’ll still have kids who won’t behave and this isn’t your failing. It’s not their energy drinks either, nor is it TV, the government or fluoride in the water…it’s school and you're a part of it.
7. Beware of "research"
One of the most common bits of teacher advice I was given while training was the motivational poster shown below. You may have come across it yourself. I remember being a little suspicious of the conveniently rounded numbers, so I went looking for the source material and discovered the reason the numbers seem odd is because they are fake. It’s the work of a man called Paul John Phillips who wrote a military training leaflet in 1947 for the Socony-Vacuum Oil company which contains the numbers. And he made them up.
Perhaps you have come across the idea of “multiple intelligences” and how people are clever in different ways. That started with Howard Gardner in 1983 and it’s not based on research either, it’s based on a popular psychology book he wrote which is not widely accepted by the scientific community.
Maybe you’ve heard there are such things as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles? Or that you can improve learning with “brain gymn”? Or perhaps you’ve been told that people with “growth mindsets” make new brain connections every time they make a mistake? The evidence for these claims is at best non-replicated and at worst non-existent.
Every few years some educational research rolls out and teachers across the world run with it. I’m not saying be cynical - some teaching experts have fantastic classroom strategies which really work - but do be skeptical. A lot of this "research" does not deserve the name.
8. Every teacher has their own style
Something worth doing when you become a teacher is observe others. You pick up good ideas (as well as traps to avoid) and see lots of different ways of doing things. And they’re all OK.
The lessons with clothes lines running across the room and thousands of post-it notes stuck to kids’ faces are a fun change from routine but I’ve seen no evidence that anyone learns better from this. In fact, I’ve sometimes found teaching “chalk and talk” pays off more because if you run a fun-fair, kids remember the thrill of the game but forget what the actual learning was supposed to be.
The more I teach, the more I’ve come to realise that different teaching strategies are just a matter of personal style. There are some types of lesson I can’t pull off and, by contrast, I’ve had other teachers say things to me like “I couldn’t do what you do, tim.” It’s tempting to be flattered by this but my style of teaching is no better than anyone else’s, it’s just mine.
There’s really only one wrong way to teach: be boring. Everything else is worth a shot. And what’s more, having teachers with different styles is a good thing. Sometimes a student might get an explanation from Teacher 1 which doesn’t work for them. If they get help from Teacher 2 and hear the same explanation, it’s a waste of time. But if Teacher 2 has a totally different approach, the student hears different ways of tackling the problem and has a better chance of finding what works for them. So don’t feel you have to conform to another teacher’s way of doing things. Try your own way.
9. Use your holidays
Teaching is a rough gig. According to the Department for Education, if you add up the number of hours worked the average UK teacher pulls 21 extra working days per year than someone in a 9-5 job. What’s more, you do this in a shorter period of time. People like to moan about teachers getting long holidays…but we earn them.
I’m not pretending teachers are harder working than non-teachers - every job has its stresses and stressors. It’s just that teaching suits a particular personality. The “give it all you’ve got and then crash” personality. The important thing is to include the crash bit.
It’s very tempting, particularly when you’re new, to work during the holidays. Teaching requires buckets of energy, so a lot of new teachers keep surfing the adrenaline and work right through the breaks. But eventually you'll run out of steam and it will be in the middle of term.
I discovered this the hard way. During my first two years as a teacher I didn’t switch off at all. I worked an 8-6 day, every day, including weekends, for 24 months straight, only stopping for two or three days around Christmas and Easter. I ended up in hospital at the start of my third year.
A part of me is a little bit proud of that (I had enough energy to work for two years solid) but mostly I consider myself an idiot. I worked so hard I made myself sick and ended up in intensive care rather than the classroom where I was needed. Your students will benefit if you switch-off during the holidays, otherwise you’ll collapse in front of them and it won’t be pretty.
So pace yourself. Those holidays are crucial for sanity. Put them to use. Spend a few weeks not thinking about lessons. Read all those books you said you’d get round to. Write that screenplay. Write a book (although who would do something like that?). Learn to play an instrument or speak a language. The key message is: if you don’t have a break, you’ll have a breakdown.
10. Want to be there
This one seems obvious, but being a teacher shouldn’t be a job you do to pay bills...it should be your calling. It’s a sad fact but some people go into teaching because they couldn’t think what else to do with their degree. I find that attitude problematic. As a teacher you’re handling people’s futures. That’s not a job that’s a duty.
Imagine a doctor who didn’t care whether their patients got better or not. Would you want such a doctor treating you? Or treating your children? Granted, teaching isn’t as serious as medicine because you’re not dealing with people’s lives…but you are dealing with their futures and that’s still pretty important. Teachers are helping the next generation become the next generation and if you don’t agree, you shouldn’t become a teacher.
You have to be an optimist, an idealist and even a bit of a dreamer. You have to be in this job for the sake of the species, not your savings account. And if you think I’m being overly dramatic and you think “teaching isn’t that big of a deal” then stop wasting your students’ time and get out of the profession.
If you’ve tried teaching for a bit and “it’s OK I guess” then my advice is quit now. You’ll hate your job in five years. And, what’s worse, the kids will hate you too. You’ll be exhausted, stressed and you won’t inspire anyone.
But if you’ve tried the classroom and felt “this is awesome” then that’s all you need. If you love it despite the stress, if you still care about the kids when they’re horrible to you, if you haven’t lost any passion for your subject and still believe you can make a difference in people’s lives, then you have what it takes.
Love your subject. Love teaching it. Everything else is unimportant.
I love science, let me tell you why.