What I’d warn my aspiring teacher self

Young chemistry student with hand on fire (iStock)

If you could travel back in time and give your younger self some advice, what would you warn yourself about a career in education? Science teacher Tyler Berrigan hasn’t figured out the physics, but he knows just what he’d say.

Thinking back to who I was when I started my teaching degree, two words spring to mind: naive and idealistic. Naturally, there are things that — if my wise, laconic self were to meet my sanguine, starry-eyed self of yesteryear — I would be sure to mention about a career in teaching.

So here they are, my top three things I wish I’d known.

1. Shock horror! Your students may not be as interested in your subject area as you are

Whether it is a dynamite piece of eloquent prose in English or a drool-worthy algebraic function in mathematics, you may find that sometimes your students don’t get quite as excited as you do about it.

As a budding science teacher, I wholeheartedly believed that my students, like me, would find all aspects of science truly fascinating. This mutual obsession was going to be the driving force behind many marvellous and engaging science lessons. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always the case.

Of course, some are genuinely enthralled by science and others can be brought over to the dark side with some targeted effort. But there are those students who — unless something is on fire, makes a loud bang, is being cut up or can be wiped on another student’s white school shirt — feel science is about as interesting as a snail playing lawn bowls.

2. Expect the unexpected — I mean really

To some extent teaching is a profession that prides itself on variety. That’s one of the reasons we love it. However, there are just some things you totally do not expect. Just when you are 100 percent certain a student won’t do something utterly ludicrous and nonsensical, they do it.

Here’s a personal thought sequence I had a little while back: “He’s just put a random item in the Bunsen flame for the umpteenth time and it’s alight. It’s okay, I’ve told him to put it in the sink and immediately douse it with cold water … But wait, why’s he heading for the wastepaper bin? He’s telling me he’s going to take care of it. Surely, he’s not going to put an item engulfed in flames into a bin full of paper … But he is heading in that direction … No, he’s not is he? … Yep! He did it! He put it in the paper bin! Put out raging inferno.”

Whether it’s scraping up and eating some unidentifiable muck off the playground concrete or climbing out a window, just when you think, “surely no-one would to do that“, they do it. They say that to teach you need eyes in the back of your head. I say you need eyes all over your head. I’m sure many readers have had similar, if not crazier experiences.

3. At times, your colleagues are harder to work with than your students are

To me, education is like a monumental sailing ship, churning its way through the seas of expectation. The crew on that ship is made up of people from a vast array of backgrounds, with different perspectives as to where the ship should be sailed and how. That is the nature of the beast.

When the stakes are high, and the stakeholders varied, it can create a subtle feeling of competition and distrust. In fact, a large majority of my negative experiences as a teacher have originated from something a colleague has said or done, not a student.

I digress. Suffice to say, that I’m sure most teachers would have a thing or two to say about staff room politics.

Agree with my top three?

So, there you have it. My top three things I wish I’d known before starting my teaching degree. I can’t help but think to the future, as I picture myself sitting back in my rocking chair by a smouldering fire, sipping single malt and musing about my career in teaching, that there are many more twists and turns to come. I guess that means there’ll be many more helpful tidbits for my time travelling, starry-eyed self.

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The grim realities of teachers’ hours

Teacher asleep on school desk (iStock)

Opinionated family members say the darndest things when it comes to discussing the hours teachers keep — but researchers will tell them educators are indeed overworked, Tyler Berrigan writes.

“School teaching would have to be the cushiest job on the planet! I mean, finishing at 4pm … the long, paid holidays … it’s the dream! I honestly don’t know if teachers know how good they’ve got it.”

Ever had a well-meaning friend or family member regurgitate similar statements? It happened to me one sweltering Australian summer night at a sleepy Sunday barbecue, whilst waiting in line to plop some burnt sausages and potato salad on to my plate. I was mid-conversation with an otherwise inoffensive uncle when I heard the statement above drift from his mouth into my consciousness.

Exasperation and rage immediately boiled to the surface. You know those moments where you discernibly pause, as the slow-motion visions of clobbering them with the salad spoon in front of all your guests, run languidly through your head? It was like that. It took all my energy and mental stamina to not follow through on my irrational thoughts.

Feeling frustrated?

But why do comments like that drive teachers up the wall?

Firstly, because we know the antagonist has no clue about the nature of the job; the hours spent at school negotiating with energetic children and hormone-fuelled teenagers. Teaching is a roller-coaster and, at times, it leaves you drained and weary to say the least. My wife will attest to the fact that when I get home from a busy day teaching, I need about an hour of proper wind-down time, where I sit in silence and stare at the wall as the grey matter runs out my ears.

Thank goodness for the good times and successes that keep us teachers doing what we do.

Secondly, the antagonist in the above scenario likely does not fully appreciate the hours that teachers actually work. From lesson planning to reporting, marking tests, locating or making resources, keeping up with departmental requirements, professional development, parent and teacher nights, community events, extra-curricular activities, social media commitments, and compiling exam papers, there is seemingly no end to the plethora of additional work that a teacher must do. And this is not just my own experience. It is a grim reality that many teachers face.

Feeling tired?

Teachers are working more than two hours a day outside of regular school hours and it’s contributing to higher stress levels, researchers at the universities of South Australia and Canberra reported in Australian Psychologist. “The stress levels tend to be universally high,” study co-author Dr Peter Winwood told Adelaide’s Advertiser. “It can have very significant potential to cause both physical and emotional health [problems].”

These hours are often unappreciated and under recognised. In the end, something must give. But this isn’t just the experience of teachers in Australia. Teachers in the UK are also working an unreasonable number of additional hours.

The UK’s Department for Education’s latest teacher workload survey found that classroom teachers and middle leaders are working on average 54 hours per week. “Over three-quarters of teachers were dissatisfied with the number of hours they usually worked,” the survey found. “Most staff disagreed that they can complete their workload in their contracted hours and that they can achieve a good balance between their work and private life.”

In a time of supply shortages and high teacher burnout, this is indeed grim. Ultimately, it is driving teachers from the profession and harming the education of children. If we can address this issue, it would produce happier, healthier and more efficient teachers.

At the very least, it will curb family barbecue altercations.

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Five tips for getting kids into the focus zone

Girls focused on teacher with globe (iStock)

The minds of F-2 kids are constantly inundated with new numbers, new words and the minefield of new social interactions in the classroom. And while teaching younger kids to focus can be daunting, it is certainly still possible. Once kids learn how to tap into their own special ‘focus zone’, classroom and behaviour management is so much easier, Catherine Wills writes.

1. Mistakes are learning moments

What is it?
Learning is great because it is hidden in the nooks and crannies of everyday life. Children are learning all the time without even realising it. Unfortunately, mistakes often jump up and threaten to hit learning on the head. One mistake can really dint a kid’s self-confidence and positivity, as well as dragging them a long way out of the focus zone. But this should never be the case.

How do I use it?
Rather than letting a mistake throw a student’s focus off course, just turn it into a learning moment. This can be done in a funny, humorous, or celebratory way. As always with kids, the more exaggeration the better. So if they misspell a word, try to lighten the moment: “Okay, you didn’t spell ‘great’ the way it normally looks, but ‘gerate’ sounds like a cool word — it’s just not the one we need!”

2. ‘Pull and release’

What is it?
This tip is especially effective for kindergarten classrooms where getting littler kids in the focus zone and keeping them there doesn’t work for very long! ‘Pull and release’ involves capturing a child’s undivided attention for a shorter period of time, then releasing it by asking them to answer a question, or complete an activity.

How do I use it?
Story time is a great opportunity for pull and release. Start reading a story, then after about two pages you might notice their little eyes start to wander. It happens, they’re tiny humans constantly distracted by the world! So we read two pages, which pulls them into the focus zone. Then, we release the focus by doing an action. For instance, if the word on the page says something about hands, we clap together. If there is something about jumping, we jump up and down. Then after a bit of release, they are ready to be pulled back to their focus place.

Young students studying ground outside (iStock)

3. Make the focus zone cool

What is it?
Making sure kids know what a focus zone is and understand why they need to be there is super useful. If kids don’t see the purpose of focusing, they aren’t going to do it. The focus zone needs to give them personal reward, ideally intrinsic reward.

How do I use it?
One handy way to do this is to make the focus zone a real space in students’ minds. When I was teaching English in France, getting students to focus on grammar points was often difficult, especially when they could hardly understand the concepts in their native language.

I implemented a ‘focus board’ in my classroom. This was basically outlining the reasons why we concentrate and why learning English was important to them. Points such as “English is fun”, “My brain is learning new words” and “I understand this!” were on the focus board.

4. Focusing on self-awareness

What is it?
I’ve tutored a lot of children of varying primary school ages throughout my teaching career. They tell me one of their big problems is it’s so hard to stay focused at school and they feel constantly distracted with what’s going on around them.

How to do I use it?
To help them out, I worked through a series of steps with them to help find the way they focus. For instance, one girl with mild ADHD said the noise of the classroom kept distracting her. We decided that before she enters her ‘focus zone’, she should count to 20 ‘loudly’ in her mind to block out the other sounds. Another boy who had dyslexia was distracted in class because the letters seemed to jump off the page. After some trial and error, we found that his ‘focus zone’ needed a piece of blue cellophane.

After finding a strategy that worked for the individual child, I’d remind them at the beginning of a tutoring session about how they’re going to focus. Over time, we essentially built up a metaphorical ‘focus kit’ which helped them a lot.

5. Celebrate the focus!

What is it?
As always, kids love being celebrated. Learning is a huge achievement and should never be underestimated. It is really exciting when something new is discovered, whether it is about a word or a mathematical equation. So at home or in the classroom, celebrating how a child focused is really important.

How do I use it?
This can be done in ways like rewarding a classroom of students after 30 minutes of focused work with a five-minute game. At home, sticker charts are miraculous things to show all the days that a child has done their homework or reading.

Boys focused on drawing activity (iStock)

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