3 Top Tips to not lose your head in your first year teaching or in a new year group.
This is a post for anyone feeling a bit anxious about starting back to school this year. It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed in teaching, especially when you haven’t taught in front of a class for a while – there’s always:
- More to do
- Someone to compare yourself to
- Not enough time
- A never-ending stream of emails
- A to-do-list longer than both of your arms
After 13-ish years of teaching and frequently changing year groups and contexts, I’ve kinda got used to being a bit more comfortable with not fully knowing what’s going on, never being the “expert” and feeling on the back foot.
As I move year groups again, I’m starting to distill some ideas about how to cope with overwhelm in teaching and focus on what is important. This has led to be feeling much more relaxed in new contexts and much more forgiving of myself when things go work out straight away. So, I thought I’d share 3 top tips with fellow teachers feeling potentially overwhelmed at the start of the year in the hope that we can all keep calm together.
Top Tip One.
Focus: What is important right now?
Here are the first questions to ask yourself:
What is important?
What are my priorities?
I learnt some great techniques for prioritising workload from “Eat That Frog” and using the “Pareto Principle”. The basic concept of this principle is that 80% of your effects will come from 20% of the causes.
So, you need to find out what that 20% is. Find that and you can have maximum impact for less work. Here’s how to find your 20%:
Write out all of the jobs you want or need to get done to get your class running (including questions you need to find out the answer to or things that need to be fixed!). Go for it – make that list loooooonnnnng – get everything down. Doesn’t it feel better when they’re on paper and out of your head?!
Now, highlight the TOP 20% of those jobs that will make the biggest impact in your classroom and readiness to teach. This was super useful for me. I went into school with loads of my Learning Power tools from last year, keen to get them up and running, but when I wrote out my list I realised getting my classroom environment and shared environment ready for my learners on a very basic level was my top priority – everything else could grow with the children after that. So that’s what I focused my efforts on. Basic classroom environment.
Speaking of classroom environment …
Top Tip 2:
Classroom environment – keep it simple
Okay, so those stunning videos of classroom environments all over social media are lovely, inspiring and wonderful to see. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. One epic year I took my class from EYFS to Year One and I asked them what they wanted in their environment before we moved up. From the children’s ideas, we hung a hot air balloon from the ceiling and set up a “Tooth Fairy corner” with a polaroid camera for when their teeth fell out. The children loved it. It is exciting to create this kind of environment to make the children feel welcome and excited, especially when the ideas have come from them.
HOWEVER, sometimes there just isn’t time to do this. For me, this year was one of those years. Also, I like my holidays – setting up the classroom above took two days (and two days before the most tiring and long term of the year). I think it’s important to keep holidays and weekends for rest – It’s one of my well-being rules and I try to be quite strict with it (because I let that slip before and it’s a slippery slope – see this blogpost).
This time, we kept things basic. We set up simple areas for provision which the children could use and were easy to tidy independently. We made the morning routine easy and accessible. I made sure there was a visual timetable ready. Really simple. The children felt safe because they had a clear, easy-to-follow morning routine. They had simple activities to engage with which they were familiar with and could happily access. This didn’t take long. We did it as a team. Credit to our awesome team leader, Raj, who lead and supported us focusing and keeping things simple.
We now have a great basis to grow the environment with the children. It doesn’t have to be all bells and whistles. The children were happy to come into school and settled really quickly. Which brings me onto my next point …
Top Tip 3:
YOU are the most important resource in the classroom.
You smiling, you connecting with the children, talking with them, caring, finding out their interests, playing with them, letting them know you care, valuing them and their ideas and having their back. Actually, this is all that is important. Make this priority number one on your list and the rest will follow. Build great relationships with the children in your class and they will feel safe, loved and ready to learn. They will also be ready to forgive you when things don’t go to plan. And parents will love you because they know that you deeply and genuinely care and their children.
This is especially important with more vulnerable children. Make a point to think about how to show them you care, that you’ll be there for them all year to help them learn from their mistakes and improve. One example from my class this year, is from one of my new to English children. I’ve been making an effort to smile at him, gently stroke his arm for reassurance, learn some words in his home language, but he’s still quite anxious about school. I had a mini-breakthrough last week when he was playing with hammering shapes, feeling upset that his parents had left him. I just sat by him and quietly created the same picture he had. When he had finished, I put mine beside his. His face lit up and we both laughed! It was a wonderful moment. Just this simple action said: “I care. You are valued. I see you.” Sometimes actions speak louder than words. What could you actions be to make sure you children know you care?
As the wonderful Jaz Ampaw-Farr says: Human first, teacher next. Watch her TEDx talk and some of those things you are worrying about will seem a lot less important. Just the fact that you are in this job, caring, showing up and connecting is enough.
So, it is of the utmost importance that you take care of the most valuable resource in your classroom. Set boundaries for yourself. Learn to say “no”. Go home early (you need to rest to be present for those amazing, energetic minds). See your friends. Get that massage.
Prioritise. Put relationships and your well-being first and the rest will slowly fall into place. I promise that by Christmas everything will make a lot more sense and, if you follow these simple rules, you won’t have broken yourself in the process.
Some super books on building relationships and prioritising happiness and well-being: