Number one rule in discipline is never get irritable. Forgive easily and forget. Easier if you aren’t in a mood…
— Miss Smith (@HeyMissSmith) August 9, 2015
This tweet really resonated with me, and there’s not a teacher alive who can’t recall a time when they ignored this principle. Tell me you’re the exception and I’ll call you a liar. We all get irritable, often for very good reason. Everyone has different triggers, although some things are naturally more irritating than others. Missing the bus. Finding the milk’s gone off, after you’ve put it in your tea. Spoilers for a good book or favourite TV programme. Jeremy Clarkson. Teenagers in general.
As a teacher, the problem is that kids hold grudges even better than we do. And there’s more of them, so they’ll win in the grumpiness stakes, even if only by weight of numbers. Something that may be helpful is an idea from outside teaching, a reminder of the emotional states that lead to bad decisions. The concept is that we should generally avoid doing something that can’t be undone when we are:
This acronym/mnemonic has more than one claimed source, but you may find the guidance at LifeSIGNS
helpful; my interpretations below are obviously a personal take on the subject! HALT means to stop before you do something you may regret.
It’s an easy one, this. Teachers rush. We might skip breakfast, even though we tell kids it’s a bad idea. A couple of biscuits with a cup of tea, drunk too hot when the bell goes, is all we get at break. Lunchtime might happen, in between kids explaining why they haven’t done their homework and a manager admitting that the deadline for predicted grade entry was yesterday and he forgot to email. Then a parents’ evening after a canteen baked potato, somehow burnt on the outside and nearly raw in the middle.
Like we tell our students during science topics, we shouldn’t divide food into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Instead, we need to think about ‘always’ or ‘sometimes’ foods. In the long term, yes; we should eat food, not too much, mostly plants. (LINK) But in the short term, we are better off eating something than going hungry. You could buy the cereal bars that are edible, but that don’t have enough chocolate to be a treat. Add packet soups to your emergency stationary drawer. Keep some bottles of water and dried fruit in the car, so when you’re running behind the traffic lights are a chance to eat as well as a source of huge frustration.
Anecdotally, NQTs either gain or lose five kilograms during the year. Now, this isn’t evidence-based, apologies to Tom Bennett. But there is probably enough truth in it to bear in mind when you’re shopping for break-time snacks you can eat between students.
They’re really good at pressing our buttons, aren’t they? Sometimes I don’t know what’s more irritating; teenagers who are honestly completely oblivious about their thoughtlessness, or those who are deliberately choosing to aggravate. I don’t mean those who tease about your football team losing, but the kid who tells you, absolutely seriously and sincerely, that they don’t understand why you don’t “just kill yourself and make life better for everyone.”
Yes, I’m quoting from personal experience.
There’s no cure for anger, wherever it lies on the ‘mild annoyance’ to ‘burning rage’ scale. An author I like, Spider Robinson, has a character in one of his books suggest that “Anger is fear in drag.” Whatever the cause, it’s rarely a bad idea to pause. If a kid was visibly angry, you’d remove them from the situation (or remove the situation from them). So this is where you repeat the instruction and specify consequences, allow take-up time and go to do something else. Go talk to a student you know you’ll be able to praise. Fetch a replacement board pen. Step around the prep room door and snap a pencil in half (don’t let the kids see, or they’ll treat it as a game). Longer term, there are things you can do, and should. In the short term, the aim is just to take a breath and respond, instead of react.
I think this – along with holidays vs term-time workload – is one of the biggest misconceptions non-teachers have about our profession. Despite being part of a team, often with dozens of colleagues and several hundred students, it can feel very isolated. Being a teacher means being responsible for thirty human beings, what they do and what they learn. The staffroom can be very lonely, whether you’re new to a school or you’ve just had a bad lesson despite years of experience. It’s remarkably depressing when you say that this class or that student was challenging today, and there’s a chorus of “They’re not like that for me…”
You shouldn’t be alone in the school – but it’s understandable you might feel that way. Like being a parent to a young child, it can be hard to make time for adult conversations. Try. Put it on the timetable that one lesson a fortnight you’ll go and talk to a colleague about teaching ideas. Make it positive and make it a regular commitment. Some colleagues can seem very negative, and where possible they’re the ones you need not to talk to!
You can also find colleagues, support and ideas outside of school. If you’re an early career teacher of Physics I’d recommend the SPN mentoring programme
, for example! (The day job is working as part of the IOP.) Twitter can be great, although I’m taking a little time out for the moment, and you’ll be able to find ‘virtual colleagues’ who can help both professionally and emotionally.
All the problems of the classroom are easier when students recognize they’re dealing with a team, not an individual teacher. The positive experiences students have tend to be about our strengths; when things are difficult we need to rely on each other, on institutional standards and policies, to make up for our personal weak moments. Because we all have them, but we shouldn’t have to deal with them alone.
Lesson 5 on a Friday, anyone? After a parents’ evening on Tuesday and a Wednesday twilight INSET on the correct way to administer an EpiPen? How many of you have already started to think about your DVD selection? I know I would be, because sometimes it’s better to aim for a small amount of learning than risk catastrophe.
There as as many reasons for being tired as there are teachers, but some things are predictable. Make sure your personal calendar is visible when you do your long-term planning. Be reasonable, because if you try for every lesson to be all-singing, all-dancing, outstanding according to Ofsted… you’ll probably last a fortnight. It’s not sustainable unless you’re prepared to take a part-time salary and work full-time on planning and marking. Make your school life easier.
- Choose one lesson per group for the fortnight which will be impressive. Star it on your timetable, max one per day. Consider scheduling a ‘planned low impact’ lesson on the same day.
- Choose a template for activities which you use for a certain amount of time. Maybe you can use a structure so that the first lesson each fortnight with a class starts with a picture. The second lesson begins with three multiple choice questions. The third… you get the idea.
- Investigate pre-made and customizable activities which are ready to print and use. You might have some in house; you may find one site or library works well for you. (See the second half of this post on the difficulties with finding resources)/
- Passive activities can be made active with a relatively small time commitment. Turn copied and pasted notes from Bitesize into a ‘spot the mistakes’ exercise; no copying for the kids, but a chance to use the magical red pen. Have students answer questions after watching a video, or even better generate them for each other. Provide a template for research lessons and share the best examples as student notes.
I’m afraid there are no magic solutions to tiredness; the average teacher has a lot more work than week. Anything you can reuse from past years, ‘borrow’ from colleagues locally or electronically, find at one of the many resource sites, gives you more time. I like the idea of time assets and debts, which you could sum up with a simple example. If I can spend an hour in August Doing a job that will save me just two minutes every week in term time, I’ll be ahead after a year. If it saves me two minutes each school day, I’ll have gained five hours by next summer.
So tiredness can’t be solved except by the boring approach of sleeping more. But we can use our waking hours better, just like we tell kids in exam season who would rather complete Call of Duty that revise.
Time to HALT?
I’d be really interested in any feedback on this – maybe it’s obvious, but writing it helped me get some things straight in my own head. As I said, I’m off Twitter for a bit, but feel free to share – just remember you’ll have to comment here if you want me to know what you think.