A year cut short but not cut off – for English trainees, NQTs and beyond!

As a Head of Department, I am wary that there are groups of different people to keep on track and support during this unusual time. Many of my department have children and are trying to home school them. I am sure that due to being teachers, they are taking this role very seriously and doing a grand job! Some of my department do not have this specific responsibility but have many other things going on. For trainees, whose training year has possibly been cut short, this is a difficult time too.

Suddenly, everything they had planned out for them has changed and they need continued support. I urge you, if you are in a position of responsibility to think about your trainees from a subject specific perspective. If you are a trainee who is about to be an NQT, or an NQT whose year has been cut short then perhaps consider some of the steps below to create a plan so that you don’t feel too lost at sea. The top tips actually apply to anyone – you don’t have to be inexperienced in the classroom to want to know more and keep improving. In fact, it is vital we maintain this curiosity throughout our teaching career.

Our current trainees have a professional learning program which is run excellently through our teaching & learning team and they have been providing invaluable support to our trainees. I think it also important to consider this time as subject leaders and mentors too. Hopefully your trainees have been reassured about their training, given support by their current or forthcoming school and if they haven’t secured a job yet are being supported in finding one. This is of course the priority.

So, if most or all of this is in place, what next?

There are many routes into teacher training and our three different training providers have stated that our students do not have to contribute in the same way towards setting and creating work as they would typically. At the moment they have been advised by them to complete their assignments, update their folders and seek advice from us. I have been extremely lucky in securing three of our trainees for teaching next year when they will be NQTs; they are therefore quite keen to keep helping and learning. We have offered them opportunities to support the team and create resources for remote learning alongside their mentors and colleagues but there is further opportunity here. Here are the things I have come up with that potential English NQTs could consider reading and thinking about in advance of a September start. Hopefully we will be back before then but the recommendations still stand. The key thing is that these are suggestions – these are not formal targets or requirements for any of our trainees. This is just one possible route to go down – specifically for English trainees:

  • Improve your subject knowledge – read the texts!

As a trainee or NQT, you are trying to get your head around new systems, new buildings, new students, new timetable, new everything and sometimes, just sometimes, reading the extract from A Christmas Carol before you teach it seems like the last thing you should do. You’ve read it before so you know what it’s about…but when you read it before you were in someone else’s class concentrating on how the teacher was questioning or you read it when you were in Year 9. Sadly, that may not be enough.

Improving our subject knowledge should always be number one on our list. Rereading something is vital before you teach as is reading your extracts or poems properly. They are your resource – not the beautiful powerpoint but the text.

Therefore, it is worth looking ahead at your curriculum (if you can get it from your NQT school) to see what you should read and it should be everything on that curriculum. Obviously with time being an issue, it is key you start with the texts for September. Even if you have read it before then read it again. Every time I read Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men or Jekyll and Hyde I spot something new, something that stands out, a link I didn’t realise before that proves invaluable that year. Rereading is vital.

I would also add here that many departments also study extracts but – as I have learnt from non-specialists teachers – it is still tricky to understand an extract if you do not know the whole text (something to bear in mind when choosing to use them in your curriculum). This is vital as when you explain this to students you want to be able to make links. For example, we use extracts from Jekyll and Hyde in our Year 9 Gothic scheme of work as they read this in Year 11 so it is helpful for me to be able to summarise the genre, key events and plot before launching into an extract. For the Frankenstein and Dracula extracts the exact same is necessary even though we don’t teach them later on. If I can’t say at the very least ‘this is from the opening of Dracula where a young solicitor is wandering the castle’ and then link this to the prior learning they have done on Dracula then there’s little point in being able to find language and structure features in it. Our unit is about the genre even though we don’t read a whole text during this time but if you cannot explain an extract’s origin then you will find yourself teaching less well than the alternative.

  • Read the texts you don’t enjoy:

Don’t rely on your own learning (however long ago that might be) but use this time to sit, read and enjoy the texts. Much like we suggest to Year 11, it may even be worth starting with the texts you think you’ll dislike the most. This might sound bizarre but there will be texts you don’t enjoy reading but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy teaching them. Personally, I wouldn’t normally read a Dystopian novel if I had to make a choice but I do adore teaching this unit to Year 8.

I have seen huge issues come from staff not reading or knowing the texts. Experienced staff can ‘get away’ with this to some extent – they might read it in the run up to teaching it still but you just know they aren’t keen on it and this comes through to the students immediately – putting many of them off. Teachers often then claim that it is ‘too’ something – too hard, too long, too short, too old, too new, too different, too verbose – but often I find this is just a question of selling. If you, as a student teacher can fully engage with your texts, find links to other parts of the curriculum, understand fully why that text might be on the curriculum (look to GCSE texts, find links to key skills, ask for a justification of the curriculum from your mentor) then you will find reason to enjoy it and reason to pass that on to your students.

  • Engage with Teaching & Learning books or blogs:

Back in 2012 when I qualified there were hardly any books on teaching and learning available in the same way that they are now. There were huge doorstop sized books called things like ‘Secondary Teaching’ but they didn’t look or seem particularly accessible. We are so lucky that now there are a plethora of books available – some specifically tailored towards English teaching and others towards general teaching and learning. I would recommend listening to some podcasts too (an easy way to get engaged). I really enjoy listening to Becoming Educated podcast with Darren Leslie which can be found by clicking here or on Spotify and Apple music.

Don’t feel you need to listen, engage or read everything at once; I still have piles of T&L books yet to read but I also quite like generating and refining my own ideas first. Sometimes you can end up with too many things going on! It is also important to remember that most books are written by experienced teachers – don’t try to emulate but take what works for you in your context. Here are some recommendations in two categories: English and Research.

English specific reading:

  1. You must consider reading Alex Quigley’s excellent book Closing the Vocabulary Gap and his most recent book (I’ve yet to read!) on Closing the Reading Gap too. His first book has some excellent strategies and ideas to improve your approach and understanding of vocabulary teaching. I used this text alongside Doug Lemov’s book on Reading and have formulated much better process in our department because of them.

 

2. I cannot exaggerate enough how excellent Chris Curtis’ blog has been over the years. His blog is concise, clear and clever and can be found here: http://learningfrommymistakesenglish.blogspot.com/

Chris has also recently published a book which has some excellent resources and ways of thinking. This book really reminds me of the wise words I have heard from experienced teachers over the years – all the things I wish they had written down, Chris has. It is excellent.

How to teach

3. It is vital you think about the how as well as the what and this is something that Jennifer Webb’s books do really well. Taking inspiration from lots of different places, her books give you practical ideas to bring to the classroom and focusing on important issues such as how to ensure students can overcome cultural poverty. Her first book ‘How to Teach English Literature’ is extremely useful and a good one to dip in and out of when you need some inspiration. Her newest book is on writing and I can’t wait to get hold of it.

Eng Lit

 

4. One of my final recommendations is about grammar and a book that I lean on a lot! I actually first purchased this in my undergrad years (I must have known!) but I can recommend both of them. I have one about literary terms that my students call my ‘clever book’ as they know I’ll go to it to find answers to ‘Miss, what is it called when…?’ if I simply can’t remember or am unsure. I recommend having reference books like this in your classroom.

 

Educational Research:

  1. There are lots of books out there relating to research but some can be overwhelming. Good options to start with include the ResearchEd guides – you can buy these on Kindle which I have found helpful. I would start with the guide to Education Myths and Literacy. Noting you may not ever have been taught about the myths but these are the type of things you may start noticing during your NQT year and want to be able to cast a critical eye over!

2. This feels a little crass but I will recommend my book published by Bloomsbury called ‘Research-informed Practice‘ for less experienced staff, those not engaged yet with research and NQTs in particular. I wrote this book with those teachers who haven’t yet engaged with research fully in mind! It is the knowledge, recommendations and cues I wish I had during my formative teaching years; a step-by-step guide on how to become more research literate, what to read and how to put it in practice in your classroom. I couldn’t recommend this to my trainees in their first terms as I think there are many other things in your training year to get your head round but I think your first few years in teaching the perfect time to begin to consider research in education more formally.

Bloomsbury

As a guide to becoming research-informed and includes top tips at the end of every chapter with quick, simple tasks you could do including other free reading.

I was supposed to talk about how to engage less experienced teachers in research at ResearchEd Salisbury in July but sadly this has been cancelled. For this event, Bloomsbury kindly gave me a discount code to pass on, so if you go to Bloomsbury.com/Education and use code ‘Research35’ you can recieve a whopping 35% off at the moment.

  • Consider your next steps:

Your training provider might say different things about whether or not you have passed or will pass your training year so it is important to note the particular details of your course but it is also worth using some of this time to write a few bullet points for your next steps. Consider:

  1. Your current targets – what were you trying to improve in the weeks running up to school’s closing. What were you going to do to improve? What plans had you made but you couldn’t see through? Write these down so they don’t get lost.
  2. Possible targets for NQT year – what do you believe might be your biggest challenges or issues especially having not been in the classroom for some time. Can you talk to your current mentor about these? What are your concerns? Writing these down can be a great help especially when you can’t have your weekly meetings with a mentor in the same way.
  3. What area of Teaching and Learning do you find most interesting? What would you like to improve the most? Your explanations, presence in the classroom, behaviour management, questioning? Try not to make the list too long! Keep it short and focused and consider which ones you want to focus on in the first few terms of your year. Don’t try to do it all at once – you’ve got plenty of time ahead!

Best wishes to all whose training years have been a bit displaced but please don’t fret – we are all in this together and the best teachers are those that, in my opinion, realise they are always learning. Your year may have been cut short but that shouldn’t mean you are cut off from learning, improving and being part of a team. I hope you will get the support required both now and when we return to school.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support for years and years to come. Use this opportunity if you can – and take care of each other.

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