A Teacher’s Life on the Road

Copyright Free image via unsplash.com

Copyright Free image via unsplash.com

I once promised a friend that I’d write this post, and it is written for those who have never experienced what it is like to teach ‘on the road’.

I have been relief (substitute) teaching for four and half years, far longer than most, and to be fair it certainly has had its ups and downs. Waking up every morning waiting for the phone to ring (or not, as the case has been this year), being subject to the whims of often tired, stressed relief coordinators who just need to fill the day’s vacancies, turning up to a school not sure if you have a day’s schedule or not … it is not an easy road.

In the past, I have been criticised, and sometimes openly attacked, because I’m a relief teacher.

The idea, once quite openly expressed on Twitter, was that there must be something wrong with me, or that I couldn’t possibly be interested in working full-time – “The jobs are there if you wanted one” … The truth is that they are wrong, on both counts.

While those people are thankfully few and far between, I have some news for them …  I was a relief teacher by choice. Despite the stress and the complexity, I was free to teach, learn, and grow. Unlike some new teachers I know, I came through the hell of my first few years with my teaching spirit intact, and I know I am a better teacher for it.

Tomorrow, I will be visiting a new school. 

This time; however, I will be there for a different reason.  I have finally found a school which shares and values my vision for teaching and learning with the world through ICT. I knew it existed, but I’m still a little shocked as to where I found it.  I don’t mind that its a temporary part-time position, the very fact that I’ve won it is a personal vindication. It is the next step in my teaching journey, and as I hope to start my Masters degree next year, I’m quite happy with how I’m travelling. Everything happens for a reason, even if I don’t know what that reason is just yet!

Most teachers appreciate the work that relief teachers do.

Indeed, the best relief coordinators and Deputy Principals are those who have done relief teaching themselves in the past. But for those who dare to judge us without walking a mile in our shoes, assuming that we are lesser teachers, please re-consider. Our job is far from easy, and every relief teacher has a story. Just remember, … a welcoming smile, a friendly word of advice or teaching tips, a detailed daily work pad, directions to the staffroom … are appreciated far more than you will ever know.

Relief teachers talk to each-other. Schools where the teachers and admin are friendly and supportive are more likely to keep their experienced relief contacts. Those that show they don’t care, through their words and actions, are avoided – and others are warned to stay away.

We repay your kindness and care through our words and actions, and your students, and your school, stand to benefit. After all, we are all in this together.

Meeting My “First Year Self”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with a group of student teachers and a few new relief (substitute / casual) teachers, and been given ample opportunity to reflect on my early career experiences. I still have vivid (painful) memories of my student teaching practical experiences, and remember how I graduated from university in 2008 with high hopes and a completely unrealistic sense of my readiness to teach.

It is hard for my current colleagues to believe that the eccentric relief teacher that they see now was the epitome of the ‘angry young man’ just a few short years ago. Nevertheless, it’s true. It took me years to accept that my university had not properly prepared me for the profession, and that teaching was a much harder, more savage profession than I’d ever imagined.

This is my fifth year ‘on the road’, although I’m only just entering my fourth year of teaching (in terms of days worked). I’ve yet to have a class of my own, despite spending three months in a school (an unpleasant story with unexpectedly positive outcomes). It has been an interesting journey, but despite all the setbacks and disappointments, I’m actually a better person for it. And besides, with most graduates quitting within three years, I’m one of the survivors.

I’ve come a long way

I am a different person, a different teacher than I was just a few short years ago.

It has taken me over four years to feel competent, to feel like that I actually know what I’m doing. Yes, I make my mistakes, but I’m making fewer of them … Yes, I still struggle to manage some classes, but I have a better classroom management toolkit and approach to help me get through the difficult situations. And perhaps most importantly, with an extensive national and international education network, I no longer feel angry, isolated, and alone.

So, as I reflect on my pre-service and early career teaching experiences, I found myself mentally composing the advice I wish I’d been given all those years ago. For those of you about to graduate your teacher training, and those starting out in our profession, this is for you.

 

First Year Teaching is Hell Hard.

 
cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by wakingphotolife:

Please don’t enter this profession with rose coloured glasses. Please don’t expect to easily get a teaching position in a good school, in a good class. Don’t expect to be the perfect, well organised competent classroom teacher from Day One …

Teaching is not an easy profession, and your first year will be, to put it mildly, hard slog. It is a matter of survival, resilience, and perseverance. The meetings, the dealings with parents (who can be difficult), the planning, the extracurricular activities, the classroom management challenges … and the list goes on.

It is easy to be disillusioned, isolated, and alone as a new teacher, particularly when you’re a relief teacher or new graduate in a ‘horror’ class. Research shows that virtually all new teachers go through a process of survival, disillusionment, and rejuvenation, although some people take longer to go through a phase than others.

Image via http://www.weac.org/professional_resources/new_teacher_resources/beg_handbook/phases.aspx

(Image source:  http://www.weac.org/professional_resources/new_teacher_resources/beg_handbook/phases.aspx. BTW, I highly recommend the Survival Guide at this link)

As a relief teacher, I didn’t have the support network that most new teachers have when they’re posted to a school. I was lucky that I had a few schools which were willing to forgive my horrific management mistakes, and give me the teaching experience I so desperately needed.

I am indebted to those relief coordinators who gave me a chance to learn and improve, who didn’t ‘spit me out’ after one or two days in their school. I went through some very traumatic experiences, yet I was one of the luckier ones, as I wasn’t stuck in a horrible class or supportive school for my first year of teaching.

It isn’t really possible to adequately prepare for the challenges of first year teaching, but there are some strategies and resources you can access to help ease the transition.

 

Develop your PLN / support network BEFORE you graduate from your teacher training course!



cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Alec Couros

If I could go back in time and change one thing about my university teacher training, I would have started building my online support network as a first year teacher. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest teacher trainers should provide some information about online education networks and support communities as part of the first year teacher curriculum and graduate teacher programmes, as this would make a significant difference for many early career teachers.

My online support network has helped make me the teacher I am today. From providing emotional support behind the scenes through some of the most traumatic episodes of my career, to giving me the empowering chance to present at my first online conference, and to the ongoing collaboration that I contribute to, my online network has stood by me, and helped me grow over the past few years.

And remember, if you’re employed in a school community, don’t forget to develop your local support network as well. You’re not expected to know everything (although we often think we should), and don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues (teacher next door) for help and advice. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, as you can’t survive in this profession if you try to go it alone. You’re working to create a learning community in your classroom and school, so don’t be afraid to practice what you preach!

 

Engage in State/Union Graduate Teacher Professional Development opportunities. 

In Western Australia, I was lucky enough to be one of the few relief teachers to progress through the Education Department’s teacher induction programme. It is called different things in different states (see here for details) and different countries, but early career mentoring and professional development programmes are truly invaluable. You’d be truly mad not to participate if you’re eligible, and I was certainly glad I did so.

 

Try and maintain your health

This is vitally important, and something that I probably should have paid more attention to in my first few years. Eating healthily, aiming for regular exercise, and maintaining an outdoor hobby are critical to surviving first year teaching.

I must confess that while I became a skilled ballroom dancer during this time (it was my only social outlet), ignoring chronic stress-related health problems saw me end up in hospital. I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only first year teacher who went through this experience, and I can only stress that setting some time aside to look after yourself, however hard, is critical when you’re starting out in this very stressful, and time-consuming profession.

 

Document the Journey

As you progress in your career, there will be times where you will want to look back, and see how you thought and acted in your early years. In fact, I’m doing that now …

A private journal or blog is an essential medium for first year teachers. Believe it or not, it really, really helps to just take a moment to write down what you are doing, how you are feeling, and what you’re planning to work on. In my first year, I took a few hours each school holidays to sit and write, and what I wrote makes for interesting, if admittedly painful, reading.

In more recent years, this blog has replaced my journal, although I have always maintained a separation between the raw emotion of the journals & the more professional tone I use here. I’m not sure I could have publicly blogged my first year experiences, although I do know, and greatly respect those teachers who do so.

Keep hold of your dreams, passions, and reasons for entering teaching.

Each person comes into teaching for different reasons, and there will be times in your early career where you’d will be wondering if it is all worth it, whether you’re actually achieving anything, or making a difference.

Don’t let go of your dreams, find something to cling on to – through the good and the bad. If you’re lucky enough to discover a passion for something, hold on to it with both hands. Having a sense of purpose and direction makes a huge difference when you’re going through the rough times, and will help you stay in what is, at the end of the day, a wonderful profession.

Remember, you’re never alone. And you ARE making a difference.

 

Enjoy the ride

First year teaching will be a challenge, but it is just the beginning of what we hope will turn out to be an amazing journey. As I enter my fourth year of teaching, the painful memories and traumatic experiences have faded, replaced by the triumphs, successes, and positive learning experiences of the past two years.

They say “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, and that seems to have defined my teaching journey. For all the highs and lows, I’m a better person, and a better teacher. I’m looking forward to an exciting future in my chosen profession, and can’t wait to discover where it will take me.

Yes, I may not have (yet) had my own class, or a school to truly call home. Yet, I’m a teacher, and I’m proud of it.

All that remains is to wish my student-teacher and first year colleagues ‘good luck’ for your future. You have the potential to become great teachers, and I look forward to working with you in the years to come. Welcome to teaching.

 

SSTUWA Relief Teacher Professional Development – October

This is for the Western Australian relief teachers who read my blog :)

I highly recommend you take up the opportunity to attend the Relief Teacher Workshops run by our local union in the upcoming October school holidays.

I have attended several union professional development events in the past, and highly recommend them, particularly if you are a local relief teacher wondering how to get a job next year.  I also highly recommend the session on the Teacher Online Planning System (TOPS).

For details on dates and registration, please visit this page. Please note that while these workshops are FREE, they are available to SSTUWA union members only.

Cheers,

Michael

 

 

Three Years. A Relief Teacher’s Blogging Journey

Well, what can I say?

Three years ago today, I was a recovering first year teacher struggling to find my voice and calling in my profession. Today, I’m in Doha, Qatar, on the eve of the 20th iEARN International Conference.

For me, blogging has been an outlet, a way to share my experiences, thoughts, and learning with others. I used to feel isolated and alone, but no more.

I used to be obsessed with statistics … could anyone actually be interested in reading about my experiences? Now, the statistics don’t matter so much … because I know.

The past three years have been a roller-coaster journey. There have been stories of heartbreak, triumph, elation, and heartfelt thanks … but I stand here today with no regrets, secure in the knowledge that I have a voice on the world stage, secure in the knowledge that I’ve giving back to this wonderful global community which has given me so much, and more.

Here’s to another three years … God knows where I’ll be, but I’m looking forward to finding out :)

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Life is full of surprises

Over the course of this year, I’ve made some amazing connections through this blog, including some unexpected connections with local Western Australian relief (substitute) teachers.

Relief teaching can be a lonely profession. To the best of my knowledge, there are only a handful of relief / substitute teacher bloggers, yet I’ve discovered that there are quite a few reading my blog.

Flickr CC-NC-SA Image by Todd Berman

 

I know my content has evolved significantly over the past (nearly two) years,, a reflection perhaps of the “Journey” mentioned in the title, yet my musings on relief teaching and classroom management continue to drive most of my blog traffic.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I was contacted by several relief teachers, and one recently graduated teacher, working right here in Western Australia. We’ve corresponded via email and Twitter; swapping ideas, sharing experiences, and supporting each-other behind the scenes.

It’s a beginning

We may work in a lonely profession, but there is a wonderful opportunity for us relief and substitute teachers to share, connect, and collaborate virtually, and maybe later, face-to-face. We all have a story to tell, and it is time we started sharing them.

It has taken several years for my work to start attracting attention here in Western Australia, and while my work is well known internationally, these local connections are something I particularly treasure. I know I’m not alone, and I look forward to becoming further involved in the growth of my local education networks.

We live in interesting times.

Every Student Has a Story


As a new teacher, it is so easy to get all-consumed with the teaching.

Yet, it is important to remember that we are teaching students … we are teaching children.


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Pink Sherbet Photography


Some of my students, my “little characters”, are not easy to teach.

Some make me laugh, some make me cry. Yet, I enjoy working with, and teaching every one of them.

 

I believe in building bridges with my most alienated, challenging students. I invest significant time and effort in building trust and mutual respect. I try to find that connection, that one little thing we have in common … and I’ve learnt “that from little things, big things grow”.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m preoccupied with my own teaching and learning, but today I received a powerful reminder about the foundation of my teaching practice.

A student told me her story.

It wasn’t an easy story to tell, and not an easy story to listen to. Yet, it was a first step, a little breakthrough …  from which, I believe we can move forward.

Every student, every child has a story …

But as teachers, do we take the time to listen?

Well, It’s My Story …

A few weeks ago, I was invited by Edna Sackson (@whatedsaid) to share my story about why I became (and remain) a teacher. Overcoming my reservations, and with Edna’s support, I wrote A Teacher’s Story, which was guest posted on the ‘What Ed Said’ blog on May 28, 2011.

whatedsaid

If you haven’t seen it, you can find it here. (It was also picked up on the ‘Success in the Classroom’ blog here).



An unexpected response

To be honest, I was taken aback by the level of interest in my story. I received some heartfelt comments and supportive feedback from around the world, which I have permission to share here.

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Thankyou

If there is one message that I’d like my readers to take away from A Teacher’s Story, it is this: If new teachers are to remain in the profession, they need to feel supported and fairly treated by their colleagues and employers. Too many new teachers feel isolated, stressed, and alone, and before I discovered my PLN, I was once one of them.

We live, we learn, we grow. Why should we leave?

Thankyou for your feedback and ongoing support.

 

2010 – My Journey So Far

Well, 2010 has been an incredible year. It was a year in which I passed some significant milestones in my fledgling teaching career, and it was a year of immense, transformational change in my personal and professional life.

As my year draws to a close, I am finally starting to realise my aspiration to become a knowledgeable, connected, and reflective 21st Century educator.

Looking Back

I’ve learnt some valuable lessons this year -

  • Relief Teaching is a professionally and personally rewarding career option.
    • I have the freedom to experiment, develop a collegial network, collect resources, learn from my mistakes, and celebrate my successes.
    • I am now able to teach K-7, and work in a variety of Government, Independent, and Religious schools.
  • In my line of work, experience & a positive reputation mean a lot.
    • As I became a more experienced, and I hope, well-regarded relief (substitute) teacher, I noticed a dramatic increase in my work bookings over the course of the year.
    • This enabled me to actively experiment and improve my teaching practice, as I moved away from my relief ‘time-fillers’ to actually teaching and assessingstudents’ learning.
    • I am extremely grateful to those relief coordinators; (Hans, Deb, Sue, Jane, Cathy, amongst others), whose long-term support helped facilitate this empowering evolution in my teaching practice.
  • Writing merit-select job applications is an incredibly useful way to reflect upon and share your teaching practice with prospective employers.
    • On a personal note, I realised that while I can clearly articulate my practice through written mediums, such as my blog, I need to work on my ability to ‘sell’ myself in interview situations. Practice makes perfect, and I’ll have another go next year.
  • The Personal Learning Network (PLN) – Every teacher should have one
    • I believe the PLN is one of my greatest discoveries of my (short) career. I am an increasingly active member of the OzTeachers network, and have more recently realised the value of educational blogging and Twitter™ as professional learning tools.
    • My forays into this ‘connected’ world of global educators are still in their early days, and I will blog more extensively about this topic in 2011.

Image: ‘Arrival on my Way
http://www.flickr.com/photos/16230215@N08/4722297430

And Looking Forward …

While I don’t really know what 2011 will bring, I hope it will be a better, more productive year.

I enjoy my job. It is a wonderful feeling to walk into a school in the morning, and have students (and staff) greet you by name (or in my case, various derivations of it!). I hope I will have the opportunity to build upon the personal and professional relationships which I have worked so hard to foster during my relief travels in 2010.

I will also be working towards several important professional learning goals, which I have decided to share here -

  1. To continue to build my instructional toolkit; learning how to apply teaching and learning strategies, and reflecting upon my performance.
  2. To further investigate, and hopefully experiment with, the practical implementations of Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom.
  3. To build and contribute to my Personal Learning Network through my blog, Twitter interactions, and the “Blogs I Follow” via my RSS Reader.
  4. To revisit my First Steps™ informed literacy and numeracy planning approach, seeking feedback from experienced educators on my planned literacy block organisation model.
  5. To familiarise myself with the new Australian Curriculum, and rearrange my Curriculum Resource Bank (now containing over 4000 documents!) to reflect its’ structure and organisation
  6. To begin working towards my Accreditation to Teach Religious Education.

A New Year Begins …

Well, that’s it for A Relief Teacher’s Journey in 2010. I have quite a few posts in the pipeline, and I’ll be back to my regular blogging endeavours in January 2011.

I wish to thank all of my readers, around the world, for your readership & support over the past six months. A big thankyou goes to Veronica Chase (Substitutes FTW!) who made the first (and to date, only) comment on A Relief Teacher’s Journey. Also, thankyou to all my new Twitter™ followers – I look forward to talking to you next year.

I’ll be participating in the 2011 Edublogs™ Teacher Challenge, starting on Jan 10.

Happy New Year!

Image: ‘Happy New Year !!!

Forays into Upper Primary Science

As the Australian school year draws to a close, I have had the time to reflect upon and review my experiences teaching upper primary science during 2010.

March-May 2010 – Year 6/7 Science & Arts

Earlier this year, I replaced a science/arts teacher in a small independent Christian school in Perth’s southern suburbs. I taught Science and Art one day a week, working with a group of 20 students exhibiting a challenging range of literacy skills, learning difficulties and special needs. It proved to be a professionally rewarding relief assignment; one which required me informally plan, teach and assess students’ learning, rather than acting as a gloried (although well-paid) ‘babysitter’.

As a general rule, I tried to follow the absent teacher’s notes, in expectation of his imminent return. After discussing the situation with the regular classroom teacher; however, I increasingly drew upon my Curriculum Resource Bankand developing  ‘instructional toolkit’ to translate the teacher’s suggestions into more engaging learning activities.


A Professional Experiment – Modelling Concept Maps

On my first day, I was asked to complete a unit on the Human Body, implementing a (poorly written) blackline master test. In a personal first, I decided to model the use of a concept map to assist students’ test preparation. The results were rather surprising, as I detailed the next day in my reflective journal:

“After the recess break, students had to revise for a test on the human body. I experimented with modelling the use of a concept map as a revision tool; using different coloured markers to highlight the levels of detail.

I was surprised to find that the use of this strategy enabled one student, who finds writing very difficult [and has an undiagnosed learning difficulty], to share his significant knowledge of the topic.

He was later able to complete most of the test, despite taking twice as long as his peers.”

Flickr CC Image: ‘Science Activity – Ecosystems

Putting this in Context

Throughout the Graduate Teacher Professional Learning Program, an extremely valuable mentoring / support program for graduate teachers in Western Australia, our presenters have discussed how effective teachers have a toolkit of instructional strategies which they can use to support and assess student learning.

imageRather than using a strategy haphazardly, teachers can select a teaching strategy for a defined purpose, and use it to improve student learning outcomes. I believe this is an important aspect of ‘instructional intelligence’ (Bennett & Rolheiser, 2001), an area in which I have undergone significant professional growth over the past two years.

The seemingly trivial anecdote above marked the very first time I personally selected an instructional strategy with a clear learning purpose in mind (rather than following another teacher’s instructions).

Shortly afterwards, I recorded a professional learning goal to practice and evaluate my use of other instructional learning strategies in my relief teaching practice. As I will outline in my next post, I was extremely surprised and pleased with the results.

 

Reference

Bennet, B. & C. Rolheiser (2001). Beyond Monet: The Artful Science of Instructional Integration. Toronto: Bookation

 

Reflections on Classroom Management (Index)

My Experiences, Philosophy, & Reflections

  1. My Jigsaw Approach to Classroom Management
  2. The Conscious Competence Ladder (Skill Development)
  3. The Four Stages in My Teaching Practice
  4. Classroom Management – Summing Up

The 3 R’s of Effective Learning Environments

  1. Setting the Scene
  2. Overview of the 3 R’s
  3. Transforming a Year 3 class into a learning community
  4. The Third ‘R’ – Shared Responsibility for the Learning Process
  5. My experiences with the Third ‘R’

‘The Theory of Bumps’ (Bennett & Smilanich, 1994)

  1. The Key Principles
  2. Explanation & Suggested Strategies

The 3 Keys to Working with Challenging Students

  1. Introduction
  2. What is a “problem” or challenging behaviour?
  3. Part 1: Building Positive Relationships
  4. Part 2: The Classroom Learning Environment
  5. Part 3: The Teacher’s Attitude, Actions, & Management Approach
  6. Responding to Anger

Building Positive Relationships

  1. Small Talk: “From little things, big things grow”
  2. Relief Teaching – Chalk & Small Talk!
  3. Get Involved with Breakfast / Lunchtime Clubs
  4. The Importance of Active Listening

Top Tips for Teachers – Behaviour Management (Video)

Cracking the Hard Class