I wanted a job that allowed me to make a difference, do good things and have a big impact on the world. It was a toss up between nursing and teaching, but in the end I decided on teaching and I've never regretted it.
I thought I would get the freedom to use the gifts I'd got. So I did a teaching degree at Cheltenham. In the first lecture of the course the lecturer asked us to all the think of the first negative memory we has about our own time at school. We all had memories of teachers who made us feel small. I had a terrible one: I was five or six years old and I can remember the teacher telling me to walk around every member of the class and show them how awful my work was.
I've never forgotten it and even now, when I want to share a child's work – always to show how good it is not how bad it is – I ask permission from the child first. But of course this was 1986 so our memories were of the 1970s. I do think it is a rare teacher that does this nowadays – in the course of my whole career I've only ever met conscientious teachers – and that is definitely something to celebrate!
For me, doing a four-year teaching degree was perfect. I don't think I'd have responded so well to the pace of a PGCE. We had so many different teaching practices over the four years so by the time I qualified I had a whole range of vital skills.
Teaching is still fresh for me after all these years in the classroom because, of course, there are always new children. The joy of being a teacher is working with a child and thinking how is this person going understand this? How are they going to move on and get to the next part? It's a bit like solving a puzzle and needing to use all your skills and experience to do it.
As a teacher you have to use your powers of intelligence and observation to help them solve the problem and that's something I love doing. Finding out how people tick really matters to me.
I really want to help children enjoy their day at school and found you can make their day really appetising by being creative. But of course it's a big responsibility. When you are a teacher you have the opportunity to show individuals that they really matter. It's your job to discover their talents and help them find out who they are. This has always been a central part of my teaching. I really want to help shape people's lives, to help them discover they are important as individuals.
For the last seven years I've worked in a brilliant school, All Saints C of E primary school in Roffey. The school is only in its 11th year and I actually witnessed the laying of the foundation stone when it was just a muddy field. I do think that the school I work in now is extra special. The headteacher Susan Costa is the best head I've ever worked with. Teaching is a journey, you need to reflect every now and then. A great teacher will keep learning and teach on the basis of respect for the children. I've been really inspired by my current head who is constantly urging us to refresh and reflect.
We do what's called "the captivating curriculum". The whole idea is that we give the children memorable experiences. Every term has a "stunning start" to captivate the pupils. In fact, we will often start this before the term even begins, for example sending letters out to the children saying treasure has been discovered in the school grounds, or that they need to come to school on the first day of term ready to catch an aeroplane. There's a lot of dressing up by teachers as well as students.
I'm a PAA teacher now, which means I go into other teachers' classes while they can have some time out planning and creating lessons. You have to have a huge portfolio of specialisms. So I get to teach many different children over the whole school. I teach three days a week. I opted for part-time teaching as I wanted to invest a lot of time in my own children and being a parent has really informed my teaching.
Teamwork makes so much difference to how you feel as a teacher. The school I'm working in now has such a great ethos and culture of teamwork, and that comes right through from the head, to the classroom teachers, to support roles – and by extension to children and parents. We do feel valued and move forward as a team and that makes a huge difference to how you feel about your job. Teachers have to give their heart and soul and without that basis of respect for your colleagues it doesn't work so well.
There are always new horizons in teaching. I find it fascinating that teaching can stay fresh – you are always learning, always building on what you know. My latest thing is doing some forest school training. It's a way of children using their environment, being in the woods, making fires, building dens. Being outside gives teachers another way to help children find their skills and strengths. It's such a different way of learning and a different world for children to really shine. That confidence feeds back into what they are doing in other areas.
My worry about teaching now is that it's so hard to be a teacher these days. But there are many positives now that didn't exist when I started out, for example in the level of support a classroom teacher will get from teaching assistants is far more now.
And the very idea of PPA time is wonderful. I know teachers can't get all their planning done in this time, but the fact that it's formally recognised is a tangible way of admitting teachers work outside their teaching hours. It's got to be a good thing. When I look around at all the personalities in the class I think: here is our future, and I long for the right people to continue to go into teaching.
Mary Beal teachers at All Saints Church of England primary school in Roffey, near Horsham
Read Mary's resource on religious symbolism here.
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I thought my second grade teacher was an angel. She had long, sandy blonde hair and a smile for everyone. And she had the best name we had ever heard: Miss Kjoller (pronounced "Keeler"). We knew enough about letters to think, what is that 'j' doing there?
In Miss Kjoller's classroom, language was a mystery and a joy. It could help us discover our past (her name was German, we learned) and introduce new ideas that no one had heard before. She set up a reading corner with books and giant beanbags, and encouraged us to express our ideas in our own journal – a little book of handwriting paper with spaces for illustrations. She connected with us each individually, and made us feel that our thoughts and concerns were important.
Second grade was a stark contrast to first grade, where my teacher was unprepared, overwhelmed, and unhappy. I felt like a burden to her, and I started coming home with stomach aches. On the outside, the two classrooms looked a lot alike, and it may have been the first year for both teachers, but Miss Kjoller made me love school again.
The impact teachers have on our lives is undeniable. It is probably the reason many of us chose it as a career – either because we were inspired by a great teacher or motivated by the idea that if we were in charge, we could do a better job.
As a first and second grader, I was not (and should not have been) aware of the work that went into creating those learning environments, but I could distinctly sense the difference between them. Some early preparation can set the stage for a positive and successful year for you and your students. Here are four suggestions for starting the year off strong:
- Get to know your students before the first day.
Talk to previous teachers, look through yearbooks, and read students' files – especially those with IEPs. Know their struggles, but also give them the opportunity to start fresh. Knowing a little about them will help you feel less nervous, and may give you ideas about ways to engage them. Remember that they will be nervous on the first day too!
- Start early in establishing a relationship with parents.
If they have talked to you once, they will be more likely to share information later that will help you understand and address learning problems. It will also open the door for suggesting activities to promote reading and learning at home.
- Create a system for regular assessment and progress monitoring.
This will help identify weak areas early and give you regular feedback about your methods.
- Establish a relationship with an experienced teacher.
A mentor can answer questions, provide support, and reassure you when you need it!
Questions from First Year Teachers
Reading Rockets solicited questions from people about to embark on their first year of teaching. Below are some of the answers to some of their questions:
I am nervous about the accountability set by No Child Left Behind. What will happen to me if my students do not improve their reading scores enough during the year?
No Child Left Behind requires all public schools to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP). If schools do not meet progress goals two years in a row, they are labeled "in need of improvement." NCLB outlines a sequence of reforms, ending with a complete restructuring of the school after the fifth year. A school can only begin replacing teachers in poorly-performing schools after the fourth year of low performance. Though you will probably not lose your job due to NCLB after your first year, make sure you take opportunities to expand and improve your teaching techniques. This will secure your position as a teacher and your students' success as learners.
The U.S. Department of Education outlines the law and answers frequently asked questions in an easy-to-read manual called No Child Left Behind: A Toolkit for Teachers
There is a set amount of time that should be spent on reading each day, according to my district. Between that and the math time, it leaves less than an hour for science and social studies together. Can I integrate the reading time with other subjects to give my students a well-rounded education?
While students need to understand the mechanics of reading (just like we need to understand how to operate a car before we can drive around), the ultimate goal is to go places! Don't sacrifice content in your reading exercises. Organize reading lessons around themes, so that as students learn to read, they are getting ready to make use of this skill by tapping into a large reserve of knowledge on a variety of topics. Use science and social studies time to expand on the ideas you read about during reading time.
By incorporating different subjects into reading time, you are addressing two important components of a good literacy program, as identified by the National Reading Panel: fluency and comprehension. When children have background knowledge in lots of different areas, they will be able to link what they read to what they know, creating a larger web of understanding about the world around them.
The more you help students make connections within and between subject areas, the more they will get from reading!
What kind of homework can I give my students to help with their reading abilities? I don't want to just give them spelling worksheets.
The best way to use homework as a teaching tool is to assign a task that students can use during the next class period. Incorporate homework into a class activity so that students are practicing a skill independently at home and then putting it to use in the classroom. This way, they will feel their work was worthwhile, and you will be more likely to keep their assignments meaningful.
- Example 1: Vocabulary
Focus vocabulary words around a theme you are discussing in class. Assign each child 5 words and have them look up the definitions for homework. In class, put them into groups to label a diagram, present a report, or describe a process using the words. If each child had slightly different words in his list, they will all need to participate to complete the project.
- Example 2: Spelling
For spelling practice, give students a set of words with the same pattern (e.g. –eet). For homework, have them trace and illustrate each word. In class, play a game where students have to match the beginning sound (f-, b-, sw-, gr-), the common pattern (-eet), and their picture.
- Example 3: Writing
For homework, have students write two lines of a poem, using a recent vocabulary word. In class, have children put their segments together and create a song.
Don't give so much homework that they don't have time to be kids! And remember, work that seems quick and easy to you may take much longer for a child. In a nutshell, keep homework short and meaningful.
For more advice for first year teachers, check the transcript from Education Week's recent chat with teachers Hanne Denney and Jim Burke, Getting Ready for the New School Year: Advice for Teachers:
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