To the newly qualified science teacher: what I wish I’d known

Starting your first year of teaching is daunting at the best of times, even more so when your PGCE year has been disturbed as in this year. In this post, a number of CogSciSci regulars share the tips and tricks they wish that they had known when they were first starting out. Topics covered are listed below in case you want to find something in particular:

  1. Simple tips for managing behaviour in a classroom
  2. How to say no
  3. Focusing on what’s important (i.e. not science club)
  4.  Subject knowledge
  5. What I wish I’d read
  6. The number one research finding to know
  7. Simple tips for managing behaviour in a practical
  8. How to start lesson one
  9. Where to find great resources
  10. Paying attention to attention
  11. Don’t mark books – plan meaningful feedback
  12. Becoming an evidence-based practitioner

– Ed. 

Simple tips for managing behaviour in a classroom – Ian Taylor

The single most important thing here is to be predictable. There should be no surprises when it comes to the way you manage pupils’ behaviour. Through calm, consistent and fair application of your school’s behaviour policy you should be able to achieve a stable and purposeful environment. (If you don’t have a whole school behaviour policy or centralised detentions, mention it to someone as being something to look into – or, find a job at a school which does!)

Be respectful. Even if a pupil is being ridiculously rude you should remain, as the adult in the situation, the role model. If a pupil is shouting at you, don’t shout back. If you stay nice and chilled they usually run out of energy (or the room) as they realise that you aren’t going to lose your cool or self-control.You also stay in the correct frame of mind for seamlessly continuing the lesson once the pupil has either settled or been removed.

Ignore anyone who says “Don’t smile until Christmas” as much of student progress is built upon positive relationships between teachers and students. Show your students that you care and that you believe they can achieve their potential: in fact, tell them. 

Ultimately any behaviour management you have to do is designed to get the classroom back on track and performing again. If someone walks into your classroom and sees students working calmly, but the behaviour board is brimming, then that just means you are using the system correctly. Praise the good, challenge the bad. Consistently. Every time. Without fail.

How to say no – Chris Baker

Teaching is never finished. There’s always another book to mark. A lesson to plan or improve. Emails to send. Phone calls to make. Duties you could do. Displays you could improve. After school clubs you could run. Colleagues you could observe. Trainees you could help out. Books you could read. Twitter you could read. CPD you could attend. Things you could try in your lessons. None of it ever finishes.

You could do what I did, and basically say yes to everything, and wait until you get ill (physically and/or mentally), or you can be selective now. Say no to things (or at least keep quiet when someone asks for volunteers).

What are the most important things to you? Do those things first, to a sensible quality, as quickly as you can. Then stop. Relax.

What really helped me was keeping a to-do list in Trello. It’s a free website with a phone app which let’s you track multiple to-do lists at once, and move stuff around easily. Setup a column for Today, one for Tomorrow, This Week, This Month, This Term, This Year. Put work in as you get it, and move it around. You could use the colour feature to track who the work came from, or categorise it.

If you’ve got more than you can do then ask someone to help you allocate (Your mentor or HoD would be good first people to try). If you recognise that you are heading into problems, shout up as early as you can. It’s not a weakness to say “I’m struggling to finish everything. I’m fine right now, but I’m worried if I keep going like this I will run into big problems”. Be open and honest with the people you work for. If you wait until the day before a deadline it might be too late for them to help much. 

The someday list lets you track stuff that YOU want to try. Writing it down let’s you get it out of your head, but puts no pressure to try it now. Because you can’t do everything at once, and you’re way better off doing a few things well than everything badly. Then when you’ve got time and you want to try something, you know where to turn.

Focusing on what’s important (i.e., not science club) – Rachel Wong

As a teacher, the most important thing is to deliver content to students and help them progress effectively from one stage to the next. So your number one focus as an NQT should be on developing your teaching practice, rather than all the extra stuff. The first year of teaching is one of the best times to do this as you have more opportunities to try out different ideas and methods, which is something you’ll miss and have less time for afterwards. Getting involved in other things (such as managing Science club) is also good, but they may divert too much of your time and attention in your first year and take up more of your cognitive load, making it harder for you to improve your teaching practice.

Here are what I think to be the two most important things to do during your NQT year:

  1. Plan your lessons carefully – Practise your explicit instructions. Plan your scaffolding and modelling of complicated concepts. Provide feedback where possible and allow time for pupils to act on them. Set up a routine of retrieval practice to help pupils reinforce their learning.
  2. Give yourself time to reflect on your lessons – note down what works and what doesn’t, and why that is the case. Remember it’s ok to have a bad lesson. It’s only through learning from mistakes that we can become better at what we do. Spend your protected time wisely, for example to observe lessons of other experienced teachers and learn from them. Don’t be afraid to try out different ideas that you may have, as long as you are clear on the purpose of each activity for your teaching and not just for “edutainment”.

I’ll end with a piece of advice my department head gave me on my first day: Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Taking care of oneself is just as important as working hard to improve as educators. As you continue to develop professionally, you will become more able to take on more responsibilities and expand your skills set, but to start with, focus on consolidating your teaching practice.

Subject knowledge – Satinder Bains

You might not really want to, but take the opportunity to teach outside of your specialist area with open arms. It may seem difficult at the time, however having an appreciation of a wider range of subject areas, will give a greater depth to your explanations in lessons which overlap in content. For example, teaching ‘The Atmosphere’ topic in chemistry is supported with photosynthesis, respiration and the carbon cycle in biology as well as the electromagnetic spectrum in physics.

In some lessons you may have to teach content you are not very familiar with. The best thing to do in this case is to create your own worksheet. There are lots of resources out there already so you shouldn’t have to start completely from scratch. Ensure all the key information for the lesson is included in a way that you feel comfortable explaining it. Make up your own questions along with their answers, this part will really help you to get ‘inside’ the lesson. Then use that resource as the basis for your lesson. It may seem time consuming and you may not be able to do it every time, but it really will help.

As a novice teacher I spent hours preparing a lesson on electrolysis and was pretty confident that it was going to be amazing, but it was an epic fail. Why? I was overloading the students with too much information in one go, I didn’t appreciate the tricky concepts that are always worth recapping, I wasn’t giving them time to master an aspect before moving into the next. Teaching, reflecting and making tweaks to your teaching practice is invaluable in helping you to develop the specialist skills in teaching your subject. It doesn’t always have to be that hard, as I mentioned there are many resources out there that may highlight the pitfalls so you can avoid them, or you may be lucky enough to have a subject specialist mentor to guide you along the way. However, this is just one of those areas that improves with experience.

What I wish I’d read – Adam Robbins

The book I’d wish I had read in my NQT year is without a doubt ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ by Daniel T Willingham. It’s a cognitive scientist’s attempt to simplify the most relevant research that is applicable in the classroom. In my defense it was published in 2010 and I was an NQT in 2003, but let’s not let the arrow of time get in the way. Willingham is famous for his quote “memory is the residue of thought”. It’s simple, kind of obvious and transformed my teaching. Before I was under the impression that students learnt from awe and wonder. I thought relevance and quirks were the secret to teaching them and that they should learn without realising they were being taught. When looking at Willinghams quote it’s very easy to see that all this did was take their attention away from the most important parts of the lesson. This led to a series of terrible choices where students were bombarded by multisensory non-sense. I’ve written about some of my daftest lessons here. I wasn’t the only one as others who came into the profession have confessed their #badlessons on twitter. Read them so you don’t make our mistakes and take solace in the fact that you are probably already better than we were back then! 

If memory is the residue of thought then we have a few principles we must adhere to:

  1. We must focus students’ attention on the right things: Try to avoid complicating explanations and including banter or other distractions (eg gifs)
  2. Students must spend time thinking about the content: Tasks must be designed to direct their thinking to the most important things and for long enough (eg SLOP
  3. Calm and quiet classrooms are better learning environments: So task choice should avoid unnecessary motion and distraction (eg no treasure hunts)
  4. Competition is motivational but not effective: They will be thinking about their score and not the work.

Some of these ideas will go against your PGCE training. I’m sorry if that confuses or frustrates you, but trust in Willingham. He knows his stuff. 

This one research finding – Bob Pritchard

Test-Enhanced Learning:Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention  (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006) 

There has been plenty of research into the (well established) benefits of retrieval practice, but the results of this paper are so clear (and the experiment so well put together) that it’s become one of the most well cited papers on the subject. It was one of the first cogsci papers that I read, and it had a real effect on my teaching, particularly how I structure lessons. 

The results of Roediger & Karpicke’s experiments show that testing pupils after exposure to new material has greater benefits for long term retention than repeatedly studying it. This is initially more difficult for pupils (and as a result it’s a strategy they tend to avoid, preferring to re-read, copy out notes etc). As teachers we can help show them the benefits by building retrieval practice into lessons. This can be through regular quizzes on previously taught content (for example, retrieval roulette) or through building shed loads of practice questions to help both reinforce concepts and check understanding. 

Testing (low stakes) is a very good thing.

Simple tips for managing a practical in a classroom – Ian Taylor

  1. Make sure you have practised the experiment. You need to be confident in the process in order to be able to guide your pupils safely through it. Check with your lab technician for any tips on either completing it successfully or about safety.
  2. Consider how equipment is to be distributed. Position it in different parts of the room and assign different pupils to get different apparatus: not all at once though, maybe partner A has 30 seconds to collect the Bunsen, heat mat and tripod. Then partner B has 30 seconds to collect the evaporating basin and gauze… etc.
  3. Take it slow. The cognitive load of practical work is astronomical. Demonstrate a couple of stages then let pupils carry them out. The Adam Boxer ‘Slow Practical’ blog is an essential read.
  4. Whenever possible, stand back and take in a view of the whole room. It is all too easy to get sucked into helping one group for a minute or two, within which all hell can potentially break loose! 
  5. Keep an eye on the time. Sometimes (usually physics experiments) things don’t go to plan and the minutes fly by at an extraordinary rate. Make sure you leave enough time for a calm pack up and a quick review of the planned learning: without this, the meaning of the experiment will most likely be lost and pupils will find it very difficult to recall the method and equipment next lesson.

One final point to bear in mind is that, as alluded to in point 3, the actual amount of learning which will take place during a practical lesson is often disappointingly low. It is really important to consider whether it’s worth it. Often, a demonstration will be more effective in illustrating the knowledge you hope to deliver as you are taking on the cognitive load of manipulating the equipment, freeing up the pupils’ internal resources for learning.

How to start lesson one. – Bill Wilkinson

I made a lot of mistakes in my NQT year, but the biggest was probably trying to be the cool new teacher in town who the kids all liked. Believe me, you don’t want to be liked, you want to be respected and you only get one chance to make a first impression. So make it count. The objective of the first lesson is to show that you are the teacher in charge of your classroom. It is not to get to know them or tell them all about yourself. You need to show them that whilst you are a pretty strict teacher, you are also warm and care about the educational success of each individual student in the room.

I get them lined up at the back in silence and put them in their seating plan row by row. I then rigidly stick to it.  Whilst they then get started on an accessible starter – an easy win to give them confidence – I go around and ask what they’d like to be called during the year. Some kids have names I mispronounced at the start and I’ll write out phonetically on my plan. Others prefer a shortened version or middle name, others still don’t like their name being shortened. I annotate my seating plan accordingly. You can only show you care about their education by using their name correctly.

While going around, I’m checking that they’re in the seating plan correctly. I don’t let anyone “accidently” swap with their neighbours. I insist – loudly, so the rest of the class can hear –  that they swap back again. Because we, the teachers are in charge of our space and nothing happens in it without our agreement. Finally I go back to the front and I bring them back together with my classroom call to attention “Show me you’re listening”, and I get on with lesson one.  

Where to find great resources

We’re obviously biased but the bank of resources that we host here are genuinely brilliant. We’ve covered pretty much the whole of KS4 and large chunks of KS3. No need to reinvent the wheel, especially when the wheel in this particular case was made by someone who knows the subject and the pedagogy backwards. Click here for a world of resource delights!

Paying attention to attention – Dom Shibli

In the early years of my teaching career I was not a student of the learning process. I was probably more concerned with getting through a lesson and the activities I had planned regardless of whether they supported the learning or not. What I now know is that the brain focuses on the moments that it considers important. So attention is a limited resource. Your challenge is to be able to focus students’ attention on what you consider important to the learning process. Put your subject matter in the spotlight and guide the students. Direct your students attention to where you want them to look because as Dehaene (2020) writes, ‘what they cannot perceive, they cannot learn.’

Don’t mark books – plan meaningful feedback – Helen Skelton

When you were at school you were probably used to teachers writing lots of comments on your work, perhaps you were expected to respond and the teacher would check up on your response. This time consuming dialogue marking, writing copious comments in every students’ book and using lesson time attempting to get them to respond was probably my biggest NQT time waster. Invariably I would end up writing the same comments in the majority of the books and then half of my students didn’t take any notice. This could have taken 2-3 hours for one class.

Checking work is important – you need to know what students have understood, what they are finding difficult, where there are misconceptions which need addressing, and which individuals are struggling or excelling. A whole class approach is a much more efficient and impactful means of checking work and giving useful feedback. This is the approach I now use – the books can be checked in half an hour and I have gained all that time to spend planning how to address the misconceptions, writing additional practice questions for consolidation, thinking about the best way to introduce or explain the next challenging concept we need to cover, or just doing something else that I enjoy!

  • Have a whole class feedback sheet to hand (the one I use is here).
  • Read though the books with pen in hand jotting down common strengths and weaknesses on this sheet. No need to write in the books at all. Make a note of students who deserve praise and those who might need some additional support.
  • Look at the big picture of what you’ve learned – what needs revisiting, consolidation or further practice?
  • Plan the start of your next lesson (or the whole lesson if necessary) to address the areas you’ve identified through further explanation and practice.

Changing my approach to marking and giving feedback has been transformational both in the impact it has on students’ understanding and in managing my workload.

Becoming an evidence-based practitioner

At CogSciSci we are always trying to take techniques that we know work and transplant them into the classroom. There are a number of ways to become more attuned to the evidence base and a more effective practitioner:

  1. Blogs: we are proud to boast a number of blogs here that bridge the research-classroom gap
  2. You can also use the WordPress app to see which blogs we at CogSciSci follow. Download the app, follow a load of blogs and you’ll find your practice changing for the better incredibly quickly.
  3. Up-skill: our modules are designed to help teachers just like you learn more about evidence based practice
  4. The Go-Bag: if you’re interested in something in particular or just want to browse all the research-goodies on offer for something that piques your interest, then check out the Go-Bag.

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