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Eight important lessons all teachers come to learn

Teaching is a strange profession. A craft that needs to be honed over time, it’s part art, part science, and none of us are ever the finished article. Being a teacher means constantly learning-about pedagogy, psychology, behaviour management and a whole host of other things. It never stops, so with that in mind, here are eight of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since starting my teaching career.

1) You cannot do everything.

It is not physically possible to do all the things on your to do list. Not without foregoing food, sleep and personal hygiene. Some things simply will not get done, either because you forget to do them or because there aren’t enough hours in the day. There will be times when you forget to set homework, or take the homework in, or respond to an email. There will be things you know you should do but somehow never find the time for. Forms that never get filled in, behaviour points that never get logged. Do you know what happens in those instances? Absolutely nothing. So long as you’re doing the things that must be done-the planning, the teaching, the marking, the reporting-it doesn’t matter if some things slip every now and again. No one will notice or care, so don’t stress about it.

2) You are in control of behaviour, except for when you’re not.

Kids’ behaviour varies hugely depending on a whole host of factors. The time of day, the weather, the lesson they had before yours-it all plays a part in determining the kind of mood they’re in. So while it is true that the teacher has a huge impact on how a class behaves, it’s also true that there are dozens of other factors that are entirely outside your control. You may have spent ages planning a detailed and engaging lesson, but if it’s snowing outside, or there is a wasp in the classroom, or a fight happened at break, then there isn’t much you can do. They are likely to be bouncing off the walls, and your well planned lesson will be spent getting them to settle back down. It happens to everyone, but it’s nothing personal.

3) You never know how it’s going to go.

Some days your worst group will surprise you by being golden. Other days your best group will play up for seemingly no reason at all. Do not assume a class will behave one way today just because they do normally. That being said, it is helpful to brace yourself if you know you have a tricky class. Going in with low expectations means they’re less likely to disappoint you. Indeed, they might surprise you by not being as bad as you thought. Whatever you do, don’t go in hoping your challenging class will suddenly have turned a corner, because you will come away feeling defeated. Just take every lesson as it comes and accept that teaching children will always be a mixed bag.

4) Kids are wonderful…when you’re not trying to teach them.

Even the most challenging students usually turn out to be lovely outside of their formal lessons. Poor behaviour is often the result of them not liking a subject or finding it difficult, but as soon as the pressure is off they can seem like entirely different children. Just watch them, when it’s the last lesson before Christmas and you’re letting them chill, or you’re away on a trip and they get to do their own thing for a while. Those moments are a welcome reminder that they really are just children. Sweet, sensitive, hilarious children who make our job worth it, even if they are pains up the arse sometimes.

5) Sometimes, you just need to grit your teeth and get through it.

Some lessons will be dreadful. The kids will play up, the technology won’t cooperate, or you’ll realise half way through that you forgot to print off something you needed and have to change tack. When a lesson is descending into chaos despite your best efforts, it can be truly nightmarish. At best, a bad lesson can leave you feeling deflated, and at worst, it can make you feel like you chose the wrong profession. But it’s important to remember that every teacher has, at some point, had disastrous lessons. They come with the territory, especially when you’re teaching high-school-aged children. When it happens, you just need to grit your teeth, get through it as best you can, and then put it behind you and move on.

6) The kind of teacher you think you’ll be and the kind of teacher you turn out to be will likely be very different.

I thought I was going to be one of those stylish, perfectly turned out teachers who always looked immaculate. Upon starting my training however, it quickly became clear that I was actually the kind of teacher who rolls out of bed as late as possible, partakes in minimal grooming and then has a mad dash to the bus stop. I am perpetually confused by those teachers who rock up in heels with their hair perfectly curled and flawless winged eyeliner. I applaud them for it; I’m just not willing to get up at some ungodly hour in order to do the same.

7) One day you’ll realise you’re no longer new to it.

The moment you realise you’re now an experienced teacher is very strange. It happened to me last year when I had to observe a trainee who was, I hate to say it, rather hopeless. She spoke so quietly I could barely hear her, she let exercises drag on far too long and her attempts to get the students to listen were half-hearted to say the least. I remember watching her and thinking, ‘Was I ever this bad? I don’t think so.’ It shows just how far you’ve come when you can watch someone else and pinpoint exactly what they need to do in order to improve their practice. When you realise you have years’ worth of advice to give and wisdom to impart. That’s when you know you’re fully established, and it’s incredibly empowering.

8) Lots of people think they could do your job. You know they couldn’t.

Teaching is one of those jobs that everyone has an opinion on. Everyone thinks they could control a class of kids, despite sometimes not being able to cope with their own. People think we waltz in at nine and out at three and that we do it for the holidays. Nonsense, all of it. Most of us are in and working long before the kids arrive, and we’re there long after. Planning and teaching lessons is taxing enough, but then there are breaktime duties and marking to be done and data to be input. Our days are frenetic and exhausting. Sometimes I don’t even get time to pee. Often the holidays are the only thing standing between us and burnout, so it’s frustrating when people begrudge us them. I’m not claiming for one moment that teaching is the hardest job in the world because it’s not. But it is a lot harder than many people realise, and those who disparage the profession are invariably the ones who definitely could not do it themselves.

So there we have it. This list is by no means exhaustive. I could prattle on for days about all the things I’ve learned over the last five years, and I’m very conscious that I still have an awfully long way to go. When teaching gets hard, as it sometimes does, I try to keep things in perspective by reminding myself of these aforementioned lessons. Perspective is essential for anyone working with children, whether they’re an educator, support staff or something else entirely. Without it they’ll drive you mad, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you can do what I do and keep these lessons in mind then you’ll get on just fine. Mostly anyway.

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.

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