10 Lessons From My First Year Teaching

Despite my upbeat posts on social media, the past twelve months have been incredibly challenging and full of personal lessons that come from my many failings as a first-year teacher. I have often felt like Han Solo, trying to escape sticky situations in a beat up Millennium Falcon with a malfunctioning hyperdrive. Fortunately, the students in my classes were as forgiving of me as I was of them.

As the year draws to close, I wanted to reflect on my ten greatest lessons from this year. While I thought that some of these were true, I now know they are.

  1. Every student has the capacity to do whatever they want to do, but their mindset is key to unlocking this potential. The students I observed who are positive with a ‘can-do’ attitude and ‘growth mindset’ are the ones who consistently achieve. It’s not rocket science, but developing this before students enter the school gates must be a priority for parents.
  2. Cultivating a desire to gain knowledge and giving kids the skills to acquire it is far more important than teaching facts. While there are some students I have met who know many things, the students with the desire and ability to seek out new information themselves are the ones who are the most dynamic.
  3. Being too nice is killing education. I love positivity and try to make it permeate my classroom. Unfortunately, teachers often seem unable to ‘tell it like it is’. From politically correct reports to the ‘softly softly’ approach of behaviour management, ‘real talk’ appears to be missing from education. While unconditional positive regard is important, we need to be more honest with children and parents.
  4. Our systems let kids down.We don’t expect children to run when they are struggling to crawl. We give them support. We help them. I am constantly baffled as to why our systems allow students to remain disengaged in a school, ‘fail’ an entire year, then move them onto the next year without support. Schools must be enabled to provide the assistance each child needs to succeed.
  5. Providing kids with choice is a must, but basic skills are too. Most of my students loved the amount of freedom I gave them in tasks. For many, I wish I could have provided more. However, it is important to acknowledge that while most students can embrace and learn in an environment of choice, they must have basic skills to do this. Ensuring all students have these should be a priority for all schools.
  6. Differentiation is necessary, tough and takes time. Adjusting tasks, activities and assessment to help students learn more is one of the most rewarding parts of teaching. However, to do this well is genuinely difficult and means you must plan effectively. I hope to improve this next year.
  7. Apathy is the most challenging element in a classroom. It eats passion, kills creativity and reduces talented students to zombies. Building my ability to structurally combat apathy is my big challenge in 2016.
  8. Nothing should be taught without a good reason. Students hate, hate, hate! learning things they believe are useless and without meaning. Teachers must constantly ask themselves if what they are teaching really is useful.
  9. Forming strong relationships is the best way to get things done.The only reason I have been able to achieve anything this year is due to relationships. Like politics, sales, or staff management, relationships are the foundation of convincing students to learn, parents to engage or staff to change.
  10. Saying hello, thanks and sorry are three of the most powerful words in education. These words are not said enough in schools, I hope I can continue to work to change this.

These lessons and more will help me to improve next year.

As I said goodbye and ‘merry Christmas’ to students at Melrose High School yesterday, a student gave me a card that reminded me what a magical experience I have had in 2015.

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Raising Future Peacemakers

With recent global tragedies in Beirut, Paris and Bamako highlighting the darker side of the world, it is important for teachers to show their students the light.

Over the past few years I have been excited to ‘cheer from the sidelines’ as my good friend Francis Ventura worked to establish The Peshawar School for Peace (PSP), in Pakistan. With funding and support from Australia, Francis collaborated with a group from the Peshawar Youth Organisation to develop and create the school.

The raw passion, energy and resilience required to make this dream a reality was remarkable. In a region where education for girls is minimal, I have been amazed by what has already been achieved by the team in Pakistan.

Now in its first year of operations, PSP has over twenty young students aged three and four in their beautiful school. Their Principal, Madame Sohail, works with teachers to provide an education that will nurture future ‘peacemakers’. Their aim is to improve gender equality, peace and social cohesion.

Building empathy and intercultural understanding are two important goals for any educator. While there are many opportunities to build that within the school walls, there are also new possibilities for teachers to enable their students to connect with the world.

As SRC Coordinator of Melrose High in Canberra, I have been working with the PSP to provide an opportunity for our SRC students to lead a school wide connection from Canberra to Peshawar. This week we were able to make this a reality. With a group of students and teachers, we held a Friday afternoon ‘Skype Class’ introducing students in Peshawar and Canberra to each other.

It was touching to see my students connecting, sharing their experience of high school in Australia, and listening to the Pakistani children sining songs they have been taught. We were able to introduce teachers and Principals to each other, and meet some parents of the PSP students.

Students were also educated about the challenges faced in another part of the world. They are beginning to understand the difficulties for women in particular, where education is often not available.

This experience moved many of my students, one of whom promptly emailed me after school and asked what more we could do to support PSP and other schools like it. The genuine empathy on display from our students reminded me why I got into teaching.

The students and staff of both Melrose and Peshawar are excited to collaborate more in 2016. From additional Skype Classrooms and meetings to fundraising possibilities or sending postcards, the children will feel a deep and empathetic connection to somewhere over 11,000km away.

I look forward to 2016 and the new opportunities it will bring to put more smiles on the faces of students and raise future peacemakers.

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” – Albus Dumbledore

Melrose High School Principal and student during our Skype Classroom

Preparing Students is Crucial for Equity

This week I was talking to one of my younger students about the game ‘Clash of Clans’ that they were sneakily trying to play during our class. It could see that he had become quite frustrated and wanted to work out what was affecting him.

After class we spoke about how distracted he has been recently and how important learning was. He shared with me that he found it frustrating to see all his mates at much higher levels in this game. He appeared to feel inadequate.

I was initially surprised that this engaged and confident Year 7 student was ‘so far behind’ and asked him why he thought it was the case. “I hardly get to play at home like the others do. I am so far behind them because it takes so long to train and level up. I hate it!”

I could absolutely understand his frustrations; however, I also see how much his parents care about his education and supporting him to have access to more opportunities. This seemed to be understood, but the frustration was still there.

During my next class I had a group of Year 10 students. For this, their last term of ‘high school’ in the ACT, I have decided to heavily focus on making sure they are ready for college (Years 11 and 12).

The nature of continuous assessment in the ACT means they must be prepared to perform well from day one in Year 11, 2016. From building their essay writing, note taking, research and referencing skills, to the development of discussion techniques and confidence, I’m trying to help them prepare both at school and at home.

I couldn’t help but notice the similarity of the conversation I had just had with the Year 7 student, and the ones I was having with some of my Year 10’s. Many of them feel unprepared and have been frustrated at how far behind some of their friends they were.

After numerous conversations with students and parents around Canberra, it is apparent to me that many kids in the ACT don’t place a focus on preparing for college. While many will find the transition manageable, numerous students are likely to have a very difficult time.

It is also clear from talking with college teachers that many students are not ready to engage with Year 10 work. Many take on the challenge and do incredibly well. Others can find the experience incredibly frustrating, sometimes feeling like they won’t be able to achieve their dreams.

We know that that there are many pathways to student success and that ‘college isn’t everything’. However, equity in our current education system relies on the ability of our community to adequately prepare all students to do well at college.

Being surrounded by students who are better prepared, better supported and with less barriers to engagement is the experience of disadvantage in our education system nationally. It’s like playing a Nintendo game where your difficulty level is perpetually set higher than everyone else. That Australian ‘fair go’ is illusive.

Yes, supportive parenting, excellent teaching and a positive school community create a platform for success. Unfortunately, we must acknowledge that there is an ever-present complacency and disengagement amongst many students throughout high school. Without addressing this and providing more opportunities for students to catch up to where they should be, we are ensuring students will continue to feel that frustration and hopelessness of my Year 7 student.

We, as a community, must do more to help these students. While not all will accept support, the provision of additional opportunities to prepare for college is crucial to helping more students succeed.

This term I have started working on a new initiative called ‘College Ready’. It aims to provide support opportunities for students in Canberra to prepare for their college experience in Year 10 and during the summer break in the lead up to Year 11. While it is no ‘silver bullet’ the myriad of issues preventing equity, I hope it helps more students to have the skills needed to succeed.

While not all students will desire an academic pathway or enjoy essay writing and high level maths, I firmly believe that we must ensure students have a more equal opportunity to succeed in our current system. I hope that by working with other teachers, parents, community members and students in the ACT, we will be able to support more students to both achieve their best, and prepare them for success into the future.

Bringing community into the classroom

One of my aims as a teacher is to bring the community into the classroom – exposing students to the many different types of careers and activities they could participate in. In doing this, I hope to give them something to prepare for and a strong reason to engage in their education.

This year at Melrose High, I have begun to turn this aim into a reality, testing out what community engagement is possible. This post highlights three key examples, guest speakers, regular classroom volunteers and structured programs with community organisations.

Through my role as a classroom teacher of SOSE (history, geography, business and civics), I have organised a range of friends as guest speakers for Year 7 and Year 9 students. From a Colonel with the Australian Army, to the owner of a local start-up, or a volunteer with the NSW SES – each speaker has had a positive impact on the class.

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Students are most interested and engaged in subjects that they can see are relevant. Guest speakers help to make this real world connection to what we are learning in the classroom. They provide different perspectives and even a bit of inspiration for some students.

While not everyone in the class ‘lights up’ for the speakers, at the end of each presentation I always see a small group of students excitedly asking questions and wondering if they could do something similar when they finish school. For me, this makes the organisation worth while.

Seeing the positive reactions to guest speakers lead me to reconnect with organisations like ANU Debating, Oaktree Foundation, UN Youth and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and to ask them to come into my classroom. The energy and ‘buzz’ in a room when young volunteers come in to facilitate a lesson is amazing.

While I am still working out how to consistently arrange guest speakers to fit within the SOSE curriculum, I’m excited by the possibilities I have see already.

I have also also been working with the organisation I founded, Raising Hope Education Foundation, to develop and assess a new initiative this term called ‘classroom mentoring’. This program recruits university students to volunteer with a teacher 1-2 hours each week over the course of a year.

In four schools, these volunteers are working alongside teachers like me to provide additional support for students who need it. They have facilitated workshops, helped students with assignments, assisted with lab work in science, enabled teachers to demonstrate conversations in French and added some colour and diversity to the classroom.

This is another example of how the community can support our students to succeed.

RHEF

Alongside this, it has been exciting to be able to help organise a mentoring program with local university students through Raising Hope. I’ve seen the direct benefits for many of my Year 9 and 10 students who participate in the program.

The opportunity to regularly catch up with a mentor who is a similar age is genuinely appreciated by the students. Many have told me how useful they have found it planning for their future and just getting general life advice from someone who is friendly and is there as a volunteer just to help them.

While this post highlights some examples of how the community can support their local school, there are many more that I hope to explore. All it takes is passionate educators with the time to engage with those who are already eager to support what we do.

Showing your team colours builds student rapport

Despite the disbelief of most of my Year 7 students, I too attended high school. While it sometimes feels like eons ago, I still remember, and am inspired by, the remarkable connection that some of my of the teachers had with their students.

Before starting teaching this year, I spent time reflecting on the good teachers I had during my own schooling. I couldn’t help thinking of Mr Wiseman. His love and passion for sport helped him to connect with students, particularly during State of Origin time.

Mr Wiseman was one of those all-round ‘top blokes’. He could make a kid laugh, maintain order and discipline and enjoy friendly banter in the school playground.

One of my fond memories from Year 8 was when he and some other teachers organised a weekend excursion for students to see our local Raiders play his beloved Broncos. This was one of the first times I remember attending a footy game and I loved it, despite my team loosing to his northerners (similar to this weekend!)

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Building strong and positive relationships with students is perhaps the most important part of teaching pedagogy, in my opinion. It’s not fool proof, but I’ve seen that getting to know your students well and showing them that you’re a real person too can help in the classroom. Particularly with those students who didn’t want to be there at the start of the year or still don’t now.

Sometimes you just need a little ‘in’ to help make that happen.

This year, I decided that I’d test if ‘showing your colours’ would help with building student rapport. While I am not the biggest sports fan in the world, I do enjoy watching or listening to a game on the weekend and have a scarf from each of my teams. While I got to know many of the kids teams in Term 1, I didn’t spend too much time telling them mine.

Term 2 in Canberra gets pretty chilly, so it was definitely time to break out those scarves. Every day I wear a different one from a team I support. Raiders, Brumbies, Swans and even the Washington Wizards (Bullets) from my time in the U.S.

Sraves

I was surprised with the results. When wearing the scarves while on duty or walking to class, students would always come up and tell me my teams sucked… were awesome or something in between. We’d end up having some friendly banter about who’s team was better, higher on the ladder or had won more premierships or seasons recently.

Our school is a big one, over 750 students, and getting to know kids in the year groups I don’t teach is hard. At the end of Week 5 I can say that ‘showing my team colours’ in the school has helped to build relationships with dozens of students I would have never spoken to. I know many of the kids teams and I often end Fridays with some of the kids yelling ‘we’re gonna smash the Swans tomorrow, Sir’ or ‘carn the Raiders’.

It might not seem like much, but a love of sport runs through the veins of most Aussies, including our kids. While I love to sit and discuss my passion for art and culture with some of the kids who draw or paint at lunch time, it’s important to use the different parts of who you are engage with all students in the school.

Overall, I’m very glad to be following the lead of a teacher I had years ago and sharing my love of different sports teams with the kids. Cheers to Mr Wiseman for being a great teacher!

Creating opportunities for students to love school

A few years ago, a Huffington Post article by David Allyn started with the headline ‘Can students love school? Yes, if schools love students.’ From my experience, while this is absolutely true, we must also provide opportunities for students to create their own reasons for ‘loving’ their school.

Many students at my school who are athletic and enjoy sport, love coming to school for the opportunity to participate in AFL, rugby, hockey, NRL or other team sports. Some of them form their own training teams supported by our staff. I enjoy the banter I have with students who follow the different codes, as I wear my team scarfs proudly around the school playground (particularly after a winning weekend!)

However, not all students enjoy activities like sport or the arts, and find sanctuaries around the school for other pursuits they love.

Recently I supervised a group of year 7 students who were not participating in NAPLAN. I asked them to decide amongst themselves what they wanted to do with this time. They started reading in the library but quickly voted to watch a movie in my classroom.

After deciding on a film, we went up and I put on Finding Nemo. Many of the students had not been to my classroom before and were excited to see and read my comic book collection (thanks for the help Impact). When the bell rang, some of them asked if they could do this again sometime with their other friends who love comics.

I thought this was a great opportunity for them to work on a little project. I asked the students to think about doing this as a regular activity, getting a group of other students together and watching films once a week.

A few days later a small group of ten year 7’s approached me and asked if it would be ok to have ‘Comic Club’ every Thursday lunchtime, and watch some of the latest Marvel movies or read comics. I wrote them up a note for their parents to sign letting them watch the films and with the notes returned, the club was formed.

So this week they had their first ‘Comic Club’, planning what movies to see during the year and spending the rest of the time watching ‘Star Wars Rebels’. They decided they would watch Guardians of the Galaxy first, and then Captain America. I’m hoping to persuade them to watch some of the classics too.

As a new educator who loves superheroes, I was excited to see a group of year 7 students joining together to organise a safe place for them to enjoy something they love. Some of them said it was nice to be able to escape the playground with their friends, others simply enjoyed the fact they were doing something they loved.

On Friday, many of the students said to me they had ‘the most awesomest time’ and it was ‘the best day ever’. They genuinely appreciated the opportunity to share in something they all love together at school, asking if this could continue until they finish in Year 10. Apparently I’m now not allowed to leave.

Allowing students to have the opportunity to lead and create their own group meant they were able to take ownership of a school activity as their own. While creating safe and supportive classrooms is important, providing extra curricular opportunities for students to meet together and do things they love helps to create a more positive school environment.

I hope I get more opportunities to help my students love our school.

School Cleaning Bees – Improving School Environments

Recently I organised a school ‘cleaning bee’ with a local primary school and students from the Australian National University. We had a group of about 14 students from ANU’s Griffin Hall head out to St Jude’s Primary in Canberra to join school parents for a few hours of gardening, painting and cleaning windows.

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I’ve been back to this school a few times for a cleaning bee over the past few years with Raising Hope Education Foundation and have enjoyed seeing the growth of the school, particularly the gardens.

It is incredible how dull and lifeless some schools are, full of concrete and maybe one or two trees. With a vision for a better school environment, a long term gardening plan and some hard work that can change!

This school has used a range of different trees, shrubs and flowering bushes around the school to improve the landscape over the past five years. While they didn’t do everything at once, each year parents and the community gather together to plant a few more trees, trim the bushes and help manage the gardens.

From my understanding, it was one parent who was passionate about nature and plants that provided the leadership to make this happen. He had a vision for a better school environment not only for his kids but for all the children who would come through the school for years to come.

The key thing is to have a plan for what the gardens will look like as they grow each year and how to strategically add trees, plans and shrubs.

Some other schools I know of get students and their parents to come in during on a particular weekend with a plant or tree to donate. Other schools pre-arrange the purchasing of plants or trees as a donation to the school.

It is wonderful to see parents and students with teachers caring about their school and becoming a stronger community. Partnering with the Lions or Rotary Club can also help to bring organisations into the school community.

I hope that more schools take St Jude’s example and create a plan for improving their school environment. Trees, shrubs, bushes and flowers can really improve the environment of a school and make it a happier place for both students and staff.

Beats and Bells: Improving the school day

So a few weeks ago I was leaving a local school at the end of a very long day. It was Term Four and a Beyonce song was blaring out of one of the classrooms as students were released into the summer afternoon.

I heard a student comment saying ‘I freaking love this song!’ and a few of them were dancing along. Some students sitting down were tapping their feet too and there were many smiles. Even the boys who rolled their eyes had a laugh.

It got me thinking, what if this school started each day just like this. Imagine if before school a few songs were played over the PA, or if instead of a bell that sounds like a factory or a prison alarm, schools announced the commencement of the day with one up-beat song. Many school PA systems now have the capacity to make announcements or play music.

Sure, it’s not like every student (or teacher) walking into school is going to look like this:

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but, playing Pharrell Williams ‘Happy’ or another song to start the day would be sure to make at least a few people smile.

You could have a different song for each day, both beginning and ending school off with one. Students could submit their favourite song, or perhaps a student or teacher’s favourite song could be played on their birthday.

At times there are debates about the reasoning behind and effectiveness of school bells or alarms. Some argue that the bells are too loud, disruptive for lessons and don’t teach children the value of time management. Others say they help in the smooth operation of a school.

A principal in the UK removed bells in his school to help create a more calm atmosphere, he says it worked. A teacher Patrick Todhunter experienced the same thing in Australia. Todhunter says that ‘Many catholic colleges in the Brisbane area now have a ‘silent 5 minutes’, a short period of silent meditation which has been shown to produce positive outcomes for students.’ Sounds like a good idea to me!

Apparently the subject of school bells can also be quite controversial. Thanks to the Wikipedia article on school bells, I picked up this article from the BBC that told of Somali Islamist militants who banned school bells because they sounded like Christian churches.

Bell or no bell, music could be a great way to start and end the school day. Why not mix it up with a song at lunch time too, or even better, allow students perform music live at lunch (who knows, they could end up performing at the awesome ‘Lunch Hour Concert‘ at the University of Melbourne).

I’m not a musician, I just love good tunes and happy people.

Yes, schools are meant to be places of learning, not a rave… but why not have a little more fun along the way?

**If you know of any schools that use music and songs in this way, please email me on ben.duggan@raisinghope.org.au or tweet to @Ben_Duggan 🙂 **

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