Olivia Taylor stood outside black and gold gates of public building

Don’t Call Me ‘Disadvantaged’

A letter from the little girl who grew up. A speech by Olivia Taylor.

Three Flamenco dancers. Two in red dresses and one in yellow.

Matter over Mind: Trusting Your Body

A guest blog by an anonymous Early Career Teacher.

Most of my education and my upbringing focused on the mind. School, sixth-form, university taught me how to interpret, how to explore ideas and how to critically analyse the world. Developing the mind was always the focus point. Whatever decision I made, whether academically, personally or professionally, I thought it through. Thinking is an analytical process, one which takes time and effort. It also requires the very same skills that my education has taught me; interpretation, exploring ideas and critical analysis. These are undoubtedly important skills and I’m very grateful for having learnt them. However, having recently made a thought-out decision which later turned out to be a very difficult one, I realised that I neglected another meaning-making and interpretive vessel - one which is just as important - and that is my body. The body makes decisions just like the mind, and yet I’ve never been taught to listen or trust my body in the same way.

Last year, I went to interview at a London school which had an Outstanding Ofsted rating. It had an interesting and diverse curriculum, and my PGCE tutor knew the school a few years back and had recommended it to me. On paper, all seemed good. When I entered the corridors, I remember it being chaotic and busy. Students everywhere; some running, others throwing basketballs. There was a frantic energy in the air. My interview lesson was just as energetic; some students were keen to get involved and answer questions while there were others who had their heads down sleeping on the desk. Looking back, I was very naïve to ignore the signals that rightly suggested that this school was in a difficult phase of its journey. Yet my mind kept rationalising: “every teacher I’ve spoken to speaks positively about the school”, “I trust my PGCE tutor”, and “this is rated Outstanding”.

As I left the interview, my body felt unsettled and uncomfortable. I remember having a tension in my stomach which I couldn’t explain. While I recognised the discomfort, I neglected to listen to it and, ultimately, I trusted my rational mind over my “emotional” body. I started working at the school in July, and it was a very challenging experience. I felt the toxicity of the school start to take over my life, and my mental health became damaged as a result. Ironically, it was often my body that was affected. I rarely had the energy to exercise, and I started to have panic attacks and night-sweats. I often look back to that moment of discomfort and wish I had listened to what my body was trying to tell me.

I left the school in April and decided to do a Flamenco course in Seville. I had no experience with Flamenco and I had no idea what it even looked like. Naturally my friends and family were pretty surprised at my choice, and honestly so was I. Perhaps without consciously realising it, I chose a course focused on the body; how to listen, respond and physically self-express. Every lesson, my teacher would shout “FUERTE” (strength) to remind us that our bodies are our core and it is within our anchorage, our root, that we find power. It was the first time where I was taught how to tap into and navigate the language of the body. I realised how often I curl or twist my body in a way to hide it or make myself smaller, but Flamenco taught me the opposite. It’s about opening up, letting your physical presence be seen and felt. Through this dancing, I actually recognised and listened to my body, and allowed it to be open to the world. We need to trust our physical responses and intuitions just as much, if not more, than our rational and critical mind. Our body is a meaning-making vessel that can tell us much more of our authentic selves, desires, decisions, than our mind can. My biggest lesson I’ve learnt from this challenging teaching experience is to trust my body more and, in doing so, allow my body to carve the pathway where onto next.

Finding My Work-Life Balance as a New Teacher

A guest blog by an anonymous Early Career Teacher (ECT)

I’m coming to the end of my first year of teaching – it’s had its ups and downs, but I’m pleased to say, mostly ups. Being a trainee teacher last year was tough and I struggled to balance the demands of the course, my school and my relationships. Oh, and a pandemic as well. The idea of a work-life balance remained elusive. So, I made a promise to myself to prioritise wellbeing this year. And it has been better. I implemented various strategies that some very wise people have taught me along the way. I’m sharing them in the hope that any trainees out there who have just picked up their shiny QTS certificate can do more than just survive their first year.

Emails – The single, most useful thing I’ve ever done for my sanity is turn off my emails on my phone. It was like my stress levels went through the floor overnight. No more checking them last thing before bed and then subsequently staying up all night because a parent emailed and wants to meet with me ‘urgently’. Whatever it is can wait until I’m sat at my desk in school with a cup of hot tea, ready to face the day. I wish I’d done that from day one.

Communication - Being open and honest with your mentor or induction tutor is a key thing - let them know if you're struggling with how to manage workload/students/parents. Don't make the mistake of trying to take it all on from day one because you’re afraid experienced teachers will look down on you if you don't. Staff are there to support you and help you build a healthy work life balance for yourself as they need new teachers to stay in the profession for as long as possible. There's always help at hand. Some of my department even helped me mark some papers this term when I was swamped with reports and no gain time. There are people who are sympathetic to new teachers (and take those who aren’t with a pinch of salt!). Just keep communicating your workload and tell someone ASAP if you’re worried about meeting a deadline. You'll build respect far more quickly than trying to cover up mistakes. And you WILL make mistakes! But don't beat yourself up about them. You're still learning.

Communicating with others in your department really helps too. It was very tempting to be in my shell at the start, particularly as everyone else is so experienced in my department, but I quickly learned that EVERYONE has an odd chaotic lesson, or a challenging parent, and sharing this at break times helped me learn coping strategies and I found it easier to 'let it go' at the end of the day, rather than take it personally. Also, for some subject knowledge questions, it's far quicker and easier to ask someone at break rather than research or try and figure out the answer alone - even experienced teachers sometimes have to think about A level questions!

ECT work - Set aside one hour a week of your in-school timetable dedicated to ECT work. And stick to it. It's very easy to let this slide when you have lessons to plan, tests to mark and parents to email, but it's a slippery slope if you get behind. Doing it in school gives you a cut-off time before the next lesson and you’ll get it done quicker. It may seem like a waste of time at first but be open to more efficient ways of working and it will save you hours of work in the long term by improving your practice.

Environment - Think about where you're working on a task - I love my department, they’re like a second family, but I know I will be able to mark twice as many papers in a quiet classroom or corner compared to in the office when everyone’s on PPA.

Hours - Give yourself a cut-off time at the end of the day and think realistically about how many hours a week you are working. Everyone will have a different working routine but everyone needs a break too. I find it’s helpful to actually write in my evening/weekend activities, the stuff I do for me, in my teacher planner, so that I actually do it, and I have to fit work in around it, not the other way around! You will be far more valuable to your classes the next day if you have had a good sleep and something to eat (even with a very sparse lesson planned) than if you have stayed up all night planning. Similarly, on a 5-period day, allow yourself at least a proper break time and a fairly free lunch. Physically remove yourself from your laptop and get a cuppa, have a chat with a colleague or go for walk. Emails can wait. You will be glad of this by the time Period 5 comes around.

September nerves - Lastly, the biggest shock to the system is September as a new teacher (or quite possibly any teacher?!). Make some time to just be in your classroom(s) before the students descend. I personalised my room with some maths bunting and organised the stationary cupboard. This seems like a small thing, but having a sense of place helped me visualise teaching and took off some of the pre-performance nerves.

Be prepared with behaviour management strategies and how you’re going to set expectations and embed routines but don't spend all summer planning perfect lessons in minute detail for the whole first half term. I was told this and yet I still spent well over a week planning lessons for classes I’d never met because I thought I’d be getting ahead. I scrapped and re-planned these as soon as I met my classes. I know it feels like you’re about to go white water rafting without a kayak, but a lesson will take three times as long to plan when you don’t know the class. Have a few, flexible activities prepared that have a focus on getting to know your classes, but don’t go overboard. Your summer holiday is far better spent relaxing, recharging and preparing yourself mentally for the task to come.


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