Practise: doing less and getting more…progress, job satisfaction and sleep.

lessismore 2

In a world where abundance is in abundance, it’s hard to concentrate on one thing. This is true of teaching: from the moment you put your foot on the school car park to the second you pull you car-keys out of your bag at the end of the day, you become a multi-tasking fiend. We relentlessly try to do everything-as best we can-then generally fall ill around week 5 of any given term with something fatigue induced.

I don’t think this will work for us long term.

I’ve spent the last seven weeks drawing many conversations with colleagues to a close with the statement: less is more. They probably imagine stapling things to my head when I spew out this generic little phrase but they mask it well. Big shout out to them.

As overused and cliched as it is, this ethos seems to be getting me through the working week: rather than feeling like I’m just keeping on top of things (I include my sanity when  referring to things) I feel like I’m prioritising the important stuff, doing those bits well and realising that the world keeps turning even if I have to put some work on the back burner. Here are some of my less is more behaviours for half term 1:

  • prioritise teaching and learning above all else: ask yourself: have I looked in their books this week (looked and assessed not marked necessarily) and have I planned a lesson that is reactive to this? For me, everything else feels OK if I know my teaching plate is spinning.
  • reduce how many times you say yes to someone: especially if you’re an NQT. Don’t learn the hard way.
  • reduce how many times you say sorry: 9 times out of 10 you shouldn’t be. Stop berating yourself.
  • prioritise teaching and learning above all else part deux: make time to study that insert yourself before giving it to the students. Read that chapter and make your own notes, try that task if you’re doubting the methodology…in short: improve your own subject knowledge and everything else will feel better because your teaching will be better. Fact. (one word sentence, I must mean it.)
  • look at the list: what doesn’t need to happen this week? Remove from list. Write some of these things in your diary for the following week .Pin this down elsewhere and relax about it.
  • teach your students one new thing or how to do one thing better: try and stick to this as best you can. You can differentiate on the fly if need be but drill down into a key idea or an aspect of key content. Don’t muddy the water. Rome wasn’t build in a day (that’s a synonym cliche for less is more: reader, do you want to staple something to my head?)
  • cap your late night, nights: teachers work a lot out of hours. This is just a part of the job: we know it and to a certain extent we accept it. However, if you’re burning the midnight oil every night or getting up pre -5am (I know some people do this) you’re going to be poorly and/or really annoying to the people around you because frankly you’ll be unbearable to live with. Cap your late nights/early mornings. Do 2 a week. You’re probably making a hash of whatever you’re trying to do otherwise.

Practise: doing less and getting more…progress, job satisfaction and sleep.






Think: children. Imposters in the classroom?


Imposter-syndromeA while ago, a friend and I were talking about Imposter Syndrome: it involves a feeling of not belonging, of being a fraud- like you came to the party through the back door and at any minute, you’ll be rumbled and unceremoniously chucked out.  We’ve both experienced this internal self doubt but luckily for us it’s been fleeting: for others the feeling of being on the outside looking in is more permanent.

It was when I returned to school after the six week break this year that I realised some of the students that I teach-and others up and down the country- are likely to experience something akin to Imposter Syndrome, everyday in the classroom.

These students are probably those whose summer break didn’t involve family meals or meal time conversation or books on the beach or country walks or journeys to places where no one speaks your language or galleries or new foods to try or sadly even three meals a day…. It’s not the first time I’ve reflected like this at the start of the school year. It won’t be the last.

And so it’s no wonder then is it, that when I’m wanging on about the theatre, books, poetry and art they feel I’m talking about something that has nothing to do with their lives. They can’t affiliate with the content or access the vocabulary I’m using to discuss such out of reach topics. This certainly feels like Imposter Syndrome territory.

Well sod that.

Although I don’t have the remedy for Imposter Syndrome, there are certainly a few things I can do to minimise triggers of it in the classroom.

Using careful methodology, I can ensure students don’t feel like they’re “too thick” to read a piece of topical non-fiction that requires them to have a basic understanding of some challenging vocabulary. I can explore more abstract ideas that I know we’re going to come across that they might sort of get,but not enough to enable them to comment on it with conviction.

I can but try.

Here’s how:

Front Load: I’d like to give thanks to our gracious leader Andy Tharby for coining this phrase and making it a “thing” we should all do. Before you carry out reading with students, read it yourself and identify the words that they won’t know and in turn will switch them off. Teach them those four or five key words before you read the text with them and whether they say it or not, the fact that they recognise, understand and can reflect on the use of these words in the context of the reading material will give them a quiet confidence.

Picture it: have pictures of the definitions as well as the definition itself to help those who might need an alternative presentation of the information.

Before I ask them for their opinion- which is often met with the response: “I dunno”  I front load by giving them the opinions of others. I give them stats, show them clips, play devil’s advocate and then start asking them to form their own: who do they agree with more? Can they see the other side’s point?  Eventually, I’ll ask them again and if I’m lucky, I get to congratulate them on their  newly informed opinion.

Explore an abstract concept before you ask them to do anything with it. Take protest for example: why do people do it? What historic examples of protest are worth considering? Is there just one type of protest? Why is it important? Why might it be considered controversial? Only after they have had the chance to work through this concept with finer brush strokes, will they think and write about it in an interesting, accurate way.

In my experience, these methods do improve the quality of the written outcomes produced by students. More importantly though,  they give some young people a sense of inclusion in a conversation or during a reading activity that they wouldn’t have otherwise. These methods help reduce that sense of not belonging, of being on the outside looking in. And that’s the most important gap to close.

Think: children. Imposters in the classroom? They shouldn’t be.




Play: sometimes it’s harder than it sounds.

stahl-anxiety-2Image by AnthonyJess/Adobe Stock

A friend forwarded me a screenshot of a tweet in the last week of term: I’m paraphrasing but it went something along the lines of: every summer, I miss the students and my job; teaching gives me a purpose and I miss that purpose. This person clearly felt a sense of dread when looking ahead to the summer off.

Whether I’d like to admit it or not, I can affiliate with some of this.

Here’s why:

  • Teaching has a famine or feast nature to it in terms of your free time: you’re either figuring out how to squeeze a sleep into your working week or looking at a six-week stretch of holiday. Switching mind-set can be challenging and can leave you feeling a bit adrift.
  • You’re so used to making everything you do purposeful and efficient: everything from trying to use that spare 40 minutes after work to get some exercise, to factoring in how to teach a lesson and give students one to one progress reviews at the same time. Everything is driven by an objective and the need to be timely.
  • Routine: you live your life by it. Time-tables, duty day, term dates, detention duty, parents’ evening, when you can go to the toilet…. Then the terms time’s over and you can pee when you want. It’s a stark shift and I get why some people struggle to climatize to it. You’re not alone.
  • You don’t usually have time for you: your hobbies, your books, your exercise, your friends, your partner. And, if we don’t have some of these things pinned down, we don’t worry about it or feel sad about it in the term time because we don’t have time to. Then you get six weeks to notice that there are some gaps. And, that’s scary and can feel sad.
  • Guilt: why aren’t I doing something? I’m always doing something? Or, feeling bad that I’m not when there are things that needed doing yesterday. Why aren’t I enjoying this time off…?

I’ve worked really hard on getting over some of these feelings and anxieties. I genuinely don’t feel the same sense of being adrift or the guilt as I used to. Here’s how I got/am getting over it:

  • I got more balance in term time and made time for me. You CAN do this. It IS possible. Speak to your line manager or a mentor if you’re struggling to manage work life balance and if they’ve got anything about them, they’ll help you figure it out. Chip away at the famine or feast way of life and find some health and well-being, in and out of term time.
  • Find out what you’re interested in and join/do something. A hobby. And, don’t worry if it takes a bit of time: I’ve tap-danced, tried to speak Spanish…you name it.  But you get there in the end and it works. It gives you a sense of purpose and enjoyment in terms of your own life, when you have free time.
  • Plan ahead: get dates in the diary for those longer holidays- see friends and family.
  • Save some money, if you can, and get away.
  • Force yourself to lay about a bit or go for a pointless walk. Try to stop yourself looking for the reason why you’re doing it. You just are, you fancied it.
  • Accept that you won’t feel relaxed straight away: it takes me about a week, two sometimes.
  • Talk about it.

Whatever you’re doing this summer, I hope you find the discipline to not need term time discipline. Enjoy the break, everyone. We deserve it.

Think- about marking that final script.

I’m dying from exam marking fatigue. There are a few things that are getting me through this. A few things that mean I will wake up an hour earlier than usual and mark before school, then after school until I relent, go to bed and dream about Ao4 on Q3 of the A-Level Paper 2 exam.

Nutella: I’ve taken to eating straight from the jar this year. A new low.


Google imaging where I’ll be spending the summer: with friends, in Europe, trying and failing to surf, drinking Sangria and probably getting prickly heat.


Love Island: thank you Dani and Jack for helping me through this very difficult period of time. Your blossoming romance, cockney accents and Dani, your commitment to late night toasties has inspired me and given me a much  needed incentive: I must complete my quota by 9pm. I’ll raise a glass to you both in Paris.



That’s it. That’s what I’m surviving on. I’m nearly there.

To all those exam marking, stay strong, try not to develop diabetes and for the love of God spend the money you earn on something you want, not something you need.


Practice: going back to basics doesn’t mean going backwards.

bac to basicsTomorrow, and for the remainder of the short time I have with my progressively fatigued Year 11 class, I will be going back to basics. By basics I mean simple, linear strategies that increase accuracy in exam responses. This largely involves reading and annotating. That’s it.

Like the rest of my Year 11 class, I can get swept away in our super human attempts to analyse structure, language, perceptively evaluate perception, infer and compare all whilst checking we haven’t gone over precisely timed efforts to beat our exam PB: because god forbid we drop the ball and take 13 not 10 minutes to answer question 2 on Paper 1. Sweat bands, anyone?

But engaging with this very impressive English based skill set ( and stamina) means nowt if you haven’t read the source material and the question paper methodically and annotate it with precision.

So, in the name of accuracy, I’ll endeavour to -one last time- go over reading strategies that see them through:

  • Read the exam paper questions first and underline the key words: make sure you know what you’re looking for before you read the source material.
  • Read the source material. As you read, note emotions experienced by the character/narrator/writer and those you, as the reader, experience. Annotate the margin accordingly.
  • Make further annotations that flag up significant structural methods: shifts in focus, introductions of characters, settings and emerging semantic fields.
  • At the end of the source material make 2 or 3 bullet point notes regarding what the text is about.
  • If you need to, skim and scan again and check you’ve got it right.


It might sound like over-kill but get the reading bit wrong, be it reading the questions or the source material, and the rest of exam goes to pot.

So, for the short time I have left with my Year 11 students this week, I won’t be whizzing through papers or timing their efforts to pen stories worthy of being short listed  for the Man Booker prize:  we’ll be carrying out some basic reading strategies because going back to basics does not mean going backwords.

Practice: Whack-A-Mole QnA


This week, I’ve been asked some pretty soul destroying questions by students. And it takes a lot for a question to really knock me sideways. Like many of my colleagues,  I’ve grown  thick skinned- rhinoceros skinned- as a result of queries posed by curious teenagers. Over the years, I’ve been on the receiving end of the following:

“Miss, are you ill today? I can tell ’cause your hair’s a mess.”

“Miss, your eyebrows really confuse me…”-This was more of a question dressed as a statement: she wanted an explanation. I didn’t have one.

“Miss, why does your classroom make people sleepy?” -That’ll be the methodology.

“Who are the Spice girls?” As well as: “What’s Friends?”

“What’s your boyfriend getting you for Christmas?” -Don’t pull at that thread, kid.

Yes, these questions have publicly drawn attention to my age, failed relationships, my wavering ability to engage students and my questionable skill with an eyebrow pencil. Alas, these are not the questions (surprisingly) that have pinned me to the spot and made my stomach flip…

The gut churning induced QnA started recently, days before the Paper 1 Literature exam. An exam that we have been preparing for for 3 years.  The questions ran as follows:

“Do we get an extract for both questions?”

“How many questions do we answer?” -My palms start sweating.

“Do we talk about Animal Farm on this one?-No.

“Can we just talk about the extract?”-No, dear God, no.

“How many paragraphs can we write?” -I’m standing in front of a white-board that specifically displays this information. It’s in red, the information is literally bigger than my head and shining on my face courtesy of the projector.

“It’ll be Lady Macbeth won’t it Miss, because I’ve only revised for Lady Macbeth.”

“Mr Bruff said I have to talk about the Gunpowder plot in Macbeth if I want a Level 9, do I?!”-No, and he never said that.

“Miss, where are you going?!”- I was going to the loo; they were 10 minutes early.

And , wait for it….

“Miss, can we take our books into this one?” -Hide the rage…Hide. The. Rage.

It was like the worst kind of Whac-A-Mole ever.

Initially, I feverishly answered in an attempt to rectify the misconceptions that I’d somehow allowed to brew without my knowing. It’s easy to start doubting yourself when students do this; you so desperately want them to do well and walk into their exam feeling confident. I realised that I needed to stop panicking: they knew. They knew all the answers they simply wanted to hear me, someone that they trust, tell them it all again. One million times.

But, painful as it might be, I’ll continue to repeat the information, answer the questions and quash the misconceptions for the next few weeks. I’m aware that some students are taking as many as 28 GCSE exams this year. There’s little wonder they’re buckling under the pressure.

For the time being, I’m not going to let a barrage of questions throw me or the students I teach off kilter, it’s all part of the exam chaos.

So, deep breath: fire away kids, what do you need to know?









Practice: it’s not what you say, it’s where and how.

final standI associate teachers with wine , not just because they might need the occasional pint of it to survive the working week, but because like a good bottle of plonk, they get better with time. In my opinion, there is no training, disciplined enquiry or book that substitutes experience in the classroom.

And some of this experience is a result of going through rights of passage. Namely:  to drown in marking, to feel helpless panic when you realise you have no control over a class of 13 year olds, to get weirdly emotional on sports day, to see an exam class through, to get good results, to get bad results… Eventually, you establish nuanced classroom management and learning strategies that only come with some of these highs and lows.

My own ups and downs led me to believe that it’s not just what you say: it’s how you say it and where you say it. Here are a couple of  “wheres” and “hows” that I live by:

How: to get them to read out. Count down from 3,2,1 go: and the prompt- more often than not-gets them reading. Even if it’s only a sentence; Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that…

Where: in the middle of the classroom, at the front. STAY THERE-  until you’ve got a new class trained. The minute you start going desk to desk, the off task behaviour will start. Stay put and oversee what’s going on: if they need help, do it from where you’re standing. If lots of them need help, stop and re-teach using alternative methodology.

How:  you say ‘it’ is crucial. When settling a class, I try to use a very calm, soft voice. It’s hard when you feel like breathing into a paper bag but if you start anxiously shouting, students pick up on it and invariably get louder. Aim to maintain a calm voice when settling and teaching and it really affects the climate-and the volume- in the room.

Where: you teach should be orderly and tidy. I know this isn’t easy. Trust me. I know. But, if students enter a well-kept, ordered learning environment that looks cared for, they automatically feel better being in it. This doesn’t mean creating a grotto for learning: just make sure they know where the stationary is, where their books are and stick work and decent posters up to make it feel loved. I always feel better when my room’s tidy.

How: to elicit a verbal response. Smile and nod (not too enthusiastically) as students answer. It gives them confidence to keep going with an idea and helps improve oracy.

How: you gauge when it’s time to stop is key. Yes, we should all aim for outstanding progress. And yes, we all want our students to get as much out of their classroom learning as possible. But sometimes, you just have to stop. It might be that the lesson was really challenging and they’re tired, or that it’s too hot outside…whatever the reason, for a few minutes, when you’re all spent and it feels flat, do something fun. I ask students to draw: a pigeon crossed with a shark, a monkey crossed with a snail (and so on.) I’ll find a way to get them out of their seats (a Mexican wave can be good) or I might spell a word out load and they have to tell me what it is by visualising it in their heads.  Relationships are paramount: moments like these make them.

How: formal are you in the classroom? When you need to train a class avoid colloquialisms and ham up the formality. It sets the tone and helps you reinstate your authority. I always adjust my register when I need to pin down behaviour management.

Practice: it’s not what you say, it’s where and how.


Practice: practise not marking for a bit.



I’m doing what I hate: I’m trying to mark everything. I’m getting students to write reams of timed outcomes and then recoiling in horror when I assess what I have to do…I’m not sure it’s helping them or me.

Ladies and gentlemen: it’s exam season.

I’m as wired as the opening of this blog post sounds. I’ve just written four different versions of the same list whilst scoffing a can of tuna for my tea in the vain hope that I can shape my “to-dos” into something that looks  “do-able.”

I’ve been like this for a week or so and as a result, decided to have a long talk with myself on the drive home (more evidence that exam fever is slowly chipping away at my sense of reality and reason.) I reminded myself that to make progress, you only need assess, not mark. And, assessment comes in all shapes and sizes.

So, I made ONE FINAL list. This list includes some pearls of wisdom passed onto me from those I work with and some of what Jim Smith refers to as “Lazy Teacher” strategies. I call them good sense. I vow to use them this week:

  1. Highlight work and walk away: pink is for positive, green is for growth. Ask students why they think “that bit” is pink and “that bit” is green: use feedback or book annotations to check on their self-assessment. Use the targets to inform planing.
  2. Whole class feedback: on your whiteboard write two lists (I really am obsessed with lists) one that features whole class targets, the other the strengths of the class. Students identify which target applies to them. Also known as “global feedback.”
  3. T1= use terminology, T2= embed quotes, T3= for the love of god use an apostrophe…. give them a sheet of codes and ask them to to fill in their own targets based on the code you have given them, then ask them to highlight where that target is applicable in their work.
  4. Type up good examples: have  snippets on the white-board when they come in: explain why they’re good and you’re showing them expert models and lifting the self-esteem and confidence of the class.
  5. Make three piles: got it, kind of got it, not in a month of Sundays- then plan accordingly.
  6. Live mark: I find this hard but it works. Work on what they are writing, as they write. Use the highlighters, green and pink.
  7. White-boards: old favourites, wouldn’t be without them.
  8. Tell students you only have 20 seconds to read each piece of work: where should you look? They underline and you peruse accordingly.
  9. Strips of sugar paper: get students to stick annotated quotes, topic sentences, or whatever it is you’re focusing on, up on a wall: assess how well they have worked by looking holistically at the outcomes. This can tell you just as much as going through a pile of books sometimes.
  10. Find your barometers: those kids who can efficiently and accurately inform you whether the class got it. Pick a top, a middle and a bottom and again, plan accordingly.

Practice: practise not making for a bit.

Think: it’s just one day.

back to work

I know that many of us are returning to the classroom tomorrow. And, like many other professionals going back to work after a long break, we feel anxious, panicky even. I think, for me, this is because I have fear of forgetting. Here’s a list of things I think I might have forgotten:

  1. I might have forgotten how to teach (yes, because two weeks of RnR erases seven years of graft. That makes perfect sense, Gemma.)
  2. I might have forgotten my teacher-self: the one who doesn’t swear or greet people with the ease and informality of a bartender.
  3. I might have forgotten to plan something.
  4. I might have forgotten a meeting.
  5. I  might have forgotten passwords for things. (Likely, be reet though: I’ll soon remember them)
  6. I might not have set my alarm ( but waking up at 3 hour intervals all night will in no doubt make the alarm pretty redundant anyway.)
  7. I might have forgotten what it feels like to wake up at the crack of dawn and not have a midday nap ( this is valid, it will hurt. I’ll ride the wave…)
  8. I haven’t done everything on my pre-holiday list: it might have serious repercussions! Note to self: I never make my way through my list. Show me a teacher that has EVER made their way through THE list…I dare you.

There are many ‘mights’ in the above. Lots of doubt. However, here are some things that I am sure of. Here’s another list that packs a little more certainty:

  1. I will not teach as rigorously tomorrow as I did in the last two weeks of term.
  2. I will not be as timely in my prep.
  3. I will not feel as on-top of things as I did before the break.
  4. I will not feel like this for long.

After just one day I’ll be back in the thick of exam season prep and this two week break will feel like another life. So, for now, I will savour the great fun I’ve had this Easter and try not to let the work nerves get the better of me.

Tomorrow, I’ll smile at students who seem miraculously taller and older after a mere two weeks and catch up with colleagues who look rested and ready to take on the challenge of another term.

Don’t beat yourself up for having a rest.

Think: it’s just one day.