Top Tips for surviving a first term in FE

What follows are many (certainly not all) of the things I’ve learnt from six years teaching in an FE context. It is hopefully practical, it is certainly honest and it’s definitely all based in my own experiences.

These experiences may not match yours so do feel perfectly free to abandon any of them. The hope is that the tips that follow will help you to enjoy teaching and thrive long beyond term one!

1. Rely on electronic registers at your peril!

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Get a book of the paper variety for keeping your registers in for the first few weeks- yes, weeks. It will be a complete miracle if your registers are right from day 33, let alone day 1! At the end of every week, don’t email the data staff with a register, pop down to see them in their office and get your registers sorted out. If you have a coordinator in your area then they can help with this too. The sooner the registers are correct, the sooner ProMonitor (or the equivalent data system) is correct and the sooner you know who the heck you’re supposed to have in your lessons!

2. You’ll welcome new learners after day 1!

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Expect to get new learners arriving into your class after day one. In all likelihood, you will get new faces every. single. day. for the first couple of weeks. It will become tedious as you battle to get each of them caught up but there are ways you can make it easier for yourself. Ensure that every lesson in the first couple of weeks is accompanied by sets of spare, dated and printed (I’ll explain the need for printing later) resources that you can give out to latecomers. A bonus will be to have clear instructions for what they need to return to you and by what date. Set aside some time after every lesson for doing this kind of work with your new learners and then you’ll have that all important time to get to know them too! If you don’t set the time aside at some point then amongst everything else, you’ll forget!

3. Learning names should be your top priority!

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Learning names as a teacher is vital for one main reason- it helps you to build rapport early and this can be helpful for a whole multitude of other reasons. If you don’t know the students’ names then it’s more difficult to ask them how their weekend was or what they love doing outside of college. If you don’t know whether the student in front of you flicking their partner’s ear with a ruler is Sarah or Charlie then you’ve got a problem on your hands- it’s going to be almost impossible to get their attention and ask them to stop. You can’t ask them questions in class to check their learning very easily and handing back work is a challenge to say the least. That’s where tip 6 (see below) also comes in handy- if you decide where learners are sitting, place their marked work next to their name card and say their names all the time (when asking questions, making statements, asking learners to move around the room/help you with resources). You’ll then be in with a fighting chance of getting there with names in the first two weeks, which I would suggest is the latest to have learnt them all by. The alliteration name game helps too though.

4. Lower your room expectations- but not to rock bottom!

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Expect your timetable and rooms to change. Don’t print your timetable in colour or laminate it until at least October half term, even then, it might be a little premature! In FE, we enrol until last minute, which means we don’t know exact class sizes or needs until they begin their lessons. You might all be sat on top of one another every lesson (with students sat on the windowsills of the room), you might be in the boardroom or you might be a small group in a vast lecture hall. It’ll get there- or not- so having slightly lower expectations of your accommodation will help to ease the stress. However, don’t lower your expectations too much! Don’t ever stop screaming if the windowsills story is yours (it was mine for three very long weeks of evening classes with adults). If all else fails, the corridor, canteen or a coffee shop in town could be used (providing a risk assessment and consent forms have been collated of course).

5. Paper will be your lifesaver!

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Printing will be your lifeline in the first 6 weeks. Yes, I am a HUGE fan of technology but until all student accounts are set-up and stable then the world of technology can wait. Paper can ease the headaches in the first few weeks when there are so many other things for you to contend with. That’s not to say you should give up on technology though- keep checking and once everything seems set to go then get everything and everyone online and GO! Ultimately, technology saves time, makes things more accessible and far easier for you and the learners. My advice would be to wait for everyone who hasn’t read this post to try the tech and you can just learn from the challenges they’ve faced therefore your students’ journey will be a far smoother one! Winner!

6. Avoid cliques forming at all costs!

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The greatest thing about college is that the students come from so many different places. The last thing you want is for the school-like cliques to form, and form they will if you’re not vigilant… and that does not make for a happy learning environment. On day one, give learners a folded piece of card. Ask them to write their name on it. At the start of every lesson you can move the cards around the room to indicate where learners should sit. I use these cards for the whole year- yes, with adults too. A naive moment would be to think that after term one, you’ve solved it and the learners will happily move to sit with different people of their own accord each lesson- they won’t, they’ll sit with the people they’re most comfortable with and comfort doesn’t always lead to great learning, as the pit will tell us. And however much they tell you otherwise, they WILL distract one another.

7. Record keeping, however tedious, is a necessity

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Set-up a system where you can track everything- attendance, punctuality, homework hand-ins, marks. Your institution may provide something that completely works for you- in my experience, that’s highly unlikely! This is vital as you’ll be giving learners deadlines. If that deadline passes and you don’t have clear records then it’ll disappear like grains of sand trickling through your hand and although you might resolve to do differently next time, you won’t. You’ll forget…again. The learners will walk all over you if they think they can get away with it and they’ll soon clock that you’re clearly not making a record!

8. Prepare to travel and set up camp anywhere!

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Get your own trolley/massive bag/huge box. As a teacher in FE, you’ll be incredibly lucky to get your own classroom. You therefore cannot rely on the possibility that every classroom will have in it board pens and a board rubber. Having your own stationery means you’ve got everything you could need for unplanned lesson activities- highlighters, felt pens, sticky notes, glue and scissors. Other staple teacher items- lollipop sticks with learners’ names on them, soft ball for throwing (not at them, just towards them!), a bell or other item that makes a noise. Blue tack for sticking up great examples of learners work easily and lots of green/red/purple pens for marking work as soon as it’s done in class.

9. Beware the so-called ‘office’!

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Find a space away from the staffroom to get work done. In FE, your office and your desk is also the social space and the kitchen. You will never escape your colleagues and you’ll need to if you ever want to get home ‘on time.’ When your work is mounting, don’t run from it. Find a room. Grab a useful colleague if necessary and get it done. Equally, if your productivity is running low, learn to spot this and either call it a day or find something you can do. I find doing something a bit more creative for a while gets me back on track to do admin/marking/planning.

10. Treat all advice you receive with caution!

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You’ll find that as a new teacher, everyone will have a piece of advice for you. Some of this will be the kind of wisdom that will helpfully follow you around until retirement. Other advice dispensed will be the kind you should approach with caution, peer at and then walk swiftly away from in the other direction, or preferably just set light to! Here are some of the many lies I have been told over the years:

  • If the students don’t behave then it’s your fault for not engaging them properly- it is your fault, every single time, no matter what.
  • Plan to prepare or prepare to fail.
  • Don’t smile before half term.
  • Don’t talk to the learners about anything other than college- you don’t want them thinking you’re their friend.
  • The only learners you’ll remember are the good ones.

and be particularly cautious of this:

  • Being an outstanding teacher is the pinnacle of all achievement.

Here’s what I’ve discovered to be closer to the truth:

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  • If the students don’t behave then it’s often a result of bad planning and a lack of consistency with your rules. It is also linked to their lives outside of college- get to know them, what they’re affected by and how you can support them. Sometimes, it will be because they’re teenagers and they feel like behaving badly.
  • Planning can prevent failures from happening but it does not guarantee it- your learning and failures are, just as with your students, an inevitable and useful part of your learning. A lot of the time with planning, you need to know when enough is enough and your planning is as good as it can be.
  • I didn’t even try not smiling before half term- do you want to be seriously miserable on the inside? It is important to maintain a straight face during the disciplining of students and the laying down of rules but a smile is human, normal and helps the students’ nerves and anxieties.
  • The most helpful thing you CAN do is talk to the learners about what interests them and what they enjoy. This helps you to build rapport, which is essential in engaging and motivating them throughout the year.
  • I’m sorry to have to tell you but you will remember the naughty ones. If you’re anything like me, it will be of fondness and occasionally guilt that things couldn’t have worked out differently with them. I think the hardest battle for teachers is to remember the marvellous ones and spend more of your time fretting over THEIR progress instead.
  • There is no secret formula for a grade 1 lesson. A ‘grade 1’ teacher can no more tell you this than you can work it out for yourself. Your drive should be to give excellent learning experiences to students day in, day out and to NEVER give in. Sometimes this will mean sitting around for a chat and a problem solving session. At other times this will mean giving 1-1 feedback. All of the time, it will mean being yourself and this means making mistakes. This doesn’t mean giving perfectly planned, perfectly executed, engaging lessons every time. You will have shockingly terrible ones, you’ll likely have lots of mediocre ones and there’ll be ones where you felt like you smashed it! Be reflective and never be fooled into thinking it was better or worse than it was. Never believe that the learners have learnt anything- at all- however much they seemed to ‘enjoy’ it. Keep striving for more. One of the best things about teaching are the opportunities for learning and growth. If you’re satisfied by someone else perceiving you to have delivered a grade 1 lesson then you’re in the wrong job!

Some other useful advice I’ve received and other things I’ve learnt over the years:

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  • My mentor on day 1- ‘If they don’t throw a chair at you then you’ve done well.’ This got me through my first year of teaching and I’m sure long after that too. I’m certain this isn’t the worst a student could do but as bad as it got (fist smashed into wall near my head, students stoned out of their heads, being sworn at) none of them have thrown a chair… yet!
  • Don’t beat yourself up over the students’ failures or your own either. You’ll learn this in time but to quote Suncreen, ‘your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s. Sometimes you’ll be ahead, sometimes you’ll be behind.’ What IS important is that you learn from all of these experiences- reflect on them carefully, honestly and try filming your lesson, even just the once. You’ll learn so much about yourself, your students and teaching & learning.
  • Ensure you set clear expectations with learners- how soon will you reply to emails/mark work/updated online resources? This way, they don’t pester you first thing in the morning for something they only emailed you the night before (although how keen they are is sometimes incredibly endearing)!
  • The constant measuring and ‘weighing of the pig’ will get you nowhere. If you know their scores, their grades, their attendance, their behaviour, their levels of achievement, this doesn’t tell you a great deal in itself. You have to do something with the data. Got 99 problems? Then don’t let inertia be one. Be proactive. If things aren’t as good as they should be then follow these simple steps:
    1- Speak to the learner. Contact them. Be relentless. Really listen to what’s going on in their world and their head.
    2- Chat about the issue with a colleague- you can learn a lot from others’ approaches and methods. They might not ordinarily work for you but they might work in this one instance.
    3- See where another student or course or teacher or department’s data is fantastic- go and find out what’s going on. What are they doing differently? What are they trialing that you could trial too?
  • Saying yes to everything can get you everywhere, quite literally! In FE, if you’re good at something, you’ll soon get a reputation and everyone will want a piece! Some of you will find it difficult to show self-restraint in term one of your teaching career. Some of you will find it challenging long after that too. You’ll feel like saying yes because they’re great opportunities- and they probably are- you’ll be exposed to a great many wonderful opportunities. Saying yes to every single one will lead to your meltdown though. If you really want to do something, give a holding response, go away and think about it seriously. If you think that you can develop personally and professionally from being involved and there’s time in the week for it then say yes. If you already don’t have time to speak to your students, answer their emails, mark their work and do your planning then stop. Think. And say no.
  • Network, learn and learn some more. Go to TeachMeets, read blogs, get yourself on Twitter, network with colleagues in your department, in their departments, beyond your own establishment, beyond your own country. Don’t expect an idea to come to you fully formed and don’t dismiss those ideas that don’t look as though they’ll work for you- with a little bit of tweaking, they just might. Don’t try to implement all that you learn as it won’t all suit you and your learners. Always begin with the current challenges you and your learners are facing and make your decisions from there. Having said that, in all honesty, year one is very much about taking on board lots of ideas and trying them out. It is in year two where you can begin refining your practice and more carefully selecting and implementing the strategies in their appropriate context.

Good luck, enjoy your journey and keep in touch- let me know how it’s all going for you!

5 Replies to “Top Tips for surviving a first term in FE”

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