Like any new teacher, you will be keen to make a prompt start with your planning for the new academic year. However, at this point, I urge you to stop. Taking time to ask your new departmental colleagues key questions before you begin and making the time to build your professional networks within and beyond your school will be a real investment. In this article, I outline three ways in which your teaching career could be improved by collaboration.
Developing your subject knowledge
As a new teacher, opportunities to teach a key stage from beginning to end will be a new experience. This is where your departmental colleagues have a lot to offer. I would recommend asking colleagues about sequencing: when teaching particular topics, what prior knowledge is particularly helpful? When was this last taught to the students? Knowledge about how topics are related and sequenced will help you identify fruitful opportunities to link new topics with relevant prior knowledge. This will help build your students’ schema, their own mental framework that they use to organise and understand information.
In addition to knowledge about sequencing and prior learning, your colleagues will have an excellent insight into the topics that students find challenging to understand. Knowing these in advance will help you identify the topics that will require more careful planning, not always evident from a scheme of work or textbook. I would recommend that all new teachers ask their experienced colleagues about which topics generate most student misconceptions. These pose a particular challenge, as misconceptions can be difficult to unlearn and differ from mistakes that arise when a student has an accurate understanding but makes a one-off error. An appreciation of misconceptions in our subject area is a key part of what is referred to as pedagogical content knowledge, one of the most important aspects of successful teaching identified in the Sutton Trust’s What Makes Great Teaching:
‘As well as a strong understanding of the material being taught, teachers must also understand the ways students think about the content, be able to evaluate the thinking behind students’ own methods, and identify students’ common misconceptions.’ (Coe et al., 2015)
An example from my own teaching of economics is where students confuse government budget deficits (where governments spend more than they generate in tax in a year) and trade deficits (where a country’s spending on imports exceeds their earnings from exports). These misconceptions have been revealed to me in essays and tests where students have written, sometimes at great length, about the ‘wrong’ deficit. Despite my subsequent explanations and efforts to remedy this, for some students these misconceptions have been really difficult to shake off. These experiences have changed how I teach these topics. For example, I highlight the etymology of the word ‘deficit’ – making it explicit that a deficit can arise in a variety of contexts and is not just associated with the government’s coffers. Using short questions in quizzes to enable students to distinguish between the two has been particularly helpful. More generally, I have explained to students that the two concepts can be confused and that they should be careful not to.
Another go-to source of support to help you build your subject knowledge is your subject associations. In my case, I found the EBEA’s journals really helpful in my early years as a teacher to help me see topics through an examiner’s or experienced teacher’s lens. I continue to use Tutor2U’s excellent economics website, and their Twitter account alerts me to new topics being discussed on the site. There are a multitude of associations out there, such as the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, the Historical Association and the Association for Science Educators, to name just a few. Make sure you look up yours and join.
Developing broader pedagogical understanding
Knowledge of broader pedagogical themes can further develop the impact of your teaching. Your teacher training will have provided you with a good introduction to this area and, in my experience, continuing your links with the research community is vital. I would recommend reading some key journals to stay informed. The American Educator is a fantastic journal from the American Federation of Teachers. One standout article for me is Barak Rosenshine’s article (Rosenshine, 2012) on effective classroom instruction. Amongst his ten evidence-informed principles, modelling and ‘think aloud’ strategies resonated strongly with me. In my early career, I had been prone to too-swiftly setting students off on extended questions, and remember my disappointment when marking responses. Having taught the topic, I had readily assumed that students were armed with sufficient knowledge to be successful in answering long and sometimes complex questions. Reading Rosenshine’s work helped me to reflect on the attention I needed to pay to students’ knowledge of not just the topic but also how they write. It became clear that my implicit knowledge of how to do this was required to be made explicit to students through modelling if they were to improve.
I would also recommend Sumeracki and Weinstein’s brilliant article on retrieval practice (Sumeracki and Weinstein, 2018) in the Chartered College of Teaching’s science of learning edition of their journal in 2018. Calling to mind information from memory is critical for students’ learning, but providing successful opportunities for this in the classroom isn’t always straightforward. Sumeracki and Weinstein offer helpful and realistic ideas about how this can be achieved.
In addition to journals, spending a couple of minutes signing up for newsletters from organisations, including the Education Endowment Foundation, the Institute for Effective Education and University Education Faculties, would be time well spent. Looking up your local Research School online and on Twitter will keep you informed of research news and of local evidence-informed training. For example, Sandringham Research School has recently provided training on pedagogical themes, including effective feedback and preparation for linear exams.
Developing your professional relationships
An old head teacher of mine used to say that in the first year in a school you take, in the second you break even and in the third you give back. I think that’s a pretty good principle to bear in mind as you begin your career. In this article, I have suggested some key people and places that can provide support for you. I would encourage you to feed back to helpful colleagues or researchers on how their advice might be helping you. Feedback of this nature is surprisingly rare and so, for those individuals, it will be gratefully received. Furthermore, it will help you build more of a two-way relationship with colleagues in and out of school. If nurtured, these relationships will bring you tangible help over the years, and generally, the knowledge that there are people within your professional network is reassuring. Before long, you will be creating resources and developing insights that will be helpful to others. The feeling of being able to contribute to the development of other teachers and to the profession is a rewarding one.
Find a Research School: educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/scaling-up-evidence/research-schools.