Completing an M.Ed. as a Full-Time Teacher

 

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Completing an M.Ed. as a full-time teacher is a daunting prospect: we all have other commitments and a busy schedule. Many people I have spoken to have said that they can’t imagine doing an M.Ed. due to the pressure of other deadlines. As teachers, we have planning, developing, meetings and marking to think about too, and the thought of something else can seem overwhelming. However, I found the M.Ed. to be a positive experience and, done right, it should be fulfilling and valuable.
I started the course straight after my student year at a Scottish University. The university provided an opportunity for PGDE students to gain Masters credits whilst completing the student year. These credits meant that I could complete the course in a shorter timeframe and it also meant that I did not have as much to worry about when I was teaching full-time.
The course is not easy, but it is not supposed to be. It is an opportunity to learn more about education and think about your own personal interests within it. If you are interested in doing it ‘at some point’ my advice would be to commit yourself to it now; there are flexible options available and it can be done part-time.
The aspect of the course which, I felt, required the most attention was the 15,000-word dissertation. For this part of the course, I submitted a proposal and was then allocated a supervisor based on the specific area I was interested in. Most of my advice will focus on the dissertation as it was the most challenging, and rewarding, part of the M.Ed.

Get Organised

Before starting the M.Ed. my top tip is to make sure you are organised. You will need to be able to meet deadlines, and with a full-time job balancing everything can be difficult. Everyone handles workload differently, so the best way is to make sure you get the balance right for you. Make sure you check your emails and the university’s website regularly for updates. I would also advise getting a folder to keep everything you need in. This is useful as you can always look back at the work you completed the previous year – you might also get inspiration for your dissertation topic!

Read the Handbook (Dissertation)

Reading the handbook is very important as it will answer a lot of your questions before you begin. It will tell you the structure of the dissertation and give you information regarding word counts, references and deadlines. I constantly referred back to the handbook when I was writing to make sure I was on the right track. Also, the handbook will often have templates for submitting pieces of work (the proposal etc.) these will need to be read thoroughly and filled out correctly. In addition, you will also find out about the ethic approval requirements of the university. Please remember if you are working with children, you need to get permission from their parents and the school before you can begin your investigation.

Keep in Touch with your Supervisor (Dissertation)

This is something that I, on reflection, wish I had done more of. Please remember that your supervisor is an experienced academic who is there to guide you through the process. The more you keep in touch with them, the more support you can expect back. Make sure you set up regular meetings through email and don’t be scared to ask them about elements of the thesis you are unsure about. Mentors are also there to read short sections of your dissertation before you submit it; they can give you advice on reading and writing critically. However, remember they are busy people and you will need to make sure you are organised and keep in touch with them. It is also a good idea to keep a record of the meetings you have had and the focus of the meetings. This means you can refer to back to the conversations you have had and think about the progress you have made.

Choose your Focus (Dissertation)

This is your chance to choose an area you are interested in learning more about it through in-depth independent research. The dissertation will build on the skills and understanding gained from previous modules. There will be many areas to think about such as inclusion, policy and practice and sustainability. An idea is to revisit the work you completed on previous modules and see if there is anything that would require further investigation. Also think about your current career and professional development. An interest may derive from something you want to achieve in the future or something you want to develop now. However, make sure your you don’t choose an area that is too wide as you do have a word count which will be around 15,000.

Read Widely BEFORE you Start Writing (Dissertation)

If I could turn back the clock, this is the advice I would give myself. As far as possible don’t prejudge your research before you have done your reading. That will focus you on an echo chamber that will support your initial thoughts and not investigate research which might oppose you. You must make sure that you read evidence supporting your investigation and opposing it. By being impartial, it will be easier for you to think about the research question(s) and the focus of your dissertation. Ensure your research questions derive from the reading, rather than from assumptions based on anecdotes or your own beliefs. Remember this should enjoyable and interesting: give yourself time to read and always note down any questions which stem from the reading you are doing.

These are just a few tips that I would give to anyone starting the M.Ed. There is much more to think about and I’m happy to write another blog with more advice and reflections – if that would be of interest!

 

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Thriving as an NQT

 

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I have recently seen a few articles commenting on NQTs ‘surviving’ the first year of teaching; just keeping  their heads above water in order to survive the year. This shouldn’t be, and isn’t always, the case. Of course, the support of a school is fundamental. Schools need to understand that an NQT is starting out and needs time to develop a teaching identity.  Schools also need to understand that piling on the workload  (extra curricular clubs, meetings, initiatives etc.) will not only burn NQTs out, but could also reduce the amount of time they spend honing their practice. Priorities can become muddled when NQTs experience high-levels of pressure from extra curricular work. Therefore, my tips for NQTs will focus on what they can do in terms of practice.  NQTs need opportunities to develop, reflect and thrive in order to best support the children they teach.

 

  1. Ask Questions

Not only is this a great way to learn (and problem solve) it will also help you build relationships with colleagues. I used to worry that my questions were silly, but there really is no such thing. No-one should expect you to know everything and it is much better to ask than to overthink and worry about doing something wrong. I am now going into my fourth year of teaching and I still have questions. If you are feeling anxious about getting started, it’s a good idea to keep a notepad.  The notepad can be used if you start to overthink potential issues or queries and then, if you need to, you can ask these when you get to school.  You should also have a mentor who is there to support you – make sure you use them!

 

2.  Seek information about pupils

Whether it is through pen portraits, the school system, speaking to colleagues or speaking to pupils, make sure you know your classes. Knowing pupils can help with seating plans, as you can solve potential issues between peers by sitting them separately. You may also find information about additional support needs, such as sight or hearing difficulties. This information may advise you to sit pupils near the front of the classroom.  Furthermore, gaining information can also support you with differentiation.  As stated, finding out about ASN will help when it comes to planning and organising you lessons.

 

3.  Be prepared to adapt resources.

If you plan on developing resources all summer, please remember you may have to change them. You will struggle to meet the needs of all pupils before knowing them and their needs. I spent the summer before my NQT year developing resources that I did not use once I knew my pupils. My advise would be to have a plan in place for the outcomes you want to achieve, and make sure you are organised for the first few weeks. It is also important that you  speak to your HOD before you begin developing. Talk through your ideas with them and make sure your resources don’t clash with other year groups or teachers. They may have their own shared units that can be adapted/used to inspire your own work.  However, most importantly,  make sure you enjoy the summer and don’t burn yourself out.  You are still learning, and its important to remind yourself of that!

 

4.  Build relationships.

You may have heard ‘don’t smile until Christmas’, but building relationships is, for me, vital. You can have high expectations & boundaries without losing your warmth & approachability. I learned so much from my pupils during my NQT year. I learned that some of them were going home to chaos, whereas I was going home to a calm house and a warm dinner. I learned that they would sometimes be distracted, because they had got no sleep the night before. I learned that talking and listening to my pupils helped them to engage in my lessons as they were so used to being ignored or shouted at by some adults. However, it certainly wasn’t always perfect and I did, at times, make poor judgements and mistakes.  Make sure you keep things in perspective and remember that for many children school is their safe place. I would also recommend  greeting pupils at the door and showing a genuine interest in them as individuals. The boundaries can still be in place, but it’s important that they know you are interested in them and want to help them to enjoy school and succeed.

Building Relationships: Advice for NQTs

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Building Relationships 

Building relationships with pupils is fundamental. When I was a probationer, I didn’t fully understand the importance of getting to know pupils and understanding their backgrounds and circumstances. Many pupils have chaotic home lives and we need to show compassion. Understanding pupils’ circumstances helps me to support their individual needs and helps them feel safe and secure in my classroom.

Apologise to children

Apologising isn’t difficult. How often do we say ‘Sorry!’ to other adults for the most trivial things? In teaching, we need to make decisions and respond quickly to 30 or more pupils, and sometimes we will get it wrong. However, it’s the response to our mistakes that will be significant to the young people in front of us. As adults we need to be the ones modelling the behaviour we want to see from pupils; by mediating situations, we can avoid escalations and potential confrontations.

Many children see school as their safe place

It’s hard for me to comprehend the difficulties that many young children experience in their lives. Some children rely on school for the nurture and support that most of us take for granted. As teachers we are human and there will be days when we are tired or feeling stressed; however, we must remember that a smile and showing interest in a young person can make all the difference. Many pupils look forward to seeing us, so we must ensure we acknowledge them and allow them to approach us with both achievements and concerns.

The school holidays can be challenging

We must also remember that school breaks can create issues for many young people, and the lack of structure can negatively impact how pupils are feeling before and after the holidays. This unpredictability can increase the stress pupils are under and this can cause them to take out their frustrations in the classroom and around the school. Be aware of this when speaking to pupils, remembering that their holidays may have meant uncertainty and confusion.

Get to know pupils

The quicker I get to know pupils the more I enjoy my job. There are many opportunities to speak to pupils, but I’ve found it extremely effective to greet pupils at the door. This positive communication has always given me a chance to check for any wellbeing concerns, or follow up on something they told me the day before.

Listen to understand

As teachers we must ensure we listen to understand, rather than to reply. Restorative conversations are an effective tool, but only if they are used correctly. I’ve found by changing my approach and giving pupils the space they need to talk, issues are solved in a calm and safe environment for us both. Body language also plays a crucial role too; make sure you come across as approachable and open rather than closed and standoffish.

And remember… 

Pupils need someone who will listen to them and value what they have to say. By keeping these points in mind, we can make a positive difference to the lives of young people.

Allowing Pupils to Develop their Own Responses

 

There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter recently on ways to allow pupils to develop their own responses to texts – such as poetry and novels.   Some teachers might feel that pupils’ responses are ‘a waste of time’ and they should be focused on writing ‘the correct answer’. I completely disagree with this approach to teaching. I believe the reader’s response is vital as it allows pupils to think about their own feelings about texts in terms of their individual life experiences. It also allows me to think about texts in a different way: as teachers we can often get ‘caught up’ in what we believe and, subconsciously or not, influence the way pupils feel about characters, the plot and the language used.

I have been using reader-response theory with my classes for a couple of years and the improvement, in terms of their engagement and understanding, has been significant. One of the great things about it is anyone can give their own response without the pressure of a ‘right or wrong’ answer:  pupils have the space to think about their own views without trying to predict what I, as the teacher, am thinking.  It has been a great way to introduce pupils to poetry as they can think about their own response before I ‘influence’ them with my views. I have also found it to be a useful tool for when pupils are thinking about characterisation in a novel.

I decided to use reader response theory to help understand pupils’ views of George and Lennie in ‘Of Mice and Men’.  Pupils were shown a reader response theory grid and were asked to write down likes, dislikes, puzzles and key moments for each of the main characters. I used ‘puzzles’ as an opportunity for them to think about elements of the character that they  were not sure about/ did not understand. Key moments was used for them to think about moments which they felt were ‘key’ for each character. It was interesting to see the differences between George and Lennie’s ‘key moments’ considering how much time they spend together in the novel.

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Pupils were then given the opportunity to share their responses with their groups and they were also asked to think about the similarities and differences they all had. It was fascinating to see how they felt about the characters so far in the novel and to see them expand on their notes once they had shared their views with their groups.  One of the most interesting parts for me is hearing about pupils ‘puzzles’.  I often open up pupils’ questions to the class and we all think about why that might be a puzzle – views will often differ in terms of a ‘solution’ but that just makes the debate even more compelling.

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As well as the reader-response grid, I ask pupils to respond to statements rather than questions. This gives pupils another opportunity to think about their own reactions. They agree or disagree with a statement and give reasons to back up their point of view.   Statements are also useful when discussing poetry with pupils as they don’t try to get the ‘right’ answer but instead respond to a text and back it up with evidence to fight their case.  I will often be ‘the devil’s advocate’ and put in statements which can cause a split in the class in terms of agreement and disagreement.

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For me, reader-response theory is a beneficial tool which allows pupils to have their own say and then develop responses through discussion with the class. It is a great starting point for class dialogue and it is fascinating to see the way responses grow and develop. The theory also allows pupils to express any ‘puzzles’ they may have and these can be addressed – sometimes they can be answered and sometimes we can only speculate about what a  potential ‘solution’ might be.

I have written another couple of blogs looking at similar topics: Applying Reader-Response Theory to Media and Texts   and Statements or Questions?

Encouraging Pupils to use Refreshing Language in their Writing

Last weekend I attended the 2018 NATE  conference and, just like the year before, I left with loads of thought-provoking ideas.  One workshop in particular was so inspiring that I decided to try out some of the tasks with one of my classes.

At the conference the Award-winning poet Jonathan Edwards delivered a hands-on and enjoyable workshop exploring exciting  approaches to teaching poetry and creative writing.

Jonathan began the workshop by asking us to write for 5 minutes about someone close to us.  He asked us to start our writing with ‘my father is…’ but changing ‘father’ to the person we had chosen to write about.  This task was a great way to get the creativity flowing and , when I used it with my pupils, it worked well as a starter to get them focused on the lesson ahead. I also liked that it was a short sharp task and pupils could write as much as they could within the time limit.

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After pupils had shared some of their writing we moved on to Jonathan’s next task:  writing about a person/thing from their toes to their head.  The pupils were introduced to ‘Blood’ by Ian Duhig – another recommended poem by the workshop leader. ‘Blood’ is a great poem to show the pupils as it uses the same structure and has a twist at the end.  The poem also has brand and well-known item references throughout and this is an interesting challenge for pupils – can they consider the clothing choices of their chosen person?  This task can also be differentiated in terms of challenge; you might want to encourage some pupils to add a twist to the end of their writing, like ‘Blood’, or even write about a famous figure. One of the attendees wrote a fantastic piece on Julies Caesar and therefore this task could be used in connection with subjects like History and Modern Studies.

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The final task was my favourite one in the workshop and it also turned out to be beneficial in the classroom.  Pupils read ‘Not The Furniture Game’ by Simon Armitage – a poem that is made up of unusual, humorous and original metaphors.   Once the poem has been read the pupils started thinking about the metaphors in the poem they thought worked well and those they deemed as ‘random’.  It was interesting to hear the pupils’ differing views on this and the ones which stood out to each individual. We then moved on to a task that Jonathan introduced me to in the workshop and I think it is a fantastic way to encourage pupils to move away from clichéd language.  Pupils were given a piece of A4 paper and, whilst keeping their chosen person in mind,  were asked to fold this into 8 pieces and write down:

two adjectives

two body parts

two objects/places

two words of their choice

Once pupils had completed this part of the task they could start to play around with the language and create metaphors. I allowed them to add a few words to these in order to make them more logical if they wished; pupils then had the opportunity to get up from their seats and ‘borrow’  words chosen by other pupils in the classroom in order to create more of their own original metaphors. I was blown away by some of the examples including:

Her hair was the sandy beaches of Bora Bora

His eyes were a mesmerising Disney film

His arm was a jubilant musical

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This approach  was a great way to encourage pupils to be ambitious and take a step away from the over-done language they can be used to using.  It exposed them to how fun and exciting poetry can be and allowed them to be creative with their writing.   In the next lesson pupils will create their own poem based on their chosen person and ‘Not the Furniture Game’ will be an inspiring model for them if they require a scaffold.

Throughout all of these tasks I wrote with the pupils and this was extremely beneficial for them as they could see the struggles and triumphs all writers go through when creating pieces of work. They were also really interested to hear what I had created and seeing me engrossed in the task also helped them to stay focused.   I often think teachers can shy away from writing with pupils but I find it makes my job easier as I’m more aware of possible issues; it also shows pupils that we enjoy writing and I think that is extremely important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pupils’ Expectations

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In life we always have set expectations for an event. We develop these expectations through our own prior experiences and through word of mouth. As we live the experience we soon begin to gage whether it is living up to our hopes or letting us down. For example, the expectation for a lecture is students sitting in rows facing a lecturer and taking in information. This can seem exciting to some fresh undergrad students as they hope to be inspired by this new form of learning; however most students have heard that lectures are boring and to skip them because ‘they just put the slides online anyway’: is this what we want learning to be?

 
I have been to many inspiring lectures, as well as the not so inspiring ones, and I have come to realise that expectations can often be dangerous and misleading: they can determine the attitude we have as we approach a new experience and our level of engagement with it. If more lecturers began their sessions with active learning and discussion, would we still class it as a lecture or something else? If we call an experience within a lecture hall a ‘workshop’ does that mean it is different or does it depend on what actually happens within the ‘workshop’?

 
These thoughts got me thinking about the expectations pupils have for what happens in the classroom. Yes, we may set our high expectations for them but what are their assumptions about us and our teaching? Do their views change as they enter our classroom and are we presented with opportunities to alter their outlook?
I have been considering this mainly in relation to senior classes and the change of timetable that is almost ( or already for some) upon us. Senior pupils will enter our classes with a set expectation of what the class will be like through word of mouth from their peers (unless we are new) and if we have taught them in the past. From the moment the pupils steps through the door we have an opportunity to either stick with what they expected or start afresh and try something new.

 
It is pretty common to spend the first few periods going over the course outline with a senior class and to discuss the exam structure; however I find this detrimental. For me, it puts the exam at the centre of importance rather than the pupils’ learning. If we lecture to pupils for an hour about what they ‘need’ to know for an exam we have, in my opinion, already set their expectations for the rest of the year: this teacher is going to tell me what to think in order to pass this exam. 

 
Although exams are important I believe it is vital that students are aware that it is their learning that should take centre stage. I believe that starting the year with a discussion about literature, and giving pupils the opportunity to develop their own opinions about texts, is far more beneficial. We should take that opportunity to build pupils’ confidence rather than get them worked up about an exam and set them in the ‘just tell me what I need to know’ mentality. If we begin the year by letting pupils know that we aren’t going to tell them what to think and if we encourage them to contribute their views, then I believe we will all gain more out of the school year.

Text-Worlds in the Classroom Seminar

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I recently attended an inspiring seminar, with  Jess Mason and Marcello Giovanelli, looking at Text World theory and the way that it can help structure classroom activities.

At the beginning of the seminar we were asked to picture how we would visualise a short piece of writing and draw this on paper.  The extract was taken from The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill and it was interesting to compare our drawings with other members of the group and see the elements of the story that we each, individually focused on.  There were many similarities with the drawings and these occurred most frequently in the same groups.  For example each individual in my group did not use the whole sheet of A2 paper and focused on smaller images instead; whereas other groups used the whole sheet with much larger drawings.   Marcello then explained that this comes from our mental representation of a text as we are more likely to  create similar images to those who are near us and may influence our decisions.

This would be a fantastic task to use with a class as it would allow pupils to build an individual mental image of a text that can then be shared and discussed with their group.  It would also be interesting for pupils to think about why they focused on certain words in the story and why they discarded others. There will be words in the extract that some pupils may have vocabulary gaps with.  For example, in the extract we were given, the word ‘London’ triggered mental pictures such as Big Ben and the London Eye; however if a pupil has little/no knowledge of London they may not choose to focus on that word. This, therefore, highlights the important connection between comprehension and interpretation: if  there is a lack of understanding then it may make it more challenging for pupils to think critically about a novel and create their own interpretation.

Quick minute drawings to create a mental representation of an extract from The Mist in the Mirror.

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This task also tied in well with Jess Mason’s thoughts on personal preference.  As we read more we start to gain an understanding of what we like and dislike.  Due to our own experiences we may also be more likely to focus on certain elements of a text.  This was made evident in a whole group discussion. Some members of the seminar stated they enjoyed rich character description and voice, whereas others preferred descriptive setting and landscape.  Interestingly, this reflected on the drawings we created in our groups.   Certain words in the extract created an individual trigger for each of us and we focused on that element of the story.  This, perhaps, indicates the influence our personal preferences can have over what we focus on in a text and the mental image we create.

This idea of personal preferences led Jess into a discussion about pupils and their experiences with novels in a classroom.  This was really insightful for me as Jess explained the difference between a teacher’s experience with a class novel and a pupil’s. Teachers will, normally, read a novel before they begin it with a class.  This means that a teacher experiences an authentic reading of a text and, therefore, can create their own interpretation of the novel.  However, pupils often only experience a class novel within a classroom.  They might read some of it with the class for 15 minutes of the lesson and then start tasks in groups and this may potentially result in the pleasure of reading being denied for these pupils.  There will be pupils in the class who wish to read at a slower pace or those who read ahead and we must ask ourselves how much this disjointed experience of reading is influencing the pupils’ enjoyment of a novel.

Furthermore, because the teacher has their own interpretation of the text they can, consciously or not, influence the way the pupils perceive a text.  This means that pupils are experiencing a manufactured reading of a novel and are being denied the right to engage.  If we think about sharing our thoughts with someone on a TV series we have watched,  we expect to have similarities and differences in terms of likes and dislikes and we expect to interpret characters in different ways .  Yet, because teachers have already had the experience of a novel , they are more likely to encourage pupils to create their  mental representation of a text rather than allowing pupils to have the freedom to create their own.

As a result of teachers having a natural reading experience with a class novel, it may influence the tasks chosen for a class.  This perhaps highlights the potential dangers of learning intentions if teachers feel the lesson cannot take another direction.  There is also a danger in waiting for the ‘right answer’ and then moving on when that has been given.  This can, therefore, exacerbate the issue with pupils experiencing a manufactured reading of a text as they may switch off if they feel that their views are not important or lose confidence if they feel they are wrong.   However, viewing something differently often has real value and this led Jess to a discussion on the idea of a character being perceived as a ‘villain’.  A teacher Jess was working with asked the class to think about what makes the Warden in Holes  a villain.  Jess then asked a group of pupils if they thought she was a villain and after some hesitation one boy suggested that the Warden was only doing what she knew and following in the footsteps of her family. Therefore this highlights the importance of the way we ask questions, as teachers, as it can lead pupils to share their personal view of a text.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable seminar and I have gained loads of ideas to use with my classes over the next few weeks.  It is always interesting to consider the differences individuals can have in terms of their approach to a text and the way we can, as teachers, utilise these differences to create uplifting critical discussions.

 

Giovanelli, Marcello and Mason, Jessica (2015) ‘Well I don’t feel that’: schemas, worlds and authentic reading in the classroom. English in Education, 49 (1). pp. 4155. ISSN 1754-884