The School Doctor: New Year, Old Platitudes?

The School Doctor discusses the new academic year ahead.


It is hard to start a new school year without wheeling out the same pedagogical platitudes that have been wheeled out year after year. I suspect there are lots of heads out there standing on stages, pupils’ eyes fixed on their shoes, delivering the same kind of things they’ve always said, perhaps changing the words a little. Be nice to one another? Check. Work hard but have some fun? Check. Please don’t leave Mars Bar wrappers in the playground? Check.

Of course, some new pupils will never have heard these platitudes and will be wide-eyed at their seeming originality; others will be wondering how many times they need to be told the same things over and over again. There are certain core features of education that need reiterating, and there are certain core features that won’t change, that were never glamorous, and never will be. I’m thinking of timetables, fire drills, codes of conduct, anything that is routine. But at the start of a new year it is incumbent on us as teachers to get the routine out of the way and to find ways to invigorate our lessons, our schools, our pupils.

If you’re not growing, you’re dying: there’s something wrong if you think that this year can be the same as last year, and the year before, as well as a solid rehearsal for next year and the year after. Growing as a teacher, as a person, will involve finding something fresh and new, something that will keep you interested while the necessary grind of preparing for exams or whatever returns. This might be a formal qualification, but it will more likely be a new interest or a new way of teaching an old subject.

Check the ‘date modified’ column on your planning: when was the last time you looked seriously at your plans, aside from changing the date at the top? Planning isn’t particularly sexy, I grant you, but it’s a good way of working through what worked last year, what didn’t, what you might add, what you might take away. I once worked in a school where one teacher’s planning document hadn’t been amended (Word told me so) for eight years. EIGHT YEARS. I am still staggered at the lack of engagement or interest in documenting change and improvement.

Please don’t roll your eyes and say you’d rather still be on the beach: your pupils will notice. Pupils are astonishingly reflective. If you give the impression you’d rather still be dozing next to lapping water and a midday Margarita, your pupils will hanker after day-long lie-ins or a diet of This Morning, Loose Women and the Real Housewives of Orange County. It’s hard to be enthusiastic when the first pile of marking comes in, or you’re carrying out a duty in torrential rain, but it’s important.

Work out your new weekly ritual: last year’s routines will have been disrupted by a new timetable, new duties, new homework-marking nights. Quickly work out what needs to be done when and – as importantly – work out when you don’t need to do anything. Then plan to do your favourite things in those windows. I remember shuddering when, in my first year of teaching, I read a book that told me to put aside one evening a week and one day of the weekend without any schoolwork. Quite a few years in and I still haven’t really managed it, but it’s worth aiming towards, and crikey does it feel good when you can ring-fence time for a guilty pleasure in the middle of term.

Smile before Christmas: granted, this depends where you are and what you are doing, who you are teaching, and how tough you need to be. But the age-old advice of not smiling before Christmas often backfires: you might scare pupils into submission, but you also run the danger of creating a negative and corrosive atmosphere. Demonstrating that you enjoy your subject, that you enjoy teaching, that you enjoy imparting knowledge and skills to your charges, can often be infectious. As I say, I’m not naïve enough to assume that this will work in all contexts, but if you can do it, do it.

There you are – I told you it was difficult to start the new school year without spouting the same old platitudes. Schools are machines, they have processes, and disrupting those processes leads to instability and insecurity, both of which can be harmful to worthwhile education. But we can put a heart in that machine, and we can smile and grow as we (to mix metaphors) tread well-worn paths. I’ll let you know if I still think this in the mid-November drizzle.


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