This is the seventh part of my Reflection Series – a self-reflection of my year teaching in the UK.
Who amongst your colleagues was the most helpful to you?
This job wouldn’t be possible at all if it weren’t for teachers helping other teachers out. You need good colleagues by your side or you would go insane! In this sense it is difficult to say any one person who was ‘the most’ helpful – they all were in different ways. I realised in writing this post that being ‘helpful’ to me really means what they taught me – about myself and about being a teacher.
I can’t thank my science department from my school in London enough for everything they helped me with. From navigating the British curriculum, to understanding London students, even to tips for dealing with the weather. It was all necessary and appreciated, and helped me to survive my year there.
My Head of Department Karen was an absolute life saver. I know I have a lot of negative things to say about the senior leadership team, but in those words I never once consider Karen a part of that group. She was with us, if we were to look at it in an ‘us vs them’ way. As our voice to the senior leadership team, she fought hard for our little team and did her best to make sure our work was appreciated. She really put herself in our shoes and understood all of our struggles, simply by caring. In that sense, Karen also appreciated our work and celebrated our successes in a much more genuine way too.
Karen allowed me to expand my horizons and grow as a teacher, discovering talents I didn’t know I had. She supported and guided me through the maze of London teaching in such a fantastic way. I was able to go to her for help with any issue and know that I would be taken seriously and that real, helpful advice would be offered. She showed me what it was like to have an active, present HOD, one who was a true leader down in the battles with her troops instead of pointing the way and sitting back. She helped me deal with difficult students and extend academically gifted ones, and encouraged me to try out new pedagogies.
We spent many hours chatting about work, but also about life. With so many more years of experience than I, and also being a woman with a family working full time in this profession, she was an invaluable source of comfort and guidance for me. I truly look up to her as a professional and as a person. If she can do it, so can I!
My fellow Aussie Jess and I formed a solid, lasting friendship right from word go. We had originally met at out interview week with the recruitment company, and landed jobs at the same school. It was natural that we’d migrate toward each other because of our backgrounds, but more than that we genuinely got along so well it was an easy progression from colleagues to friends. Jess fed my soul with reminders and memories of home, keeping my accent in check, and we spent many weekends exploring this strange new country together.
Professionally speaking she was a wonderful sounding board, and being a beginning teacher she fed me so many ideas and encouraged me to not fall into a teaching slump. Her boundless energy in regard to her teaching, even when she was more stressed out and anxious than I was, kept my spirits up. She brought so many new pedagogical ideas, and reminded me of ones I had forgotten, that she expanded my own teaching practice. Together we ran the science club (though to be fair she did most of the work), and explored what teaching science in London was all about.
We also provided each other with a judgement-free venting outlet, comparing difficult situations and students, and helping each other to work through all the hard times. We taught many of the same classes (remember I had 17 or so different classes, and she had even more), and had very similar teaching philosophies, so we really could compare and offer advice to each other based on what had worked and what hadn’t.
If it wasn’t for Jess being there and going through what I was going through, I don’t know if I would have stuck it out for the year.
Tom, who was the presenter of the Outdoor Learning PD sessions (first one here and second one here) taught me many things besides how to effectively teach outdoors. It was him that introduced me to mindfulness in the classroom, which I am now moving towards becoming qualified to teach to students. I saw him teaching it to senior students, and the positive impact it had, and decided it was important enough for me to try to replicate for myself. His love of the concept encouraged my own, and has helped me to focus my manner in the classroom as one of kindness. Whenever I’m feeling stressed out or annoyed at the students, I always try to remember to be kind to them – it was something Tom was teaching his children, and I figured there was no reason why I couldn’t be more active in that way of thinking in my own life.
He also taught me much about how to stand up for myself. In particular how to say no to things I genuinely didn’t want to be involved with, how to say yes to things I did, and how to work out the difference between the two. Much of my new-found confidence stems from him and Karen, who both supported and encouraged me in different ways.
Jessica (not the same Jess as above) showed me what true intellectualism and passion for teaching a subject looks like. As the resident physicist, it was a whole new world for me to explore – a female physicist who loved sharing her knowledge and craft with her students is something I had not come across before. I never really liked physics before, mostly because I didn’t really understand it, but the way she would explain things lead us to many lunch time discussions about life, the universe, and everything.
I am so thankful to her and her knowledge for opening up a new world of content that I actually can understand and pass along to my own students. Whenever I teach anything to do with physics or space now, I think about what Jessica might have done, and try to emulate her enthusiasm and love of it.
She also showed me it was ok to be vocal about feminist issues, and to not hide my opinions just because it might make a man uncomfortable. Again, I had not come across this type of strength before, so it was a real eye opener for me, one that I have brought home and openly discuss with both my female and male students. I want them to mould a world where equality actually exists, and I don’t know if I’d be comfortable to be like this if it weren’t for Jessica.
Claire, a fellow biologist, helped me with something completely different to anything above. She helped me to learn how to truly care about my students. As the instigator of a Big Brother, Big Sister club, she would spend most of her lunch times sitting with the students who needed a bit of support, whatever support that may be. Many of these students were bullied, abused, had learning difficulties, or were just feeling a bit left out or out of sorts. She would be that stable, caring, firm person in their lives, the one they knew they could turn to for advice and support. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like she would cater to their every whim. She taught them what it was like to listen to a firm but fair adult, to follow social cues, to apologise when they did something wrong, and to seek help when they really needed it.
She sacrificed so much of her own time and energy to help these students that I didn’t really get to know her for the first few months I was there. All I knew to begin with was that Claire was helping the students who needed help, so I did what I could to help her. As I learned more about what she did for them, I wish I had been more involved too. I have never seen anybody care on such a deep level about the students as people and not as data points. It was a truly beautiful thing to witness.
Claire helped me to understand that students need much more from us then content knowledge (rightly or wrongly), and that it’s ok to lend that help to them. It’s ok to be their friend when they need it, to be a parental figure when they need it, to be a cranky old Aunty when they need it. She also showed me how this can all be done within our legal and moral responsibilities as professional teachers, and how to move the students through the stages of support so that they can eventually find their own way and grow out of it.
Ritch helped me in so many ways, again completely different to anyone else. He helped me deal emotionally with all the crap we were going through as a department by being a solid rock of understanding and being equally annoyed at things (the best thing sometimes is having someone just as furious as you to vent with!). He presented different ways of viewing situations, providing analogies from his knowledge of ancient civilisations in ways that I still refer to them now. One in particular that I keep thinking about is how ‘a good general is down in the trenches with his troops’ – a phrase he would often use when discussing our woes with leadership.
Ritch would stick up for me when the naughty boys would run out of control in my classes. When some particularly nasty boys were being particularly disrespectful in a way that we all thought might be driven by sexism, he pulled them aside and told them in no uncertain terms that the way they were behaving was completely unacceptable and to shape up or he would be down on them like a tonne of bricks. Knowing he had my back with these young terrors gave me confidence to teach them again in subsequent lessons, and to put my game face on even though inside I was broken with stress, anxiety and depression.
Funnily enough he also helped me to understand how I do and don’t like teaching. We have very different teaching styles, and after trying out his way I realised I just simply didn’t enjoy it. It showed me, more than anything else has before, that teaching is such a dynamic, fluid profession that can be done in so many different ways. It truly highlighted the diversity of teachers, which I feel is a necessary component – if we all taught and acted in the exact same way, we would be no better then robots. Teaching needs diversity, and just as importantly it needs teachers to support each other, even if we don’t all like teaching in the same way!
Benny was our biology lab technician (we had one for each of the core sciences – biology, chemistry and physics). While not a teacher, I just wanted to add a quick aside here to thank him for his help too!
Knowing I could request an experiment and it would be there ready for me is always a massive help in the science classroom. Benny would go beyond that too, coming in to help out with experiments and provide an extra set of eyes in our very large classes. He was also available for the students to question while they were working, and to show the how to do trickier parts of experiments. Benny also had many great ideas for things we could do in the lab, having come from a forensics background.
Besides the work help, Benny is possibly the most realistic and sympathetic person I know. I could go to him in any state of mind and know that he would either just sit there and agree, or provide advice, or tell me I’m being a little ridiculous, depending on what the situation was and what I needed. He saw the whole teaching profession from a different angle, including the interactions between students and teachers, so he could provide fresh comments from a perspective that wasn’t quite so invested or involved.
Wow what a post! I think this has truly shown me how much I do appreciate my colleagues for all their help while I was in the strange, new system.When I started writing this, I didn’t expect it to be this long. I truly can’t thank these people enough for all the help they have given me. I hope this post can convey just some of that appreciation and love!
About the Author:
Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her first child. You can read more teaching articles from Emily here, or about her life as a new mum over at Actual Mums.