September Starts: Renewal and Marginal gains

30 Aug 2016

“One of the most difficult things is not to change society, but to change yourself.” — Nelson Mandela

fergus is shitOne of the amazing things about teaching is its capacity for renewal. Each September brings with it a new start: an opportunity for reinvention, however large or small.  A new and eager brand of customers sit poised and ready, their minds empty vessels awaiting inspiration. That endless and sleepless night before the first day back I always find myself overwhelmed by the questions: can I still do it? what will be different this year? What will I change? What will I do the same? What have I learned from the exam results? While in the dead of the night they always take on some kind of Voldemort style malevolence and threat, in reality these questions are welcome. They show we still care.

Moving to a new school last year was certainly an eye opener for me: I was not as good as I thought I was. As a fairly insecure practitioner at the best of times, I didn’t have a particularly elevated opinion of my classroom practice but I still had a sense of what I believed to be my capacity in the classroom. Stripping away the veneer that management and prestige had in my previous school; stripping away the relationships that had developed over four years and the sense of confidence and self-belief you inevitably have once grounded in a school, I felt like I had returned to my NQT year all over again.  Young people have no time for self-belief or perceived experience, you are as good as you present yourself on that day.

I struggled with this reinvention and with the inevitable behaviour management battles that came as a consequence. Alex Quigley has done some fascinating work on this and the impact of confidence in schools in his brilliant blog:  As I felt my confidence rapidly sapping, I also felt the quality of the learning for my students slipping. Never before has the idea that teaching and acting are so correlated been put the test so clearly!

It wasn’t a disaster, but part of me finished the year ticking of what I perceived to be ‘failures’ (failing my driving test included!) The exam results in August validated this, students had slipped through the net that I felt should have done better.

I am, however, hugely grateful (ding, ding) for the reflection that each of these failures has forced me to confront. There is no better driver (passed second time – thanks for asking) for improvement than a realisation that you need to get better and quickly, for the sake of the young people you teach. A good honest and hard look at how you function and what needs to change is difficult. Harder still is putting this into practice, it is remarkably easy to write lists and have a vision of how you want to be – the pragmatic reality of it can often be more problematic.

Yet perseverance and optimism are surely two qualities that are vital in a classroom. I love the idea of continuous improvement and the way in which a community of professionals can develop further. The performance of the British Olympic team this year has been particularly inspirational in this regard; what have they changed to make them world beaters? What limitless ambition and attention to detail has been enacted to arrive at this junction?  What have they done over the past four years? What sacrifices?

Dave Brailsford, the former British Cycling director is a particularly inspiring figure, credited for the seismic rise in British track cycling in the last decade. After the 2012 Olympics, in which the team won seven out of ten gold medals he said the following:

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together,”

This year I am aiming for my own marginal gains, areas in which I will reflect on, evaluate, hopefully improve. There is no point in trying to do everything, see this excellent blog from Mary Myatt on ‘The Essentials’. Over the next few weeks I will blog about progress with each:


I estimate that a significant majority of my first five years in teaching has been devoted to marking. Endless red pen has been strewn over  unsuspecting children’s books. If I take a good honest look at the results of this, the reality is that a great majority of it has been ignored. I appear to have ridden the crest of the wave of marking obsession that has dominated policy over the past few years. As an English teacher I, of course, appreciate the value of marking. I acknowledge that it has to exist and the positive impact it can have. Yet burning and real questions dominate: how much of it has had real impact on learning? What kind of marking works? What strategies work to ensure students respond to the comments? I want to spend less time on it, not because of any shyness of work, rather that I believe that this significant investment of time could be put to better use to have a more positive impact on the learning of students.  Given this I want to explore feedback in its numerous forms this year, seeking to explore how best it can add value.


I hold my hands up to this one: last year I was fairly useless on this front. I stumbled from day to day; with no real sense of consistency or strategy to my planning. Early morning planning for the day ahead is not the best way to approach teaching. Time to become organised. Time to merge seamlessly into a long term planner. Looking at strategic planning and continuous blocks of learning will be the aim for this year.


I am a great talker until I get in the classroom, then all my deeply harboured and repressed excitement about what ever literary adventure is on the cards for that day explodes. Personal energy and enthusiasm have got to rank fairly highly on the endless teacher qualities; but this year I want to experiment with how best to harness this and encourage quality dialogue in the classroom. How can I encourage more ownership of students in lessons? How can I get the students to ask more questions? How can I make sure that all are contributing, engaged, focussed?

Time to renew, time to go forth and make changes, experiment, fail, get up and try again. That is the joy of teaching; next year it begins all over again.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: