The organised teacher: solving the teacher retention “crisis”

05 Nov 2016


“For every minute spent in organising, an hour is earned”  Benjamin Franklin

Bursting with youthful enthusiasm I entered our delightful and demanding profession in 2010. I joined the 24,100 other fledging teachers at the heart of this BBC story that has been making such an impact over the past two weeks. Thirty percent of my fellow teacher graduate caterpillars, hoping to blossom into inspiring butterflies of learning, have now no longer decided to remain in the profession (perhaps it is after reading analogies like that one, sorry!)

Plenty of people have rightly been in uproar about this:  a shameful indictment of the unmanageable and demoralising profession that teaching has become.  Another angry contribution to this is pointless. Interesting in the outpour is the fact that genuinely helpful and proactive solutions are in short supply: where exactly is the conversation about how we can support teachers to manage and prevent droves from leaving the profession?

I must confess my own first five years was rather odd: I was promoted to an Assistant Headteacher role at the end of my second year of teaching at the age of twenty seven.  I took on significant responsibility very early.  I worked very hard, too hard, burning out completely at the end of two years of fledging leadership. Another blog, another time.

What I perhaps found most overwhelming, however, was changing schools and returning to earn my stripes in the classroom in my fifth year. Despite ostensibly being “qualified” enough to offer guidance to others in a leadership role, I realised I had never been organised, strategic or planned in the way I approached my own teaching. Instead I had functioned like the proverbial hamster on the wheel, working harder and harder to try to keep up. I spent that fifth year completely out of synch, overwhelmed and progressively less confident and more anxious. It is this hamster like existence that no doubt has repelled 30% of my chums from the profession. A hamster like existence that we have a responsibility to do something about.

So this year in September I set out with some goals (outlined in this blog)  I was determined that this year would be one in which I was in control, more strategic, less overwhelmed. I can’t say that it has been a perfect transition by any stretch of the imagination, it is certainly something that doesn’t come naturally to me. With conscious effort, however, my own ability to manage workload and organisation has made tentative improvements.

So what is the preventative medicine? What do we need to do to help teachers in the first five years of the profession?  Outside of policy and the leadership and management of school, perhaps the most useful focus for individual classroom teachers is the ability to make sense of the endless demands of teaching, to learn how to prioritise and how to best use time. Time to talk organisation:

  1. Long, long, long term planning. My first school formed a number of habits in me. One was the requirement to upload lesson plans on a daily basis to a shared system. I became a plan on the day chap, arriving ridiculously early and writing streams for individual lesson plans. Never did I have any real concept of how to plan for longer blocks of learning. It is this skill that needs to be more of a focus in supporting teachers. The more thoughtful and detailed a long term plan is, the easier and quicker planning for daily practice becomes. My half term plan is now much more detailed, followed by breaking this down into planning for the week at the start of the week. This sense of control and direction not only empowers the individual teacher with confidence over the direction of the week and term, but is ultimately better for the learning of students.  Preparation is the key to feeling calm, in control and less stressed!
  2. Ordered classroom: Investing time in organising the classroom at the start of the year pays such divideds. I went full guns on this at the start of the year in this blog. It is the place where we spend most time, a reflection of our mindset.  If it is a place of purpose and organisation then it will help us immeasurably to mirror this in our own mindsets. Having a clear filing system, a clear section for books, a direction for the room helps us to keep control over the endless documents and workbooks that pass through our hands!
  3. Lists: In the depths of despair last year I bought this handy book Daniel Levitin ‘The organised mind’. Anyone with a serious investment in trying to become more organised needs to give this a read. One of the main changes I made from it is getting a journal, a note book for writing everything down. There is a section for each day and notes written throughout the day. As Levitin writes: “Writing things down conserves the mental energy expended in worrying that you might forget something and in trying not to forget it.” I have also fully embraced the list obsession that I had scornfully mocked for years. Every morning now starts with a routine: make a prioritised list of how time will be spent during the day and the order in which it will be done. It is such an effective way to get rid of the endless clutter and give direction, relaxing the mind at the start of the day and readying for action. Ticking off tasks is also very satisfying, any incomplete will be added to the next day. Easy.
  4. Marking:  As an English teacher marking is a huge part of my week. A long, long, long term marking plan is a true lifesaver. Which books will be marked each week? What will be marked? How many? Then endeavouring to rigorously stick to this: I aim for fifteen a day at the moment. I am strict with time on each book, often sitting with a timer to make sure I am not over investing time on books (a slightly desperate and strange image!). As a proud Scotsman it is often this tartan timer!  Marking that involves student action is another priority, making sure that any investment from me is at least doubled by students. Marking everything is impossible – don’t do it!
  5. Lesson planning: A lesson can be reused as many times as possible, with different year groups, with different classes. It just needs tweeked – there is no shame in that. Avoiding using time to prepare detailed and pointless PowerPoints will also help in freeing up time to plan meaningfully. If I am going to prepare a resource I think carefully about the impact on the learning of students, will my investment of time be worthwhile for them?  Can I reuse it? Our bible, the memory stick, is also another area to keep as organised as humanly possible: clear sections, clear weekly plans. Remember to back up!
  6. Organising work life balance: Having a work life balance will not happen in isolation, it needs careful thought and organisation. It is easy to get completely lost and defined in the life as a teacher. Making time for everything else is just as important. My wife (super organised economist, of course) and I have a ‘date week’ every week. I have time each day for running and exercise. I plan out when and how I will see important people in my life. If you don’t, it won’t happen. Phoning that friend who you haven’t caught up with a long time is a delightful way to forget about the nightmare that is Year 9!
  7. Perfectionism: To stray away from organisation for a moment. There is a constant internal and external expectation to become an outstanding teacher immediately and very difficult to find time to grow and develop when accountability and exam performance is so rife. Yet things will never be perfect in teaching. Things will always go wrong, we will always have bad lessons and bad days. Accepting that, being vulnerable enough to seek help and support from others will always help. A lovely read in this regard is ‘Daring Greatly’ by Brene Brown, her famous TED talk is available here. Like anything, we slowly become better at teaching. Being kind to ourselves, prioritising reflection, allowing ourselves to make mistakes and to learn is the key to longevity in the profession.

Teaching is not a nine to five profession and it never will be. Some of the 30% who have abandoned the ship since qualifying in 2010 may not have been right for a teaching career. Some genuine superstars of education, however, may have been repelled from the profession. Endless complaining about this and misdirected anger is ultimately more harmful, perpetrating the cycle of negativity. Instead we need to look more carefully at strategies to help, we need to nurture, encourage and allow time to make mistakes. Cultivating organisation and better use of time is perhaps the dialogue that we need to be having much more of – how to make sense of the first overwhelming five years of teaching. Thanks for reading; my list says I now need to go and clean the house.






Jamie Thom

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

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