Surviving the Summer Term

At the beginning of this academic year I posted a short article each day in the first week of the autumn term.  These were basically an expanded form of a list of pointers I would give to Newly Qualified Teachers in my department as they were starting off.  It’s very easy to feel overloaded with information when starting in a new school (let alone a new career), and the daily lists were intended to guide them a bit, by saying ‘Don’t worry about anything else, today just concentrate on this, and tomorrow we’ll add a bit to it’.

So if this was you in September, I wonder how are you getting on now as you start the third term of the year?  Like the previous two, this term has its own set of challenges to keep you tired!  As exam classes get ready for their big day, the pressure is on.  The thought that they leave soon and that the timetable will then ease up a bit switches a light on at the end of the tunnel, but it’s also quite deceptive.  You can bet that at least one of your non-teacher friends will say to you in June, ‘Ah, I guess you’re winding down now for the last month’.  Quite the opposite.  This really is the term of deadlines and there will be no shortage of demands on your time and attention as you wrap up one school year and get ready for the next.

In this post I’m going to look at a number of things I always had my NQTs think about early in the summer term to avoid any deadline crises later on.  I’ll set them out as questions to ask yourself or to talk through with your Subject Leader if you’re an NQT yourself.   It’s quite probable that some of the answers to these questions won’t be available at this stage of term, but the more you can foresee, the better.  The deadline crises usually arise because the demands of preparing pupils for public exams often coincide with marking internal exams, writing end-of-year reports, the last parents’ evenings of the year and all the planning and admin involved in getting ready for September.  And then there are the school trips either within or outside the department, sixth-form induction programmes and normal teaching and marking to add to the mix.  In one school I taught in, they began the September timetable and classes immediately after the half-term holiday at the end of May, which had its advantages, but also it added to the admin load.  So if you know what’s coming up in the term, you’re better placed to get ahead on some things or to know how much time you will need to allow a few weeks down the line.

  • What will be the reporting requirements this term?  Estimate how much time you will need to write each class set based on how long it took you earlier on in the year and schedule each class in your diary, allowing a spare day for the unforeseen to happen… (At this end of the year, it only takes one teacher to be late with a set of reports to unleash a bit of stress somewhere else in the chain of checking!).  It’s worth finding out early whether the end of year reports follow the same format/content guidelines as previous ones before you get going on marking end-of-year exams – you can save yourself a lot of time and write better reports if you know that in advance.  I would usually make very brief notes (4-5 words per pupil in a sort of shorthand) as I marked papers so that I could comment on them in the reports.  By the time you get to the end of even one set of exams, you’ll have forgotten who did what to any useful level of detail, and the report-writing schedule may still be a couple of weeks away.
  • When are your department’s end-of-year exams and how long will you have to mark them?  For a few days there may be no time at all to plan lessons and yet pupils will be back with you in class.  In some lessons you may be able to go over the papers, depending on how your school does these things, but they may not all be marked and some absent pupils may still need to catch up.  It’s a good idea to plan two or three lessons now that you can use with different groups and ages so that you can pull them out of your cupboard and do them with no hassle, to get you over those days.  If pupils go from lesson to lesson with not much to do for a few days while teachers mark exams but don’t plan their lessons, it doesn’t usually take long before discipline problems begin, especially when everyone is tired.  If you team up with someone else in your department, you could perhaps plan a few more between you to get you through report-writing days, too.  However long it’s expected to take (you can probably estimate this based on other exams earlier in the year), it’s worth plotting this in your diary too.
  • What are the expectations regarding homework in this term?  Some schools do away with all homework beyond revision in this term, some don’t.  If homework is revision-based, it’s worth structuring it at least to some extent so pupils learn how to go about it, and in the most helpful order.  If homework is expected at the same rate as earlier in the year, it’s worth thinking about what you can set which doesn’t generate much marking or which can be marked in class.  If you’ve still got some exams to mark, the report-writing schedule has started and you’ve lumbered yourself with a couple of class sets of books to mark, you’re heading for a bad couple of nights…!
  • Will you be expected to teach any extra over these weeks?  By that I mean extra-curricular revision classes, Year 7 induction classes, Year 12 induction classes, that sort of thing.  These events fall pretty flat if they’re prepared at the last-minute and as such they don’t inspire the in-coming students in the way they are intended to.  But if you’re up to your neck in reports and exams, what else can you do?  It’s more than likely that at this stage of the term, these things lie in the distant future for detailed planning, but I think it’s reasonable to ask your Subject Leader to give you a good idea now of whether you need to allow time for this in your schedule and how much, especially as the reason for clarifying now is that you can meet all of your commitments.
  • Is there an ‘activity week’ or several trips planned which will take out half or all of your class?  Trips sometimes get cancelled at the last minute, so you’ll still need something you can pick up and do at short notice, but it’s worth assuming they will run.  Often the most reliable way of finding out how your classes will be affected by trips is, strangely, from the pupils themselves.  It’s a (sometimes maddening) fact of school life that you won’t always be informed of who is going to be out on trips.  In terms of planning, the most I’ve ever really needed to know is a rough proportion of the class that will be out.  If I’ve got all the trips that could affect my lessons in my diary, it’s a quick job to do a show of hands in a lesson with each group to find out who thinks they will be out on a particular day.  And of course, there’s every reason why this should be done in the target language just as much as any activity in my lesson plan.  Knowing how many lessons I’ve got, however few they may be, helps me to make sure I get to the end by the end of term.

With some answers to these questions you can have a pretty good stab at planning your admin workload.  The purpose is two-fold: One is that you get your admin done well and on time, and the other is that you know how much time you have for planning your teaching.  Plotting it all out on a grid for the half-term or term will show up where you will have no time at all because the day or week is already full.  That’s what makes this exercise useful – if you reach that already-full week and you haven’t got your lessons planned (and you didn’t know beforehand that it was going to be so full), it’s going to be a pig of a week.  Getting some planning done in advance before the term gets too overwhelming can get you through, and next year you should be able to use again at least some of what you’ve done this year.  Just remember to plan lessons which can stand on their own – if they are too dependent on what pupils did in the lesson before and you are not up to that point in your teaching by the time you get to them, you will have wasted your time.  While you’ve got your diary out, think about when you will mark the books for the last time for each class before they are passed on to another teacher for the next academic year – that’s something else to find out: what happens to equipment at the end of the year?  Do pupils take text/exercise books home?  Do they return them?

It would be a shame if the last term of the year was limited to exam-marking, report-writing and admin.  It’s also worth stopping and thinking back over the year, particularly if your timetable gets lighter when your exam classes leave.  Hopefully these questions for reflection will be useful:

  • What are you most proud of in your teaching and in your working relationship with your pupils and colleagues?
  • In terms of authority and classroom control, how do you think pupils see you now? Is it any different to how they saw you earlier in the year?
  • How have you changed as a teacher since last September?
  • Is there anything you would do differently next year?  (Both in terms of how you teach and how you establish yourself with a new class).
  • Would you organise your workload any differently next year?
  • Have you made plans to relax and enjoy yourself over the summer holiday?  Don’t leave it too late, this is important!  And if you’re going on holiday with another teacher, whatever you do, … don’t talk about school!

Happy New Term!