Sunday, 4 September 2011

Stiffen The Sinews, Summon Up The Blood

The wailing and gnashing of teeth has reached deafening levels on Twitter this afternoon, which can only mean one thing - term starts tomorrow. I'm fortunate enough that the full timetable doesn't get going until a week tomorrow. However, from Wednesday we have induction for the new bugs, and presumably the returning students will stroll in at some point if only to ascertain whether they need to get up for 9am next Monday.

After two years of teaching full-time and doing the PGCE part-time, I'm really looking forward to a year of simply teaching. I only have one new class - the science equivalent section of the Access to HE course. Having seemingly had to make everything from scratch two years running, especially at the start of the year when the few classes I had already taught the previous year were yet to begin, it has been a wonderful thing to spend perhaps half an hour putting together my first AS class materials. I've checked the PowerPoint, modified the worksheet, ascertained that the awesome video of a basilisk lizard is still available online, and set some homework.

I do enjoy the first lesson about the properties of water. I have a bit of fun with them with resources from the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division about this incredibly dangerous molecule, which seems to make them less furious when we have to do dipoles...

The mantra for this year is "Do less, teach more". I'm consolidating my teaching and focusing on getting the best out of the students. I'm no longer treading water - I'm actually swimming. I'm not saying "yes" to every extra little thing. My extra bits are investigating how to improve female students' achievement in our science courses, trying to find a case for teaching A-level geology (two of the major FE colleges in the area have closed their A-level science programmes, so we really have only two major competitors now, and we should definitely be aiming to offer as many A-levels in science as they do), and plotting whether we can do the Extended Project Qualification.

Some NQTs have asked for tips, and I put a few of mine on Twitter. Because 140 characters are not enough, here are some more tips that I've picked up:
  • Even if you have the best subject knowledge ever, you won't know the answer to every question the students ask. This is especially true at A2, where they start asking degree-level or even PhD-level questions about the topics you cover. I feel pretty confident answering anything about ecology, evolution and the fossil record. I am so screwed the moment they start asking complicated biochemistry questions. It is tempting to give them a bullshit answer, but they see through it. So far better to admit that you don't know, and for you all to work together to find the answer. A superb resource for that is, of course, Ask A Biologist.
  • Don't blind them with PowerPoints. For my first few classes I just lectured at them, because I'd only ever taught in HE, and university lecture halls with no interaction between students and lecturer were the only way I had ever taught (this is not, in fact, teaching...). I set myself a target - have at least one handout per lesson, and one extra resource online for them to look at through the VLE. That might be a link, a video, or a journal article. It's a start towards having varied resources and that dreaded word - differentiation.
  • On the subject of journal articles, let the A-level and BTEC Level 3 students have a go at reading them. Journals are a lot more accessible now than they used to be. Any teacher on Twitter can ask for PDFs of a paper (especially if they have the DOI number) using the hashtag #icanhazpdf. It's awesome. You might not always have a response, but it's great to have friends in universities who can help out.
  • You've probably been advised to get the students blogging, creating wikis, tweeting and all other manner of social media and web use. Although I've seen some fantastic examples of student blogging, this has rather embarrassingly (for the secondary and tertiary sectors) been mostly down to primary schools. Most of my students have found Facebook and porn and stopped there. One former student said "But I don't need anything else!". So don't plan expecting these teenagers to be super-web-savvy. You might actually be the most computer-literate person in the classroom (the students still had to help me with the interactive whiteboard though...).
  • The first lesson of the term is not going to be that content-heavy. I'll be going over course handbooks, outlines to the course, when exams will be, when coursework is due in, looking at assignments and getting to know the class. My returning A2s are going to need a fairly extensive debrief on their underachievement in the AS exams, with a pep talk and possibly concilatory box of Celebrations. I've championed him before, but I cannot recommend the Teaching Science blog highly enough, and his post on Setting The Scene should be mandatory reading for NQTs.
  • From an A-level perspective, the absolute best textbook ever is Advanced Biology: Principles and Applications by Clegg & Mackean. If you don't have them in your stationery store, then order yourself a copy at least (and if you have to go anywhere near a physics class, then A Level Physics by Muncaster is essential, incidentally).
I busted my guts last year preparing an entire A-level's worth of resources, test papers and slides from scratch. I'm buggered if I'm going to willingly let another teacher do that. So if you're an NQT biology teacher, find me on Twitter - I'm @morphosaurus - and ask me if I have something you can use. I have a load of PowerPoints saved in my Google Docs account, and the only reason they're not public is because I'm not sure if that constitutes fair use of the images even if they're credited. But I'll happily open up my files to you via e-mail. And I have a load of stuff in a private Dropbox folder too.

Good luck NQTs, and for the rest of us - Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!

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