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Why November is the bleakest month and strategies for your survival, by Zoe James

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If you are new to teaching, make no mistake, November in school is the bleakest month.  Dark rainy days, fatigue, students for whom you are now all too familiar and the endless racking up of tasks beyond your classroom:  appraisals, reports, parents’ evenings (and, for some of you, university tasks too).   What’s more, just when you wanted to forget that ghastly year 10 lesson, we keep asking you to critically reflect on your teaching:  we expect you to pick over its carcass, to endlessly dwell on your mistakes.   To make matters worse still, you may not even find sanctuary with colleagues in the department office: the gathering of similarly run down and pressurised professionals can create an atmosphere that, at times, is borderline hysterical.  And yes, I know that in any other job, quite sensibly, you would just book a few days off at the end of November and have a lovely long weekend somewhere, to punctuate the long run up to Christmas.  And yes again, it would be far better to have a 2 week half term like the independent schools but that debate has been running forever and looks no nearer resolution that it did 20 years ago. Ultimately, there is no escape.


I can offer you, however, words of reassurance and survival strategies from the front line:

  1. Remember that good teaching is about students learning, not you performing. It took me a long time to realise that, as a teacher I really was quite autonomous, that up to a point, I could manage my workload.  Space out assessments and in any week plan a variety of teacher centred and student centred lessons.  I try hard to avoid the onus being on me, every period.
  2. Control your marking load: decide precisely which piece of work you are going to mark and never mark everything. What’s more, you should be marking work that is as polished as possible:  before marking, get students to proof read work (for spelling, punctuation and grammar as well as content), RAG mark it and then peer mark it.  Only after all this should you give written feedback.
  3. Use formal talk tasks, such as presentations and debates. This gives you plenty of opportunity to assess students’ learning in the lesson and allows them to rehearse for their writing.  When students do eventually write, you will be marking a far better quality response.
  4. Find every chance you can to laugh with your colleagues: enjoy the piercing humour that emanates from the staff room this month; it’s at its sharpest and blackest now.
  5. Remember, it’s not just you, absolutely everybody feels exhausted at this point in the year. Soon the shiny lights of Christmas will be glimmering and the end of the term will be in sight and you will feel much better.
  6. Finally, if none of this has reassured you, a good dose of perspective always helps: we are not surgeons, judges nor police officers; nobody’s life rests in our hands and thankfully, any mistakes we make we can fix next lesson.


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