17 September 2014

Practical tips for a (newly) qualified maths teacher

Student teachers, NQTs and experienced teachers have one thing in common - they haven't got it all figured out yet. I certainly haven't - every year I try to use my time more effectively and teach maths more effectively. Here's my top ten tips for newbies.

1. Plans
At my school we used to have 4.5 periods a week to teach A level. That was reduced to 4 periods a week due to budget cuts - a loss of around 15 teaching hours. Suddenly everything was a rush. In the first year I taught AS level maths, I ran out of time. I taught the trapezium rule in 20 minutes just before my students went on study leave. The next year I made detailed plans so it wouldn't happen again. This is what my plan for Year 12 looked like last year (I taught C1 and C2 in five periods a fortnight, another teacher taught this class M1):

It's just a simple Excel file. I do these for all my classes at the end of the summer holidays. I consult the school calender first so I know when each year will be off-timetable.

These plans have to be flexible - I tweak them regularly throughout the school year. For example last year we were told to spend some A level lessons doing target-setting and feedback with our students, which wiped out a few hours teaching time so I had to adjust my plans. There are also times when a topic takes a bit longer than expected. Last year I originally intended to finish C2 with my Year 12s by Easter but that was pushed back as the year progressed. This left me with less revision time than I wanted, but at least I completed the syllabus.

These plans help me keep on track. A couple of hours invested at the start of the school year means no more guesswork and no more missed deadlines.

2. Mind your language
When you start teaching maths you have to be very aware of your language. You quickly get used to using the appropriate terminology. How many people say the letter O when they mean the number zero - particularly when they say phone numbers? A maths teacher mustn't make mistakes like that.

Also beware of words that will cause disruption. Teenagers have dirty minds and are easily amused. I've written a list of words to avoid here. You have been warned!

3. Writing on the board
You'll soon get used to setting your work out clearly - at the end of lessons, stand back and look at what you've written on the board. My boards are often a disorganised mess. Beware of the bad example set on Countdown - Rachel Riley and Carol Vorderman are both guilty of terrible nonsensical workings:

4. Misconceptions and Shortcuts
Experienced teachers know about common misconceptions and plan accordingly. I've not yet found a concise list of common mathematical misconceptions but Google might be able to help you for specific topics (for example this is a good starting point for thinking about misconceptions in algebra). If you're an NQT, I recommend you ask experienced maths teachers what to look out for. This gallery of classic mistakes is also helpful.

If you haven't yet read the book Nix The Tricks then it's absolutely essential that you read it. We're all under time pressures and we all want our students to get the best possible exam grades, but we're maths teachers, so let's teach maths. Helping students develop a conceptual understanding of mathematics is a challenge but will pay off in the long run. Some teaching tricks confuse students (eg the mnemonic BODMAS). Other tricks are so complicated that the amount of brain space taken up memorising them could be better used doing proper maths. This butterfly method for adding fractions is a good example - far better to teach students how and why to find a common denominator.
Nix: Butterfly fractions
By all means use clever tricks to help your students remember things, but never bypass understanding.

5. Myths
Don't stress about all the teaching myths you hear - read Shaun Allison's post Mythbusting for reassurance. Are you under the impression that every lesson has to have an element of group work? It doesn't.

Your students need many opportunities for independent practice, so don't be afraid of it.

6. Behaviour
Everyone has one or two nightmare classes. In my NQT year my Year 11 class never stopped talking. I felt like I was nagging them all the time. I despaired that I was terrible at behaviour management until I heard their science teacher say they were her worst class too. What a relief to hear it wasn't just me.

Sometimes small changes make a big difference. Do you get students working as soon as they arrive? Are your instructions clear? Ask experienced colleagues for ideas. You'll notice that behaviour is best when students are immersed in interesting mathematics. The theory is that if you engage them then the good behaviour will follow, but it's not always as easy as that. Use support mechanisms, keep restating your expectations, be consistent and don't be afraid to ask for help.

7. Resources
You could lose hours to a fruitless search for the perfect resource. If you have something very specific in mind, it's probably quicker to make it yourself.

Have some go-to resource websites that you always check first (don't forget my resource library!). There's some great stuff on TES but it can be really hard to find it (thankfully they are in the process of improving their search functionality). When I'm looking for resources I always check Teachit Maths, MathsPad, Median and Mathematics Assessment Project. Ed Southall has very helpfully shared his well-organised internet bookmarks which you can upload to your browser.

8. Marking
If you set a lot of homework, you have to do a lot of marking. Sometimes it all piles up and becomes overwhelming. I generally set one homework per topic but sometimes I'm just too snowed under to make time for marking. During my PGCE I was told that I should never, under any circumstances, use MyMaths. I disagree. Don't be afraid to occasionally use a self-marking homework from MyMaths or That Quiz, or a homework that can be peer-assessed. It's still useful practice. Don't try to be perfect, you'll exhaust yourself. Techniques like RAG123 and tools like QuickKey might help increase your marking efficiency.

I tend to set homeworks on sheets rather than in exercise books, just so I don't have to carry heavy books home for marking. If you do this and your school does book scrutinies to check teachers' marking then you have to make sure that a) your homework sheets are easily stuck into an exercise book (eg printed on one side, A5 if possible) and b) that your students actually stick them in, otherwise it will look like you never do any marking at all.

Bear in mind that some students will lose their homework sheets. To avoid excuses, make sheets available for printing through a class blog, Twitter account or an accessible folder.
9. Get organised
You know how they say that lesson planning gets quicker every year? Well that's assuming it doesn't take you an hour to track down the materials you used in the previous year. I've learnt to organise my files well so I can quickly find what I'm looking for.

This is how I do it: in 'My Documents', I have a folder for each class. In the folder for each class, I have a folder for each topic, numbered according to the order I taught each topic. Here's an example for a Year 10 class:
I set them up as I go so it's not time-consuming. Within each folder I use a number for each lesson - the example below is the inequalities folder (if I wrote lesson plans, they'd be in here too).
So if I'm repeating these three lessons next year it's really easy for me to see exactly what I did. Numbering my files like this has made me much more organised.

Another place to be organised is emails. It only takes a second to create folders in Outlook. The only emails in my inbox are those that I need to action. Everything else is filed away as soon as it's received, so I can find information very quickly. Here's my structure:
I have my work email synced to my phone. This is a mixed blessing. It means I can deal with emails outside of school - as they arrive in my inbox, I immediately read and delete them if they're not relevant. So when I'm busy at school I have far less to deal with. This approach doesn't suit everyone though.

I also have full remote access from my home PC to the school network, so I can access SIMs and all school directories from home. All I need now is a photocopier in my kitchen so I don't waste time queuing to photocopy at work! I see these things as time savers but others think they're a step too far, it's a matter of personal preference.

10. Catch-up time
If you get a bus or train to work then don't try to mark. It's not worth the hassle. I was once so busy at work that I took a pile of marking to the pub on a Friday and did it on the night-bus home. Not recommended. Bus and train journeys are a good time to relax or read a book, but if you feel like there aren't enough hours in the day for relaxing, then instead use these journeys for catching up on Twitter and education blogs. If you're not on Twitter then join immediately. That's my most important tip from today's post: join the community of maths teachers on Twitter - you'll be amazed at how much you learn.
Expert teaching - taken from classteaching.wordpress.com