My Journey as a Spanish Teacher in Birmingham
As a follow-up to her first interview, we sat down with Sarah, from our Teacher Success Team. Sarah taught Spanish for three years at a number of secondary state schools across Birmingham and London.
When you were teaching, what did you love most about it?
It was always the pastoral side of teaching that I loved the most. Having a form class was very important to me. My first form class was a vertical form with students from years 7-13, which made it feel like such a family. I was the first point of contact for my students, and the liaison between school and parents. I had to deal with all of the positives as well as all the negatives, and anything the students might need to be supported with.
The school was really supportive in calling parents and very much encouraged this communication. There was a phone in my classroom and I probably spent an hour every evening just calling my students’ parents. That communication with parents was key, and it really improved the attitude and behaviour, because all children love to be told they are doing well!
Also, hanging out with children all day is fun. There’s never one day that’s the same, because they always come out with something different and mostly they’re really positive, which is great to experience.
Did you feel like you were a big part of your students’ lives?
Massively so. Teachers are so important to a student’s life, especially the ones who may be more vulnerable. Their teacher might be the only consistent adult role model they have. If you can be that person then you are really making a difference.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned from your time teaching?
That’s a really important question. When people ask me about teaching, I always say that I learned more from the children than they did from me. Training through Teach First is not easy, but what I learned from it has moulded me into the person I am today. It made me stronger and it made me more resilient. You’re knocked down every day at least once and you still need to be standing by the end of it.
Something more personal I learned about myself was the extent of my inner strength. I didn’t realise how strong I was until I taught, and that’s something nobody can take away from me. I often say that teaching should be like military service. If everyone had to do it, then they would understand what a teacher has to go through and the mental strength that the job requires.
There are so many people out there who think that ‘teaching is easy if you know your subject’. Of course, knowing your subject helps, but it’s more about being able to make your subject interesting to students who have not yet decided what they are interested in. This is your opportunity to develop their passion. How are you going to make your subject fun, so that they want to succeed?
What would you consider the highlight of your time teaching?
One of the main highlights of my second year teaching was results day. I worked painstakingly hard all year with my students, putting on after-school sessions, helping students with their accent, coming up with really silly ways of revising to help them digest vocabulary, all to help them achieve grades they would be proud of. They were set 4 and expected to get around 15-20% A*-C but in the end 60% passed. Seeing them over the moon when they achieved good grades; well, there’s really nothing better than seeing a child succeed in something. I still have a printout of the students’ grades, because what we achieved in that short time still means so much to me.
A more subtle example of a highlight is when a child that you’ve worked with for so long – that you think doesn’t like your subject and is disinterested – when that child actually starts to work with you, that’s a real achievement.
What’s the biggest challenge you think teachers face today?
In general, the hardest part of teaching is time management; marking, planning, and creating engaging lessons whilst having a life yourself.
Also things like report planning and tracking data. For example, do you have the right spreadsheet to track your data? I made my own. I roped in a friend to help me build a spreadsheet that made my vision come alive. Then all I had to do was type in raw data from exams, and it would churn out predicted grades and UMS marks. It took us around 14 hours in the October half-term to create. Not everyone has something like that.
How do you think that teachers can be better supported in their work?
Mental wellbeing is never really talked about for teachers at schools. And for that matter, for children as well. Some schools do a lot of good work around mental health, but it’s still a huge challenge. One of my schools had a wellbeing week, which was a good start. Often it’s a taboo subject, and by not speaking about it we’re exacerbating the problem. We have to be careful about the way in which we talk about mental health, but it’s important to start somewhere. There’s such a big argument that health and social care and education need to be better linked, and that’s something I’d really like to look at later in my career.