If I can teach, I can...

If I can teach, I can…

It’s now almost three months since I last taught a lesson.  Although eight weeks working outside the classroom don’t yet outweigh eight years in it, I can no longer claim to be a teacher.  Close friends have stopped commenting on how much more relaxed I seem.  And I can stop and reflect on what being a teacher readies you for.

It always seemed to make sense that managing the demands of teaching would provide skills useful elsewhere.  When a friend left teaching to attend law school, I was unsurprised she reported that it was easy organising herself, given that she’d managed classroom teaching.  So I’m not surprised in principle, but I have been astonished that some of the strategies I found most potent in schools are directly applicable outside them.

1) Prioritisation and time management

I learned, a couple of years back, to manage my time effectively, choosing a handful of goals for the week, structuring my time around them, and completing (most of) them.  This remains one of the most useful things I’ve ever learned.  So, in my new job, I’ve picked out three roles, and each week, given myself just three tasks in each (because I have a little more control over my time, that’s more easily done too).

Why does it work?  Because prioritising carefully and saying no to things which aren’t priorities enables us to spend the majority of our time on the things which actually matter.

2) Leverage coaching

Leverage observations are an amazing way to improve teaching.  I don’t ‘observe’ the two people I line manage now, but it’s easier to see their ‘output’ on paper on day-to-day.  In line management meetings, I use the same principle of leverage coaching, looking back at a single change from the preceding week and identifying a single focus for development for the next one, which they can put into practice.

Why does it work?  Small, weekly changes are manageable and, cumulatively, powerful.

3) Practising perfect

Practising new skills and actions works – as I discovered in both teacher training and in leveraging coaching.  Outside schools, its power remains: in preparing an interview schedule we needed to ask a number of individuals to use, running through the questions as though we were conducting the interview ‘for real’ gave us a much better understanding of how interviewees might respond.

Why does it work?  A dry run – practice – allows us to think through how things will really work, in a way just reading or thinking through it doesn’t.

4) Planning backwards

It took me years to get into the habit of ‘beginning with the end in mind’ when planning lessons – I found it a huge struggle and one I never quite mastered.  But, just as planning a lesson from where I wanted students to end up and how I would know works, when looking at something like writing a report, starting from the desired end – who will read the report and what will they do as a result is a very helpful frame to work with.

Why does it work?  Planning from what I actually want to achieve, rather than from the activities and resources I have, or how it’s been done before, makes it far more likely the plan will reach my intended aim.

5) Using checklists

Checklists worked wonders for me as a teacher.  Although my life is less pressured now (usually), making mistakes could be more costly: rather than sending a student photocopying, if I left any of the gear shown below behind when visiting Manchester, for example, it’s pretty hard to fix.

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Thankfully, the humble checklist has got me – touch wood – everywhere I need to go without a (foreseeable) hitch.

Why does it work?  It routinises and reminds me what I should be doing…  as in teaching, it doesn’t deprofessionalise me – it catches me before I forget something I know I should do.

What if we reverse things?

So it seems that learning to teach readies one well for work outside teaching.  Perhaps the value of these techniques shouldn’t surprise me though: many of these ideas have come from other fields (coaching and practice from sport, checklists from airlines and latterly, medicine; time management from – well, I got it from Steven Covey, which is basically self-help).

So, to reverse the question: if schools aren’t so different from other fields of work, how can teachers learn from them?