United Teaching Blog

You Could Have Told Me! What I wish I knew when I started teaching


Steve Adcock, Deputy Director of Secondary Academies at United Learning, tells us what he wishes he knew at the start of his teaching career:

I taught for 12 years but I have to confess that I only had a full teaching load for a minority of this time. I continue to believe that teaching a full timetable is the most challenging job in our schools, and the duty of anyone involved in schools who isn’t primarily a teacher is to support those who are. So with humility and respect (and some envy – it’s an amazing job!) for those setting out in the classroom, here’s my personal take on what I wish they told me when I started.


I knew that workload was a potential hazard, but I was convinced that as long as I worked fairly long hours I could leave school behind and enjoy my evenings and weekends. I soon learnt that our work is never done, and teaching will fill every minute we allow it.

I can’t hope to solve this endemic challenge in a few lines, but here’s a way of thinking about it.  When you’re playing a team sport, the game is over once the referee blows the final whistle. No one thinks about asking for additional time – what is not achieved in the field of play within the allocated time is not achieved. We can learn from this as teachers by deciding our hours and sticking to them. It doesn’t mean that every day will result in victory, but throwing more time at the problem is probably not the thing that will make the difference.

What does this mean in practice? Plan lessons and mark books to the clock – I can guarantee that the lesson you plan in 30 minutes will be just as effective as the one you were going to plan in 90 minutes (and will probably save you a few paper cuts preparing that flashy card sort you had in mind).  Keep yourself energised outside of work too – teaching is a physical job and it’s worth getting into some good habits with sleep, exercise and diet. 


I think I went into teaching too willing to accept the behaviour I encountered.  15 years later I’ve realised that learning can’t take place without excellent classroom behaviour and healthy respect for the teacher in the room.  This respect shouldn’t need to be earned by the teacher, it should be given because s/he is the teacher (and reciprocated in spades by the teacher to the students of course). 

Teachers shouldn’t be expected to win over each class, and I’m immensely proud to work for a trust which advocates a whole school approach to culture and discipline, but there are things that new teachers can do to cultivate a productive classroom climate.

First, insist on silence when you are talking. Second, resist bending the rules for troublesome students: they need strict boundaries more than anyone else.   Third, develop rituals and routines around common classroom procedures e.g. how to enter the room, how to distribute books, how to get the attention of whole class.  Practise where to stand in the classroom and vary your tone of voice, pausing one moment, adding pace the next.  Finally, write and memorise a script for critical but predictable moments e.g. when you spot a mobile phone.

If you invest in them consistently, these rituals and routines will gradually become automatic, freeing up your energy and working memory to focus on the stuff that matters: teaching the wonderful complexity of your subject!


When I started teaching in 2003 I was convinced that good teaching requires variety in order to keep students engaged.  I spent hours planning activities involving speeches, debates, mock trials, newspaper articles, cartoons, story boards and diary entries.  I now think that there is so much beauty and variety in our subjects that it’s okay if most of our lessons follow a standard sequence and I would encourage new teachers to develop a consistent structure for their lessons e.g. recap>read>write: (a) recap from last lesson (b) read new material, with explanation and questioning from teacher to check for understanding (c) students produce quality structured writing to develop and demonstrate understanding of new material.  

Have a clear sense of the desired end-product in each lesson - how will you know if students have achieved today’s learning objective?  Try to use single, bigger tasks rather than several mini activities.  Of course we want students to enjoy our lessons, but the best way of securing this enjoyment is for students to see themselves getting better at your subject: ‘the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept on achievement’ (Mujis/Reynolds).


When I started teaching, and indeed for most of my career, I had no clue what learning actually meant in terms of what’s actually going on in the brain.  It’s a bit weird, when you think about it, that as teachers we’re all in the business of learning, yet you could go through your teaching career without a solid explanation of what learning really means.

In our defence, I think our friends in cognitive science are only beginning to understand this for themselves.  In any case, I now think that learning is the gradual accumulation of knowledge and skills within each subject domain.  I’ve emphasised the subject here because when I started teaching we tended to believe that generic skills such as problem-solving, analysis and evaluation should take precedence over subject knowledge (relegated to the bottom of Bloom’s famous but possibly unhelpful taxonomy). 

Having read the likes of Daniel T Willingham (Why don’t students like school?) and Make it Stick (Brown et al) I now realise that subject knowledge is massively important and will be the biggest barrier to success for most of our students.  To put it simply, knowledge is what we think with and we can’t analyse, or evaluate or solve problems unless we have a basic understanding with which to apply our thinking.

Our lessons then should gradually expose our students to the knowledge and skills of our subjects. Importantly, the final destination (performance) might look different to the journey (practice).   This means that as teachers we isolate the core elements of our subject such as multiplication in maths, chronology in history, and being able to write a clear sentence in English.  From time to time we give students the chance to bring these elements together, for example by writing an essay in history.

Maybe I had to learn these things for myself.  In any case, I hope they might be useful to those starting out in the classroom.

Further reading – books:

  • Make it Stick – The Science of Successful Learning
  • Making Every Lesson Count, by Allison and Tharby
  • 7 Myths of Education by Daisy Christodoulou
  • Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov
  • Making Good Progress? Daisy Christodoulou
  • What every teacher needs to know about Psychology by Didau & Rose
  • Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan
  • With All Due Respect by Ronald G Morrish
  • Why don’t students like school? by Daniel T Willingham

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