The email: you are on cover period 3.

The response: FFS.

I already had more things to do that day than I had time for, and the last thing I needed was to be put on cover. It wasn’t even a “give them a test and do some emails” type cover, it was a “you’re a science teacher, they are a year 10 science class, teach them some science” type cover. Misery upon misery.

Everything seemed stacked against me that day in terms of frustration and stress. But, oddly, it worked out well. Very well indeed, but for reasons which I hadn’t anticipated.

As head of department, for the last couple of years my timetable has been a little different to many of my colleagues. I’ve ended up teaching a lot of classes that are “at the edges” and lead to a slightly different teaching experience to the usual. For example, I teach our year 10 and year 11 bottom sets, who I love dearly but are also really hard work. Progress feels extremely slow and frustrating, and though in my head I know we are going in the right direction, it’s an almost constant emotional and mental drain. Day after day, it feels like you’re rolling a ball up a hill just for it to roll straight back down again. If my job as their teacher is to help them learn more stuff, then the failure to actually get them to learn more stuff makes me feel like I’m not – or like I can’t – really do my job. In short, teaching classes like this is so hard it makes you feel like you aren’t good enough to do it, and over the long term that feeling eats away at your motivation – your will to get up in the morning. Despite knowing in my head that I am good at my job, it makes me feel lacking in competence.

Sisyphus | 1548-1549. Oil on canvas. 237 x 216 cm. Museo Nac… | Flickr
What’s harder, teaching bottom set year 10 combined science or being Sisyphus?

I also teach sixth form which, though it has its challenges in terms of the content, doesn’t feel to me like “proper teaching.” I have just a handful of students in the class who are highly self motivated, do the work I set them, don’t need much by way of coaching or cajoling and are generally just a bunch of thoroughly good eggs. To me, it feels too easy, and though I know I could do it better for sure, that’s only really if I had more time. It’s not a case of competence – am I good enough to do this better? – it’s a case of time and resources. The same applies to my one remaining class, my top set year 9. Feeling guilty about timetabling myself such a lovely bunch, I put 40 students in there but even that isn’t really a big deal. They are a dream of a group and it’s a big lab with plenty of space. It also means other classes can be smaller, resulting in fewer behaviour issues and, ultimately, fewer headaches for me to deal with. Like with the sixth formers, I don’t feel like an absolutely amazing teacher when I teach them. Honestly, anybody could teach this lot, so that doesn’t make me feel special or particularly highly competent.

It’s been like this for me for a couple of years now, where I’ve had a lot of slightly odd classes. I haven’t taught a “normal” class – 30 mixed ability kids or a nice big middle set – in ages. My classes have sat at either end: it either felt too easy or it felt too hard.

Before we progress, I want to be clear that I’m talking about feelings here. In my head, I know that teaching 40 students is actually a hard thing to do. Hammering through a course with a really tough group makes me feel like we’re getting nowhere but I know in my head we are making progress, inch by inch. I know that I’m being hard on myself and that these kids are learning, and I am doing my job well, but it doesn’t feel like it.

It’s against this backdrop that I walked into my cover lesson. 30 students in a middle set. A number of tricky characters. Content I haven’t taught in a little while. And, despite the protestations of my all-too-British inclination towards self-deprecation, I absolutely smashed it. Students impeccably behaved the whole lesson through, a crisp check for prerequisite knowledge, a clear explanation, a clean check for understanding followed by a solid chunk of independent practice. When I left the room (we have long lessons so two cover teachers) I allowed myself a little fist pump. A job well done.

It was only in that moment that I realised all of the stuff I said about my classes being weird and not feeling particularly good at my job. As is too often the case with our internal worlds, I hadn’t even realised how low I was feeling and how it had been affecting my long term motivation. On reflection, it made a lot of sense. I’d been feeling low for a while without figuring out why, and it was only then – in that moment of “cool, I can still teach” – that I really saw what was going on.

I’ve known about and promoted Ryan and Deci’s theory of self-determination for a while. It looks at the things that motivate us, and why some things make us feel good about ourselves and some things make us feel rubbish. One of their central planks is competence: the feeling of being good at something. If things are too difficult, we feel rubbish about ourselves. If things are too easy, we have no reason to think of ourselves positively – anyone could do it. Sport is the most obvious example: nobody likes playing sport with people who are a million times better than them, but equally nobody likes playing with people who are a million times worse than them.

When it comes to learning and students I’ve always tried to think in these terms: that my best bet for motivating my students comes from helping them get good at a subject. But, as is typical of such things, I hadn’t applied the same thinking to my own life and my own job performance. That email and that cover lesson was without a doubt an inconvenience. An annoyance. It meant that I couldn’t do the jobs that I wanted to do in that time. Despite that short-term annoyance, I’ve completely forgotten about what those jobs were, vanished into the haze of an eternally full to-do list. But I’ll remember that cover lesson forever, and I’ll never again lose touch with that part of myself that knows it can teach.

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If you’re interested in how I actually go about teaching bottom set key stage 4 classes, check here. If you’re interested in applying theories of competence to education, see here or read Sarah Barker’s chapter here. If you opened this blog post looking for Teaching and Learning, leadership, EdTech or behaviour tips, sorry! Next blog will be more up your street, I promise.