As I sit down to write this I must include a bit of a disclaimer: I’m not a wise old sage. I’m an NQT teaching in Thurrock, Essex. I’ve just finished my QTS year with Teach First and now that I have some energy back I’m feeling somewhat ready to share some of my experiences, what I’ve learnt from them, and how this could help new incoming teachers.
Of course each teacher experiences their first year differently. I want to say before I begin that I don’t intend for this to be the most relatable piece of writing. It comes directly from my own experiences most of all, some of which may be different to what you will experience in your first year. However, I will try to make each thing I say as widely-applicable as I can. Goodness, now I have to figure out where to start. It’s a good thing I’m better at planning lessons than I am at blog posts.
1) Nail the basics first
There’s a running joke that teachers don’t teach for the salary- and it’s true- we absolutely do not teach for the money. We teach because we want to make a difference for the children and communities we serve. This is of course wonderful, and I’ll talk about holding onto your ‘why’ later on but for now I just need to say that it’s easy to get swept up in doing too much at once. I wanted to make as big an impact as I could as soon as I could, and this led to me neglecting a couple of basic but essential aspects of my practice for some time. As much as you will want to make a difference, it’s important to keep your feet firmly on the ground in your trainee year. Listen to your mentor and any other support roles, reflect on your practice as often as possible, and stay focused on making sure you have nailed all the basics.
By the basics I mostly mean everything relating to the teaching standards. You need to be able to manage a room full of up to 30 children, maintaining a good climate for learning and one where children feel nurtured and supported. You need to be able to plan good lessons taking into consideration the needs of your children and what you know about their prior knowledge. You need to show you have high expectations and can back all of this up with evidence. I can’t say it any more, make sure you can teach before you start changing the world.
All this considered, this doesn’t mean you should robotically pursue the teaching standards. Your first year is all about figuring out the kind of teacher you are. It’s a time to read, observe, practice and reflect. You get to chart your own path in some ways, but just keep your feet on the ground and remember that there is plenty of time to make a wider impact; you just need to have secure foundations before you do this.
2) Understand your school’s behaviour policy
As part of my initial training I was immersed a lot in the work of Doug Lemov and I’d recommend you read his book ‘Teach Like a Champion’. It’s a real gem and contains practical guidance for all the core areas of teaching. One of his techniques is called the ‘Art of Consequence’. This essentially means that you must be prepared to follow through on what you say at all times. I can’t get behind this enough, you need to be prepared to back up your warnings. The best way to do this is to know the ins and outs of your school’s behaviour policy. Every school does it differently and it’s essential you know which consequences you can actually lay out. Of course you blend this in with opportunities to fix bad behaviour, but the key point is you can’t make threats that can’t be followed through. Children are highly perceptive and will soon figure you out. Better to be known for your consistent, determined approach to behaviour than your erratic, inconsistent one. As the classroom teacher of course you set the climate and ‘make the weather’ as Sir Jon Jones would say. There’s plenty of room for your individual approach to building a classroom environment. However, you must be prepared to present realistic consequences in line with your school’s behaviour policy.
3) Make a good impression
Before I get cracking on this one you need to buy ‘The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual’ by Omar Akbar. It perfectly encapsulates the do’s and dont’s in teaching and what I am about to say just echoes some parts of that book. Seriously, just stop reading this blog here and go pick up a copy of that book.
When I say make a good impression I absolutely don’t mean bend over backwards to make sure everyone likes you. Your main reason for being in the building is to provide an education to your pupils. In that building however will be practitioners with leagues more experience than you (that’s a good thing!) There will also be teaching assistants who may well know things about your children that you don’t, and cleaners who can make your whiteboard nice and shiny for you. If you are able to make a good impression in your school the good things will certainly come your way, not least because you will spend a lot of time with these people. Surely then it’s better to get along than not?
Another key part of making a good impression is getting to grips with your school’s “email culture”. Again, Omar Akbar’s book tackles this topic really well but I’m just going to offer up some experiences from my first year. I learned fairly quickly that when someone wants something done ASAP they might CC (carbon copy) a relevant- or sometimes even irrelevant- member of SLT into the email. This is because said member of SLT will see the email and therefore you can’t really shirk it. It’s an infuriating thing people do when they want something doing. Don’t be this person. This next one depends on the email policy of your school, but in mine there isn’t really a restriction on when emails can be sent. If you fall into this latter group, I wouldn’t advise sending out-of-hours emails unless your head is about to roll off your shoulders. Even then, consider the merits of super glue before you send the email. I’ve had people asking me to do things the next day when really the email could have waited until the next day. People will just appreciate you a lot more if you email during work hours.
4) Hide your whiteboard markers
That’s it. That’s the tip. They’ll get stolen otherwise. Keep them locked well away in Gringotts bank, vault 711.
5) Treasure the little moments
I hope I’m right in saying that you decided to go into teaching for either of the following two reasons:
1) You like children
2) You want to give children a good education
Of course those aren’t the only two reasons for becoming a teacher, but most teachers usually in some way point to one of those when asked why they signed up for a life of constant tiredness.
When you teach in a primary school you will see the same children every day for around 6 hours. That’s a lot of time to spend with the same bunch of children. Don’t get me wrong, there will be times when all you want to do is hide under your desk with a teddy and dream about the last holiday you had while your children ruin tables with paint. I forgot to put any sort of protective covering on my tables the first time I gave my Year 3 class time to paint. Let’s link this back to point 3; the cleaner did not have a good impression when she came into class after school on that day. Please don’t be like me, get some table covers. I go on a lot of tangents, I do apologise. On afternoons like paint-gate, I may have been stressed out of my mind but my children couldn’t wait to show me what they’d made. They will want to show you everything they make, because they’re children and they want to be validated. They’ll make you little gifts from home, too. I’ve got a box containing a growing collection of gifts from my first class. I made a point of keeping them; when I got tired and downbeat I would sometimes look at them and that helped me to remember my ‘why’. You will have so many special times with the little people in your classroom; please take the time to cherish those moments. I remember my first school trip to Colchester Castle. My class were absolutely mesmerised by the things they saw. We tried on Roman costumes, they laughed at me wearing a helmet, and they were able to bring to life what they had learned in class. Seeing how happy those experiences make your children might just be some of the fuel you need to power through the hard times. Unfortunately you will have some of those.
6) Look after yourself
I really don’t like getting all sombre. I’m quite a light-hearted person generally, so writing things like this doesn’t come easily. However, it’s an important thing to share.
Towards the end of the year I completely burned out. I was writing an essay, compiling evidence for my QTS portfolio, planning for home learning and trying to keep myself sane. Unfortunately the keeping myself sane part slowly slipped down the hierarchy of things in my life. Brace yourself for the sombre bit: teaching is quite a consuming job, and if you let it it can take over your life. I mean this in a few ways. During the home learning period brought about by Covid-19, I didn’t plan my time effectively and ended up rushing non-school commitments like my essay. This led to a negative outcome. I really burned out under the load of work I had to do, but truth be told there were things I could have done. First and foremost, I could have asked any of my support roles for some help. I didn’t. I let myself get worked up quietly, to the point where the work I was completing for university just wasn’t what it should have been. Not only that, but I was getting tired and irascible with those around me. I began to neglect exercise, let my diet slip, and slept less. All of that was totally avoidable if I’d have just asked for some help. Do NOT be ashamed of asking for help when things get too much. As I said, teaching can very quickly become consuming, and it’s okay to reach out and ask for pragmatic workarounds to make sure you have that vital time to look after yourself.
Something I did do right (yay) was I made sure to have at least one evening completely away from work during each week. I wouldn’t dare look at my laptop. That time would be for me to do whatever on Earth I wanted. At first I actually found this quite tricky because I knew there were things still on my to-do list. However, you’ll soon learn that you will never have an empty to-do list in teaching. There’s always something to be done, and I think that can lead to a mentality of being over-productive. By taking that one night off a week I was able to gradually escape that guilt and soon those evenings became a real anchor for me. You shouldn’t ever feel guilty for looking after yourself. As important as your job is, do not ever let anyone tell you it’s more important than your health. That has to be my biggest takeaway from this year. And sometimes the person telling you work comes first is yourself, so you need to watch out for that.
Okay so that’s me. There’s probably more to be said but those for me are the main things to keep an eye out for when you start your career in teaching. Of course it’s different for absolutely everyone so there may well be things I’ve written here that don’t apply to you whatsoever. I would heavily recommend that you set up a teacher Twitter account and start following some practitioners. A good place to start would definitely be Omar Akbar. I really can’t sing his praises enough. Teacher Twitter or “EduTwitter” has been a real source of inspiration and motivation for me. It’s given me access to the wisdom of teachers with far more experience, and that is very valuable.
I hope you love your training year. Despite the difficulties I faced, I truly loved mine. I was lucky to have a great class with wonderful children and parents. As nervous as you may be about going into teaching during the uncertain times we find ourselves in, please just remember that there will be upto 30 little people who can’t wait to meet you. They will be a source of laughter, joy, frustration, and so much more. Go in there and make a difference.
Here’s a list of books you might want to check out, too:
- The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual, Omar Akbar.
- Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov.
- The Rosenshine Principles in Action, Tom Sherrington.
- Making Every Lesson Count, Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby.
- Live Well, Teach Well, Abigail Mann.