I am just about to start my sixth year as a teacher, and was having a chat with a family friend who is about to start his NQT year. As he picked my brains over coffee and told me all of the things he was worrying about already, I realised how much I wish I’d known when I had started five years ago. This is pretty simple stuff, but is not intended to be patronising – in my first week on the job, I struggled to see past my own fear and focus on the things I could control. I hope some of these ideas are useful…
The first week – no need for bells and whistles:
Don’t dwell too much on overly complicated lessons with 8 parts and all-singing, all-dancing resources. There is no way you’ll get through what you think you will, and you will exhaust yourself with planning before you even start. Just make sure that each first lesson with a new class is solid, and that you give them a chance to get to know you and what you expect in your classroom. Make sure that you have some sort of conversation, no matter how brief, with everyone in the room; if they feel that they have connected with you, they will be more likely to work well for you. Over the first few lessons with a group, you will begin to get a sense of how they work, what they need, and what they will respond to, which will make your ‘bells and whistles’ lessons even better when you do them later on.
Find out on your first day:
- How do you do photocopying/printing?
- How do you get in/out of the building at different times of the day?
- What is the absence procedure/phone number?
- How do teas and coffees work? Is there a machine? Do you have to bring your own?
- Is there a water fountain somewhere? Or drinking water in the staff room?
- How do you pay for food in the canteen (if you need to)? Cash? Fingerprint?!
- If you don’t have your own classroom – which rooms are you teaching in? Are they all on the same floor? Will you need a plan for getting yourself and your resources from one room to the next in between lessons?!
- Who do you speak to if you have any IT malfunctions, or SIMS issues which affect registers?
Marking is just as important as planning (if not more…):
Once students have completed work, the most powerful thing you can do is give meaningful, personalised feedback, and give them time to improve in a future lesson (for an excellent discussion on this, see this post from David Didau ‘What’s the point of marking books?’).
Marking is incredibly important, but do not strive for perfection – set a time limit per book, decide on a marking focus (i.e. whatever the objectives or success criteria were for that piece of work), and don’t get de-railed!
If you get behind with you marking, SAY SOMETHING! Everyone gets overwhelmed by the workload at some point, but if you ask for help from your NQT mentor or HOD, they will help you find some practical strategies to get through it all.
Avoid endless ‘to do’ lists:
These can become huge and unfocused, and soon stop becoming the organisational tools they should be. Use an important/not important, urgent/non urgent grid.
Unfortunately, the things you want to start with usually come under the not important/non urgent column, but organising things like this will help you prioritise the right things!
Be realistic about what you can achieve in the time you have – highlight two or three things to complete each day, but do them WELL!
Teaching is all consuming and can get overwhelming at certain points in the year. Find something to do outside of school time which is going to stop you from thinking about work. If you find yourself going in early to work, then staying late to work, then going home and working some more, then you need to rethink! I go in early every day (though this doesn’t work for everyone), then my rule is, if I stay late to work, I do NOT take work home. If I leave at 5pm, I take something home with me, but something manageable which won’t take me more than a couple of hours (NOT a whole set of books, but maybe 15 instead…). I also have at least 1 night a week where I do no work at all, and one whole day on the weekend which is work free.
Kids have short memories:
Don’t be too devastated if you have a dramatic incident with a student. When I first started teaching, I always felt as though because of my poor classroom management, I had destroyed my relationship with a student FOREVER. This is crazy. Yes, my behaviour management was still developing then (and still is!), but you have to accept that we are all human and we make errors in judgement. Better still, if you give that student a clean slate at the start of the next lesson, they will forgive YOU very quickly.
Love the kids, but manage the behaviour:
Don’t let a child be defined by their behaviour – it is not who they are. Kids will work for you if they feel that you like and care about them. Sometimes it is difficult to feel that bond with them in the face of all their crazy teenage outpourings of rage (especially when this is directed at us personally), but if you can see past that, you can see value in who they are underneath the anger. Ask how their weekend was, how their baby sister is, what food they like, and even share something of your own experiences with them. 9 times out of 10, if you have some sort of appreciation of who they are, separate from their behaviour, those issues will fix themselves. If you just see them as a ‘naughty’ kid, then they will sense that and do their best to live up to the label.
A boy I taught a couple of years ago, let’s call him Sam, called me a c*** on my second day in the job. He was vile in my lessons and incredibly disruptive for no reason I could see. However, during our detentions, after his initial telling off for whatever he’d done that time, we would talk about other things (all the anger aside, because I had clearly and calmly dealt with his behaviour already) It turned out that I had just become addicted to a video game he had recently completed. He told me how to kill the boss on my current level and from that point on, even though he regularly slipped up, he made much more of an effort in my lessons. Even more importantly, his slip-ups were far less damaging, because he knew I would deal with them in isolation, and that they would not damage my opinion of him.
Embrace the support staff:
Caretakers, cleaners, catering staff, duty staff, admin staff, finance staff, gardeners, bus drivers, teaching assistants, IT technicians – whoever they are, these people know more about education than many of the teachers, and especially more than any fresh faced NQT could ever know. These people are key to your survival when you first start teaching, and I would urge any NQT to step outside the teaching staff bubble and make friends with the whole staff body. Partly, this will help you settle in quickly and feel part of the school, but also, there is nothing like knowing the caretakers well when you realise you have left your car key in the building after hours! In my first year, a reprographics lady called Janet was like my school mum! She regularly helped me create resources last minute, gave me advice when I’d made one of my many mistakes, and yes, gave me the odd hug when I felt like I couldn’t cope! The site manager at my current school is ex army, and has happily had conversations with some of my students when they are struggling to cope with authority – he is brilliant.
I won’t call them ‘non-teaching colleagues’, because I believe that all support staff teach the kids in a multitude of ways, even though they are not in the classroom, but they do have a whole different slant on the students, and a refreshing perspective on teaching which can help you put things in perspective.
I’d be really grateful to hear any other reflections or advice to new teachers starting out! Get in touch @funkypedagogy or firstname.lastname@example.org