It’s the end of summer and in a few days time I will be sitting in the school theatre, surrounded by my colleagues. Among them will be faces that I’m not familiar with, sitting awkwardly in their new departments, making polite conversation about their summer adventures and desperately trying to hide the fact that they are terrified.
These people are the Newly Qualified Teachers. They’ve successfully completed their training year, whether it be a PGCE, GTP or equivalent, and they are now likely to be in a role of responsibility for the first time.
The NQT year is exciting, challenging and possibly the most stressful. It’s the year where most NQT’s start to develop their style and cultivate relationships with their students and colleagues. It’s also the year where expectations are dashed, sleep is lost and career choices will be questioned repeatedly. I have been a qualified music teacher since 2007, but have worked in secondary schools in the UK since 2005. The profession has changed dramatically even in the years that I have been teaching, but this year I am an NQT mentor. This is the advice I will be giving my NQT:
1. Plan effectively. One of the most important aspects of teaching is planning the lessons that you intend to deliver. There are so many things to consider – outcomes, specific learning needs and how to demonstrate meaningful progress to name a few – that it is quite easy to spend hours on just a single lesson. We all have our preferred style and there are no real right or wrongs (within reason) when planning a great lesson. Try and plan them at least 48 hours in advance – I know of teachers that plan several weeks ahead. However, there are ways in which you can save time – sharing resources and lesson plans (my department frequently does this), creating templates that you can use over and over and developing small projects that can be used across a few lessons at a time are some examples of making the planning process easier.
2. Ask for help. If you find that you are having difficulties with a certain student or class, ask for assistance. This doesn’t mean that you are not capable of doing your job – even the most experienced of teachers sometimes struggle – but telling your line manager or another member of your department will (hopefully) ensure that the correct support is put in place.
3. Complete individual tasks as soon as you receive them. Teachers, while trying to be as paperless as possible, are notorious for sending pieces of paper around the school. Deal with them as soon as possible to avoid them building up. This, admittedly, is one of my weaknesses and am determined to change the way that I deal with paper during this academic year.
4. Don’t take things personally, and remember to be the adult. Working with children can be absolutely infuriating at times, and there has been more than one instance where I have had to walk away, take a deep breath and count to ten. In my career I have had gone out of my way to provide support only to have it thrown back in my face on many occasions, I’ve had personal attacks directed at me, I’ve battled, pleaded, praised and sanctioned with no effect at times and it doesn’t get any easier. The point to remember is that you are dealing with boisterous children or hormonal teenagers. Don’t raise your voice, give out any personal insults or get into any arguments. If a child is not willing to cooperate, quickly and effectively follow the necessary protocols and try not to allow the situation to affect your own opinion of your teaching abilities.
5. Set clear boundaries and expectations, follow through with praise and sanctions and be consistent. If you say you are going to do something, do it.
6. Develop a positive relationship with the students, but always maintain the teacher/student boundaries. One of the most frustrating things I hear directed at NQT’s is ‘don’t smile until Christmas.’ I wholeheartedly disagree – setting a positive and friendly tone in the classroom is always more likely to assist when developing a good relationship with your students. Smile and talk to them with respect. Find out about their interests and hobbies. However, it is important to remember that you are NOT their friend. Don’t divulge too much personal information about yourself and NEVER connect with them via social media at any point. I have a few ex-students on my personal Facebook page that I taught a number of years ago, but they have no connection to the school that I now teach at and are all fully grown adults with their own lives, families and careers.
7. When using social media, ensure that you protect yourself in the online world. Change your name on your social media accounts to prevent the students from finding you – they will undoubtedly search for you during an hour of boredom at some point. It is also not a good idea to post pictures of yourself in various states of drunkenness and/or undress on your social media pages. An embarrassing picture in the wrong hands may mean the end of your career.
8. Accept that lessons won’t always happen as you expected. I can remember a few occasions where I spent hours enthusiastically planning lessons that I was sure would motivate and inspire all my students, only to have had my hopes dashed by apathy and bored faces in one class, and excited squeals in another. Factors outside of the classroom may affect how your teaching day goes. The most useful technique I have been able to develop is the ability to adapt to unforeseen changes and circumstances.
9. Join a union. I work in a good school and am well supported by my colleagues and management. However, I have worked in a few institutions where I was treated unfairly and unprofessionally, and my union rep was an invaluable support. Every school is different, and it is always a good idea to ensure that you are protected should you need it.
10. Look after yourself. Earlier in the year I spent nearly a week in hospital and had five weeks off afterwards because I had ignored a minor ailment to the point where it made me seriously ill. An average teaching day can become extremely busy and non-stop, and I often went through the day without eating and drinking and didn’t take the time to go to the toilet. What it taught me was that my health was important, and because I didn’t look after it properly I became so ill that it affected my ability to work. You are legally allowed to have a break and a lunch. Take them. If you need the toilet and a student is nagging you for something, tell them that you’ll be a few minutes and go. Get plenty of sleep. Exercise. Unfortunately, it is inevitable that you will catch several colds and flu throughout the year, but the healthier you are, the easier you will be able to cope with it.
11. Stay away from alcohol on a work night. There is absolutely nothing worse than teaching a full day with the world’s biggest hangover. I’ve been there. Trust me, it isn’t pleasant.
12. Where possible, cultivate a work/life balance. You will work every evening and most weekends, but in teaching, you will NEVER be absolutely up to date with everything. There are always jobs that will need to be completed. However, it is important that you take some time for yourself, and this is an integral part of surviving not just your NQT year, but every year you spend in teaching afterwards. Lots of my teacher friends have hobbies that are nothing to do with the profession – they participate in performances within amateur dramatics organisations and musical groups, play on sporting teams, volunteer for charities, go to the gym, write and take short trips around the country. It’s imperative to have something else to focus on and enjoy, or your job will become all consuming.
13. While it may sound harsh, try to remember that you don’t know everything that there is to know about teaching, about children and the education system. A driver who has recently passed their test often makes the mistake of assuming that they are now the world’s best motorist, and I have often found that NQT’s have the same attitude (I was one of them). Listen to and follow advice, learn from your mistakes, accept responsibility and don’t assume that just because you now have a qualification which says that you are allowed to teach means that everything that you believe is correct.
14. Remember that teaching is not just about teachers. There are lots of staff that play an integral role within the school – support staff in the form of teaching assistants, pastoral managers or faculty support managers, IT technicians, admin, finance, site staff, canteen staff… at my current school we are even lucky enough to have a school nurse, and their knowledge of individual students and how the school operates will undoubtedly far outweigh yours. It is not a good idea to assume that your job is more important or be dismissive of these staff (I’ve seen this happen on a number of occasions) – they have been an invaluable support to me in every school that I have ever worked at.
15. Enjoy the journey! Teaching is a rewarding, fulfilling, frustrating and stressful profession, where no two days are the same. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll dream about being in the classroom when you go to sleep. Take each day on it’s own merits, celebrate the successes and try not to dwell on mistakes.
What about you guys? Do you have any advice for Newly Qualified Teachers?
You can also find me on Twitter and Tumblr @suzie81blog.