Fire, water and flashed knickers: NQTs' worst mistakes

Whether they break the Virgin Mary or call pupils 'testees', NQTs can survive embarrassing mistakes, says Emma Kell
19th September 2019, 10:45am
Emma Kell


Fire, water and flashed knickers: NQTs' worst mistakes
If You're An Nqt & You End Up Inadvertently Flashing Your Knickers At School, Don't Worry - You'll Get Over It, Says Emma Kell

Confession: I'm not good with advice or tips. From the earliest age, I remember telling whichever well-meaning adult or older child was trying to show me how to play cards or ride a bike: "Stop telling me what to do." 

I'm guessing most new teachers are equally tired of "top tips" and "magic solutions" (n.b. they don't exist). So I thought a bit of nosiness, a few giggles and a bit of schadenfreude might be just the ticket.

So I asked teachers if they were brave enough to share their own vulnerabilities, primarily to show all of us - but especially the people negotiating the intense and high-octane world of teaching for the first time - that it's perfectly possible to mess up, and still go on to thrive.

That disastrous lesson observation or car crash set of test results hurts at the time (they really do), but there is plenty still to look forward to. And you'll almost certainly be a better teacher and leader in the future for having endured the setbacks.

Every NQT makes mistakes

Here are the responses from some of the teachers who answered my question on social media:

  • "Skirt fell down in NQT year, as a direct result of buying cheap clothes and writing really vigorously on the board. Didn't realise until I turned around and it was nearly on the floor. Not one of the little pickles told me. Not one."
  • "Wore white top to work (crazy decision for an art teacher). Handing out A3 charcoal drawings to Year 8s from previous lesson, and must have been holding them against my chest. Two massive boob-shaped black patches on top. Luckily everyone too polite to comment."
  • "Leaning back in my chair, in my first drama lesson with Year 9. On a slippery hall floor. The chair tipped backwards, throwing me into a back-flop. Landed in a heap, skirt over my head, legs in the air. They never let me live that one down."
  • "I was sitting at my desk when the underwire popped out of my bra and out the top of my shirt. There was no pushing it back in, so I turned slightly, pulled it out, and slid it in the trash can. We are not talking about a small underwire, either."

Setting the teaching world alight

  • "Demonstrating to Year 7 why you shouldn't lean over the Bunsen burner when lighting it, I set fire to my own hair. To be fair, it was very effective at showing them why leaning over the Bunsen burner is a bad move."
  • "Cheeky Year 9 boy actually made me blush one day, and I'm not easily embarrassed. He rushed in after lunch, red in the face and sweaty from playing football. Me: 'You look hot.' Year 9 boy, with a grin and a wink: 'Thanks, Miss!'"
  • "Being oh-so-proud of how I developed associated language and concepts, I said: 'I am the tester and you are the testees.' Luckily the Year 4/5/6 didn't realise, but the TA and I had to stifle our guffaws."
  • "Teaching left- and right-hand rule to a Year 11 class. Asked them all to finger me, instead of to show me fingers."
  • "I teach French. I had underlined 'on' in a word and asked if it was a 'hard on' or a 'soft on'."
  • "Crossing the road outside my FE college with one of my students (a 6ft 4in basketball player). I was fatigued, as a father of two children under 4. So, as I was crossing, I grabbed his hand. I apologised profusely. He just grinned and said: 'I won't mention it, if you don't.''"
  • "Once did a parents' evening early in my career and gave parents a glowing account of their son Bradley's excellent attitude and standard of work. They were very surprised, but very pleased. I had two very different Bradleys in my class. You can guess the rest…"
  • "PGCE year. Had only ever read the word 'gaol', and for some reason thought it was pronounced 'ghoul'. Taught Year 10 all about medieval ghouls, until an inspector kindly pointed it out after an Ofsted observation."

Forgive me, for I have sinned

  • "First day in my Year 1 classroom as an NQT in a Catholic school. It was quite a warm September morning. Got the window pole out to open a window, and knocked the Virgin Mary off her plinth and broke a bit of her arm and shoulder. This was 8.15am. I had literally been in there for five minutes. I borrowed a stepladder and put her back, pushing her right back against the wall, so no one would notice. Then I put the broken-off bit in my desk drawer for safekeeping, and bought some superglue on the way home from work that evening. I glued the bit back on the next day."
  • "First few weeks as NQT in an old classroom. Tap came off in my hand, and water was spurting everywhere. Drenched, I yelled: 'Get the head!' Thirty kids were fighting to get out of the door at once. The head calmly walked in and placed a bowl over the water spout."
  • "Two teachers had a fling at one of my schools, and were having a snog in the staffroom. Thought they were alone, until they heard the cleaner say: 'You filthy beasts.' They turned round in horror, to find she hadn't seen them and was talking about the mess in the room."

In her blog, Jill Berry, a long-term hero of mine, admits that she seriously doubted that teaching was her:

"I found the first year really tough. I seemed to be working so hard, and yet didn't find the job as satisfying and rewarding as I expected. I had so much to learn, I made mistakes, I felt exhausted. I wasted a lot of time on unproductive marking…and worried that one day I would wake up and find I had completely run out of ideas."

Simlarly, Bukky Yusuf writes in her blog of her "inner chimp", which led her to compare herself with others, refuse to ask for help, and draw inwards. Like most stories in teaching, this one comes full circle to this, as Bukky found: you are not alone. You are never alone, whether you're going through the darkest nights of the soul or lying on a classroom floor with your skirt over your head.

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching. She tweets at @thosethatcan

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