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Gemma Warren settles for a slow doggy paddle

Your first year in teaching is definitely your worst." This encouraging piece of advice came my way one Thursday afternoon, about half way through my NQT year.

I had just collapsed in the staffroom, weighed down by a pile of marking, to discover that I had a cover lesson. And not just any cover. Science cover - the kind of cover calculated to make English teachers feel like rubbish. The kind of cover where you don't even understand the instructions, let alone the work. you're terrified of unleashing some toxic chemical if you touch a bottle by mistake, and you're half deaf because of the noise that lab stools make when 30 children are scraping them backwards and forwards. On purpose. I started to cry. One of my colleagues offered to do the cover for me and, as she ran out the door, she delivered those words of wisdom.

It's comforting when you're an NQT to know that the commonly held view is that anything you screw up doesn't matter. People benevolently overlook the fact that your reports are late, and anything you do right is treated like a Nobel prize-winning discovery.

When we were Ofsteded, people kept running up to me with towers of lesson plans and hastily written departmental policies, saying "it doesn't matter for you: you're an NQT". And they were right, I suppose. Basically, I think that everyone's just so damned amazed that you did the training, and so astoundingly grateful that you've proved vaguely competent, and haven't discovered a vocation for merchant banking half way through the Christmas term, that You Can Do No Wrong.

"Your second year is definitely the worst," said my colleague as I ran into him on the first day back last year. High on the success of having taken my register and known exactly what to put in each box, and having correctly navigated my way to my new form room, I was astounded. How could anything be worse than the horrors in store for the nervous-looking NQTs that I smiled benevolently down on in assembly? Surely your second year was when it all came together?

He was right, strangely enough. A year is a long time in teaching, and suddenly, with 52 weeks' experience behind me, I was virtualy an elder statesman of teaching. People asked my advice, and expected me to contribute in meetings. I found myself in working parties. Kids knew that they couldn't try it on. I missed being praised every time I picked a crisp packet off the floor. I'd done it all before. I now had no excuse for missed deadlines, and reports done in the wrong coloured ink. The guilty excuse of the NQT, ignorance, had been removed.

I also found the adrenalin rush of my NQT days was gone and I had to get through on sheer willpower alone. Things that I had accepted without question before, I now had the experience to criticise and reflect on, and I found that I couldn't just accept the teaching profession as whole-heartedly and enthusiastically as I had initially. I was tired of being poor and tired of being tired. I didn't just want to get things done, I wanted to get them done properly, and that takes loads and loads of time.

This summer, I didn't want to rush back to school. I wanted another two weeks. My expectations have become more realistic, and I now understand that I am not going to change the world by producing a brilliant lesson plan. I want more time for friends.

Teaching years must be like dog years, because by entering my third year, in the eyes of the new staff, I'll be a positive octogenarian. The absurdity of this strikes me forcefully when I look at friends in other professions. They've gone from being trusted to collect the sandwiches for lunch, to being trusted to sit in on meetings. Doctors hardly get a lecture on open-heart surgery, watch someone doing it a few times, and then jump straight into doing it themselves. Admittedly, I no longer feel that I'm swimming out of my depth, but I am hardly an Olympic contender. Third year feels like a slow doggy paddle across the Atlantic.

"So if your second year's the worst," I asked my colleague last September, "when does it start to get better?" "Third year," he said confidently. "That's the best. Then you start thinking about promotion, leaving, changing profession... don't ask."

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer School, north London. E-mail:

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