This year, as I approach one of those round figure professional milestones, I have been reflecting that I may now have more years under my belt in teaching than I have ahead of me. So here is the accumulated wisdom of 20 years’ teaching experience for those in their first five years, condensed into five quick points:
- Keep the main thing the main thing Never forget why you came into the job in the first place: teaching young people. The difference you can make to them in all their quirkiness and unpredictability, and the gratitude they have for the simplest piece of assistance you give to them, will always be enough to over-ride the negatives and keep you getting out of bed in the morning. Governments and education secretaries come and go, as do their policies, Ofsted inspection teams and their reports are quickly forgotten, Headteachers and senior leadership teams move on, even difficult classes do not stay around for ever. When you get a long-term perspective on things, you will survive anything. You will. You can outlast any problem in school. Keep pupils and their welfare at the front and centre of all that you do, and you cannot fail.
- Get a life Sleep well, take regular exercise and drink lots of water. Nobody will tell you this, which makes it even more important. Find something that curates your soul, and make it a high priority in your life. There is no such thing as work/life balance, it’s an illusion, so don’t even chase it. Think of a push-bike: it is balanced precisely because it is always slightly out of balance, to one side or the other. There are times during the school year when you have to work hard, but never let your work become more important to you than your family or your loved ones. Nobody ever said on their death-bed: “Please let me look at my beautifully written reports one last time” or “Didn’t I always give high quality written feedback”.
- Hold your position and you’ll be on the leading edge of ‘new’ educational thinking within five years I was told this during my PGCE year by a wise old geography teacher. The figure he quoted was ten years, but I’m convinced we only need half of that. History is cyclical: it has to repeat itself, because nobody listens. For instance, from day one, I was convinced that the key to successful behaviour management lay in building relationships, but this requires an investment of that precious commodity called time. It is particularly difficult to hold this position in a culture of shouting and screaming at children. But it only takes five years to outlast every child in an 11-16 school and for them to believe you are part of the furniture and your way is right. Work out your convictions early on. You won’t have many, because most things that we think are convictions are merely preferences, but be prepared to stand by and defend your convictions at all costs. Don’t confuse form with essence. Form doesn’t matter, essence does. Within five years, you will be taken seriously as a radical thinker with ideas that are worth listening to, precisely because you have protected them so fiercely.
- Be comfortable with complexity Some things in teaching are black and white, but there are also countless shades of grey. Teach yourself to live with it. The hardest person to teach is always yourself. It is true that you cannot change the world, but you can change the world in you.
- Who you are is more important than what you do Remember your career progression will always be led by your identity, not your opportunities. You are a human being, not a human doing. Work on your character. The next thing will come out of the next you. If you commit to keep on figuring yourself out, what you do next will always become clear. In a couple of decades’ time, you’ll be half way to retirement, looking back on a very satisfying first half of your career.
Christian Pountain is head of RE and director of spirituality at a secondary school in Lancashire