Meet Claudia: a scared NQT already making a difference

As an NQT, she's tearful and overwhelmed. And she doesn't realise how lucky the teaching profession is to have her

New teachers: As an NQT, starting your first job can feel overwhelming - but rest assured that you are making a real difference, writes Emma Kell

Claudia is on day four of her first-ever week as a qualified teacher.

Claudia cried where her alarm went off at six o’clock this morning. Actually sobbed like an actual baby. She can’t remember the last time she felt so pathetic, or where the accomplished and humorous and opinionated young woman she thought she was has gone. 

The number of known unknowns in her life just now are truly overwhelming. For the life of her, she can’t grasp the difference between a learning objective and a learning outcome – the subject of a whole hour’s Inset on the first day. 

She galloped over to ask her mentor a question about the Shakespeare module on Tuesday, only to receive a bemused expression from the canteen manager she had mistaken her for. She now can’t face asking how, in fact, she is supposed to register her fingerprint to enable her to buy lunch. 

An NQT in a MUGA muddle

She mistook the store cupboard for the toilet the other day, can’t remember the name of the receptionist who was so kind to her when she arrived, has no idea what a MUGA or a TSA or an SLE are, and feels a little as if she’s just arrived from another planet. 

Yesterday evening, it was 5.47pm before she realised she’d taken the bus in the wrong direction and was 15 miles from home. 

Today, she’s meeting her new Year 9 class. A confident-looking maths teacher in the staffroom cheerfully wished her luck with them yesterday over coffee, without deigning to elaborate… 

She forgot to break her new shoes in, and they’ve made her feet bleed.

'I wish my teacher knew...'

Then Claudia remembers the Year 8 boy yesterday who hung back to pass her a crumpled piece of paper after they completed the “I wish my teacher knew” activity. “I wish my teacher knew I think I might be gay and I’m so scared,” he’d written in small spiralling letters across the paper. Claudia again feels that burgeoning sense of huge responsibility and massive privilege to be trusted with such information, and vows to seek the child out today. 

Claudia remembers the boy who mooed persistently through the register, stole the slime belonging to the girl next to him, to howls of indignation, and at one point seemed set on quite literally climbing the walls. He’d written: “I wish my teacher knew I’ve just got a bearded dragon called Wesley.” She files this nugget away for later – “Find a point of contact,” her tutor used to say. 

She remembers the girl whom she actually thought might vomit through sheer terror as she entered the tutor base for the first time. Claudia admitted to her, “I’m new too – and I’m scared too,” and was rewarded with a small smile. 

Claudia remembers the pride she has taken in planning her lessons for the week ahead: how much she’s looking forward to teaching poetry again, that idea she had around extended metaphors and fresh starts. She knows the lessons won’t go according to plan but, suddenly, that’s OK. 

She remembers the teacher in the room next door who confessed to hiding in the sensory room for most of her first week, and who now seems so thoroughly competent and cheerful.

Sparks of optimism

From amid the inadequacy and exhaustion, Claudia starts to feel sparks of optimism and excitement about the days and months ahead.

What Claudia doesn’t know yet is that the little girl she bonded with in terror on the first day will always remember her as she grows to make her own great differences to society. She’ll track her down in 15 years’ time, a little sheepish and anxious-sounding: “You probably won’t remember me, but…” As if Claudia could forget! 

The boy with the bearded dragon will be the cause of a few sleepless nights and the occasional tear of exasperation in the office, but the relationship created on the first day will mean it’s Claudia he comes to when he wants to confess to the challenges he will face at home in the months to come. 

There will be worse days and worse weeks. Claudia will learn the hard way that dragging herself to work with laryngitis really wasn’t the best idea, after a firm scolding from her doctor. She’ll learn that marking in front of the TV in the one precious hour together really doesn’t go down well with her fiancé, and that wearing white is never a good idea. 

She’ll file her challenges and insecurities and terrors away for when she becomes a mentor herself in years to come. She’ll inspire her own mentor – who is secretly wildly excited to be working with her – to try new approaches in the classroom for the first time in years.

What Claudia doesn’t realise is how truly lucky the teaching profession is to have her, and how very grateful her colleagues, her students’ parents and her students themselves are to have her, even if they don’t always show it. 

Thank you, Claudia – and you’ve got this!

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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