“But I spent hours preparing it last night,” I sobbed, not even caring that the tears now seemed to be escaping from my nose in one hideous wet mess.
“We had gone through it so many times. I’d made sure I understood exactly what they needed to know, and I had planned it down to every minute in the class. I don’t understand where it went wrong!”
I felt a gentle tug on the now soggy rag in my hand, and a fresh tissue replacing it.
This scene was to be a regular feature in my mentor meetings, not to mention the informal drop-ins with my mentor, in my training and NQT year.
I was tired. I had poured my heart and soul into the lesson, and it felt like it had been torn up and given a good kicking. I felt every blow. That lesson plan had somehow come to represent my professional heart and soul and, despite my tiredness and general feeling that I was out of my depth, I had felt sure it would be a good lesson.
A safe place to let NQT tears out
My mentor, the wonderful Susan Walker, had a door that was always open to me. It was also a door that was directly opposite my classroom, making it easy for me to stumble through it at the end of a tough session. That meant that, quite often, Sue would be in the middle of juggling her head of department duties and would look up to find me standing on the threshold with tears brimming in my eyes. Again.
I had some challenging individuals in my classes to deal with, and English was not always their favourite subject. School was not always their favourite place.
Sue would quietly put aside whatever it was she was doing and listen. Often, she wouldn’t say more than two or three words, but her office was a safe place for me to let my tears out.
Mostly, I would learn that it was frustration that lay behind those sobs. I wanted the best for my classes, and sometimes I just wasn’t able to deliver it. I have also always been hypercritical of myself, so will be the first to leap on even the slightest imperfection, especially in an area that I believe to be so important.
Support from your teacher mentor
That was 20 years ago. Over the years, I have probably mentored somewhere in the region of 30 trainee teachers. I have also been a mentor to those I have line-managed, to other middle leaders and to senior leaders. During those years, I have seen a range of responses when things have not gone well, from a range of people.
Tears are common. Sometimes there’s anger, too. Frustration often combines the two, and I have seen people go from anger to tears and back to anger in a matter of moments.
Never have I ever felt that this was a less than professional response. Never have I considered this an unreasonable response.
Teachers are not automatons. They are human, and humans need to have a release valve for the build-up of emotions they experience. This is why we are capable of crying, laughing, raging and everything in between. We need these moments of catharsis in life. Life as a teacher makes this all the more necessary.
We spend lesson after lesson putting on a performance. Emotion is generally put aside (although my classes loved nothing more than seeing me cry at the death of Lennie in Of Mice and Men, or raging at Abigail’s cunning in The Crucible), and we work hard to maintain composure.
Releasing the pressure
In a classroom, we aim for calm control of our emotions – although, of course, passion for our subject is a must, and we have to maintain it when we feel tired, angry or worried. We put on the mask and perform for five, sometimes six hours, and lock it all inside.
We then have a choice. We can be like the little mermaid in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale: “But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” Or we can let the tears flow, and suffer less.
I guarantee any mentor will have seen tears before. Workplace tears are new to you, but not to them. They will understand the pressures you are under. And, while all teachers will feel the pressure, a mentor working with an NQT or trainee will understand this can be felt even more keenly.
Everything is new, and you are juggling a million things at once. Things will yet to have become automated, something which more experienced staff have to their advantage, and even remembering the right log-in can be a challenge some days, as you try to remember names, routines, subject content, and where you left the board pen.
It is no surprise, then, when the tears come. You need to release the pressure or else you will explode. Other people may have different ways to release that pressure (I have learned, for example, that exercise works well for me), but the role of your mentor – as well as helping to guide your knowledge of pedagogy, content knowledge and classroom management – is to help you manage that pressure.
The tears are one indication of how much you care about your role. The tears will enable you to come back and fight another day. The tears remind you that you are human, and sharing tears and laughter are a way we connect to others in our community.
So, sob in front of your mentor. Share those moments when things get tough and let them support you in finding your best way forward this year.
Just remember to share in the laughter when that comes, too.
Zoe Enser is lead English adviser for Kent. She tweets @greeborunner