30 snippets of advice I’d give my NQT self

17th August 2015 at 11:30
Advice to my NQT self

It is great to see that Twitter is awash with ideas from enthusiastic, passionate and talented, recently qualified, teachers. For established educators such as myself, the excitement and fresh perspective that our inexperienced colleagues bring to a school is heartening. Most trainees/NQTs/RQTs are buoyant, willing to get involved and have yet to be corrupted by the cynicism that can sometimes creep in after a few years at the chalkface. How can we harness their energy and encourage its longevity, while smoothing off some of the rough edges of our newest recruits to this noblest of professions?

I decided to consider what advice I would give to my 22-year-old self if I had the chance to perform a Back to the Future-style intervention to prepare me for the years of service ahead. Here are my top 30 suggestions to follow:

  1. Pace yourself – the best analogy is that of teaching being a marathon, not a sprint. If you have found your vocation, you could still be educating children in another 40 years, so it’s important to keep energy levels up;
  2. Build relationships – teaching is person-centred; building good working relationships with students, parents and staff is vital. Sharing good news at every opportunity will make the job of having difficult conversations much easier. Positive relationships make teaching a shared experience and will make your day much more rewarding;
  3. Be passionate about what you teach – sparking an interest is half the battle with students. If you’re excited about what you are teaching, then you’ll ignite their curiosity. Use the 'Sawyer effect' to make work fun;
  4. Remember that everyone thinks and learns in different ways and at a different pace – just as every face you see is unique, so is every brain. You will be passionate about your subject because you have a genuine enthusiasm or natural flair for it but don’t assume every student will think/feel like you do. You can be certain that they definitely won’t acquire knowledge in the way or at the pace you feel they should. Think about what it’s like in your classroom for those students who struggle to enjoy or master your subject – try to put yourself in their shoes. A good way of developing empathy is to consider having to write with the opposite hand that you’re used to using. This can be what it’s like every lesson for some students that you teach;
  5. Lose the need to be a perfectionist  – you will never achieve perfection in teaching because there are too many extrinsic factors that influence the outcomes. Learn to embrace imperfection: it can be quite beautiful;
  6. Have a finish time and stick to it – there will always be another book to mark, lesson to plan or resource to create. To survive in teaching, you need to know when to call it a day. The teachers who tend to burn out are those that can’t stop working. Give yourself a set period to do your work; what’s not done at the end of it gets left for another day;
  7. Have a life outside of school – your health and well-being – as well as that of your significant others – is your number one priority. Remember: we work to live, not live to work;
  8. Ignore the “don’t smile until Christmas” rule – first impressions count; if you don’t smile until Christmas the students (and staff) will think you’re miserable;
  9. Be clear about your expectations – people are generally compliant souls as long as they know what’s expected from them. Always set high, yet reasonable standards for classroom behaviour and work ethics. Students need and respect boundaries;
  10. Avoid TMI – it is good to show your human side but don’t go into detail about your life; remember that you’re not in The Truman Show! Having an element of professional aloofness means that you can maintain the necessary distance to focus on learning. Resist the urge for narcissism even though some students might put you on a pedestal;
  11. Continue to learn about your subject – over the course of your career you will endure countless CPD sessions on the likes of differentiation, questioning, AfL and many other invaluable tools in a teacher’s toolkit. However, one aspect of your professional development that can be neglected is subject knowledge. Promise to teach yourself at least one new aspect of your subject each term (or practise something that you haven’t taught in a while);
  12. Stay humble – remember that no-one likes a know-it-all! Even if you are a 'natural', you will learn a new lesson every day of your teaching career. Listen to other teachers (even the bad ones) and share your ideas only when invited to; you’ll gain much more respect and admiration that way;
  13. Develop happy habits – a number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Professor Barry Hymer speak. Being a huge advocate of Dweck’s Growth Mindset approach, he talked about developing happy habits in students. I felt that this could also be adopted by teachers to make their working life more manageable. The concept of a happy habit is a mindful, focused routine that will make the overall workload more effective. Regular feedback to students (specific, short and often), using PPA time effectively and keeping progress data up to date are all habits that will contribute to an accomplished and happy classroom practitioner who has a life outside school. Generally, those colleagues who complain about taking a whole weekend – with the exception of heavily essay-based subjects – to mark a set of books have not looked at that class set for about four weeks. Any feedback they give to students after such a time lapse is no use to anyone! Short, regular, uninterrupted (put your handheld devices aside) intervals of work will save tonnes of time in the long run;
  14. Use social media wisely – many senior leaders think that Facebook is evil. I don’t share this view. However, teaching is a profession and if we want to be taken seriously, then we should bear in mind that we shouldn’t post anything that can cast aspersions on our character or that of our colleagues. Teachers should also be aware that they could be googled at any time by any number of interested parties – students, parents, current/prospective employers – so should keep privacy settings high and only allow friends to post pictures that they’d be happy for their grandma to see;
  15. Enjoy what you do – you are at work for a large part of your day so it’s important to have fun; if it stops being fun, don’t do it!
  16. Know your exam specification but don’t teach solely to it – what would you want an expert mathematician, historian or scientist to look like? What skills do students need to become experts in your subject? What else would you want to instil in them along the way? Plan learning with these thoughts as your priority, not the final exam questions. Again, the marathon analogy comes in handy: if you lay solid foundations, with mastery learning in mind, then introducing exam technique when appropriate should not pose a problem to students;
  17. We are all teachers of literacy – as a mathematician (I am pained to say this), being literate is key to unlocking opportunity in every other aspect of life and learning. It is the responsibility of every teacher to model high expectations of reading, writing, comprehension and rhetoric, in addition to enabling every student to reach those standards. Developing literacy is not something that should be left to the English department as everyone reaps the benefits when students acquire strong communication skills. Teachers should focus on improving their own oration, elocution and SPAG; we can’t expect students to concentrate on literacy if we're not modelling the desired standards;
  18. Keep your head down and observe the behaviour of other staff – you have chosen a vocation that will have an impact on your personal life. Always act like grandma is watching, especially when you are within a three-mile radius of your school. Around school, especially in public places and the staff room, it is useful to use the old adage, 'If you haven’t got anything good to say, then don’t speak.' You can guarantee that everything you do say will be heard. Observe how others behave and learn from their mistakes; don’t copy their bad habits. Look out for the radiators: surround yourself with positive people. And avoid the drains: don’t get sucked into negative mindsets;
  19. Form balanced, thoughtful opinions but don’t be opinionated – this sits closely with number 18: everyone is entitled to an opinion but how we voice them can either canonise or damn us. It is better to say nothing than speak out in haste. You never know what opportunities for promotion are just around the corner. If you’ve been too vocal in your criticism of people or procedures in a school, they just might come back to bite you;
  20. Put your name down for everything – in teaching, there are lots of opportunities to get involved in leading/supporting activities outside the classroom. Volunteer to help as much as you can (without stretching yourself too thin). Organising a trip or running a school team are excellent character-building experiences. Extracurricular activities are the best way to build relationships with students; they are also what memories are made of. Without enthusiastic, motivated teachers, the wider aspects of school life wouldn’t be half as much fun, so try your best to support the community in every way that you can;
  21. Good behaviour management is not about shouting and punishments – when I first started teaching I had the Year 8 class from hell. I shouted regularly, handed out lots of detentions and countless whole-class punishments (big mistake). I used to hate teaching that class and they used to dread my lessons. My head of department at the time – the kindest man I have been fortunate enough to know – told me that I had to learn to love those students even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. Because I had the utmost respect for him, I did as he asked and put time into every individual student in the class. What I quickly learned was that they weren’t all naughty children, it was just a few of them who were difficult (whose tough backgrounds gave them reason to be). I found that the more care I showed the class, the better they behaved. It was that simple. I made sure the toughest were treated with the most kindness (because that was what had been missing in their lives). This didn’t mean compromising my expectations – it just meant enabling them to achieve those expectations. I spent my time trying to catch 'em being good (when they adopted the behaviours I wanted them to), rather than catching them being bad. It was a lot of hard work but we got there in the end and I have a lot to thank the original 8S2, for they taught me more about life than I taught them about maths;
  22. Always look for the good in others – everyone has something that they can bring to the discussion. The happiest places are those that shine a light on an individual’s qualities rather than highlighting negative aspects of a person’s character. As a member of a school, you are in the unique position to find beauty in people of all ages. Look for it in every moment and encourage everyone else to do the same – it develops a much more cohesive and cooperative culture;
  23. Assume all students can be gifted and talented in your subject and it’s your job to get them there – pre-judging what a child is capable of is the worst kind of prejudice a teacher can have, it is our duty to be an advocate for the students in our care and instil confidence in them to succeed. Adopting a growth mindset and nurturing it within your classroom has endless possibilities; this includes expecting the best outcomes from even the weakest students. The challenge is how to get them as far towards those outcomes as you possibly can in the time that you have with them. The best teachers will develop characteristics of resilience, commitment and determination in their students, so that those students will continue to strive for the best that they can be – long after the lesson has finished;
  24. Don’t take yourself too seriously – teaching is a great leveller. Children and teenagers have a refreshing honesty that should be encouraged and refined. If you’re having a bad hair day, they’ll be the ones to tell you; if you’re in a foul mood, they’ll acknowledge it; and if you say something to embarrass yourself, then they’ll remind you of it regularly. If you’re able to laugh with them, they’ll be much more willing to be on the receiving end of your humour when it’s their turn. Laughter is one of the best tools in your armoury, use it or lose it;
  25. It’s ok to make mistakes – acknowledge the error and learn from it. You will get things wrong and that’s okay. There is no harm in admitting that you have made an error. In fact, it’s good for staff and students to see that you can learn from mistakes. Be careful that you don’t confuse humility with gaps in your subject knowledge. Students and staff need to have confidence in your ability as an educator; if they begin to question this, your job can suddenly become a great deal more difficult. Avoid saying that you’re not good at other subjects, it’s a very fine line between showing empathy and discrediting your fellow colleagues’ passions, so try to steer clear. One of my biggest frustrations as a mathematician is when other colleagues freely admit that they can’t do maths and think that it is acceptable to do so. I’m not sure that they’d be as quick to tell the world if they were illiterate, would they? Remember that children learn from their observations: encourage them to take risks by being a risk taker yourself;
  26. Give learning purpose – why do we as adults do anything at all? Generally, it is because there is some motivation for doing it. This is what we have got to do with any knowledge that we teach: give students a reason for learning. We can find lots of ways to motivate young people; passion for our subject can be a weighty factor. Giving the topic real-life context can help students see the value of their learning beyond the classroom, as well as an exciting learning environment. A well-organised classroom with purposeful displays can provide the daily stimulation for learning that students need to focus their efforts;
  27. Be mindful of what you say to students – every word that you say will be taken in and interpreted in ways that you have never conceived, so it is vital that you don’t say anything that might upset learners or cause them to lose confidence in either their ability or themselves. Feedback should always be objective and not personal;
  28. Don’t be afraid to let your personality out in the classroom – variety is the spice of life and the best way to engage students in education is to give them a varied diet of teaching styles. In showing them your own unique personality, you are cultivating their individuality and teaching them how to contribute to a community while still being themselves. Don’t try to copy other teachers’ personas – find what characteristics work for you and make them your own;
  29. Reflect regularly and maintain perspective – learn from every lesson and take something positive from every day, even the bad ones. Use perspective to keep you constant. Ask: will this matter in an hour? A day? A week? A year? Celebrate the successes and accept that you can’t save everyone, but never stop trying;
  30. Count your blessings – you work with the best people in the world, no two days will ever be the same and you have 13 weeks off a year. When you’ve had a bad day, remember that you’re never more than eight weeks away from your next holiday so keep smiling, you are blessed!

That’s what I’d say to my NQT self if I had the chance to be a Marty McFly and go back in time. For those of you who are new to the profession, I hope that my suggestions are useful. To those established practitioners reading this, I wonder how similar our lists would be? Have I missed anything? What mistakes have you learned from? If you could go back and do it all again, what would you do differently? Go on, share with the group, Marty and Doc would love to know!


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