10 things I wish I'd known

6th September 2013 at 01:00
Your first year in the classroom will be hugely exciting, but it is also likely to be the toughest of your career. Teacher Tom Finn-Kelcey shares his hard-won tips on how to ease the teething pains

You can always spot them. After dragging yourself into the staffroom on the first day of term, you see them sticking out like sore thumbs in their new suits and pressed shirts with the latest contemporary cut. Oh, and those shiny shoes and smart leather bags. They are either overflowing with enthusiasm and talking far too loudly, or they are sitting in the corner quietly quaking while sorting through 10-page lesson plans.

A senior colleague whispers in your ear, "They all look about 12 years old, don't they?"

I am, of course, talking about the newly qualified teachers (NQTs) waiting to launch themselves feet first into the most challenging year of their careers, with so little idea of the journey awaiting them.

With the start of the new term - my ninth year in teaching - I have been thinking back to that first year, wondering what sage words I would offer myself were I beginning my relatively short but eventful career all over again. The following 10 tips are not even close to being an exhaustive list of advice, but hopefully they will prove helpful for those starting out this month.

1. You are not a god, but that's OK

One thing I have noticed with many NQTs - and I was no exception to this - is that they often have a slightly inflated opinion of their own abilities. In many ways, a little bit of a swagger is no bad thing: it takes away some of the fear and can carry you through what is undoubtedly the toughest year of your career. But there is a fine line between confidence in what you can do and arrogance about what you think you can do but actually can't.

Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan once said: "The young fool has first to grow up to be an old fool to realise what a damn fool he was when he was a young fool." There were points at which I didn't realise I was being a young fool. My classroom management was much weaker than I thought it was, my subject knowledge may have been excellent but my ability to turn it into well-planned lessons was poor, and my capacity to grade and assess was well below par. You know you have work to do when, after an observation, your mentor struggles to find positives to write down. And you know you are in trouble when phrases such as "you wrote neatly on the board" or "on the plus side, nobody died during the lesson" appear on your observation sheet.

The thing that NQTs should remember is that it is OK to have weaknesses. In fact, it is expected. Senior teachers have been on the same journey, and any line manager worth their salt should understand that you are nowhere near the finished article - you should be judged on your potential. This puts the onus on you to accept criticism and seek advice; the more you do of both, the better the teacher you will become. NQTs who understand this develop into good teachers much quicker than those who do not.

2. Know when to stop working

Despite those extra free periods you get as an NQT, you will have more work to do than at almost any other point in your career. You have not taught the many lessons that the experienced teacher has, so things will take a lot longer to plan. The pressure on you to work 247 will be enormous, but you must resist.

My mother is a school principal and one thing I remember her saying to me is that, in teaching, everyone has a list of basics that they absolutely must do in the average week; if you can manage about 75 per cent of those, you have done well.

This is true: sometimes it is OK to not do everything. Make a point of doing no work at least one night during the week. My friends and I used to meet up on Wednesdays to play pool and watch the football - it was a good reality check and it prevented us from going too stir-crazy. Stopping after the second pint is a wise move, though. Heavy drinking on a school night might be rock'n'roll to the kids, but looking green around the gills the next morning will do you no favours with the principal.

3. Observe your colleagues

As I said earlier, you will not be brilliant immediately. Teaching is not an abstract theoretical construct but human interaction, and the best way to get a real sense of it is to observe others as often as possible. By this I mean formal classroom observation and also the more day-to-day kind, such as watching how staff deal with students in the corridors, in assembly or in the playground. Watching a seasoned teacher casually ripping to shreds the mouthy little urchin who refused to so much as sit down in your lesson is a worryingly satisfying experience. And asking colleagues how they plan, how they grade and so on can provide vital insights.

Try to be a sponge: the different approaches you will see will help to shape you as a teacher over time. This has its perils: you will inevitably feel daunted by just how good experienced teachers are, but try to see what they do as a long-term aspiration rather than something you can pick up immediately. I have given trainees and NQTs feedback on decent lessons in which one of my suggestions for how to improve was simply to acquire two more years' experience. This might sound frustratingly useless but it is honest advice: experienced teachers just tend to do stuff better. But the best way to speed up this process is to watch them as often as possible.

4. Communicate with parents

Many young teachers, especially at secondary schools, are worried about contacting parents. This is less of an issue for the primary teacher, who sees them at the end of every day, but contact is rarer at secondary schools. When you have problems with a student, seeking advice from your head of department is the first step to take, but don't be frightened of bringing things up with parents yourself, be it on the phone, in reports or face to face at the dreaded parents' evening.

We are told horror stories about pushy or awkward parents who berate teachers mercilessly. The government and most of Britain's paternalistic political elite would dearly love us to cut parents (especially working- class ones) out of the process of child-rearing because of their supposed malign influence. But, as any sensible teacher will tell you, 99.9 per cent of parents are supportive, want the best for their children, respect teachers enormously and want to work with you to help their offspring do well. A combined approach from teachers and parents is the surest way to fix most problems.

5. There are no quick fixes

The blessing and the curse of being a young teacher is that you are recently trained; you probably have a good grasp of the trends, ideas or techniques that are in vogue with school inspectors and the powers that be. The strength of this is that it can quickly win you favour with senior staff, who are under pressure to deliver results in inspections. The weakness is that you can come to rely too much on fads, and this isn't necessarily good for your teaching.

The trouble with relying too heavily on trendy innovations, aside from the fact that they are usually a rehash of some 30-year-old idea, is that they are mistakenly seen by many as a fix-it-all solution. Subtlety and intuition are required when trying to find what works in teaching, and there are no quick fixes or magic cures. Feel free to explore these new ideas and put the best bits to use, but taking any initiative - be it thinking skills, student-led learning, student voice, Assessment for Learning or multiple intelligences - and applying it universally to your teaching is lazy. It will yield no meaningful improvements for your students and is sure to irritate the hell out of them. Beware false prophets.

6. Establish basic ground rules early

Never underestimate how much students talk about teachers. As the new person in the school, you will be big news, and those first impressions can stick. Make sure your reputation as a "solid" teacher, rather than a pushover, is quickly established. This does not mean that you have to be unpleasant, scary or a tough guy, and it definitely does not imply that "don't smile until Christmas" nonsense. What I do suggest is that you be fair, be calm and follow school procedures.

Familiarise yourself with the school's systems for dealing with problems long before your first lesson, and chat to colleagues about how those procedures actually work in practice, because those two things are usually very different. This will help you to set standards equivalent to those of your colleagues, which will allow students to feel comfortable in your classroom. You may think that the school's way of doing things is too lenient, too harsh or even quite farcical, but as a newcomer you are in no real position to challenge it, and doing so early on will do you no favours.

7. The school does not revolve around you

It is easy to become very self-absorbed as an NQT - let's face it, you have a lot on your plate. But it is good to realise as early as possible in your career that you are a tiny cog in the school machine. Other people have jobs to do, too, and their focus is not always going to be on you. When you have difficulties, be proactive in drawing people's attention to them and seeking help; you can't expect them to always notice.

On a related note, try to be aware of the whole-school agenda wherever possible, and get involved. Being seen as someone who understands the "big picture" will only be good for your promotion prospects, and that is because it is an essential quality in senior staff. Try to strike a balance between understanding why things are as they are and suggesting positive improvements and new ways of doing things.

8. Have high expectations

Until you see it, you will not believe how much children of all ages are capable of achieving, so always pitch your lessons high - students will respond positively more often than not. Contemporary society is too ready to see children as vulnerable, risk-averse and easily damaged by failure; what is remarkable is the extent to which they are the opposite. The best way of establishing discipline in a classroom is setting lots of work rather than too little, and challenging tasks rather than easy ones.

9. Knowledge of your subject is key

Keep on top of your subject knowledge; never stop learning. Being able to create pretty PowerPoints and exciting card-sorting tasks is great, but only if the content is worth knowing. Students will forgive a teacher a lot if they think they know their stuff.

The central skills of teaching are the ability to foster a passion for your subject in young people and the capacity to improve their minds, but you cannot do this if you don't teach them things that are worth knowing. When a child asks, "What's the point of this?", they are rarely being awkward - it is usually a genuine question. If you can't answer it, you are doing something wrong.

10. Go to the pub with colleagues

Spend time with the people you work with - during breaks, at lunchtimes and, most importantly, at the pub. You will get more out of this than you can imagine. Teaching is great, but it is hard work and you will perform best at it with the support of colleagues who are also friends. It is easy to find excuses not to, but the best schools are places where staff socialise. I work in just such a school and it makes for a wonderfully supportive atmosphere.

Rank should be no barrier over a beer: I advise you to mix with colleagues old and young, junior and senior. It will encourage you to see them as rounded human beings, and they you. The approach may even include carrying another staffroom soul home after he or she has had one too many Jagerbombs. This - and the more frequent moderate social occasions - will help you to trust them with problems or difficulties, and allow you to discuss things more informally. It is worth realising that experienced teachers have seen it all and that, as a profession, we're a pretty understanding lot.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, England.

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