Bruised but unbowed
Perhaps I should have become suspicious when the interview "day" lasted only two hours. We met the headteacher (friendly and encouraging); had a whistle-stop tour of the school (no time for questions); and then the interviews began. By midday, I had the job. Fantastic. I could now go on holiday and forget about mounting debts.
At the end of the summer term, I went into the school for a day. I arrived feeling apprehensive yet enthusiastic - by the time I left, I was wondering exactly what I had got myself into.
"There aren't any schemes of work," the NQTwho was leaving warned me. "I've had 15 classrooms this year and there isn't enough for you to teach, so you'll have to do RE. They'll probably give you Year 11, because no one else wants them."
I smiled and nodded, want-ing to give a good impression, wondering what one is supposed to say in this situation. Besides, I thought, they won't give me exam classes in a subject I have never taught. Why would anyone do that?
It carried on throughout the day: "don't expect much help"; "the head of RE has just resigned"; "you'll have to do all your own worksheets"; "there's no money"; "I've only been on one course"; "I've had to cover at least once a week"; "the head won't speak to you - don't worry it's not personal"; "don't upset so-and-so"; "the kids are nice though!"; "make sure you get out of the department office"; "forget about induction". And so it went on.
By the middle of August, my partner, who is also a teacher, was preparing lessons from immaculate schemes of work files and decorating his classroom. I was still waiting for my timetable and feeling increasingly agitated about September.
I still had little idea what to expect. Two days before I started teaching, I finally discovered what my job would entail. I honestly thought it was a mistake - 40 per cent RE, of which most was GCSE (Years 10 and 11). This had not been mentioned in the job specification, had neither been made clear at interview nor when I subsequently visited the school.
I had never taught RE before. I had no syllabus, no lesson plans, no head of department to speak of (he was seeing out his notice - it transpired my appointment had been the last straw), no knowledge of the subject. I was to teach in 12 different classrooms and half of the RE lessons were last lesson of the day.
Later, it became clear that these were the dregs of the timetable that were easiest to give to the unsuspecting NQT. People in my department were sympathetic, although I suspect this was in some part relief that they had escaped, and no one actually volunteered to take any of the lessons. The head smiled and said it was "good for the soul".
I was angry, but did not want to make a huge fuss at the start of my career. Neither did I want to upset the people I had to work with, who were vociferously announcing there was no way they were going to teach any RE. Being an NQT is hard enough, but when you have no subject knowledge, little support, and know your appointment has already caused someone to resign, suffice to say it felt more like a nightmare. It was sink or swim time and I decided to swim, or at least doggy paddle.
I have bluffed my way through lessons, and many times thought I haven't a clue what I am talking about. I have hesitated and run out of words and prayed (the result of too much RE) that no one will queston what I say. I have scrounged resources from another school, photocopied a mountain of sheets from the local RE library, and cut out every newspaper article about God, sex, marriage, near-death experiences, abortion and anything that could possibly come under RE.
We've had whole lessons using the video, designing posters and copying from the book. I've tried circle time, role play and many "pupil-centred" activities (letting them get on with it hoping no riots will erupt). We've gone off on so many tangents that at times I have wondered if I am teaching any RE.
I've despaired late at night when preparing lessons and I've despaired in the classroom at my lack of knowledge. The pupils have little time or respect for the subject after years of non-specialist teaching. Classes have claimed they didn't have to do any work last year "so why should we now?" I've felt sorry for the kids because I can't answer their questions, and I've shouted at them and been angry that their behaviour seems to deteriorate just because it's RE. You can't blame them really - one minute I am trying to convince them that RE is a great subject, but in the next sentence I reveal my lack of subject knowledge as I blabber and blush. I haven't a clue whether I have taught what I am supposed to. No one has observed or asked me what I do in the lessons.
I feel I have learned from this experience but it has been an isolated time. There are far greater concerns for the school: in seven months, I've seen my mentor resign, budgets frozen, members of staff despair and began to search for new jobs. I know teachers who are counting the months, even years, until they can retire. I have learnt the history of internal wranglings that have created what at times seems to be a hopelessly dysfunctional environment.
But there is a moral to this story and an end, I hope, to this tale. I have survived. I'm still here, and I still want to teach. From the despair, tears and frustration at the unfairness of it all, I have emerged (cliched though it sounds) a more resilient person.
I have learnt how hard it is to teach an unfamiliar, and unpopular, subject without guidance. This has made me appreciate my own subject more. I have been able to experiment with activities, strategies and teaching techniques, and can now manage a smile at some of my hopeless disasters. I have built up relationships with classes and, amid the muddling through, there have been achievements and inspirational moments.
Despite all the problems at school, the kids are still kids and it will be really hard to say goodbye. When Istarted my induction year, I was told:
"Teaching is a really hard job, but impossible when you are on your own." With this in mind, I am trying to find another post.
There is a tendency when you are applying for your first position to be grateful for anything. I am sure this can all work out well. On the other hand, I am sure my NQT year, in which government guidelines seem to have been lost or ignored, is not unique. This time, I shall clarify what the job entails and how many classrooms I shall have. I'll be interested in seeing schemes of work and gauging whether or not there is a harmonious working atmosphere.
If you are applying for your first job, when you go for an interview cast a beady eye around and ask a few polite questions. Be wary if you feel you are not getting straight answers and don't be too afraid to withdraw.
* The writer, who finished her PGCE last year, teaches English in a northern comprehensive