Can you stand the heat?

16th September 2005 at 01:00
We all want to make a good impression on our first day in a new job, but jangling nerves can get the better of us. David Mattin hears from a cook faced with 350 hungry children, an HMI making her inspection debut, an NQT taking charge of her first class and a head joining a school in crisis

The start of a school year brings new challenges all round. Amid the suddenly full classrooms and the fresh displays on walls, for some it is a special kind of beginning: a new job. Endless lists of names to remember, unfamiliar corridors to negotiate, the inevitable first day nerves: all are part of the novice's lot.

Below, we hear from a newly qualified teacher getting used to the fact that her days as a trainee are over; a school cook working against the clock to rustle up healthier lunches; an inspector making the leap from teacher to Ofsted, and a new head taking over a school in crisis.

These four very different characters share a common belief: that to work in a school is to experience that rare feeling of having achieved something worthwhile. Let our four inspire you to face your own first days of the new year with a smile.

Junior Harding, 31, is cook at Brookfield primary school, north London

The night before my first day, in March this year, I lay in bed thinking: if tomorrow doesn't go to plan, I'll have 350 hungry children to deal with.

I'd been to chef college in Barbados - where I was born - and worked in a restaurant over there before coming to the UK to do more catering work, so I knew kitchens back to front. But this was hundreds of meals, all for a single, hour-long sitting. For children.

I arrived early, around 7:30am. My trick for early starts is not to use an alarm clock; I spend all night waiting for it to go off. The school had already planned a healthier menu - we were miles ahead of Jamie Oliver - and it was my job to implement the new, more nutritious lunches. I started the day chopping vegetables and trying to figure out the kitchen layout.

Nothing is easy when it takes 10 minutes to find the right saucepan.

Lunchtime seemed to come around so fast. My big fear - that I'd have everything ready too quickly, and have to leave it standing - seemed less of a worry now that children were starting to queue up and my pots were still simmering. That disaster was averted, but later I faced the ultimate nightmare: we were running out of food. I've never made pasties so quickly.

These days, of course, you could set your watch by my pasties.

In those first few days one big surprise was how little money I had to play with. Suppliers became my new best friends. I telephoned one and told him:

"If there's a cheap load of rhubarb going, give me a call." Soon the call came, and it was rhubarb crumble for pudding. I tried to spend time mixing with the children, too, asking them about the food. Most had no problem speaking up. Little did they know that, back in the kitchen, I was becoming an expert at disguising vegetables in tasty sauces. One parent came in to tell me I was getting her son to eat food he'd never try at home.

With the first week over, at the weekend, a six-year-old out shopping with his mum said hello to me. Now, that's weird. Celebrity status is the one part of the job I don't think I'll never get used to.

Sue Morris-King, 37, is an HMI based in Worcester

A few days into my new job in the school improvement division, I found myself sipping coffee and listening intently to the chief inspector, David Bell, at a breakfast meeting for new recruits. It was a great way to start.

David Bell spoke about our work with such passion, but in a completely down-to-earth way, and I was, I admit, quietly inspired. Fuelled with enthusiasm, it was time to get on with it.

From the meeting I went straight into my first inspection: a special measures monitoring of a school in Blackburn. I was confident - I'd passed the gruelling panel interview at Ofsted HQ, hadn't I? - but, of course, that first inspection was a daunting prospect. I decided to hide my nerves - the last thing a school needs is a jittery inspector - but in the event there was no time to worry. The routine of two class observations an hour is well known, but on the ground I realised just what an intense process that is, how busy you're kept.

That night, I sat in my hotel room typing up my reports until 10.30. A certain succinctness of style is expected, and I was determined to get it right.

My background is as a teacher in challenging schools, including some in special measures. It was strange that now I was that presence from outside, that watcher in a classroom who can make a lesson so nerve-wracking for the teacher. Walking into classrooms and greeting teachers, I kept remembering the pressure inspectors can bring with them. I doubt there's an inspector anywhere who doesn't think about the role reversal. I watched colleagues closely and realised that tiny things make the difference: the way you enter a room, your first words, the way you smile, or not. I saw a whole world of new, subtle skills to master.

The inspection process is an efficient machine: by day two we had handed our draft report to the school, and then it was off to Liverpool, to start the whole process again, also for a school in challenging circumstances.

Getting back home on Thursday, it felt as though I'd returned from a long journey, rather than had a few days away. I waited with apprehension for my first feedback, and finally it came: "No one could possibly have guessed you were new." That's just what I'd hoped it would say.

Natalie Butler, 23, is an NQT at Cove infant school, Hampshire

The scariest thing about my first day as a teacher, in September 2004, was not the prospect of taking charge of 30 children, but the 30 sets of parents outside, all waiting to meet me. In the event, of course, they were full of questions. "I'll ask the teacher for you," I kept almost saying.

On the first morning we played circle games and, like teachers across the land, I set about remembering 30 new names. To help break the ice, I decided to model a pair of cat's ears for the children. It seemed to work.

I hadn't planned a lot of work for those first days; instead we talked about class rules, and I imagined myself later in the term, stamping out bad behaviour with the simple phrase: "Well, this is what we agreed!" I still remember the moment on that first afternoon when my position really sunk in. A child approached brandishing a piece of equipment. "What shall I do with this?" he asked. "Why are you asking me?" I thought.

Playground duty was nerve-wracking, but that was nothing compared to my first unsupervised PE lesson; my heart was in my mouth as I watched them climb the ropes.

Then there was the delicate matter of staffroom etiquette. When to go for lunch? Too early might imply that I wasn't working hard; too late, I'm a workaholic. The prospect of using someone else's mug was beyond contemplation. Luckily, everyone was friendly, and I learned so much from watching them, not least about a word you don't hear during your PGCE: flexibility. When you're training, the attitude is that if you plan an hour on maths, you do an hour on maths. But, standing at the board one morning, fighting an uphill battle, I realised that it just doesn't work like that.

I let the children outside for three minutes, with welcome results.

I staggered to bed absolutely shattered in that first week. There was always more to do out of hours: extra displays, letters, additional assessments. The hardest thing was realising that I'd never be able to do everything I'd like to. Perhaps the people who leave teaching early are those who don't learn that lesson. Spending a well-earned evening with friends, including a speech therapist, I learned of my newest enemy: vocal strain. Cue voice exercises in my spare time, and strict instructions to drink more water. But all I have to do is remember how far the children have come, and all the bottles of Evian seem worthwhile.

David Stephenson, 50, is headteacher of St Peter's high school, Essex

When I took this headship in January 2004, I knew there was work to be done. Fine: I was filled with optimism, and bursting with ideas. Then, just a few days before I was due to start, inspectors put the school in special measures. I took the helm of a school in crisis.

Walking to work on that first day, I felt a great pressure to get the initial week right. Set the wrong tone or, worse, offend people, and all would be lost. I knew I needed immediately to raise staff morale - they were devastated by the special measures tag - and get the local media back on side. In a rural area like this, news that a school is "failing" spreads fast. Time to utilise a quality that anyone who knows me will vouch for: my love of speaking in front of crowds. My enthusiasm for amateur oratory secured an interview on local radio, a bizarre experience that went some way to raising confidence in the community.

I spent most of my first day meeting my senior team. Perhaps the best way to put it is that there was considerable emotional energy for me to utilise. Quality of teaching was a key issue, but can a new head start telling teachers "you're no good"? I discovered the one benefit that comes with the dreaded special measures label: it meant no one could argue that the school didn't need to change, so I was, at least, received more positively than new heads sometimes can be.

We had 30 days to prepare a two-year plan for the HMIs on our key areas of concern: attainment, ethos, quality of teaching and leadership management.

I asked all heads of department to come back to me with their thoughts. In a series of assemblies I concentrated on winning the minds of pupils who did want to learn, knowing my victories would, at first, be invisible. I tightened up on uniform. Staff revived the fading school council; perhaps it would provide me with another opportunity to make a speech one day.

We're no longer in special measures and A-level passes are up 8 per cent.

Amid the frenetic first days, what I remember most is the exhilaration of seeing everyone pull together. There's this old idea that a head can sweep into a school and transform it alone. But that owes everything, I think, to Hollywood, and nothing to reality.

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