In at the deep end

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Expectations, how teaching is different from other jobs, good and bad colleagues I and who to go to when you're in trouble. More extracts from Gemma Warren's guide for new teachers.

When you start your teaching practice and your induction year, you will have certain expectations, and your school will have certain expectations. The problems start when these don't match up.

On teaching practice, you will be expected to act in a professional capacity, even when you may feel that your emergent training and expertise do not fully equip you for the role you are taking. When I did my PGCE, they called us beginning teachers, rather than student teachers because, in a technical sense, you don't ever train to be a teacher. You arrive on day one, and to children, you're automatically "Miss" or "Sir". There is no middle way.

So training takes place at the same time as the teaching and, if nothing else, it gives you an adrenalin rush. You also learn about taking responsibility for your work at an early stage. The buck really does stop with you, but remember that if you are a beginning teacher, it should have a little further to travel.

Most other professions offer a period, sometimes lasting years, when you are moving around, working under guidance, and training as you work. Can you imagine a medical student attending a lecture on open-heart surgery, and then being expected to go into the operating theatre and perform the operation the next day? If you are doing a one-year PGCE, that's often what will happen. I had a seminar on special needs on one day, and the next was expected to teach a fully differentiated lesson. And you have to, because you can't ignore the dyslexic child in your class just because you aren't a fully qualified teacher. The deep end is the only way with teaching.

Training can sometimes feel that it's the wrong way round. I wanted to be in the classroom more during my training year, so that I could get as much teaching experience as possible. My school was limited in the classes they could give me because no secondary school will completely entrust their examination classes to a student teacher. Now that I'm fully qualified, I would like to have time to observe more, and gain expertise from my colleagues, but schools need all the teachers they can get in the classroom.

You have to take your experience and your training where you can, and be creative with what your school offers you.


* Your school will expect you to be punctual and arrive suitably dressed for work.

* You should be prepared to mark any work you set, but you should also receive guidance and checking up on your assessment to make sure it is in line with national curriculum guidelines and school policy.

* You should know where to access materials and photocopying.

* You should receive schemes of work to help you with your planning, and an explanation of what resources are available.

* You should know how to book computer rooms, libraries and other facilities.

* If you are taking over a class, you should expect to know exactly what they have covered, and what the teacher is expecting them to cover during the time that you teach them.

* You should be given information about the children, including those with special needs.

* You should expect the usual class teacher to be on hand during lessons that you teach, but you should be able to request that you teach them alone if you feel confident.

* You should expect to be able to request observations and advice.

* You should know who in your department or school is responsible for your induction and training, and who you should approach should there be any difficulties.


You learn to be a good friend, a good partner, but few people ever tell you about being a good colleague. A lot of it is common sense - and will apply in any workplace. But in schools, the added pressure means that there's less room to screw up. Loyalties can be strong, but so can resentments. You must stay on the right side of the track.

Good colleagues are vital team members in the relay race that can be your teaching day. A good colleague shares ideas and worksheets, and is not a hoarder of resources, materials or schemes of work. She passes on things that she has found helpful, and she helps you to celebrate your successes.

A good colleague will point out bits of departmental procedure that seem so obvious that everyone forgets to tell you, and will gently remind you when reports are due when it appears the time has passed you by. When I started teaching, I needed to be told that my register had to be filled in with red ink. Important but not obvious, and it was a good colleague who told me.

Good colleagues return memos and notes and turn up punctually for meetings so that you can all go home early. My responsibility in school is for special needs, and I interact a lot with other members of staff. The special needs stars are the ones who give the information that I need, and give it to me quickly. The special needs sods are those whose pigeon holes look like a quagmire, and automatically forget every single piece of paper you ever give them. A good colleague helps to make life easier.

The best colleagues will remember that you are all in this together, and they will not moan non-stop about how their job is a million times harder than anyone else's. They will indulge you when you want to let off steam, because everyone knows that an NQT is allowed a little bit more on the moaning scale, but they also know when to buy you a Big Mac and tell you to stop and get on with your marking.

We've all had bad colleagues. They're the moaners in the corner who are convinced that when straws were being handed out, they got the short one.

Colleagues to avoid won't return administration, and make you chase them up, usually on the day when you've got no free time and are running the Harry Potter appreciation club at lunchtime. They add to your workload instead of lessen it.

And the worst secondary teaching faux pas: never, ever, gloat if your best class is your colleague's worst. Never let the words "they don't cause me any trouble" pass your lips. Keep your record clean.


* Ask for advice when you need it and don't be afraid to admit to your colleagues that you are struggling. Communal classroom horror stories can be very comforting.

* Ask for help with your schemes of work, and remember to be scrupulous about returning things you have borrowed.

* If you see or hear about something that another colleague would find interestinghelpful, give it to them.

* Be punctual to meetings, and write down appointments in your diary. Then refer to it.

* Return memos and requests for information as promptly as you can. If you can't make a meeting, send apologies.

* Come clean immediately and apologise if you realise that you have screwed up, or missed or mislaid something.

* Be a giver, not a taker.

* Try to take moments when you can make a colleague's life easier. Offer to do cover if she's stressed and you're free. Get him a coffee at the same time as you get yours. Share your board-markers. It all makes for a nicer working environment.


Schools are complex organisms and have an equally complex hierarchy of authority. It's worthwhile to get this clear from the start. Your induction tutor will be your first point of reference: in a secondary school, he or she may also be your head of department, whereas in a primary it could be the teacher who takes the class next door to you, or even the deputy head.

Whoever it is, they will have been chosen because they will know how to support you. If you have pastoral responsibilities, you will also work closely with your head of year. It's nice to have such a responsibility figure who is often outside your own department, and who can give you a different overview of the school.

You may also work closely with your school's special needs co-ordinator, and you also need to be aware of the administrative staff in the school, and how far they can help you.

The senior management team is the final port of call, and the structure and size of your school will determine how much contact you have with them. It may well be that they are attached to your subject department or your pastoral team, and so you build up quite a close relationship.

For my first few months of teaching, I was ridiculously scared of my SMT and, even now, I find it difficult to call them by their first names. They all seem remarkably capable, and I can't imagine any of them as new teachers themselves. But remember: if you're looking for expertise or teaching experience, this lot are at the top of the tree.

Approaching your SMT with a problem or a query can be fraught with politics. Make sure you go through the different "levels" of management before you go to the top. And if you are going to ask to see your SMT about something that is not strictly confidential, make sure you tell your induction tutor or whoever has responsibility in the area of concern.

People like to be kept informed, and it's polite to let everyone know what's going on. Try to make an appointment, even if your query is not lengthy. If you have an issue that may be time consuming, try to summarise the main points on paper and either give it to them beforehand, or during the meeting.

Members of the SMT are a really valuable resource for NQTs in terms of their knowledge and teaching experience, but you've got to remember that, in terms of piles, you are at the bottom, and you must respect their time and their priorities. Approach, but do it properly.

You may also come in contact with a mentor, or "buddy", that the staff appoint to help you in your first months of teaching. Larger schools can seem intimidating in terms of staff relationships, and it's worth feeling your way around slowly to establish allegiances and get a sense of the politics that exist everywhere.

The usual rules apply, of course: try not to slag anyone off, be generous with your coffee and your board-markers. Oh yes, and smile when you walk in every morning. It really makes a big difference.


* Make sure that you know who your direct supervisor is, and make sure that you keep him or her closely informed of any concerns, problems, changes or questions.

* Respect the hierarchical "chain" in schools, especially when you're new. Go through the proper channels to arrange things, and keep everyone informed of your movements or ideas.

* Administrative and support staff are a precious resource. They can be immensely supportive, and a fund of information about the day-to-day running of the school. Value them, and don't forget chocolates at Christmas and the end of term.

* Find out the best way to approach senior members of staff. Some schools have an "open door" policy, some need a more formal, appointment-style approach. If in doubt, go for the formal.

* If anything at all is bothering you, ask. And if you don't understand the answer, ask again. Schools are frantic places, and everyone is run off their feet. People do care, but sometimes they are too busy to be proactive in approaching you.

Don't assume that your stressdiscipline problemmarking overload is written all over your face. It is, but that just makes you look like a normal teacher. Ask.


Teaching is fundamentally different from other jobs. We work harder, we give more, and a lot more is expected of us, professionally, personally, financially.

But look at my hours, people say, look at the fact that if I wanted to, I could be home in time for Rikki Lake. Look at my holidays, they point out, look at the fact that I'm sailing round exhibitionsthe salesthe Lake District during my holidays, while they are chained to their desks having to negotiate for every doctor's appointment. Look at the sweet, cutesy kids I get to work with, the softer ones will try to argue.

I argue back that teaching makes more demands on you personally, than any other job, and it's important to be aware of this as you embark on your career. When you teach, you give something of yourself. You can't escape it - you're not a computer. That's why no two teachers will teach a text or present a topic in the same way. Things can be taught in different ways, but inspire children equally well.

All of us have childhood memories of the few teachers who couldn't really teach - and bad teaching can put a child off a subject for life. It's a frightening thought and an awesome responsibility.

You can't have telephone voices or professional personae in teaching. It's you, in that classroom, every day. Sometimes you can give so much that when you come home at the end of the day to your family and friends, there's nothing left, and no job should do that to anyone.

All pupils will want to know your first name. They will want to know whether you have a partner, or where you live, or what GCSE results you got, or whether you can give them a lift home when they see you in the car park, where you got your shoes from, and when and exactly where did you lose your virginity.

Primary children, by and large, assume that teachers actually live in the school building. If you do confess to a life outside school, they'll certainly ask you what you thought of the punch-up on Jerry Springer - or why your headteacher only drives a Mini when he or she is the boss. It's up to you to decide quite early on how much of yourself you want to give.

My rule is that I will discuss shoes, but I won't discuss sex. I will discuss dresses, but I will not discuss addresses. And giving lifts depends on your car insurance, school policy, and what the weather's like. Children like to think that they know about your boyfriend but, in practice, they often can't deal with it and they don't know what to do with the information when they have it. They'll end up abusing it, and it's not their fault because they are children, not your friends. It's vital to remember that.

It's difficult negotiating your public and private personae. Other professions have clearer boundaries with obvious dos and don'ts. Can you imagine going into the bank and asking the cashier when she lost her virginity? It just wouldn't happen.

It's different for us: you've got to be a person who understands mood-swings in others, but can't have them yourself. You have to have empathy, and be able to draw on your experiences, but you can't share them yourself.

It's a minefield. Teaching gives you space to be a person, but you've got to accommodate the professional in there somewhere. Learn to be the perfect combination of man and machine.


* Don't be thrown when children ask you personal questions. A lot depends on the context (during a relaxed form period or in the middle of the lesson) and the reason behind it (wanting to poke fun, or genuine interest in your football team, your dog, or the person they saw you with last Sunday).

* Use your personal judgment when talking about yourself, but stick to very neutral pieces of information that can't be misinterpreted.

* Don't be offended if a child trusts you with personal information and then ignores you or pokes fun at you in a lesson or the corridor. You're a teacher for God's sake.

* Remember that no pupil, however nice or genuine, is your peer or your friend. You've got your own friends.

* Pupils like to know that teachers are people, and nothing gets attention better in the classroom than an anecdote, or a photo or a story. I've used all of these, and I think that older children especially like to know that you respect them enough to tell them details about your life. But remember that however much of a person you are, you are still a teacher. Confusing? I know.


I was miserable for much of my first term of teaching. I've been told it's normal. The worst thing was that I was receiving so much support and so much attention that I felt like an ungrateful, useless cow, and I was convinced I was never going to make it as a teacher. On reflection, misery, even when your school is doing everything it can to help, is understandable.

The adjustment to the process of teaching takes time. It seems to reverberate round everything: your social life, your family life, your weekend.

If it is your first job ever, you'll be permanently exhausted. If it's a change of career, you'll compare the time, the money, the stress levels: and teaching will not always emerge favourably.

There is a consistency in the problems that NQTs face; the job is difficult initially, and schools are such unique systems that a blanket form of support cannot meet everyone's needs. As long as you feel supported, don't feel like you should be getting identical treatment to your friend from teaching practice who's teaching in another borough. Pass on good practice. New teachers need all the help they can get.

Common problems tend to stem from the "in at the deep end" induction process. Quite simply, it's too much, too soon. There is often a two to three-month gap between the end of teaching practice, and the start of your first post. That's a long time to be out of the classroom, and you may find on day one, term one, that you're a bit rusty.

In the days when you only had one teaching-practice block, I spent my student year in a girls' comprehensive. My own school was a girls' school, and my university experience was largely female.

On day one, term one, I walked into the classroom and found boys in it. That is not the best time for a crash course in gender and education. So be aware that your new school may be different from what you know.

You need to get used to new administrative systems and new buildings. Each school requires a change in focus.

Your timetable will be increased, and although you should be lighter as an NQT, it will still seem very heavy. I honestly thought that I would be able to get all my marking done in my free periods, like I'd done on teaching practice. Dream on, Ms Warren.

You may also be teaching unfamiliar year groups, so calmly try to work from what you know and adjust upwards or downwards as appropriate. But the more that you know about what you face, the more realistic your expectations.


* Ensure you visit your new school before the summer term ends, but avoid the last week when everything goes a bit pear-shaped and gives the impression that school is made up of Hangman and watching Leonardo di Caprio videos.

* Try to observe your class - if you're a secondary teacher, some of the classes - you will teaching and, at best, ask to do a bit of team-teaching. If your school doesn't offer this, ask.

* Get detailed information on the syllabuses or schemes of work the school uses. Though all primary schools follow the national curriculum, they'll do it in different ways and there will be booklets and policy documents about it.

* If you are taking over exam classes like Year 11 or Year 13, ensure you know exactly where they're at, and that you have assessments from the previous year. Asking "what have you already covered?" on the first day won't inspire confidence.

* Ensure you plan and prepare over the summer holidays. It will really pay off once the term starts.

* Write the times of bells and other important information in your markbook so you don't get caught out while actually teaching. I let a Year 11 class out to lunch 20 minutes early for the first week, and they sure as hell weren't going to tell me.

* Ask for details of the pupils in your classes.

* Don't blame yourself if things go wrong - get information first.

* Find out the school's procedures for days off ill and setting cover. Don't be afraid to use the system. Don't be a martyr and come into school if you're unwell.

* And if you're not sure, ask.


Once you have made your way through your teaching practice, and the tortuous job application process, and you're well into your induction year, you'll realise that, slowly but surely, it does get better.

My revelation came about two weeks into the Spring term when I was standing in assembly and I didn't feel tired. I felt in control, and purposeful, and I knew exactly which way to go with my form when the head dismissed us. I didn't go barging into a group of tittering Year 7s because I still couldn't remember the right exit for the right year, which obviously didn't correspond with which door was nearest. I knew I was developing as a teacher when I could have a conversation with a pupil called Gemma and not go bright red, or spend my whole time thinking "that's my name!" Things are getting even better when you don't answer your own name when another teacher calls a register.

Accept that there will be highs and lows and stick with it. Over time, the highs will dramatically outweigh the lows, and you will breeze through your day wondering how anyone ever manages to work in an office with a desk and a phone, and automatic Internet access and long lunchbreaks and Christmas bonuses... no, don't go there.

You've chosen teaching because it's a special career, and you are special. You've chosen teaching because you want to spend your life being engaged, stimulated, and carried along on a wave of enthusiasm.

You've chosen teaching because you want a life that is punctuated with small victories. You've chosen to embark on warm relationships that are characterised by laughter and self-realisation, and empathy.

When you're stuck in the staffroom as the dark draws in, and they've switched the heating off at 3.30, and you're tired, and you know that you're probably going to be doing this all weekend, and you promised to go down to the pub, referee a football match and be the prompt in the school play, take a step back.

Remember, that it does get better, it will get better, but it's bloody good already.

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