The first days of the rest of your career

8th June 2001 at 01:00
So you've made it. You've finished your formal training and now comes probation, in effect two years of on-the-job training. Before you embark on your vocation in front of classes of eager children hanging on your every word - or not - take a little advice from an old hand. Diane Allison offers a book full of pointers; here are a few to get you started.

Before you start Congratulations! If you are reading this then you've got a job and, whether that's one on a permanent full-time contract or a week's supply, you've made it over the first hurdle. Your thought bubble probably looks something like this: "So now what do I do? I I've got a jo-ob! I What's the procedure? I I've got a jo-ob! I What did they say at college? I I've got a jo-ob!"

As many probationers are appointed in June or some time in the summer holidays, I'm going to write with the summer as a starting point and I'll leave you to adapt what I write here to fit in with your own calendar of events.

Now that you know you have a job (yeehah!), try to visit the school you'll be working in at least once more to meet other colleagues and get to know the ones you'll be working most closely with a bit better. You can find out which room(s) you'll be in and what your timetable is likely to be (remember though, changes might be made before you start), and you can ask some of those burning questions that have been keeping you up at night.

If you don't already have one, ask for a copy of the school development plan (great for insomnia), the department development plan (if you're in a secondary), the department handbook and course syllabuses.

It's worth familiarising yourself with policies on homework, assessment, discipline and, in the primary sector, the biggies, language and maths. There should be documentation on this; ask if you can have a copy. See if you can borrow single copies of any texts or units you are likely to be going to want to use with your class or classes.

It's worthwhile finding out what the system is for booking out resources at this point, as the materials in your new school may bear little or no resemblance to the ones you grew comfortable with in your placement schools. It is wise to plough through a variety of these before you start, so take a suitcase in with you and fill it! (I exaggerate.) Find out about other resources that are likely to be available to you, for instance, listening boxes, overhead projectors, TVs, radio, videos, computers and laptops. There will probably be a system for booking these; you need to know what it is.

This is also a good time to sort out your college notes and any materials you've gathered, separating the good from the bad and the ugly.

If it's possible, try to arrange a chat with the previous teacher(s) of the class or classes you are about to take over. This will give you valuable insights into class dynamics: who to keep together, who to separate, who will need a lot of support, and who will - how can I put it? - need special firmness! Ultimately you need to make up your own mind about your pupils - one teacher's little horror is, after all, another teacher's little gem - but discussing your new class or classes with wiser, more experienced colleagues is unbelievably helpful.

Ask if you can see copies of your pupils' work, report cards and records. The more information you have and the more time you have to sift through and make sense of it, the better. You'll feel a lot more confident.

There will be other documentation you'll want to have a look at too; for instance, in many departments, teachers are expected to fill in forward plans. These vary in detail from school to school: it's good to know what will be expected of you. Ask when assessment deadlines are, what you will be expected to record and how national testing is organised (there is often a pro forma system for this). The more you know, the easier it will be to plan ahead.

If you're lucky enough to get one, you'll be dying to have a good look at your new classroom. You'll want to find out when you can move in, but be sensitive. I recently started at a new school after a wonderful spell at Liberton High school, Edinburgh. My classroom there was like a second home and it pained me to start moving all my things out, even though I was looking forward to a new start. I would have hated to feel rushed.

It's great if you can move in over the summer as you then have plenty of time to rearrange the furniture and move all your own stuff in. Check first, though, with the janitors that your room isn't scheduled to be used for anything over the hols, as you might walk in on your first day back and be horrified to see all your desks and chairs piled against the wall instead of where you so painstakingly positioned them. That's unlikely, but it's best to be in the know.

It's also a good idea to make the janitors aware that you are actually moving in(!); you'll probably need to get keys from them anyway and may need to sign in and out of the building.

Have a good look at all the furniture and equipment in your room before you start to move things about; you can take a peek at other classrooms along the corridor for inspiration. Obviously if you're a scientist, for example, there's a limit to what you can do to change the layout of a lab.

If you're in the primary sector, labelling things such as group names, pegs and trays will be an important task for you. You also need to think in terms of zoning (the location of your reading corner, maths area and so on).

My advice is to keep it simple and remember the basics. For instance, your pupils need to be able to see the board without getting a crick in their necks. They need to be able to access certain resources frequently, whilst other things can quite easily be tucked away and only brought out on rare occasions when you're going to want to use them.

Think carefully about wall space and what needs to go up there. I love my Romeo and Juliet film poster (the one with Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) and I've collected loads of other great wall coverings, but what comes first has to be allocating space for displaying pupils' work.

Finally, before you leave, have a good look around the school and the grounds (if you can, take a drive around the catchment area too). This is a really good time to get your bearings, locating important facilities such as the staff loos, the photocopier, staffroom, library, learning support base, medical room and fire escapes.

Ideally, you'll get a tour of the building but if not, just ask if you can have a wander around. This will give you a deeper sense of belonging and you won't feel a fool getting lost on your first "please take""on call""yuftie" two weeks into the first term.

The first day Sexist comment coming up: if you're a man, this section probably won't seem as important to you as it will to some of the women out there. I'll be brief.

Check beforehand what the usual first-day wardrobe is in your school. Believe me, this could save you considerable embarrassment. I turned up in my best skirt and silk blouse and my friend Morna bought a pink suit for the occasion. We were both met by jeans-and-trainers-clad colleagues. The only folk that looked dafter than us were the men in jade joggers and grey loafers with thick white terry-towelling socks - they'd obviously had a fashion bypass at some point.

Every school is different but in most schools casual is the order of the day and since this is your very first first day, I'd advise smart (as opposed to scary!) casual.

Oh, and before leaving for work, go easy on the caffeine intake. You are about to be issued with masses of paper and forms of every shape and colour and you're going to be barraged with names, faces and information. Your head will be buzzing. The last thing you need on top of that is an espresso flashback.

My how-to-handle-the-first-day advice? Don't try to take it all in: your head will explode and that's really no way to make a good impression. Put a box or tray on your desk and mark it "pending"! Write down as much as you can and aim to remember the names of your colleagues when you're introduced to them. Keep your programme handy so that you know what's coming up next. And the rest? Well, that can wait till you get home, collapse and then clear that tray!

Meeting colleagues

I remember it so well. That first day I was totally mesmerised. It really hit me that this was the first day of my new career and that these confident, strange, noisy adults were going to be my colleagues for better or for worse. Everyone congregated in the staffroom and all the conversations were the same: how short the holidays had seemed to be! There was an air of novelty and of expectancy too. Nobody looked stressed (astonishing) and some folk even seemed quite happy! A lot of people smiled at me and one or two introduced themselves. I didn't want to appear pushy so I just went with the flow and tried to look approachable.

Be aware that in some staffrooms it is a capital offence to use someone else's mug or milk or sit in "their" chair. Remember how Jack Nicholson looked in The Shining? Well, unless you want someone to go psycho on you like that, with axe in hand, I'd bring my own stuff and check before sitting down that it's okay to have that seat. After all, the idea is to live through the first year!

That said, you don't need to be a mouse. Many staffrooms have lockers; ask if you can have one. Then bring in your herbal tea bags or your emergency chocolate bars and invest in a nice new mug. Other useful items: a packet of mints, Lemsips, painkillers, and some instant soup and health bars, for the days when you didn't have time or couldn't be bothered to make your lunch.

When it comes to relationships with staff, try to avoid the clandestine variety(!) and resist the temptation to cling to your department like a limpet, sitting exclusively with them; but remember the importance of loyalty to your department, who are, after all, your life support system. Get to know other members of staff, but avoid gossip. Politics within a school can be very complex so watch your step. You can remain neutral without being anonymous.

I think my first day started with a whole-staff meeting over coffee and scones. I can't for the life of me remember what was discussed but I do remember having to stand up at one point for everyone to have a good look at me. In my new skirt and silk blouse. Nightmare!

Your first classroom

Even if it is the size of a cupboard, the walls are crumbling and the paint peeling, it will still feel great to have your own room, and you'll love it! (Perhaps in the same way that mothers think their newborn babies are beautiful when, let's be honest, they often look like shrivelled prunes to the casual onlooker.) Try to make your room a stimulating and welcoming environment. You will be spending several hours a day in it, so you have to make it feel yours.

Grovelling to janitors and showing due respect to cleaners can work wonders. Remember, the janitor knows about surplus furniture. Cleaners will be very grateful if you get pupils to put chairs up at the end of the day and to put any litter in the bin.

It can be a good idea to involve the pupils in decorating your room (it is their room too and they have to create in it!), putting up posters, displaying their own work, watering plants and so on. Bear in mind that in the case of many first-years this has been part of their primary school experience and that kids are far less likely to make a mess of something they have put a lot of effort into themselves.

Organising your time

I always love getting my new timetable and I pore over it like it's a bestseller - sad, I know. The first thing I look at is the times when I get each class. If I get class 3M on periods three and four on a Monday, periods one and two on a Wednesday, and period nine on a Thursday, the clear signal is that the bulk of the class work will be tackled on Mondays and Wednesdays, and that Thursday's lessons will be simple and quiet because by Thursday period nine, everyone is frazzled. I do that for all my classes.

Next, I look at my busiest day - there's always a day when you'll be stretched to the limits. If you're like me, you'll make that the day when your classes are finishing off work or redrafting, doing a lot of self-contained, non-hyper stuff.

Then I look at the positioning of my non-contact periods (counting them carefully!) and I think about which single teaching periods would be good for library visits, homework checks and so on.

I'm going to sound like Monica from Friends here, but it really is a good idea to make multiple copies of your timetable (keep one in your diary, one stuck to your desk, one at home, one in the staff base and one in your handbag or briefcase). I know that sounds a bit excessive, but it's amazing how your mind can go blank or play tricks on you.

I know someone who was sitting in the staffroom one day happily munching away at her lunch when a colleague came in with a grin on his face and asked her if she was having fun. Her second-years were rioting in the corridor - it was only 11am! You think it'll never happen to you until it does.

Excerpts from The Year of Living Dangerously: A Survival Guide for Probationer Teachers by Diane Allison, pound;4.99, Edinburgh City Council (0131 469 3328). Diane Allison joins TES Scotland in August as a regular columnist for probationer teachers

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