Fitting in...and other new-teacher sensitivities

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Fiona Leney tells you how to avoid upsetting the established order

So this is it. The first day of real life as a teacher. You've survived until lunch and everything is going swimmingly - until you grab a Charles and Diana Wedding Souvenir mug and make yourself a coffee in the staffroom.

A hush falls as Malcolm, the gloomy-looking deputy head turns on you accusingly. "That's MY mug," he says. You've made your first enemy.

My friend Isabelle, to whom this actually happened, swears that getting off on the wrong foot doomed her career at this school. Paranoia? Maybe. But not treading on the old lags' toes right from the start is a useful tip for any bright-eyed and bushy-tailed NQT.

Much of the advice you receive before starting your real job - as opposed to teaching practice, where you probably always felt a bit of an outsider - will be about workloads, organisation and discipline. But my survey of a handful of recently qualified teachers suggests one tip above all others: use your emotional intelligence; tune into the ethos of the school as well as you can, and have your antennae out for personal sensitivities in the staffroom.

Not very comforting, I know, as you seek to juggle those lesson plans, work out where your next classroom is and face down the kids that have scented inexperience like wolves on the hunt. But, as Isabelle says of the War of Malcolm's Mug, it really pays to have your colleagues' support in those early days. Bear in mind that it is easy for teachers who have long been ensconced at your school - especially the older ones who have forgotten ever being NQTs - to assume that you know all the routines and foibles of the staffroom.

If in doubt, ask. Ideally you need to tread a middle path between appearing like a quaking incompetent and acting as if you have been sent in to reorganise the school along your own, far more efficient lines. This can be a problem for older NQTs, who have retrained after years in business.

Pippa, who had been in management consultancy, was highly aware of this, and confident she could handle it. What she worried about was not liking the children.

During her PGCE she thrived on the coursework - but hated her teaching practice. Despite this, when the school offered her a job, she accepted.

The location was right and she was worried she might not get anything better. As her first day of work approached, she found herself suffering severe second thoughts.

"During my training I had loved the theory, the planning of a lesson, but now I realised, to my horror, that I didn't really like the children."

"I went in expecting the worst. I realised that what I had disliked so much about teaching practice was that I didn't feel fully plugged in - the children were not my class; I just had them on loan and couldn't really begin to do what I wanted to improve the teaching."

Her early days were still extremely tough, but what made the difference was the feeling that she was now a fully committed member of a team, with long-term goals for her pupils. They were still challenging but took her more seriously.

It doesn't always work out like that. Kate Goulden went straight into teaching after getting her science degree. Her first school was a girls'

comprehensive. Many Year 9s, a group with particular attitude, looked older and more worldly-wise than she felt.

"As a new, young teacher you're practically walking around with a big neon sign on your head saying 'Test me', and every lesson, that's what they would do. Often I'd flee into the lab technicians' room after a lesson and wail 'I can't do this!'And they would say 'You can. You're a fantastic teacher!' They were really sweet. If it hadn't been for them, I'd probably have given up."

Kate moved from being the rookie to being respected. She learned to pick her fights and identify those situations in which the disruption caused was simply not worth it. She also learned to apply different strategies to different children - something that can only be done as you get to know your class.

Her advice? "Don't give up. Remember why you chose teaching. We all have had terrible times in the early days, but no other job can give you this satisfaction."

In the early days, you'll wonder if you ever had any other life outside teaching. It's easy, when you never feel quite prepared enough, to spend more and more time trying to plan the perfect lesson. But if, after a few weeks you are still working all night and every night, something is wrong.

Never underestimate the importance of your own leisure time.

And finally, remember, above all else, that when you drive to school at 7am to get all your preparation done before school starts, don't take the head's car-park space.

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