If I had my time again

15th January 2010 at 00:00
Take advantage of as many experiences as you can, but don't forget to enjoy them, says Dan Clay

I was on my third interview and about to talk myself out of the job. My application letter must have been good to get me here and I was dressed smartly enough, so why was I jabbering on about my mistakes on what had been a long but rewarding PGCE year?

Because I hoped it would get me the job, that's why. Though it didn't feel like it sitting in the waiting room afterwards anxiously looking around at the other applicants, I was told later that it had been the deciding factor in my appointment; the fact that I was willing to learn from my mistakes and improve myself as a teacher.

"I'll be learning plenty, then," I thought as I stood terrified in front of my first class as an NQT. It might seem daunting at first, but it's your classroom and it's your job to enthuse as much learning as possible in your pupils. Although at times it seemed hard trying to motivate my burly Year 10s with a sonnet or two when they'd just come from rugby practice, you just have to keep trying different ways to make learning fun and accept that sometimes you'll crack it and other times you'll crack up.

If you're lucky enough to have your own classroom, do your best to make it your own. I teach English and drama, and roped in some students one Saturday with the lure of cream cakes to help paint the drama studio and add some creative touches. It establishes a fresh start for you and your students, and all pupils like a nice, clean and new environment in which to learn.

My first weeks were daunting but manageable. I must have grown in confidence at some point, even cracking the odd joke to the difficult Year 11 class I had taken over, and then been amazed that they laughed. But like any new teacher, what I found hardest was the amount of marking.

You can't put it off, but what you can do, and what I'd encourage any new teacher to try, is to think about the tasks you are engaging students with. I wish I'd used things like peer assessment and a more active learning style in my first year, and though these take confidence and skill, you have to be prepared to trial a few things and slip up occasionally to find what works best for you and your pupils.

Besides, I was making enough mistakes elsewhere, and had plenty to learn from. Dropping the new department television a couple of months in wasn't my finest hour. I was distraught and had to go trembling and explain to my head of department how it just slipped out of my hands. Fortunately he saw the funny side. It's important to have a sense of humour, though - it's something pupils like in a teacher and helps to break down confrontational situations.

Some teachers might subscribe to the "Don't smile until Christmas" mantra, but if you don't enjoy your first term, or find anything to laugh about in it, perhaps teaching is not for you.

In the midst of the day-to-day teaching, I did my best to take advantage of as many different experiences as I could. In my first term, I went to the NATE conference for English teachers and was lucky enough to meet the children's author Jacqueline Wilson. She inspired me to start writing again and, sooner than I expected, I was invited to write an article about my experiences for the NATE newsletter.

Towards the end of the year I became involved in a summer literacy school for prospective Year 7s. Despite losing two weeks' holiday (but earning extra pay), I had some of my most rewarding teaching experiences so far. There was a different ethos, far more relaxed, and it made my second year a less intimidating prospect.

It's important to build relationships with staff as well as pupils, especially within your department, and get yourself along to staff social events. There will be times when you need their support to get you through the year, so getting your face known in as many areas as possible will help. Against my better judgement I joined the staff five-a-side football team. Consequently I ended up in casualty with a broken thumb after foolishly deciding to be the team goalie - I suppose some mistakes you never learn from.

Dan Clay is a teacher and writer from Greater Manchester


For a great NQT year ...- Make your mark on your classroom to give yourself and your pupils a sense of a fresh start.

- Take advantage of what's offered to you and get involved in more than just the day-to-day lessons.

- Don't feel that pupils must be creating lots of work for you to mark. It's about the process and not just the end product.

- Relax and show your sense of humour - you might need it for the rest of the year.

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