Joys of the job are only just beginning

16th January 2009 at 00:00

Step 1: I have mastered the art of detailed lesson planning - in theory but not in practice. I have survived both of my training placements; I have endured gruelling observations by curriculum mentors, professional study mentors, departmental mentors, internal assessors, external assessors, and several other "appropriate bodies". I have taken heed of all constructive criticism and any friendly advice that has been offered along the way. I have burnt more than a little midnight oil to get my essays in on time. I have my PGCE. Hoorah!

Step 2: I have trawled websites in search of jobs; polished my CV and letter of application; braved the interview process; and bagged my dream job.

Step 3: I have spent the summer dreaming about my classroom. I've had visions of colourful displays of pupils' work and "fine examples". I've seen the humorous yet educational posters that will line my walls and subliminally reinforce my perfectly co-ordinated lessons. I have coloured and laminated name tags for each of the little darlings I will teach. My scheme of work is detailed and varied. I have comprehensive and differentiated lesson plans to see me through until the spring.

I am prepared - I am more than prepared. But am I dreaming? I am a newly qualified teacher. An NQT. But it does not feel like it after what has been an exhausting first term.

I don't mean to underplay the importance of the PGCE year in providing budding teachers with the foundations they need to build a successful and rewarding career. But it is now that I am learning how to teach - on the job.

I can best liken the process to that of learning to drive. You take your lessons. You pass your test. But it is only then that you learn how to drive. There's no patient instructor at your side any more to grab the wheel if you lose control, or advise you when you ought to be checking your mirrors. There is one set of control pedals in this vehicle - yours.

It's a daunting prospect, but one that didn't become real for me until the first day of school, when both teachers and children were in. That morning, it suddenly dawned on me that I was going to be a "real" teacher.

Of course, you are taught the theory of being a teacher at college, and you get a flavour of the responsibility when you're on placement. But nothing really prepares you for the reality that these pupils are yours now. If they have a question, it's you they turn to. If the work's not covered, you are accountable. If they don't understand, you have to explain. If their marks aren't recorded, then it's your fault.

On top of this terrifying responsibility comes the added burden of remembering all the other things that must be in place to ensure the successful running of the school, and for which we are all accountable - departmental meetings, pastoral meetings, breaktime duties, after-school duties, extra-curricular activities and so on.

Then there's marking. Oh my goodness. There ought to be some sort of warning published to inform prospective teachers - especially English teachers - that a little-known prerequisite of the job is that you must be completely fluent in the written word of 11 to 16-year-olds. This is no small challenge. The content of a piece of work may be nothing short of outstanding. But you must develop the nigh-on impossible skill of translating the unsteady scrawls of pupils' pressured pens.

I generalise here, and I shouldn't. In fact, there are times when marking is a pleasure. It's the concrete proof that you are doing your job. Quite often it gives you a little insight into the character of the pupil in question. That, for me, is the most rewarding aspect of teaching - getting to know each pupil as an individual. Understanding their strengths and weaknesses; their hopes and fears; what makes them happy and what upsets them. Using this knowledge to inform my practice as an NQT, and perhaps more importantly my ability to make the whole-school experience a positive and memorable chapter in each child's life, is by far the most enjoyable part of my job.

Teaching is a very challenging profession - physically, mentally and emotionally. But no two days are the same. One day you find yourself drowning in all the work that you know you need to get through; the next you're overjoyed with the sure knowledge that you actually got through to that impossible class of Year 9s - or even just one pupil. The buzz is magical. It makes all the hard work worthwhile.

On reflection, I think perhaps being "not quite there" isn't such a bad thing after all. Yes, I have so much more to learn. But hasn't everyone? Isn't that the point? Teaching is, after all, a journey and not a destination. I apologise for the cliche, but surely there is some element of truth in that overused phrase.

Teaching is a gut-busting, physically draining, heart-warming, spirit-lifting, totally inspiring profession. I am truly glad to be a part of it, and I hope that I am "never quite there" - if you see what I mean.

Kimberly Wilkins is a newly qualified English teacher at Penyrheol Comprehensive in Swansea.

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