My other boss was in the Shadow Cabinet

11th March 2005 at 00:00
He was a City policy adviser then an Opposition spokesman's researcher. But, says Nicholas Hillman, four years in the classroom was far more stressful. He advises new teachers how to pick the right school

It is just over 10 years since I successfully completed a postgraduate certificate in education in history at Cambridge. In the decade since, I have spent four years teaching, three years as the senior research officer to a member of the Shadow Cabinet, nearly two years as a policy adviser in the City, and one year doing postgraduate research. Even though I achieved glowing appraisal reports, it is no exaggeration to say that every single day of teaching was more stressful than a month in any of the other roles.

It will not be long before this year's crop of PGCE students starts scouring the jobs pages, worrying whether they will be the last person on their course to find a post. But, as the jobhunting season approaches, it is essential that people know precisely what they are looking for. As one of the many trained teachers who have left the profession, I have learnt the hard way.

There are three lessons that every new teacher searching for a job should bear in mind if they want to survive.

First, they need to ask if any school with a vacancy has a proper induction programme or if it only plays lip-service to integrating newly qualified teachers. The single most important difference between your first teaching job and all the subsequent ones is the need for a decent support system for new staff.

This can be a difficult issue to assess at interview as few schools are going to admit to a poor record. But it is worth asking more subtle questions, such as: "When was the last time the department took on an NQT and are they still at the school?" and "How many staff are there below the age of 25?" However attractive a school looks as a whole, if you have no confidence in how they treat new teachers, it is almost certainly very unwise to accept a job there.

I discovered this painfully first-hand. For all the years that I taught at a league table-topping school in west London with no induction programme to speak of, I was the youngest member of the teaching staff. While there, I was nigh on the only teacher new to the profession who left the school at a time of my own choosing, rather than having my contract terminated.

Other new teachers came and were then asked to leave, generally because they had not received the support they needed and deserved. I survived, but only by very unwisely sacrificing any idea of a life outside school. Not everyone is prepared to do that and no one should have to.

The second lesson I learnt is: search out the staff who are in their late twenties or early thirties. If there aren't any, think twice about joining the school. There are inspirational teachers of all ages, but a young NQT particularly needs role models with experience whom they can relate to easily.

It is inconceivable that long-serving teachers close to retirement can accurately recall in full the challenges they faced when starting out. Even if they could, it would only be of slight relevance to the challenges faced by a new teacher today. In contrast, younger but experienced teachers are more likely to remember how hard they had to work to win respect.

Just before the half-term break in my first term in a permanent teaching job, when all I wanted to do was celebrate that I had survived, I was called into my head of department's office. I felt like a naughty schoolboy. My supposed misdemeanour had been to write a note to another teacher a few days earlier highlighting the poor behaviour of one of her tutor pupils. But instead of sympathising with me or, better still, devising a strategy to deal with the child in question, my boss ticked me off for writing the note in the first place and for misspelling the other teacher's name. As a result, I spent the half-term break depressed about the lack of support, rather than celebrating my survival.

It is the responsibility of individual schools to ensure they have good-quality induction programmes and a broad mix of teachers. But the onus for ensuring the applicant matches the vacancy is also on the newly qualified teachers themselves.

So the third lesson is this: think seriously about how to broaden your experiences. I spent the year after my teacher training doing a variety of jobs, including participating in a Raleigh International project in Guyana, working in a jeweller's shop, taking part in a voluntary programme in Lagos and doing some supply teaching at home. It was one of the best years of my life but, when I started teaching permanently, I still felt my experiences were narrower than I would have liked.

Many people will wish to complete their induction year immediately after finishing their PGCE and will not have a whole year to spare as I did. You should remember that a good school will see the advantages of hiring people with extra expertise - they cost no more, but have more to give. So make sure any spare time you do have is used to good effect.

There are few careers where the job of someone close to retirement is essentially identical to that of someone new to the profession. Teaching is the same job on day one as it is in year 40 (extra administrative duties aside). Yet, unlike being a lawyer, say, people are often expected to enter the profession after only a year's training and to be immediately as good as those close to retirement. That is a wholly unrealistic assumption and good schools will recognise it is nonsense; bad ones won't.

If you try to identify which schools are good and which are bad, you will survive and thrive. If you don't, you may find life as a newly qualified teacher miserable indeed.

Nicholas Hillman is a research fellow at the Policy Exchange think tank. He spent three years as a research officer to David Willetts, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

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