Common mistakes (and how to avoid them)

13th October 2017 at 00:00
Discovering what does and doesn’t work during your first year will mostly be down to trial and error. Here, Katy Pembroke offers her tips on how to sidestep a few of the basic pitfalls

Your NQT year is all about learning – and that doesn’t apply only to the children. You will be on one big learning curve yourself for the next 12 months, and it is inevitable that you will slip up along the way.

Making mistakes is all part of the process but there are some basic errors that it pays to avoid. Here are the six most common pitfalls that NQTs make, plus some advice on how to sidestep those banana skins.


Don’t spend your summer planning lessons

You have probably already been given schemes of work or timelines for all of your classes and so I understand the temptation to get ahead on planning lessons. But you will regret this when you find yourself re-planning all but the first. The timing in that first lesson is hard enough, even for those of us who have been doing it for years. We forget how long it takes to introduce ourselves and our expectations. Getting students into the correct seating plan (I recommend boy-girl – believe me, it works!) can also take a long time, depending on the group.

With all of these variables, you are better off simply doing a thorough job of planning the first lesson with each class. Plan your questions, plan exactly what you want written down by the students, how this will look on the page and the words you will use to achieve this. Have a clear start and finish to your tasks, plan extension tasks in case students zip through everything faster and easier than you thought they might. Then, when the lesson is over, you can start to plan the next one.


Don’t ask the advice of too many colleagues

Instead, trust the judgement of your mentor. He or she will have been chosen with care and consideration for your needs. You may feel that your style is obviously different from theirs and so might wish to seek out someone more in tune with your approach. But a good mentor will not be looking to mould you into a shiny new version of themselves. Instead, they will be guiding you along the path to being a successful teacher. Don’t be frightened to ask them for help. It is never too soon to do so and you can’t ask too many times.

However, if you run something past your mentor and they offer you some advice that you don’t like the sound of, do not start seeking out the answer you wanted from someone else. It isn’t their job to validate you. Your mentor is there to guide you and the process will most likely be challenging. As you develop, your induction tutor will probably point you in the direction of other teachers that it might be helpful to collaborate with anyway. Until then, trust the one you’re with.


Strike the right balance

Firmness and warmth are not mutually exclusive. Students need clear lines and it is your job to draw them, but this doesn’t mean refusing to smile until December.

It can be hard to strike the right balance from the very beginning. Know that the first step to learning is silence and the second step to learning is listening. The biggest mistake you can make as a new teacher is not to wait for silence before trying to talk to the class. Expect silence, wait for it, get it, wait a bit longer, smile, say “thank you” and begin. Holding the first silence for just a moment longer than is comfortable is a very powerful thing – as is saying “thank you”, as is smiling.

At my school we have a rule that students stand in silence behind their desks before being asked to sit down. On the first meeting with a new class, I tell them (when they are silent and before they sit) that they are doing this to show me that they are ready to learn and also as a sign of respect. I let them know that we will do this every lesson. When I allow them to sit, if there’s even the slightest murmur, they stand again. I tell them warmly, with a smile, that I think they can do better because we are not aiming for “quite good” in my class, we are aiming for excellence. It works a treat. You don’t need severity but you do need certainty.


Don’t think you have complete autonomy

The fact that you have autonomy in your classroom doesn’t mean that your actions are independent of those of your colleagues; what you do directly impacts on others and vice versa. You may not agree with all of the rules in your new school but you should take time to reflect on why those rules exist. Why do we care about uniforms, margins on pages and using pencils to do drawings? What are these rules teaching the students and why is it imperative that all staff act as one?

Remember that we are not just educating young people in our subject, we are also modelling the behaviours of good citizens within a community. It is important that students are taught to follow rules in life. These will rarely be arbitrary rules, just as rules in school are not arbitrary.


Don’t seek to undermine the system

Therefore, if your school has a rule that students stand in silence before you allow them to sit down, then that is what they must do. If your department has a rule whereby a margin is drawn on every page, then that is what students must do. If your college has a rule whereby Tuesday’s tutor time is spent reading silently, then that is what you must do. If all of your colleagues do likewise then you will benefit because these rules and routines benefit everyone, but especially those who are new and have yet to establish themselves. This is not to say that you shouldn’t question and challenge rules but there’s a time and a place to voice your disagreement with a rule, and the classroom is not it.


Don’t reinvent the wheel

It is a waste of time trying to reinvent resources in a desperate bid to make every lesson exciting or fun. Of course, you will have your own way of introducing solving equations or The Battle of Britain and you’ll want to captivate your students. However, this should be down to your delivery, your explanation and your questioning, not the worksheet that you spent hours putting together, which basically replicates the tasks in the text book but looks a bit nicer.

Yes, there will be times when you refer to the text book and find that the tasks in it are entirely inappropriate for your students for one reason or another, but this should be rare, not the norm. Use some of the time with your mentor to plan jointly. Discover how they make textbooks work for them, adapting as they go. Teaching 24 lessons a week is not compatible with writing your own text book, so do yourself a favour and don’t attempt it.


Katy Pembroke is a teacher of mathematics, induction tutor and lead practitioner at Cleeve School in Gloucestershire


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