Starting school as an NQT is not really so different from the first time you started school at four years old. On your first day, you will be nervously trying to learn the systems while eyeing up potential friends. No amount of training can prepare you for this: understanding and fitting into the school culture is tough for everyone.
While your interview may have given you a glimpse of what the culture might be like, you’ll only get to know the school’s ethos intimately once you are working there. And you cannot rely on generic knowledge of schools in the area: each one is different. For example, one might have high levels of accountability and appear not to trust you while another might be committed to innovation and seem hugely invested in your development.
None of this will be written down. I have worked in schools where I discovered the departmental office was a place for quiet working – I love talking while I work, so you can imagine how that went down. I’ve also worked in places where you had to bring your own coffee cup and never borrow another person’s. This might seem like a minuscule thing, but even coffee-break conventions matter when you are trying to fit in, as does knowing if it is OK to pop into another teacher’s room unannounced or to push in front of the kids in the dinner queue.
I say all this not to scare you, but to prepare you. Think of it like jumping into the sea – you can’t see how deep or how clean it is, all you can do is try to hit the water feet first and then swim rather than sink. How can you ensure you don’t sink? Quite simply, get to know as many people as you can. Culture flows through people, so learn names and make the effort to speak to everyone, from the heads of department to the people who serve the lunches. Building relationships will ensure you can navigate the school culture and will give you a roadmap when you need help. (And, who knows? You might even get bigger dinner portions as a result.)
But it’s not enough just to survive, you have to be able to grow in this culture, too. It would be easy to accept the status quo and adapt to how the school system wants you to be. However, becoming a successful teacher is about being yourself and being the best “teacher version” of you while also playing firmly by the rules. To use a trite metaphor, an NQT must be like a plant growing in a crack between slabs of concrete. You need to learn not only to exist within the school culture but also to grow and flourish in the midst of it.
To achieve this, you need to be professional and open at all times. It is only with a non-judgemental mind that you can absorb the culture and still be yourself in the early stages of your career. And being yourself is the key not only to your happiness as a teacher but to your success and that of your students.
Ben Davey is assistant headteacher at the Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol