Starting your new role

5th January 2018 at 00:00

So you’ve got yourself a teaching job. Well done! The good news is that you are about to embark on some of the most rewarding work possible. The bad news? That work is not going to be easy.

“It’s not all fun and games,” says Chris Curtis, head of English at Saint John Houghton Catholic Voluntary Academy in Derbyshire. “Respect has to be earned and that takes time.”

Moments of elation will be tempered with moments of exhaustion. There will be days when you can’t believe how lucky you are to work with young people, and others where you could happily go without seeing a classroom, corridor or child ever again.

But learning to lean on the people around you will be key. “You may feel like there’s an overwhelming amount of work,” says Rebecca Foster, head of English at St Edmund’s Girls’ School in Salisbury.

“But don’t hide away in your room. Get down to the staffroom or department area and talk to your colleagues. They will want to support you in whatever way they can.”

Remember that there is no other job like teaching – and you are all in it together.


How to set up your classroom

Stepping into your classroom for the first time is a big moment. This is the space where you will bring your subject to life and shape young minds.

Before you can do that, however, you’ll need to shape the room – and that’s no small task. Prepare to do battle with wall staplers and monstrous reams of backing paper. If you’re lucky enough to get your own room (and not everyone is), the work of sprucing it up will probably take place during the inset days before term begins. But how should you go about it? How long should it take? And which seating plan is a sure-fire recipe for disaster? We asked experienced teachers to share their advice.


1. Embrace empty space

“If you have display boards, title them with interesting hints about what is coming up, but leave them blank for the start of term; a blank canvas can be full of hope and promise,” says Emma McLaughlin, headteacher of Powell Corderoy School in Surrey.

“Spend your time and energy setting up your classroom to support independence in learning. This means clearly labelled and organised resources and classroom materials stored in a way that is accessible for children to get out and put back.

“Putting clear visuals around the room, such as a timetable and rules reminders, will also help. Get the children to help design displays as you go along – it will give them ownership of the learning environment.”


2. Keep seating simple

“At the beginning, children should be sat in rows – no question,” says Ben Newmark, a former history teacher who now works for Ark Teacher Training. “Some of the major classroom management issues I have seen in new teachers came when they got too creative with seating plans, using small groups or what I call the ‘horseshoe of doom’.

“The horseshoe seems great because you can see every child, but what you don’t realise, until too late, is that they can all see each other, too. The horseshoe is a sign that a new teacher needs help,” he explains.

However, it should be noted that seating arrangements are a matter of much debate.


3. Don’t break the bank

“Buy things for the room if you want to, but don’t go overboard,” says McLaughlin. “Check what your school’s reimbursement policy is first and whether it will pay for what you’re after (the school should pay for essential items).

“Keep track of what you spend and clearly label anything that is yours so there can be no confusion if you want to take it with you when you move on.”


4. Get materials online

“Don’t spend all your time making everything from scratch; use Twitter and the internet to find things that you can use,” says Curtis. “Remember, a room never made a student learn better, but an effective and awake teacher does.”


5. And if you don’t have your own classroom...

“Be considerate of the person whose room you are in and leave it exactly how you found it,” says McLaughlin. “If you are going to be using a room regularly, arrange to have a small amount of storage that is yours so you can leave stuff ready for your lessons.

“If you have a lot of resources to cart around, consider investing in a trolley or wheeled box to keep them organised and save your back.”


Policies you need to know

Among the avalanche of paperwork you’ll receive when you start your job, there will be a staff handbook, laying out all the school policies. The first thing you’ll do, naturally, is sit down and read it from cover to cover. Except you won’t, because learning about the minibus booking system will probably feel less pressing than the many other things jostling for your attention.

But there are some policies that you absolutely need to understand straightaway, for yourself and for your students. So where should you start?


1. Safeguarding

The most essential policy to get to grips with from the outset is safeguarding, says Newmark. “If you don’t know it, you are dangerous,” he explains. “There could be a moment where you miss something that could save a child’s life. It’s the most important policy in the school and it’s important to know it inside out.”

Read the policy carefully, making a note of the person you need speak to if you have a concern. Ensure that you are clear on the way you are expected to respond if a child discloses something to you, as well as what your responsibilities are around areas such as social media, first aid and being alone with students.


2. Behaviour

Understanding how to handle behaviour in your classroom is vital for getting off on the right foot, and that means making sure your approach is in line with the official policy that students will be used to.

“You have to know how the school expects you to manage behaviour,” says Foster. “You need to follow the policy to ensure that the way you deal with behaviour is in line with the rest of the school. This is especially important as a new teacher.”

But, Newmark adds, it’s important to get a working knowledge of the policy rather than just studying it on the page.

“I’ve seen less experienced teachers get themselves into a mess by following the behaviour system to the letter when most other people in the school aren’t using it,” he says. “And because they’re not, everyone gets confused.”

The best thing to do, he advises, is to go and watch more experienced teachers putting the policy into practice and discuss their approaches with them.


3. Homework and marking

The policies that are most likely to shape your days (and nights and weekends) are the ones on homework and marking. Some schools will set homework centrally, often using online resources, while others expect teachers to create their own tasks linked to the learning that has taken place in class. Make sure you know which you’re working with to avoid problems in your department.

Excessive marking is widely understood to be one of the major factors in unmanageable workloads, so get to know what your obligations are and don’t do more than you need to.

The important things to understand, Foster says, are how often and in what format your school expects you to mark and give written feedback. Getting to grips with this, she says, will ensure that you can organise your weekly schedule effectively and keep on top of things.


What to bring on your first day

The first day of school can be daunting; that’s as true when you’re striding in as a new teacher as it was when you were toddling in as a new pupil.

Back then, it was all about making sure you didn’t forget your coat and your pencil case – and that still holds true, actually – but what else should you be packing in your school bag?

Coffee and/or tea is always useful, along with your own milk and mug (you don’t want to be making enemies in your department by snaffling someone’s prized coffee cup). Similarly, make sure that you bring a decent supply of food and water: your day will be busy, so keeping yourself hydrated and fed is important. Try to go for healthy snacks to keep your energy levels up.

It’s always wise to be prepared for the worst, so put together an emergency kit to stash in your desk: painkillers (for those information overload headaches), plasters (for paper cuts) and hand sanitiser (for the unrelenting stickiness of being around children all day). Tissues are always a good bet, too.

And, of course, stationery. Teachers are notorious for their love of pens, Post-Its, stamps and the rest, and try as you might to fight it, chances are that you probably will end up being that way, too.

Hopefully, your school will provide all the basics for your classroom, but it’s not a bad idea to have a back-up supply of pens, Post-Its and highlighters, just in case.

Your planner will become your touchstone, so make sure you have a decent one to keep track of all your classes, meetings and other commitments (Tes produces an academic planner each year, which is available to pre-order in spring).

You’re going to be writing down a lot of information on your first day, so take care to record it in your planner in a way that will be useful (and legible) at a later date. Your school may well provide you with one, but if not – or if the school’s version isn’t up to the job – it’s worth spending a little bit extra to get one that will last.

You’re also likely to be offered all sorts of electronic bits and bobs from other staff; PowerPoint lessons, resources, display materials and so on. Bring along a USB stick – or use an online storage system such as Dropbox or Google Drive – and load it up with everything that you are given.

As questions pop into your mind ahead of the first day, make a note and bring these along with you. They may be big, practical concerns about the structure of the day and the building, or smaller (but equally important) ponderings about which areas of the staffroom to sit in and which dishes to avoid in the canteen. Most importantly of all, bring your sense of humour – it will make everything easier.


Planning: tips for the first week

In the excitement of waiting to start your first teaching job, it’s natural to want to be proactive and plan as far ahead as possible. You will finally have your own classes and be able to turn your ideas into engaging, inspiring lessons. But there’s a problem: you don’t actually know the children you’ll be teaching yet.

You’ll have information, of course – you’ll probably have pored over the data and made (and remade) your seating plans – but until you have met your students, it’s all guesswork.

This means that if you spend ages putting lessons together in advance, your hard work may well end up being in vain as you realise that the class is racing through the tasks much faster than expected or struggling to keep up.

The focus of your first lessons, according to McLaughlin, should be all about you and your students getting to understand each other. “Spend time getting to know your class,” she says.

“You could get the children to set themselves targets for the year ahead and place them in sealed envelopes to be opened at the end of the year.

“Talk to them as individuals. Building a relationship with them is the most valuable use of your time at this point. You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression on your class and their parents.”

It’s also important to signal that your classroom is a place where students can shine, says Foster.

Ensure that your first lessons offer opportunities for them to showcase their skills and knowledge. This will help with building relationships as you will be able to offer genuine praise based on their work.

“Focus on establishing yourself by being clear about expectations but don’t spend ages going through these,” says Foster.

“Ensure that students leave your lesson having done something worthwhile; don’t waste time in those first few lessons with colouring in.”

And for that first week, McLaughlin advises getting a good picture of prior learning. “Recap things they already know with enough new content to keep them interested,” she says. “Remember that most children will want to impress their new teacher so let them do that and feel confident in their new environment.”

She recommends including some getting-to-know-you PSHE tasks to help with relationship building and working towards a substantial piece of work in the first week.

Because it is the start of the year, with a new teacher and a completely fresh slate, students are likely to be making a big effort. This means you can get a really good first piece of work in their books, providing a useful benchmark to refer back to and measure progress from in future. “Set work in which they can demonstrate quality, quantity, enthusiasm and good presentation skills,” she says. “They’ll have forgotten stuff over the summer, so use the first week to work out their starting points and inform the pitch of your planning for week two.”

And when you’re figuring out how to pitch your future lessons, don’t be afraid to ask your students. If tasks are too easy or too hard, they need to let you know. Don’t worry if you find that you have pitched at the wrong level – adjustment is a part of the process.

But as well as academic and social first steps, you need to make sure that you are putting routines into your classes that create a calm and purposeful working atmosphere.

“Start as you mean to go on,” McLaughlin advises. “Establish the basic rules and routines in your classroom; some teachers do this with a class contract or house rules.

“Tell them your expectations for presentation in books, how you want them to transition between activities, or give out and collect in resources, for example.

“If you invest the time in getting these things right early on, you will thank yourself later.”

In terms of looking ahead, keep an eye on your medium-term plan so you know what you need to be covering each week in order to hit assessment deadlines. But Foster advises keeping planning to a minimum until you have met your classes.

“There’s not much point in planning individual lessons too far in advance because the best lessons respond to the learning that happens in previous lessons,” she says.

“You’ll probably want to have something planned for your first lesson or two with each class, but, beyond that, hold fire until you’re in school. If you’re itching to do some preparation, focus on your own subject knowledge. Are there any gaps in your knowledge? Are there areas of your subject specialism that you don’t feel confident with? Start there.”


Laying the groundwork for behaviour management

In the league table of things that cause stress for new teachers, behaviour is pretty much a permanent fixture at the top.

That’s not to say that you will definitely encounter bad behaviour, or that you need to go in expecting a battle, but establishing yourself as an authority figure is a challenging process.

The struggle of starting from scratch can apply at any point in your career, says Newmark. “Even the most experienced teachers have to go through it when they start at a new school.

“However long you teach, you don’t get an aura that means the children will immediately start behaving.”

Despite this, there are ways to make the process go more smoothly – and presenting yourself in an authoritative way is chief among them.

That doesn’t mean acting like a drill sergeant or subscribing to the “don’t smile before Christmas” philosophy, but showing your students that you’re confident and in charge (even if you don’t feel it).

“Never underestimate the role a teacher plays,” says Curtis. “You should be the best version of yourself. I might be grumpy and miserable, but the students get the better version of me.

“They feed off my emotional state. A stressed teacher makes a stressed class. A teacher who is calm and in control makes the students feel confident.”

Foster, meanwhile, advises a “fake it ’til you make it” approach. “Smile, talk to students and act like you know what you’re doing even if you’re not entirely certain that you do,” she says.

“The chances are that you can style it out. But students will feel unsettled if their teacher looks nervous or unsure.”

Just as important, she continues, is to be clear and firm about your high expectations, and your conviction that they will be met. Be explicit about how you require students to conduct themselves in your class, covering everything from when they speak to how they handle equipment.

She also recommends signalling to students that they are entering your space by greeting them at the door, directing where they sit and choosing whether windows are open or closed. “These tiny signals build up, indicating who is in charge,” she says.

Developing positive relationships from the outset can also have a big impact, Foster continues. Get to know your students’ names as quickly as possible (“There’s no more powerful tool in your teacher’s toolbox”) and take an interest in their lives beyond the classroom.

“Do they have an unusual hobby? Are they amazing at playing the flute? Do they like reading graphic novels? If you see your students in the corridor, take the opportunity to talk to them as all of this helps to build your relationship, which will pay off in the classroom,” she says.

If you find that pupils aren’t meeting your high standards, that means it’s time to dig in rather than letting things slide.

Newmark says that not doing this is a common error, but one that needs to be avoided at all costs. “Teachers can lower their expectations when children aren’t behaving and start to compromise,” he says.

“You need to make it really clear that you’re not negotiating on those rules and will not be discussing them in class. That’s one of the things that sets teachers on a downward spiral: their authority is questioned by students and they start trying to rationalise in that moment. As soon as you do that, behaviour issues will spread.”

When you find yourself in that situation, you need to reach out for help, says Tracey Lawrence, headteacher of Danemill Primary School in Leicester and author of Practical Behaviour Management Strategies for Primary School Teachers.

“Talk! It is important to discuss ‘all things behaviour’,” she says. “The moment you try to hide what’s happening, it will escalate. Discuss strategies that have worked before and be proactive in your pursuit of excellent behaviour.”

Seek out members of staff who teach classes you are struggling with; this can give you a new perspective, as well as possible new approaches to try. “There’s no point pretending it’s easy when things are going wrong,” Newmark says.

You also need to have restorative conversations with students about how they can get things back on track, he adds.

“You need to explain to the student why their behaviour is unacceptable and how it is going to change, always framing it in terms of learning. For example, ‘Your behaviour is so poor that you are not learning very much’.”

And whatever is happening in your lessons, it’s crucial to keep a positive tone – so don’t allow bad behaviour to be your focus. Instead, be generous with praise for the students who are getting it right.

“Positive reinforcement is the one thing I swear by,” says Curtis. “It is so easy to get sucked in by the negativity in the class but, if you focus on the poorly behaved students, you are supporting negative behaviour by giving it attention. Invert that and you change the dynamic of a classroom.”


Your five-year career plan

Once you start to feel confident in the basics of planning and behaviour, you may find that your thoughts turn to the trajectory of your career. Even at this early stage, it’s not too soon to think about next steps – just as long as you don’t get too far ahead of yourself, says Jill Berry, a former headteacher and author of Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head.


1. Secure the basics first

If you have dreams of becoming a school leader, you need to be good at the thing that schools are all about: teaching. Any future plans should include becoming a really effective educator and colleague first and you should be prepared for that to take a few years, says Berry.

“Whether leadership appeals will depend on how motivated and ambitious you are,” she explains. “From very early on, I could see the appeal of being a head of department as a satisfying and rewarding role, so I was quite motivated to prepare for that. But my first promotion wasn’t for three years. Then I became second in English after five years and head of English three years later.”


2. Extracurricular opportunities

However, if middle leadership appeals, you can show that you have initiative and are interested in making a contribution beyond your own teaching by taking part in extracurricular activities.

“I found from the early days that I enjoyed working beyond my department, so I got involved with things like the Duke of Edinburgh award and supporting at school discos and swimming galas,” says Berry.

Such activities will allow you to build relationships with staff from other departments and with students you don’t teach directly.

“It’s also a signal to management that you are willing to go beyond your teaching responsibilities,” she says. “It’s about discretionary effort and recognising if there are other areas you can contribute to. Use the opportunity to show what you’re capable of and to build your skills.”


3. Pastoral or academic?

When considering your professional future, it’s worth weighing up whether you’d be better suited to additional responsibilities on the academic side of things (head of department, head of faculty and so on) or pastoral (head of year, head of house).

You will probably have a preference for one in particular, but don’t let this turn you away from the other if opportunities arise, Berry advises.

“I assumed that I would go to head of department within due course but my first promoted post was pastoral,” she recalls.

“I was an assistant head of house, which led to all sorts of useful new experiences; I had to take assemblies, deal with discipline, liaise with feeder schools. It was very good for my personal and professional growth.”

And this knowledge of different areas stood her in good stead for senior leadership. “I enjoyed pastoral and academic,” she says. “I became a deputy head with a fundamentally pastoral brief, and then a headteacher – and you do everything as a headteacher. So, by then, I understood the different elements of the school and had a good sense of the big picture.”


4. Look beyond schools

If you don’t see yourself taking a leadership role within a school, there are still lots of options to consider. “You just have to be a bit more creative and imaginative about how you engineer opportunities for yourself,” Berry says. “You have to work a bit harder to find your niche if it isn’t school leadership and management, but there are all sorts of possibilities.”

She suggests looking at working with exam boards, perhaps by initially becoming an examiner (which is also useful CPD). Other professional associations, such as the Chartered College of Teaching, also offer development opportunities and a variety of roles around initial teacher training.


5. Take your time

“Don’t be in too big a rush,” Berry says. “I’m always a bit concerned when people ask me how long it should be before they apply for something. You need to do the job you have to the best of your ability, and when you can see it’s time to move on to something new, do.

“If you’ve always got one eye on the next job, you’re probably not doing your current job as well as you could or should.”

There is a tendency in some schools, Berry explains, to promote young staff as soon as possible to prevent them from looking elsewhere. But this is not always sensible for the staff member or those around them.

“You have all these people, often in newly created roles, trying to make a name for themselves, which means even more emails and initiatives, and demands on the time of teachers in the classroom,” she says.

“We need to make sure people have proper training and development. You can’t just assume that you can move from working with children to colleagues; you have to have time to reflect and learn.”


Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer and former secondary school teacher

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