During a six week summer holiday that everyone I’ve spoken to (whether teacher, parent, friend or family member) agrees has gone ludicrously quickly, we acquired a tortoise. Rocket (yes, really – he can properly shift it when he’s of a mind to) came into our lives and generated great excitement that was not just confined to the children. And so far, he’s been very easy to look after. He lives outside in the garden (where I’m writing this; that’s him you can hear, crunching inexorably through the flower beds), he eats well, and he seems to spend at least 15 hours a day asleep. Sounds like a pretty good lifestyle, right? And one that’s not – if I’m honest – very far from my own over the last 6 weeks. How I’ll manage until half-term without those revitalising afternoon naps in front of ‘Tipping Point’ remains to be seen.
The fact I’m back at school this week is hard to believe. I really ought to start lesson planning with a vengeance, or designing a cast-iron seating plan for that tricky Year 9 set. Although when I say ‘work’, those inverted commas are not just for show. Thursday is an inset; and whilst Friday is reserved for Year 7 only, they’re busy doing something else when I would ordinarily be giving them the vast – vast, I tell you – benefit of my wisdom. Their time will come. This week is more of an airlock: a necessary, preparatory stage before stepping out into the cold, deep space of the first Monday of a new academic year.
Does that make it sound like I’m not looking forward to it? Wrong. I genuinely am; and this time I’m without last year’s knot of anxiety as an NQT, suddenly much more accountable for what happened in my classroom; or the bowel-wrenching, raw fear of the year before, as a trainee who genuinely knew nothing about how a teacher was supposed to behave, act or maintain order. Sometimes I smile and wonder how on earth I made it this far – and yet I did. Those of you that are reading this and are at this stage in your teaching career may be asking yourself similar questions. What sort of teacher will I be? Is my subject knowledge strong enough? How will I manage behaviour? What about the workload and marking?
All good questions. If you’re in the market for some advice (and if you’ve made it this far, you just might be), then I’d humbly highlight the following facts for your consideration and attention:
- Don’t worry about being outstanding. Many teachers I’ve spoken to reckon it takes at least five years to become an experienced, fully competent teacher, one comfortable dealing with a range of situations. So if your lessons aren’t all outstanding from the beginning, do not get down about this. Concentrate instead on getting better, at a steady rate. The speed at which it happens isn’t important, provided you keep moving, and keep improving. You will find that it will increase naturally, the more confident a teacher you become.
- Don’t compare yourself to other teachers. Most have been doing this a lot longer than you have, and when you start to observe them it will seem like some glorious magic trick. You can see they are managing behaviour, but you haven’t the faintest idea how they are doing it. Don’t worry; once you’ve been teaching a while, you’ll begin to spot the subtle cues and sleights of hand, some of which you can feed into your own practice. Some you’ll not yet be confident enough to use, but that’s perfectly natural. Any magician worth his wand starts with card tricks, not sawing somebody in half.
- Not all advice is immediately useful. Your job as a trainee, an NQT, even a qualified teacher is to listen to other staff, and decide what is useful to your current position, and what is actually entirely irrelevant. There’s a temptation in your early days to try and act on every piece of advice you are given, to shoe horn it all into each and every lesson plan. But this just isn’t possible – and believe me, I’ve tried. Remember, they’re talking about how they teach. It may not suit you, so if you try something and it doesn’t work, there’s no harm in leaving it – but maybe write it down and come back to it later. In my view, an experienced teacher is one that has a range of strategies at their fingertips: they try one and, if it doesn’t work, they try another. And another. And another, until they hit on one that is successful. The more you teach, the more weapons (defensive and otherwise) you’ll have in your armoury.
- Be a sponge. It’s impossible to know where good advice or practice can come from – so make yourself available, and as well as observing other teachers (especially those outside your own subject) be open to talking to support staff, non-teaching staff, parents, pupils – pretty much anyone. Distinguishing the fool’s gold from genuine nuggets takes time and practice, but you never know when you might come across a big lump of the good stuff. Keep your eyes and your ears open.
- Look after yourself. This one is perhaps most important of all – everything else flows from this, and if it isn’t right, your job as a teacher will be much more difficult. It’s particularly relevant if you’re coming to the profession young (i.e. early 20s) and haven’t worked in another field. This may sound obvious, but being an effective teacher means treating it like a job – getting into the routine of it, to the point where this extraordinary job becomes a natural, mundane part of your day. Alongside this, you also need to give yourself time away from it. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the basics, but you need sleep well, eat well, and keep time for yourself and those closest to you. Do that, and the task of engaging your classes will be much easier.
Teaching is a fascinating, rewarding, frustrating, mind-bending career, and I promise that you’ll never get bored. But remember: teachers are masters of the long con rather than the short – that’s why pupils don’t take their GCSEs in Year 7. So give yourself time to grow and develop, and don’t beat yourself up in the early days because of a poor lesson, or even a poor week of lessons. Identify what went wrong, then start picking these issues off one at a time. Returning this post to where I began, Be More Tortoise. If you keep going and keep turning up, you’ll keep improving. Whilst there are no magic bullets, you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll see progress, and how swiftly – how Rocket-like? – you’ll get to where you need (and want) to be. Good luck!