This might seem unusual, but I have found a hole in the space-time continuum. It was a strange weird thing that I found behind my filing cabinet at school. I also found two old exercise books, and an old AQA anthology and a mouldy apple. Anyway, my hope is that if I send this letter to you in the past, then I may help to prevent you from making any mistakes and save you from any embarrassment, hurt and pain in your future, and my past. You are about to take your first steps as an NQT. Well done for passing your PGCE year, by the way. The next year is fraught with problems as you circumvent your way through your chosen career path that is teaching. Here are just a few of my tips to help you to deal with people, work and students.
Find the shortcuts
There should be a whole lecture given to this in every PGCE course, or, at least, a free complimentary book to every NQT. It will take you roughly three years to find the shortcuts and it angers me that we don’t talk about them or make them explicit enough. Trust me, you will, as an NQT, become tired and haggard and this is partly down to you not knowing the shortcuts. In fact your ‘tired-o-meter’ will hit 11.
The shortcuts vary from subject to subject and can vary greatly. For English, a lot of my shortcuts are around marking, or avoidance of marking. I do mark very thoroughly, but in English there is tons of the stuff. At times, it feels as though my classroom is a landfill site. Marking is paramount to students improving, but does every mark a student writes need some form of teacher assessment? There are some activities that could be marked by another student. Or, you could walk around the classroom, as I do, and add comments as they are writing. I sign it and have saved myself some time later. Could the activity be assessed verbally? You sit down and mark as they present the information. Stickers are a good idea, but don't do it all the time, or parents will think you can't write - not a good sign for an English teacher.Furthermore, think about the intensity of the marking. Not all work need to be marked thoroughly. Learn to vary your approach to marking. For example: mark the first paragraph for spelling and punctuation and the rest for structure and content. There are plenty more and I think you should ask people what shortcuts they take to make sure they do the job effectively.
Put things into perspectiveAt the end of the day, teaching is a job, and just a job. It is a different kind of job to others, as you have a big impact on people’s lives and their futures. Some might call it a ‘vocation’, but, for me, I wasn’t visited by the ghost of Charles Dickens telling me my future was in teaching and to spread the news that ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is the perfect novel. I love my subject and I like talking about books. However, you/ we are replaceable. If you move schools, you will disappear from the collective conscience within a few years. It’s sad to think that there isn’t a lasting reminder of your teaching career, apart from the education you have imparted. One thing is clear: we don’t teach to be famous, rich or popular. To put all of this into perspective, two things have happened to me during my teaching career. Spoilers, sweetie.
The first is that a colleague, from the department I was working in, died. They had cancer and the cancer spread very quickly and suddenly. I remember chatting to them about a lesson and then several months later they had died. This had a profound effect on me. I realised that it could happen to me. Secondly, the birth of my daughters, twins, prematurely made me see the job and my role differently. They were born at 30 weeks and placed into incubators. Sitting next to those incubators and a life-support machine made me reassess the way I viewed things. I realised that there were more important things to worry about than whether I had put up a display or where I had placed that folder.
We do deal with some important stuff, but sometimes it is important to think about whether the stuff you are worrying about is really that important or not. Some things you can change. Some things you can’t. I don’t suggest that you become blasé about everything, but when you get to something that is worrying you, think about whether worrying about it will help you or not. If in doubt, off-load it or share it with someone else. Just hearing it out aloud might help you to realise that it isn’t a concern. These two terrible events shook me and made me realise that my daily worries or problems were minor in comparison to some of the more important things in life.
Teaching is a busy job. Not just ‘pretending I am working busy’, but really busy. It is amazing how time seems to disappear and you will have finished the term just as quickly as it has started. It is easy to forget how busy other people are. You are trapped in your own timetable and barely see people for longer than five minutes.
Sometimes, we forget things or people. Bare this in mind during your NQT year. People can forget to say ‘Goodbye’ or ‘Hello’. Or, it looks like they are ignoring you. Usually, there is no malice. It’s just that teaching is a very busy job. Once, a Head of Department thanked every member of the department in his beautiful and meaningful leaving speech. He thanked them personally for their support and help over the years. Unfortunately, he didn’t mention my name. I was a bit gutted, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised it wasn’t a personal thing. He was too busy and in the heat of the moment this slip happened.
Don’t be offended; think about the pressures the other person is under. You are under a lot of pressure and so will everybody else be.
Switch offOn the last day of my first year as an NQT, I broke down and cried. I sobbed in my classroom at the end of the day for a good 2 minutes. Not tears of joy. Not tears of sadness. They were tears of exhaustion. I had found new depths of tiredness that I never knew existed. I was so tired because I hadn’t stopped for breath. When I stopped, my body just couldn’t cope and I cried like a wet lettuce.
I think it is so important… no not important – vital that you switch off. Several years down the line, I tend to have set days where I never, ever, ever work. Saturday is that day. It is my day where I do not even think of school. I do what I like and when I like it. I have fun. I watch TV or have some fun with my family. I also have days in the week where I don’t do any work after school. Teaching is a job where there is always something to do. Stop. You will be more productive if you take that time to ‘chillax’ and rest. Don't work for hours after school. Set yourself time limits and stick to them.
Find a friend
Find a friend that will support you emotionally, mentally and physically. I was lucky to have a group of several young teachers in my school that I connected to in my NQT year, but they were, and still are, the people that got me through the year. They listened, supported and ridiculed me throughout the year and they still do that to this day. Teaching can be like working in Tupperware boxes ™. Each aspect of your job is a Tupperware box ™. They are often sealed tight and it is sometimes just you in there. Hard to see out of because of the plastic. Everything might be good, but you feel something may be rotten in this box. For example: one box is the classroom. Another might be your department. I feel that it is always good to have someone outside the box – sorry for saying that old cliche- that could help you.
That friend doesn’t always have to be in the same department. My BF was a History teacher in my first year and I hated History at school. Find a friend that will help you get a bit of perspective on the job and how things are.
It is not me; it is you!Whatever is happening to you will be happening to someone else. It is hard to see it, but it is often true. I get frustrated when a teacher spouts rubbish like ‘I have never have a problem with Year 8’. Everybody sometime or another has had a problem with a class, an aspect or a particular student. I think it is important to talk about it. I think some people forget how things are difficult when you are establishing yourself as a teacher, or as a new teacher in school.
I wish I had Twitter and the TES forum when I was training. There are so many people there sharing their problems, so you should feel reassured that it is not just you. However, I’d be careful about what you share in a public domain.
PGCEs tend to make you so reflective and introverted that you start to evaluate the way you breathe in the classroom. Sometimes when things go wrong, it isn’t anything you have done. Think of the immortal line: ‘It’s not you; it’s me’. That is true. It can usually be not you, and it is them. You might just have to find a way to solve the problem – you have to be the grownup.If you make a mistake, learn from it. Try not to make the same mistake twice. Make better mistakes.
Use the strengths of the departmentI do this more now than I have ever done before. Each teacher has their strengths and I think it is imperative that you find what those are. In one department you could have an individual who is an expert on drama, Shakespeare, A-level, non-fiction or grammar. If you need help or guidance, go to that person and have a quick chat. It is flattering for them and it saves you time swotting up on obscure things which might not be necessary to what you are teaching.
I am jealous of actors as they tend to only get critiqued on their opening night of a performance. If it is a bad performance they can work on it. Teachers get critiqued every day and every lesson they teach. Each class has thirty wannabe Simon Cowells. There may even be a few sycophantic Louis Walshes. Unlike actors you can't just improve on that performance. You have do a totally new performance next lesson. Learn to take any criticism and turn it into something positive. Don't wallow; get even. Show them what you are made of. Not every lesson can be your 'Hamlet'. Sometimes, you will have a creaky amateur production. But, overall, you will deliver the goods.
Think of my three 'H's. Humour. Humility. Humanity. Humour: always look at the funny side of things. Teaching can be hilarious. There are times in my career where I have giggled so much that I couldn't speak. Humility: you will make mistakes and that it is part of being a teacher; we learn so much from getting it wrong. Accept the mistakes and move on. Humanity: remember that you are dealing with people. They have fears, worries, strengths and weaknesses. No two people are alike. They are unpredictable, but that is most of the fun of teaching - How will this group react to this poem?
I am hoping that this letter has got to you in the past. There are so many more things I could give you advice on, but I think these are the main ones. One last thing: I think that you should take a tour around the world in 2011 and 2012. A horrible thing to do with exams. Best out of it, if you ask me.
Good luck with it all.Love
P.S. The lottery numbers for the 25th of August 2012 are 12, 18, 23, 31, 44, 48. Bonus: 40.
Thanks to @Gwenelope for help, support and typo spotting. Please check her fabulous blog at:
Thanks to @Gwenelope for help, support and typo spotting. Please check her fabulous blog at: