Sunday, 26 August 2012

A letter to an NQT or a letter to my NQT self

Dear Chris,
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 perspective
At 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.

They’re Busy
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 off
On 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 department
I 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.

And, finally...
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. 

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:


  1. Rachel Brocklebank26 August 2012 at 14:26

    Completely agree with the need to put work into perspective Chris. A friend in my dept died suddenly in January, it's a shame that it takes soemthing like that to make you evaluate your own life. And shortcuts are essential. You should send this to all NQTs!
    Looking forward to your next blog post! :)

  2. Good blog..

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  3. Just came across this and it has helped me immensely. Thank you.

  4. I've just started as an NQT at my new school. Reading this was both incredibly reassuring and rather comforting. Thank you! xD

  5. Completely agree with the need to put work into perspective Chris . A friend in my dept died suddenly in January , it's a shame that it takes soemthing like that to make you evaluate your own life . And shortcuts are essential . You should send this to all NQTs !

    key :nap the dien thoai - khuyến mại vinaphone - nap the zing me

  6. Two weeks in as an nqt and I feel like I am swimming front crawl without a pool side in sight.
    So glad I found your letter (wish it had been stuffed behind my cupboard earlier).
    Next week I am going to take stock...breath....and try back stroke instead....hopefully I will have a less 'full on time'. 30 kids in my class..a TA only in the am...and ofsted looming.I brought 120 books home to mark this weekend! (The plus Christmas I will be able to carry all my Christmas shopping no problem - if I find time to shop thst is :).
    Thank you for the heads up...short cuts sound fantastic to me.
    Me ")

  7. This is great. Nice to have a warts and all blog view of teaching. I haven't found one on planning, so I'll keep looking but this was very helpful.

  8. I was offered a good position at a school that had recently crawled out of Academy status last year. I moved half way across the world into a new curriculum that I was somewhat familiar with having being assured of support from the staff. I arrived, enthusiastic, eager and excited. Just months later I left broken, exhausted, depressed and feeling worthless. I was assigned 2 year 7 classes, 3 year 8 classes, 2 year 9 and 2 year 10 classes. The year 7 were split with another teacher who taught them the majority of the time, however as she did not plan her weeks, often I would get the day's lesson from the scheme of work just as the students walked into my class. I would then rush through the scheme, locate the power point, print the resources then try to understand where their understanding of the topic was before teaching them. The year 8 were 28-30 per class with a few challenging characters thrown in. One student would often swear at me before running out of the class. The year 9 were fine mostly except one class had 12 students who had challenging behaviours and emotional issues with each other.....I questioned the sanity of placing so many clear enemies together which would erupt in shouting and fighting to throwing scissors across the classroom. The year 10 group doing English were my favourite class however the second year 10 were a group of boys who had severe challenging behaviour and were known to police. I taught these boys skills (no scheme of work and no idea what skills they were supposed to learn) I taught them after school when all staff were gone (Friday drinks!) with no support and often feared for my safety. I was in school from 7am-7pm either reading up schemes of work, marking, planning lessons, attending various meetings or just trying to understand my role. People would change the computer rooms I would book for my classes for their own classes. I would then find out five minutes before the lesson and had to scramble to find a new lesson that did not require computers. I had to attend NQT meetings and fill in NQT forms. I was always observed on a class that I had been begging for help in terms of how to manage their behavior and push their progress forward. I was handed a sheet of paper deemed as "help". My mentor was always unavailable. She had far more important things to do then mentor the NQT. My weekends died, my doctor diagnosed stress and sleep deprivation (I sat up at night crying and dreading the morning) I began to fear going to work. The day the school SLT warned me I was in danger of losing my job I went home and found my hair was falling out. The next six weeks were brutal.....constant observations on the same class (I begged for help as their behavior was getting so bad that were not even getting the whole lesson done. Oddly enough my other two year 8 were doing great) The mock GCSE came round, my class did ok. My year 7 had the top reading spots in school (I was their literacy teacher) My good year 9 were an SEN class that were achieving two levels above their target. But I was told I was an ineffectual teacher. My downfall? The piles of marking I was struggling to finish (there were double standards to this too. I was told to use marking codes students were familiar with to prevent time consuming comments. However I was slammed for not commenting on the students work (beyond the "excellent idea" or "fantastic job" as was suggested prior) They told me to leave. I went onto supply teaching. It was a liberation. I had not realised how badly I had been affected until a teacher at the school mentioned on my last day that she had never seen me smile until that day. Is this a normal NQT year or am I over reacting? I had an offer of a new position at a school I liked but was told the old school had given me an unsatisfactory reference. I don't think I will continue teaching after this year.

  9. Oh my goodness it sounds horrendous. I am an NQT and have recently moved schools because I started out doing a maternity cover. I couldn't have been happier where I Was before but I had to look for a permanent position, which I have found. My previous school had a huge sense of camaraderie. The head of department lead by example with a real focus on teaching good lessons and keeping on top of marking, but fought for us not to have to do meaningless burocratic jobs that would waste our time and have no impact on the children. Even though she was under intense pressure from SLT to improve her department, and was therefore understandably extremely busy and stressed at times, she always made time to help and support me as an NQT and others in the department who were going through difficult times whether personally or professionally. When I moved I found I had a lot less autonomy and was expected to fit in with a department who had all been there for over a decade. The head of department has an extremely brusque demeanor and there is a lot of negativity in the department linked to her style of management. Lots of people have told me they have never heard her give any positive feedback to anyone directly, although they have heard her complement and stand up for her department when speaking to others. They work extremely hard, as do I, but I constantly feel like I am messing up and that they are rolling their eyes at the latest thing I have forgotten to do. I have had half of my final NQT meeting and the comments so far on the report focus on negatives over positives and the worst thing is that I don't feel like I am a good teacher anymore, whereas only three months ago I loved my job and I knew how to get the most out of my students. I am trying to think of September as a time to start afresh: behaviour issues will be easier to deal with when I'm no longer a new face, I (think I) know what needs to be done in the complicated assessment system they have, and I have some time next week and in the holidays to get my head round things. My point being, though, is that I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in a school where I felt valued, supported and happy, even though that is not my current situation. I was a completely different teacher four months ago and I know it is circumstance that has made things feel a lot worse recently. You said that you felt a great relief when you left to do cover work. If you can apply for jobs despite the bad reference they are apparently giving you, please remember how different schools can make you feel and that if you find the right one it makes all the difference to how good a teacher you can be, and therefore how happy you can be in your career. If you care about children, know your subject(s) and care about the important role you can play in young people's lives, you have got what it takes!!!

  10. Another short cut is to use mini-whiteboards - you 'mark' them instantly and it doesn't go in their books for marking later.

  11. Love he is still teaching after winning the lottery.


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