My friend Adam was training to become a doctor at the same time as I was doing my PGCE. I remember one conversation we had as we approached our future careers, “The only difference between my last day as a medical student and my first day as a qualified doctor is that I’ll be paid. Other than that I’ll have no more responsibility and I’ll still be heavily supervised.”
This is not the case for teachers. One minute you’re teaching another teacher’s class that has been setup and established by them. The next you’re presented with an empty room that will soon be full of 30 pairs of eyes staring at you expectantly. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find having your own class couldn’t have come any sooner. By the time September arrived, I’d planned what my classroom was going to look like, I’d read everything I could find on behaviour management and I had a clear picture in my head of the sort of teacher I was going to be (a cross between Miss Honey and LouAnne Johnson in case you’re wondering.) But even Miss Honey and LouAnne Johnson were NQTs at one point and even they didn’t know where the glue sticks were kept so here are some tips to help you in those first few weeks.
Consistency, consistency, consistency
As I’m sure you’ll have already been told, the first half term with your new class is all about setting out your expectations and setting up the routines. I’m not going to tell you which behaviour management strategy you should use, that’s entirely up to you and you may find your school has an approach they want you to use. All I will say is: be consistent. If you’ve said Sara is going to miss 10 minutes of her lunch break, then she misses 10 minutes of her lunch break, if you’ve said you’re going to speak to Andy’s mum at the end of the day – make sure you do. In the first half term in particular you need to work hard to make sure what you say is going happen actually happens. It’s hard work because the first few weeks are the time they’ll really push to see if those boundaries are actually where they say they are but it is worth getting it right. You’ll thank yourself in July.
Being consistent does not just apply to behaviour management; it is equally true of routines. It can be easy at the beginning of a new school year, fresh from the holidays and full of optimism to try and introduce too many new systems – I for one am particularly guilty of this. Every year I’d come back thinking:
“This year is going to be great – I can’t wait to share all my new ideas with the class. We’ll have one group who are responsible for keeping the plants watered in our outdoor area, another to take care of the pet hamster, I’ll introduce the bookmark challenge to get them reading more widely, oooo and I’ll have a word of the day board which we’ll look at every morning and I’ll give a sticker to the child that manages to use the word of the day the most effectively, I’ll have an interactive phonics display that I’ll change weekly and every Friday afternoon we’ll watch News Round and discuss current affairs before they go home for the weekend and hopefully they’ll continue those discussions at home. We’re going to have such a good year.”
There is nothing wrong with any of those individual ideas – I’ve seen all of them work really well but do not do what I did and try and introduce everything at once. Otherwise, once planning, marking, meetings, school shows, INSET, data etc… kick in you’ll find yourself with several dead plants, a missing class pet and children saying in March “we haven’t done Word of the Day since Christmas”. Pick a few things you want to try and do them consistently. If you want to introduce something new introduce one thing at time.
Despite being an avid reader, I almost exclusively read fiction until I started teaching. It was only when I started wanting to find out more about how children learn that I started to read non-fiction. The wonderful thing about non-fiction is that it can be dipped into as you need it. You can refer to it throughout the year rather than having to find the time in the evenings to read it cover to cover (that can be done in the holidays.) So read. Read the research and the ideas that are out there. Although remember just because someone has drawn a certain conclusion from one study does not mean they are correct. Read widely, try out different strategies and find out what works for you. A good starting point would be: Shirley Clarke on assessment, Bob Cox on teaching reading and pretty much anything written by Sue Cowley.
I’d also advise that before you start teaching a new topic learn as much as you can about it. The better you know it – the better you can teach it. The expectations of Primary maths and English are much higher than in previous years and you may find yourself having to teach things you haven’t even thought about you were in school yourself, particularly if you’re teaching upper KS2. Don’t panic just take the time to learn them really, really well. If you’re not sure how what the past progressive tense is, or how to plot linear equations on a graph – find out (this is when being in a building with teachers is very useful!) Before launching into a topic about the Romans find out the key dates, names and events and have them up your sleeve.
We had a phrase for this in my first school – Know Your Shit.
If you haven’t already, join Twitter. Books are really useful but on Twitter you can speak directly to actual teachers from all around the world (including the authors of those useful books!) They’re a friendly bunch and will happily share their advice.
My “go to” tweeters tend to be: @michaelT1979, @thatboycanteach @jillberry102, @teachertoolkit, @martynreah, @mattgovernor and @MissMaj_ they’re knowledgeable and very friendly.
Not sure where to start? Have a look at the #EdChat, #PrimaryRocks and #Teacher5aday hashtags.
Eat Your Lunch
Not to sound too much like your mother here but: please try and eat something at lunch time. It can be all too easy to fill up that hour with phone calls, clubs, setting up and sorting out behaviour issues. Take it from me, living off the left over fruit from the snack bowl is not a sustainable model; make sure you eat your lunch and, if you can, get to the staff room. In the right kind of staff room, you’ll be able to develop your relationships with your colleagues and build up a support/advice network it’s also the quickest way to get answers to those little niggling questions like “where do we keep the key for the PE shed?” and “how do I get more glue sticks?” Also the staff room is pretty much the only adult only zone in the school so go and enjoy even just 10 minutes of uninterrupted adult conversation. Teachers are some of the smartest, most interesting and good humoured people I know – get to know them.
One of the things I loved the most about being an Assistant Head was the opportunities it provided for me to observe teachers. Not formally (although there was some of that) just spending time in other people’s classrooms and seeing what was going on. Your colleagues are your most valuable resource and you can learn something from all of them so take any opportunity you are given to watch other people teach.
These days most schools are open for at least 12 hours of the day but that does not mean you have to be there all of that time – make it work for you. Last year I used to get in between 6:30 and 7am so I could mark my books – I found that I was often interrupted if I tried to mark them after school. I would try leave around 5pm. Other colleagues chose to come in later and stay later and others came in later, left early and worked a lot at home. You need to decide how you work best but remember the number of hours that you are in the building has no bearing on how good a teacher you are.
Look After You
A wise colleague once told me, “You are no less important than the children you teach; you need to take care of yourself the way you take care of them.” I foolishly ignored her and became a martyr to my job sacrificing my social life, health and well being in an attempt to be the best teacher I could be every single day. Here is what I wish I could have said to myself:
- Leave early one evening a week. (My first school didn’t open until 7:30am so I would often end up staying late. By my fourth year I’d learnt this and would leave at 4pm on Fridays.
- Not every single lesson will be outstanding. A handful of lessons will be amazing, another handful will be just terrible and most will be good. You might find you learn more from those lessons that go really wrong than you do from those that run perfectly so don’t be afraid of them. Guy Claxton summed this up really well in an INSET: “When you’re making a really good car – you have to crash a few.” When you’re learning what makes a really good lesson you have to have a few complete disasters.
- Good is good enough
- I wish I’d overcome my aversion to exercise earlier in my twenties because it is the best way to de-stress. Whether it’s walking, swimming, boxing, running or yoga – it really doesn’t matter. It forces you to take time out for yourself – and it might force you to leave work earlier.
- You are allowed a life. I remember sheepishly turning up hungover one morning and confessing to the Phase Leader I’d drunk far too much the evening before. “Zoe, you’re allowed a life” she replied with a laugh. I’ll be honest teaching 30 7-year-olds with an awful hangover is a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies so I wouldn’t suggest you do it too often but it will happen and that is fine.
- Just say no – don’t feel as though you have to say yes to everything. This is a difficult one to master, especially in those early days of your career. I was the queen of enthusiastically saying yes to everything and having an emotional meltdown when it all got too much. Be realistic. If it feels as though you’re already stretched that probably means you are.
Find out how to do the register
My final piece of advice. This sounds ridiculous but on my very first day I merrily strolled into the classroom, sat my new class down and introduced myself. Then I opened the register and then realised I had no idea which symbols I was supposed to be using. Was it PL for packed lunch or D for school dinners? I had to send a patient LSA around to ask for me and by the time we’d done the register I was late for assembly. Not the biggest problem in the world but one you can do without during your first 10 minutes with your class.
“Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”
This advice has been pulled together from my experiences as a teacher and an NQT mentor and of course from all the advice that has been shared with me over the years. As with any advice – you may find some of it useful, some of it needs to be adapted to your situation and some you can completely disregard.
So yes, your first year will be difficult at times because starting a new job always is. I remember telling my mentor that having my first class after my training felt a bit like getting into a car thinking I’d passed my driving test and realising my instructor had been using the dual control the entire time. It’s a steep learning curve but it’s hugely rewarding and remember: everyone has been an NQT at some point so don’t be afraid to ask for help.