teaching with 'p' plates on

Since signing my life away to the teaching profession, I’ve become an avid reader of the Education Guardian‘s weekly Secret Teacher blog (I did a week’s work experience there when I was 16…oh, the irony!). Normally, I just observe what everyone else has to say on the topic being discussed (admittedly, for fear of saying the wrong thing and being shot down!), but I couldn’t help responding to the latest post written by a PGCE student whose inspiring article was about why they would ensure they didn’t become another drop out statistic – the latest figures are that two in five new teachers leave in their first five years. As an NQT, I could relate to her positive thoughts and feelings on starting life in the classroom, but I found myself being wound up by what I could only describe as the teaching world’s answer to ‘trolls’ (defined as people who start arguments or essentially, ‘bully’ others over the internet).

Despite this girl openly discussing her brush with death as a result of cervical cancer and how this second chance at life spurred her on to make the career change she had simply contemplated before, keyboard warriors didn’t hold back in their attempts to crush her spirit; I was honestly horrified at how vile people could be towards any new teacher, let alone someone who hasn’t had an easy ride to get to this point in their training. Comments like, “I’m going to show this to my Year 11s to show what naive writing looks like” and “Come back in five years and let us know how you feel about teaching then” wound me up so bloody much. How dare you! I’m sure everyone – no matter how long ago they joined the profession – had the same drive and determination to ‘make a difference’ and ‘do it for the kids’ when they started, but just because years of abuse from the government and the relentless nature of the job may have turned some sour, it doesn’t give them the right to bring the newcomers down with them. As teachers, one of our many roles is to ensure bullying doesn’t take place in our schools, so why is it okay to do it on the internet? I spy hypocrisy at its finest!

I have been extremely lucky throughout my training and NQT year to be surrounded by people who have nurtured, supported and driven me to be the best I can be, so I really hope these trolls aren’t anywhere near new teachers because their toxic comments will act as poison. Whilst I could be narrow-minded about the whole thing and address the issue by saying, ‘Well if you hate teaching so much, why don’t you just leave?’ I’m all too aware that it is rarely that simple. However, what annoys me the most about the members of the pessimistic parade is them branding new teachers as ‘naive’. Of course, anyone will approach anything new with a certain degree of naivety – thanks for telling me something I didn’t know already – but our rose-tinted spectacles do still allow many of us to see the wood from the trees. After all, it is difficult to get a teacher training place these days without proving you have spent time in a school, whether it’s through support work or observing. Yes, you may not have experienced first-hand the same pressures and workload of a teacher, but anyone with half a brain who has been back to the classroom before applying for their PGCE will know what the job entails. On that note, I can’t speak for everyone obviously, but I spent my entire training year having teacher standards shoved down my throat: new teachers are definitely well prepared to deal with the current pressures of the job and besides, we don’t know anything different so we don’t need reminding of what was. It’s like when your parents laugh at jokes in re-runs of old programmes on Dave – you don’t get the relevance so it makes no difference to your life! Potential PGCE students also need to research the latest issues in education – they might not really understand the context, but flicking through headlines from teaching publications shows the education world is pretty colourful at the moment!

So I say to those who feel the need to attack the ones bringing sunshine to the storm the education system is becoming, please don’t treat us like we’re stupid: it’s not our fault that we don’t yet understand what can be the true trials and tribulations of our chosen careers. I doubt you did when you started either and think, would this level of negativity help or hinder you? Besides, if people like me and any new teachers are happy to join the profession in the current circumstances, then let us be! I understand that some people may mean well with these comments and want to bring new teachers who seemingly have their head in the clouds back down to Earth (and of course, I appreciate the advice and guidance of my more experienced colleagues!), but there is a way of saying something nicely and this is one situation when harsh opinions need to be kept to the confines of your own staff room support group. Let’s put this into context for a second – we would never crush a kid’s enthusiasm and passion for a subject or activity, regardless of whether you think they can truly succeed at it, so why treat student teachers in the same way?

Whilst it may be saddening that two in five new teachers drop out in the first few years, three in five of us stay! Why must we focus on the negatives?

When I first set out on my teaching journey, I was always told how difficult the PGCE year was: you will be working all hours, never see your friends, family or the outside world etc etc. Although I’m not one to describe myself as work-shy, these types of comments left a small ball of dread in the pit of my stomach – I thought you only gave up your life when you had babies? Ergh. However, as my QTS was in sight after what turned out to be a quite-hard-work-but-not-nearly-as-life-consuming-as-it-was-made-out training year, SUDDENLY, all those who were telling me that my PGCE year is make or break changed their tune and told me that – in fact – the NQT year is the hardest of them all. That wasn’t a lie.

One of the things I was dreading the most as I approached my NQT year was the threat of a workload comparable to the Himalayas: even teacher-y family members of mine (whose opinions I take remotely seriously) told my boyfriend to not expect an evening or weekend with me for pretty much ten months. Gulp. Determined to not turn from a raring-to-go newbie to paperwork mountaineer, I made sure to pick up some tips from my dear colleagues and mentor to try and savour some of my free time. They might not be revolutionary, but helped me anyways:

“Guess what? You don’t need a PowerPoint for EVERY lesson!”
This was an epiphany moment courtesy of my good friend / second in department. Throughout my training year, I never went without a trusty PowerPoint – I mean, HOW can I teach an outstanding lesson without a range of Blooms-related colour-coded slides complete with clear lesson objectives and a selection of Microsoft Office’s finest shapes containing appropriately differentiated instructions? Well, firstly, I have learnt not every lesson has to be ‘outstanding’ (I was aware of this before, but it’s hard to forget when you are used to your every move in the classroom being watched), but I also realised that not having a PowerPoint doesn’t equal severe punishment from the teaching Gods. Rather, it is quite liberating as well as saving at least an hour of my day! Of course, I haven’t replaced PowerPoint with my trusty board pen completely, but every now and then, it is refreshing to pop a couple of instructions on the board and let the lesson do the talking.

Sharing really is caring
I think I’m pretty lucky to work in a department that is open to sharing good practice, an assumption I’ve made only because any other NQTs I have spoken to – whether at training sessions or because they’re existing friends – tell me all their lessons are made from scratch, which understandably takes up the majority of their time. Pretty standard #NQTprobs. Of course, many of my lessons are my own and I by no means leave school at 3 o’clock and spend my evenings watching TLC (as much as I would love to sometimes), but having access to a plethora of existing lessons taught by my colleagues has helped me manage my time massively. Yes, some may need a tweak here and there to suit my style or class, but looking at and using other peoples’ lessons is almost CPD in itself; I discover new ways of doing the same activities or learn how to improve my own lessons that incorporate similar skills across other topics and year groups. Likewise, I make sure I contribute my PowerPoints and ideas too especially as I have the gift of extra frees – just because you’re an NQT doesn’t mean your lessons aren’t valued. Even if you don’t work in a department that doesn’t tend to share, try sending out a lesson or two that you’re proud of – someone else will almost definitely find a use for it and they will likely return the favour.

Use the golden six weeks to plan your first two weeks
We all love the six week holidays for sure, and whilst they have their many benefits which no-one needs reminding of, they’re also a great chance to get the first few tricky weeks of your NQT year under your belt. I made sure I planned every lesson – PowerPoint, resources, the lot – for my first two weeks back in the first week or so of the break. Of course, the first few lessons after the holidays will be taken up with giving out books and re-writing your name a million times on the board, but a) likewise, your first week of frees will be taken up with dealing with various annoying niggly bits that you could always palm off to a ‘proper’ teacher during your training year and b) your first week of evenings will be a write-off as a result of being too tired to contemplate lesson planning whilst you come to terms with actually having to work again. Honestly, spending a third of my summer sorting my lessons made the first few weeks back stress-free; if you don’t get complacent, you’ll stay two weeks ahead of yourself throughout the year (so you can actually have your holidays and weekends…unless you have marking. Moan.).

You had loads of observed lessons last year – use them!
On top of my three standard NQT observations, I also had the joy of an OFSTED inspection during my first term. Hopefully, you should have a rough idea of whether OFSTED will be visiting your school or not so it won’t come as a shock, but observations shouldn’t be an extra thing to plan from scratch when you have another million NQT things to deal with. A blessing in disguise should come from your training year lessons – think about it: they have a lesson plan, differentiation and you’ll already know what you need to do to improve it. Just re-hash them when you have time (either during holidays or a ‘quiet’ night) and you’ll be good to go for the year. You’ll be especially thankful for this if your school gets the OFSTED call – I was still up until 11pm just doing lesson and seating plans!

Don’t be consumed by teacher guilt
I’m always a bit suspicious if I have the prospect of a night with no work whatsoever – so concerned in fact that I will sometimes make work for myself! It sounds mad (it probably is), but because you’re expected to be working all day every day as an NQT, you can’t help but feel slightly wrong for having an evening ‘off’. Again, another set of wise words from the same friend reassured me that it’s okay to switch off from school sometimes. I have always been stubborn with the work-life balance to an extent, never working beyond a set time and having a night to myself at least once a week, but this was another piece of advice that stuck with me. After all, the world won’t end if I decide not to mark Year 9s books or spend the night in a horizontal position to preserve energy for a full day of lessons ahead. What’s the point in having perfectly marked books and an outstanding selection of PowerPoints if you’re too tired to teach them properly?

What other tips and tricks have other NQTs have picked up for managing workload this year?

One thing that proper winds me up are people who criticise teachers. Yes, they may not always be presented in the best possible light by the media, but I don’t need telling that I’m ‘mad’ (or equivalent) because I decided to take a career path which doesn’t involve getting paid overtime, sometimes dealing with toe-rags and being constantly tired. I didn’t go straight into teaching – my first post-grad job was a standard office jaunt which I hated so much it drove me to depression (that’s another story for another day) – but, the point is that I have known life outside of the classroom and it wasn’t for me; I like to think I made a remotely informed decision when I first sent off applications for teacher training!

Surely the reason (most of us) do our jobs is because they give us some sort of gratification? For me, I got no kick out of staring at a computer screen all day and nodding like a Churchill dog pretending I agreed with the corporate numpties and their ridiculous range of motivation metaphors. Even if life was ‘easier’ back then, one of the best things about teaching for me is what I do outside of the classroom, the parts where I don’t get paid overtime and lose precious planning time.

This week, myself and some of my lovely colleagues put on the annual school musical extravaganza after six months of constant rehearsals (what am I going to do with all this free time come Monday afternoon?!). I joined the musical team during my training year – there was no question of whether I would do it or not as it’s all I did when I was a kid – so I’m still very much a newbie compared to some of the others who have been doing it for a good few years. Despite our moments of moaning, CBA-ing and counting down the hours until it was all over, our final show last night was certainly a reminder to me of why we do it in the first place.

Of course, our goal as teachers is to inspire and excite students in our subjects, yet I’ve found that some of the best relationships with pupils can be made after the last bell has rung. My normally stone heart was melted last night as most of the cast sobbed their way through the final number; you forget that for many of the kids stood on that stage, they don’t have a reason to go home in the same way the staff do. That’s not because they have bad lives necessarily – if you’re having fun prancing around on stage with your mates, why would you want to stop? I could console the younger ones by telling them there was always next year, but the #totesemosh part was seeing upper sixth formers, who are significantly taller and more talented than me, looking for some comforting words to dry their tears now their last ever school musical performance was over. There is nothing more satisfying to me than having that kind of impact on a young person’s life. Whilst trying to keep my own heart in tact, I told them to be happy that they will have these wonderful memories from their school days and look back on them fondly. More importantly from my perspective, I recognised that those memories wouldn’t exist in the first place if it wasn’t for the staff who can afford to give up their time to help the students put on a show.

We all know that grades and academic achievement are vital for a successful future, but I have never seen students sad to leave their last ever lesson. It showed me how important it is to ensure I continue (while I can) to give our kids opportunities that they don’t get from sitting in a classroom, and who cares if I don’t get paid anything for it? A ‘thank you’ is priceless.

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