With there being lots of discussion about NQT’s and students starting their PGCE courses, I thought I’d share a few things that I know now that I wish I had known when I first started teaching – hopefully they will be of some help. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list but just some of the key things that I know would have helped me when I first started teaching. That said, I might be getting it wrong even now. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…
I’ve put this one first because I feel it to be one of the most important things a new teacher should ensure that they do. Don’t underestimate the importance of support staff in school. In terms of your success in your post, they are in many ways more important than the Headteacher or the Leadership Team at your school. They are the people that make things happen, they support you. The advice I would give you is to befriend them as quickly as possible. They are the hub of any school and getting on their good side is a great thing for you to do. It’s important that you recognise the impact they have in every school.
Don’t expect things to happen straight away
When you start your first job you’ll be full of great ideas about what you’re going to do. I know when I first started teaching I was really excited about the prospect of being able to have a positive impact on the lives of young people, I still am! Don’t worry, you will do, but things take time to happen. It doesn’t just happen overnight. So for example, with wanting to start Computing A Level courses as many schools are feeling compelled to do now with recent National Curriculum changes, you can’t just offer the course and expect students to do brilliantly straight away. If the foundations haven’t been built previously, then there’s going to be an uphill struggle for them to learn all of their foundational knowledge and their chances of success are limited too. Better to run courses for younger students so that foundational knowledge can be developed in readiness for the more challenging courses. The same is true with your students – you will need to train them to the routines that you want them to have. This could be related to homework or classroom discussion or in fact anything. Don’t expect perfection straight away. These things will take time to embed.
Another example, this time working with staff – I remember delivering some training to staff about the use of tools to support learning a few years ago. One of the things I suggested to support teaching and learning practice was to join Twitter and to develop a PLN. Staff seemed really excited by the prospect and I looked forward to seeing lots of colleagues start up Twitter accounts straight away. Imagine my disappointment when no one did. I was gutted. Yet, a week later, one colleague did (thank you to @teresatickoo) and slowly but surely, over time, more and more colleagues joined Twitter. Now, a large proportion of the staff are on Twitter, there’s a successful whole school Twitter account and numerous department accounts.
Not all parents are the same. When I started teaching, my experience of parents were from my own. So when I started my unconscious expectation when dealing with parents on parents evening, they would be the same. Parents wanting the best for their kids, being activity involved in their learning. Sometimes however this is just not the case. There isn’t much you can do about that BUT by being mindful of it you are then able to factor that into how you work with the students, irrespective of whether you know the parents or not you will be more mindful to work from a place where all students are not born equal. This is explained by JWB Douglas, who discussed how parental attitudes are a major factor in contributing to the attainment of their children. Parents who struggled at school, and found communication with the institution difficult as children, will then pass on these cultural assumptions in the form of cultural capital, which then restrict the life chances of their children by curtailing their educational aspirations. Sugarman and Bourdieu agree with this when they note that these children are likely to opt for instant gratification over working for long term goal, as they are driven by a fatalistic attitude to the transformative power of education, and prefer a culture of social collectivism over individual gain, which is emphasised in formal schooling. More on this can be found here and here and here.
SLT don’t know everything
SLT don’t know everything. They are just like you except they get paid more. Don’t get me wrong; they have been heads of department, they have lots of experience, and probably, have a proven track record of success. That doesn’t mean however that they know everything, or that they are always going to get everything right. Just because you might know better than they do, however, doesn’t mean that you should barge in with your righteousness. Just like you have to have emotional intelligence with your students, so you need it with your colleagues too. And if you don’t get the answers you want, it may well be that you need to present it differently. A written proposal or a carefully worded email with the right information presented in a way which resonates with that individual, might be a better approach. Remember – SLT are human too and are very very busy so don’t expect an answer back straight away. They aren’t sat on the edge of their desk waiting for your proposal. Remember the first point too – things do take time to happen. Change normally doesn’t happen overnight!
Corridor conversations are a great way of catching up with people and they happen a lot in schools because everyone is schools are really busy. Often quick conversation in a corridor is much better than a preplanned meeting booked for thirty minutes. The thing to remember is that they are not a proper meeting. No notes are taken. No record of agreed outcomes are kept. Therefore always follow up these conversations with an email summarising the key points and agreed outcomes. Do this as quickly as you can before you forget everything. There have been many times in my career where I haven’t done this, and I wish that I had.
Don’t try to be brilliant at everything (right away)
When I first started teaching I wanted to be brilliant at everything. I soon found out that spreading yourself too thin means you can end up being a jack of all trades and master of none. You can’t be brilliant at everything, at least not right away. Can you juggle? I can. But I haven’t always been able to – it’s taken practice, just like I had to learn how to catch one ball as a kid, then juggle two, add in another ball to make three (I’m quietly learning how to do four). But it takes practice. The same is true with teaching. It might be that you’re an amazing biologist or brilliant at paperwork or the cats whiskers at coaching but chances are, you not brilliant at all of them. There are lots of facets to being a great teacher, don’t beat yourself up if some areas of your teaching need improvement. Just strategically practice those that are going to make the biggest impact on your practice, one at a time. In his book ‘Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better’ (page 46), Doug Lemov talks about how when practicing your skills as a teacher, practicing your strengths to maximise them can:
a) help to make practicing more enjoyable as you are likely to be good at your strengths because you like them; but also ,
b) that practicing these things that you enjoy are more likely to get you in to a habit of practicing not just your strengths, but those areas of weakness too.
His book is amazing at giving you clear rules on how you can effectively improve your skills as a teacher. It is well worth a read.
Invest in yourself
By this I mean take the time to invest in your own CPD. Don’t just wait for it to happen to you. Don’t get to the end of your year and think that you’ve had no development all year. Own it. It’s yours after all. How can you do this? I highly recommend attending some TeachMeets. And why not buy a new app that colleagues are going crazy about and try it for yourself. Why not buy a teaching and learning book or two and read it for pleasure. Phil Beadle’s ‘How to Teach’ and Zoe Elder’s ‘Full On Learning’ are two highly recommended reads. Why not write your own reflective blog too? All of these things will help to develop you as a teacher and as a result can also lead to an awful lot of fun and success in your classroom from the learning you’ve undertaken.
You may have read blog posts extolling the virtues of attending TeachMeets. I’ve certainly been guilty of writing a few such as this one or this one. Teachers often talk about how TeachMeets and Twitter are the best CPD you could ever have and to a large extent this is true. Before the TeachMeet/Twitter era however, for me, the best CPD was always visiting the classrooms of others. Even five minutes in someone else’s class will reap teaching and learning rewards. Find the time when you have a free lesson to have a look at the learning which is going on around you both in and out of your subject areas. Don’t forget to email colleagues before doing so to see if it’s ok for you to pop in. They most likely won’t mind but it’s always nice to be asked.
Stay on top of your marking
Staying on top of your marking is really important. It will inform all of your short term planning. It is widely recognised that effective feedback is important, and what can make feedback particularly effective is when it is timely. Hattie talks about feedback in his book ‘Visible learning for teachers’ as being ‘just in time, just for me, just for where I am in my learning process and just what I need to help me more forward (page 122). And it’s true…. When you have been observed in a lesson you will want your feedback in timely fashion, which is linked to you and what you to do in order to progress and move forward. Just like you want it like that, so do students. You’ll find at the start of your career too that you are super busy. Once you let your marking (and planning) slip, then it’s very difficult to stay on top of it all. Follow the procedures in your school and stick to them. Get the marking done. It really will help you with your planning and students and parents will thank you for it.