My first year as a teacher was in 1998. I got a job in an outstanding school in the middle of the Somerset levels. The students were from country homes and farms and everything in between this narrow band of folk. I was a northern biker and I was 22. I am really not sure how I got the job and I certainly cannot think why I chose the school. I think it was in the 50-mile boundary I had drawn around Bristol and I didn’t think I would ever get a job anyway – being selective wasn’t an option.
Now, I am not saying I chose the wrong school – I stayed there for 10 years and left as second in charge of English – though I would suggest I was an ill fit for the school and I would have had an easier ride in an inner-city school or back up north. I ended up loving the school – so all ended well. Here are some of the things I would do differently and in so doing offer some advice to first year teachers too.
First, think carefully how you turn up on your first day of work. I rode in on my motorbike, dressed head to toe in denim (it was an INSET) with my bike helmet with a shaded-out visor. I walked into the first meeting in the hall, put my helmet on the stage and turned around to a-before-its-time mannequin challenge. There was even tumbleweed. This is not necessarily the best impression to set with your new colleagues – who had last seen an NQT sometime around the mid-1980s.
Second, be needy of your Head of Department’s support. Appearing too independent is difficult for a line manager in a conservative school – be happy to accept advice, seek out his help and ask lots and lots of questions. It makes HoDs feel better when the NQT doesn’t bumble along trying to work it out for themselves. Seriously, I thought I had to just get on with it. I wasn’t particularly aware that I could appear anything less than competent. It took me three more years and a new HoD before I overcame this start to my teaching career.
Next, I would advise my first year teacher self to socialise with the staff. I would understand better that I needed to get to know the community of teachers and they get to know me. Then, I would have felt much more like I was part of a community than fighting my first year as a lone teacher. I didn’t realise being part of a team of staff was important when most of my work was alone in a room with my students. One of my best moments in my first year was when a Geography teacher and the Head of Year 9, who I had nothing to do with, gave me a toy medal to celebrate my first complete term as a teacher.
Finally, I would have gone easier on myself. I assumed I was letting my students down because I wasn’t very good. I was guessing everything and making terrible errors – going down blind alleys and telling them things that were blatantly unhelpful. I would have said to me in my first year: chill out, nobody knows what they are doing, everyone is guessing, go in there and speak confidently and try your best – that is all the kids need from you.