What I wish someone had told me…

For NQT’s, the summer before starting your probationary year is a huge one. Often filled with lots of excitement and for most, a sense of anxiety. How much preparation should you do? How much reading will help get you ahead? How should you set up your classroom? There’s a desire to feel ready and prepared, and yet a need to pace oneself in order to survive. I remember spending that summer buying books, laminating and printing loads. I’ve seen a few future NQT’s post about how they should best prepare for their first week so I thought a blogpost on this might be useful. This is by no means an exhaustive list nor is it anything you won’t have heard before, but it may be a helpful reminder. I’m sure others will have more to add.

It’s important to acknowledge that the year ahead will be a huge learning curve and you are not expected to know everything in August. Your values, your morals and your character will determine how you approach the year ahead and for me, that’s more important than the resources you prepare. Yes spend time preparing if you want to. But let’s face it, there is only so much forward planning you can do in advance of meeting your learners and reacting to the prior understanding they come to you with. It’s vital you are rested, recharged and in a good place to be the best you can be for the young people. So do what is right for you. I wrote a little about this here.

This post is not just for new teachers but also for those starting a new post or indeed anyone returning to the classroom after summer or a longer period. These are my thoughts on where it might be best to focus our energy during the remainder of the holiday.

1. You set the weather in your classroom so…

Instead of using summer to laminate resources, print out posters and create novelty lessons, I’d argue it is worthwhile to spend some time having a think about the culture you want to create in your own classroom. For many NQT’s, it may be the first opportunity to have your own room for the very first time, and it can be tempting to spend lots of energy (and pennies!) on creating a picture perfect classroom. By all means, if creating beautiful learning walls are helpful to you in your day to day teaching, then absolutely go for it. But don’t punish yourself if you don’t. Aesthetics are great, but the impact you as a teacher have will be more powerful. Think about your expectations and how you will communicate these. It’s important to be clear on that early on so you can over-communicate by ten! How will you build the relationships which will become the bedrock of the learning and teaching partnership? Learning pupil names and genuine interest in them is a good starting point. It’s important to note that I am not trying to become ‘friends’ with pupils, instead that we establish mutual respect. Welcome them by name, remember things they tell you and build the sense of team within the class. Primary teachers are really amazing at this and arguably it is more difficult in secondary but definitely can be done.

2. Routines, routines, routines.

I’m a big believer in teaching pupils routines. Aside from saving valuable lesson time and automating important procedures used daily like distributing materials, routines are also important because they allow learners to focus their working memory on the learning. But again you need to think this through and decide how you want these important routines to be played out by pupils. Do you want pupils to line up to enter the classroom? Will you expect one pupil to distribute materials or will you hand these out? Hands up to answer questions? There is no right or wrong way of doing things but I think it’s good for you to have thought about what will work best in your setting, context and classroom. So that you are then able to make this explicit to your pupils. But do remember that pupils won’t just ‘know’ how to do things in your class – you will need to teach them like anything by breaking it down, and allow them to practise. It will take time and effort but will be worth it . And bear in mind that in secondary school pupils have lots of new routines to learn for each new classroom they enter.

3. Subject knowledge is king

If you have the inclination and the time, I would probably focus my attention and reading on areas of subject knowledge which I might be less confident with. Perhaps you have been given a course outline for the year groups you will teach. It’s impossible to be an expert in all subject content, therefore there might be areas you will be teaching which you know less about. I’ve found that I’m more likely to be stressed or get flustered when I am not 100% certain of the content. Brush up on areas you might not have covered within your degree or seek out opportunities to learn from colleagues. When you have an idea of the curricular areas covered in the classes you will teach, you can target these in your reading, podcasts or documentaries watch list.

4. Pedagogy. Not pretty lessons

When planning lessons for your first week (and beyond!), think about the learning, not just the finished outcome. What do you want pupils to know. Or be better at?Be wary of falling into the trap of creating activities which either provide the illusion of learning by keeping pupils ‘busy’ or indeed focus on a specific outcome which can be put up on display. Read more about this in ‘The Teaching Delusion’ by Bruce Robertson. It can be tempting to spend the first week doing ‘fun,’ ‘getting to know you’ activities. Remember that in high school if pupils are doing this in every subject, it can lose impact and very quickly learners will lose interest. I much prefer to get stuck right into learning. And I usually choose something with high impact and low threat. Pupil motivation comes from success, so learning something which is achievable but gives instant gratification can be a very powerful way to start a new year. And whilst pupils are working, you can get to know them.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask

Be the teacher who self-reflects and is not afraid to ask. Show how keen you are to learn and use collegiate time to listen and gain from other members of your team. Be willing to contribute ideas or even just show enthusiasm for someone else’s if you don’t feel confident enough to put yourself out there in the early days.

6. Pace yourself.

It can be tempting to volunteer for everything and anything in the early days. You are enthusiastic and want to show how committed you are to your new school and your role. Remember there will be lots of opportunities to get involved with the wider life of the school and in the early days your priority should be building confidence in your classroom. You can still show how motivated you are, without stretching yourself so thinly that you can’t do any of it particularly well. You don’t want to feel you are playing catch up in the classroom because you have signed up to help with after-school and lunch clubs. Be careful not to overstretch yourself in the early days, but express your interest in getting involved when you can.

7. It’s not only your pupils who are learning.

There will almost certainly be good lessons and not so good lessons. And every single teacher has experienced that feeling of deflation when a lesson hasn’t gone as planned. Your pupils are not the only ones who are learning. So don’t be too hard on yourself – we’ve all been there. Remember this and accept that these are opportunities to get better. Self reflect, ask what you can do differently next time and talk about it with your mentor.

8. Connect

A support network who will be there for you through the ups and downs of the year will make a big difference. But it can be hard to meet people in a busy school. Smile, be friendly and socialise. Don’t worry if you aren’t the most outgoing person in the world. It’s about being genuine and warm. Start in your own department but don’t limit yourself to those closest to you. Get out and about and go for a wander around the school. Remember there will be new staff in similar situations to you in departments all across the school. Seek out opportunities to meet other NQT’s – perhaps suggest meeting for lunch once a week. Teachers are busy people and it can be easy to work through break and lunch if you don’t make a conscious effort to stop and set aside some time to recharge. Even on my busiest days, I always feel a little more refreshed when I’ve stopped for a blether, a giggle and a wee distraction from the four walls of your classroom. I always try to make the effort to have lunch with my teacher buddies on a Friday. But don’t worry if it takes a wee while to seek out your tribe. Keep smiling, being friendly and you will find others who reciprocate.

9. Comparison is the thief of joy

It can be tempting to compare yourself to other NQT’s in the school, peers from your course or even teachers on social media. However we can never know the full story behind someone’s journey. Remember you are you, on your own path. Do what feels right for you. Use evidence and reading to gain knowledge about classroom practice, seek out the expertise of teachers in your department and mould this with your own values to make you practice the best for you.

10. Feedback is a gift

The beauty of your NQT year is that your trajectory of improvement will hopefully be phenomenal. Evidence suggests that after the first few years this slows down considerably. One of the reasons for this is the amount of feedback you will receive in this period. Sometimes this will be positive, sometimes it will be constructive but hopefully it will always be honest. Use the time before you start your year in school, to prepare yourself mentally for receiving this feedback. Understanding that your mentor, observer or colleague giving the feedback, cares for your progress, therefore their comments however negative or honest, are intended to help you get better. This mindset ensures that the feedback, is not personal and instead will land in a way which allows it to be useful and helps you to move forward. Take it on board and think of it as a gift.

It’s taken me a long time to realise but being in a good place physically, mentally and emotionally at the start of a school year, is just as important than any planning or classroom prep.

Enjoy what’s left of the holiday and all the best for the school year ahead.

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