Happy New Year! This phrase conjures up many images: champagne glasses clinking, the countdown to midnight, loved ones gathering together and new year’s resolutions being optimistically declared (only to be broken a few weeks later!) But for a class teacher, new year means something altogether quite different…
As the start of a new academic year approaches, I think back to what this time of year felt like for me as an NQT- a mish mash of emotions ranging from giddy excitement to sheer terror. Hindsight is a wonderful gift and looking back I really wish that someone had told me a few things…it would have saved me a lot of time and a lot of stress! So, here’s my Top 5 Tips for all NQT’s taking up a role this September.
- Be organised and be on time!
This may seem like a fairly obvious one and for most teachers and trainee teachers that summer break trip to Paperchase seems like a rite of passage, but organisation is crucial as a new teacher/any teacher. That first week back, you’ll be finding your feet, attending INSET training and getting to know your new team- all in all, lots going on! But use this time wisely before the ‘big day’-the first day with your new class. Find out how to take the register (yes, this is what tripped me up on day one!), ask about break & lunch timings so you can create a timetable that you can understand and work with clearly and set up your classroom so you’re not manically trying to track down coloured pencils during that first activity you’ve planned. These finer details being dealt with in advance will allow you to be in the perfect headspace for meeting your class. Calm, collected and measured, you’ll be able to make that all-important first impression in the way you want and need to.
Again, being on time seems like an obvious one but there’s nothing worse than rocking up to the staff briefing late on your first day or rushing down to greet the children because you made a last-minute dash to the photocopier. Have all your resources and activities laid out in your classroom for that first day. This tact may/may not last for the whole year but start as you mean to go on! Success breeds success and if you can make it through that first day feeling confident and happy with your performance, that positive feeling will snowball!
2) Define your personal teaching philosophy (you can keep this to yourself!)
In the previous tip I mentioned the word ‘performance’. Teaching is fairly comparable to acting. As teachers, we put in lots of prep time to get ready for our ‘role’, we have to ‘act’ emotionally neutral even when a child has accidentally dropped water on our assessment notes and we adopt a persona as teachers that, although often rooted in our own personality, is somewhat distinct.
Think about what kind of teacher you want to be and what philosophy you want to adopt as a teacher. This should encompass your ‘why’- why did you get into the profession and what drove you to embark on this career, but it should also include what it is you want to help your pupils achieve. This usually isn’t constrained to academic performance so reflect on what you want to offer your pupils outside of this and how you want to develop them as individuals. One way I like to do this is by thinking about what I’d hope my pupils say about me and the impact I had on them in 20 years’ time. What impact do you want to have? Decide on this now and then take one small step daily in your classroom in service of this ideal.
3) Set the tone in your class
People talk about ‘classroom culture’ a lot but what does that actually mean? It’s the intangible atmosphere of your classroom that you must establish from day one. It’s something which is admittedly difficult to establish but comes with time, consistency and shared, clear expectations. It isn’t about quick wins but is a much longer game and if you can get it right on day one, it’ll make day one hundred a whole lot easier and more enjoyable. So how do you go about setting the tone? Many people have shared the advice, ‘don’t smile until Christmas…’ I disagree. Smile. Show the pupils you want them there and you’re excited to share this new year and new class with them. Human nature dictates that we like to belong to social groups. We are of course, social animals and a sense of belonging is beneficial for us as humans on lots of levels. In the classroom, if you can establish this sense of belonging from the beginning, you can leverage this throughout the year whenever you hit hurdles. For example, if in the Spring term, you notice motivation dips, you can have this discussion as a collective rather than one to one, which can feel intimidating. You can establish this by creating a class charter- a list of ideas which you choose to commit to as a class e.g. respecting and showing empathy for adults and peers. Top tip- when doing this, don’t distinguish between adults and children. Avoid the Ms Trunchbull style ‘I’m big you’re little, I’m smart…’ approach at all costs. ALL individuals in the classroom should be respected. Your behaviour management style will distinguish you as the person ‘in charge’ but creating a sense of equality will allow you to show the pupils you’re a human, not a robot and allow you to model compassion and respect.
Another way to set the tone is to create a sense of positivity and optimism from the word go! This is an important one in establishing the right attitudes to learning but it will also make your classroom a nice place to be for the adults and the children. A great way to do this is exploring pupils’ goals, dreams and hopes. The purpose of this is two-fold. You get to know your pupils on a personal level and build a rapport with them that will act as the foundations for everything else but they will also see that you are committing to help them to reach those goals and this will form that all important trust. These will be the conversations you revert to if a pupil is having a bad day, if they feel disheartened by a tricky challenge or they seem uninterested. Having a culture of high aspirations and positivity in your classroom is not only essential for their academic performance but it is again modelling human traits that will stand them in good stead for their lives. Last year, in the first week, we asked our pupils what they hoped their ‘legacy’ would be when they left the school or when they were older. We had pupils create ‘legacy’ art depicting their goals and kept them up in the classroom all year round.
4) Ask for help and don’t just nod along!
As an NQT, I thought asking for help was a sign of weakness. ‘I’ve completed my PGCE, I have the credentials- surely I should be able to handle this without help! I’ll look like a bad teacher if it seems like I don’t have it together!’Guess what? Most teachers don’t ‘have it together’ all the time, even the experienced ones! (Sorry folks- secrets out!) To ask for help is the most courageous thing you can do as a teacher and a sign of true professionalism.
We’ve all been there…sat in an INSET and the trainer asks the question, ‘does that make sense?’ and we nod along knowingly whilst inside trying to memorise the acronym they used so we can Google it later. My advice? Don’t nod along! Ask there and then and don’t stop asking! Asking questions and saying that you simply don’t understand is again another hallmark of a true professional. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but you will feel more informed and ultimately it will benefit those little people you’re about to teach!
5) Accept that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day…’
The biggest hurdle I see NQT’s come across is this one- putting far too much pressure on themselves to ‘get it right’ as quickly as possible. Funnily enough, many years into my career, I still don’t feel like I’ve got it quite right and that’s the nature of teaching. Teaching is one of those professions where things are continually changing and in order to provide the best for our pupils, we need to continually develop and grow. I distinctly remember sitting down with my NQT mentor and questioning, ‘why am I not getting this lesson plan right?’ or ‘why was that lesson a complete disaster?’ and the advice he gave me has stuck with me ever since- ‘Rome was not built in a day.’ In all honesty, the job will test you at times and perhaps even make you question your choice but if you can chip away at it in this first year and remind yourself of this when it all feels too much, you’ll thrive!
Teaching isn’t the first career I’ve embarked on but I really can attest to the fact it is the most rewarding and the pride of seeing your pupils develop academically and as people outweighs any challenges you may face. It truly is a privilege. Best of luck to all the NQT’s taking up a role this September!