A Terribly Candid Letter to New Teachers

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The first year of being a teacher is not unlike the first year of secondary school for a pupil. Just like the step into year seven, you are led by your older and initiated peers to expect to be destroyed by the children at your new school. You get the odd sense that you need to toughen up. You become infected with a self-consciousness which leads to feelings of angst, worry and doubt. You take in the positivity and encouragement of others and decide to shelve them, presuming people are just trying to put your mind at rest.

I’ve been there, as we all have.

Not only are you going to make mistakes (obviously you are, you fallible thing!) but you are going to make them in front of the kids who you will be teaching all year! For those on TeachFirst, like your narrator here, you might even have been plopped into a random part of England or Wales where you know nobody at all, partially against your will

You are far from home. You are confused. You are alone in the staff room. Nobody knows who you are. You don’t feel like a teacher and the fact that your name is inscribed on a door, and kids have Mister or Miss (Your Name) on their books makes you feel giggly and surreal. You can’t read the names on the register. Everyone will hate you. Why are you doing this? Get out, get out, for the love of God, get out!!!!!

Oy!!! Stop panicking! If you panic, you will do silly unnecessary stuff like agonise, weep, moan, starve, lose sleep, get ill and then panic even more.

Friend, we all start somewhere. If your new colleagues are rude, unhelpful or dismissive to you, which is pretty rare, feel safe in the knowledge that these people are SCUMBAGS and the divine hand of fate shall erase them. Having a job teaches you that there are SCUMBAGS in every workplace, but there are also REGULAR HELPFUL PEOPLE too.

Friend, if you want to survive, wear your trainee-status like a badge of honour. It isn’t easy being one of us, and if you just scrape through hoping nobody notices that you are a morbidly terrified trainee, you aren’t likely to improve, and you will probably just leave and find a better paid job outside of teaching, which is tragic.

Seek help when you need it, or even when you want it, but be brave enough to take the risks and do things yourself too. Your colleagues and mentors will teach you to run at s teacherly pace, but you need to tie up your own boots, get your own shorts on and do your stretches.

Find the things you most love doing at school – your favourite subject to teach, a special hobby, an interest you share with a few of the kids, a dazzling sporting ability – and make time for it! The first year is mental, and you need to find release. In my first year, which was as a class teacher of my own lovely Year 4 babies but also as a clueless trainee, I spent fifteen minutes a day playing basketball with my wee ones in the playground. It was fifteen minutes extra marking each night, but in that fifteen minutes of slam dunking over clumsy 9 year olds I felt chilled as hell, my kids were happy and they began to like me as a human being. Children are humans (don’t forget that) and humans tend not to want to upset or annoy people they like. So make time to share a bit of joy with the kids, even if you have marking coming out of your ears. It will benefit you in the long run (or even the short hobble to the staff room each night).

Ignore any advice that looks like it could fit onto a motivational poster. If it is simple enough to squeeze into a ten word sentence, it is probably riddled with BS. ‘Don’t smile til Christmas!’ they whisper. IGNORE IT!!! If you want to stare dispassionately at loud and characterful children all day, paint yourself silver and go and sit in Trafalgar Square among the Yodas. You are a key adult in the kids’ life, even if you are a trainee, and they deserve more than for you to be testing out the limits of your Dementor act to placate the wishes of some doomy myth-peddler. Don’t go in there doling out hugs and party bags, but don’t feel you have to be Snape in order to pass your training year. Aim for McGonagall or perhaps even approachable little Sprout. I toyed with being Hagrid, but ended up Haggard and subsequently ended my first year much as St-St-Stuttering Professor Quirrell did, including the baldness.

Here is some disorganised advice then.

Be organised. Listen to your bosses, be honest with your mentors, socialise with your colleagues, flatter your caretaker and befriend your cleaners. Remember that your kids are human beings,but remember that you are too – be devoted to the cause, but not in a Pyongyang sort of way. We can argue about teaching being a craft, a vocation, a job, a profession, a semi-profession or even a journey, but nobody is suggesting it is a kamikaze flight. More advice. Marking and verbal feedback is really important – don’t let it slip as you stop knowing what the kids are doing and you alienate them. In primary, remember that the kids want to please you – remember also that in some circumstances, if you are not praising and encouraging the child, there might not be anybody in that child’s life making them feel special. Make sure that you are pronouncing each child’s name correctly – the fact that your kids aren’t white British and called Emily or Daniel doesn’t justify you misnaming them all year. Smile. Don’t be afraid of the parents – if you want the best for the kids, then their parents are your most reliable ally in most circumstances, and even if they are not behaving as you would hope for the interests of the kid, then you can still model the values that they should be showing. Eat your greens and drink barrel loads of water. Find support wherever it is offered, and however tempting it is to work through your lunch breaks, eat your bloody sandwich and say hello to someone. Join Twitter and get to know the teachers on there – it is the staff room of your dreams, and you can Mute those members who grate on you.

Finally, and despite my cautions earlier about becoming a strong detector of myths, bunkum and folklore, don’t lose sight of the fact that you are doing something brilliant. The words you say absent mindedly in a cold classroom in mid November can live on forever in the minds of one of your pupils – everything you say has the potential to become significant to them, for whatever reason, and whilst you cannot control their interpretation, just recognise that you aren’t really ever ‘backstage’. Superheroes don’t smash up villains, duff up baddies, fly between galaxies and swing from skyscrapers using webs – they drive to and from work in the dark, carry planning folders, lean on photocopiers, tell stories and cause their pupils to lay awake in deep curiosity at night asking themselves questions that nobody can answer.

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4 thoughts on “A Terribly Candid Letter to New Teachers

  1. Just love this, Jonny, and the timing is brilliant – am working with trainees in Stratford this week! Will recommend they all read it….

    And how are YOU doing with the greens eating thing, hmmmm????

      1. Aargh! Sadly not! Would have loved to meet you. Am working all day tomorrow and then driving home for an evening commitment.

        Next time….

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