Welcome to the chalkface : advice to an NQT

I have an NQT starting in September. I still remember my first day as an NQT. I was terrified. Ten years later, and nine years as a Head of History, I’ve welcomed seven NQTs to the Department, four of whom – now highly experienced and effective teachers – will join me in welcoming that new NQT into our small cupboard-sized office under the stairs in the refurbished old toilet room.

One thing I remember well is that there was a huge amount of advice, do’s and don’ts, and other bits of guff which were thrown at me: the NQT evidence folder, the various school policies, the lists of names (students and teachers), the unfathomable site map. Fortunately, my wonderful Head of Department, and some lovely colleagues, both new and experienced, helped me through that first week, term and year. Now, with the benefit of that experience, I can return the favour.

I don’t propose this is an exhaustive list of useful tips – that would be miles long. Nor are all these bits of advice – some are just points to bear in mind. Some of these might be entirely local to my school and department. But for what it’s worth….

1. Behaviour

The top concern of all NQTs. Here’s the deal : you WILL have students who misbehave. (1) They are teenage girls, and thus their minds are a mystery to all adults, so it’s not your fault. (2) Every single one of your colleagues has also had misbehaviour, and probably still do, so you are not an isolated failure; we’re ALL failures ! 🙂

They will test your boundaries, no matter whether you try “scary” or “friendly” or any point between, Don’t take it as a sign of your inadequacy, as it’s not.  Speak to your colleagues, swap war stories, and find out what worked for them. Ignore anyone who says “Oh, she always behaves well for me”, as they are an idiot. Use the systems. I will not consider you a weak teacher if some mentalist Year 9 rips up your class – I’ll understand and help, as I’ve had that happen to me plenty of times. I will consider it a problem if the Year 9 nutjob rips up all your classes because for fear of being thought weak, you’ve not sought help.

In my first year, I remember going back to my desk after a particularly awful bottom set Y7 class, and holding my head in my hands while explaining to another NQT that I, a 35 year-old grown man, who played rugby league and had worked with cabinet ministers, was being bullied by a group of 12 year-old girls. It happens to us all. Speak out, and don’t panic.

2. Never break a promise to a child

That means both nice promises (“if you do this well, I’ll give you a sticker”) and nasty promises (“If I see you drawing smiley faces on Katie’s hand one more time, I’ll give you a detention”). You HAVE to follow up. Miss one promised reward or sanction, and you’ve lost authority for at least a term, probably the year. So don’t promise anything you’re not willing or able to deliver. It’s too easy to threaten sanctions then realise that they’ll bugger up your lunchtime, so you let them off. Don’t do this.

3. Consistency is not conformity

Children can manage a lot of inconsistency between  different teachers without a problem. Obviously, if a kid tells teacher A to bugger off, then that has to be dealt with in the same way as a kid telling teacher B to bugger off. However, such major events are fairly rare. Most of what you’ll face is entirely low-level and local to your classroom, and so the response can be local too. Don’t feel you have to escalate a minor incident into a major sanction just because you’ve seen another teacher do it. Find your own way which works. But then stick to it, because what students don’t like is an inconsistent teacher who treats them arbitrarily from day to day. As long as they know that Action X will always result in Response Y in your classroom, then their expectations are managed. It doesn’t matter if your response is not the same as the teacher next door’s response.

Likewise, just because Miss A (recently joined from Mossbourne) always starts her lesson with the kids standing up and chanting a motivational North Korean song, doesn’t mean you have to as well. We don’t expect, and wouldn’t want, all the adults we know to be exactly the same, so why do we think that teenagers can’t cope with differences between teachers ? Bonkers.

Warning : many SLTs do not understand this distinction, although mine do. There’s something in the genetic makeup of many SLT types which tends towards the view that any difference to their personal preference is A Bad Thing ™, and they’ll tell you time and again that everyone should imitate drones and respond in exactly the same way to everything, teach every lesson in the same way, and bow in the same way to passing SLT members. Fortunately, 99% of your lessons are just you, your room, and 30 unpredictable monkeys. But check to see what sort of SLT you have before acting !

4. You can only be yourself in the classroom

Teaching is an intensely human and personal experience, and you can’t survive if you’re trying to squeeze into someone else’s skin every day. You won’t really know what sort of teacher you are until you’ve done it for a bit. Then you may find you’re stricter or more relaxed than you originally thought. There will be other teachers who just don’t do it like you. That’s fine – remember the consistency not conformity point above. Despite what Ofsted and some SLTs suggest, there is no Right Way and Wrong Way. There’s just whichever way works for you and your students, which is something that will develop probably over the first couple of years of your career. So don’t go in trying to emulate a model from a book, or copying that guy on the godawful webcast of an “outstanding lesson” you were forced to sit through on an INSET day. Come watch a lesson from each of the department, and you’ll see four very different styles, all of which work (possibly because of point 10 below).

5. Homework

Between you and me, I don’t set more of this than I have to. Partly because of the promise point above – you set it, you’d better mark it. But mostly because I’m rather unconvinced of its value. I think the nadir for me was years ago when I saw a “homework ideas” handout for teachers which offered a random set of homework exercises which could be set irrespective of content/subject/stage. It seemed a clear statement that the homework was seen as an end in itself, not a means to an end. Not in my department! If there’s a useful purpose, set homework, by all means. But if you ever find yourself thinking “Now, I have to set a homework, what should it be…?”, then STOP. Don’t set it for the sake of setting it.

Warning : it goes without saying that you might want to check your school’s homework policies. Some are more relaxed than others.

6. Time

Look, there’s just never enough time. There never will be. I still go home every day after ten years thinking of myself as a failure because of the great long list of things which in an ideal world I would have done, but which I just cannot find the time to do. Avoiding burn-out and collapse is largely down to trying to find ways of doing all the things which have to be done, doing as many as possible of the things which should be done, and ignoring most of the things which could be done. The price of managing that successfully is exhaustion from the former two categories and guilt from the latter. Learn to embrace it, as it will never go away !

7. Never make it personal

This starts with criticising the action, not the person. The classic “Your behaviour is offensive”, rather than “You are offensive”. The former allows you a way back with the student in the future, while the latter slams the door on your relationship. But also, keep it in mind when you find yourself thinking “I hate that bloody class”, as you approach yet another Year 9 lesson which you know is going to be a high-wire act of gritted teeth behaviour management. You don’t hate that class. Most of that class are completely inoffensive and well-behaved. You don’t even hate those half-dozen loonies who are giving you such a hard time. Many of them are fighting horrible home circumstances and haven’t had many good examples set for them, while even those with normal home lives are still, as pointed out above, teenage girls, and thus mental. Also, I’ve now personally taught more than a thousand students, and I’ve never met one who has been unredeemable. What you hate is not the students, but the experience you’re having in that class. You can’t do things to change the students, but you can do things to change your experience.

8. You will think about them far more than they think about you

You will actually worry about the students. Some of them will keep you awake at night. The days before their exams and results are finger-gnawingly tense. You’ll analyse their behaviour for hours after a bad lesson, talk about individual students for the whole of your lunchtime to your colleagues, and spend days and weeks in total giving great thought to the work the students are doing and how you might help them to improve. They, on the other hand, will mostly not think about you from the moment they walk out of your door till the moment they walk back in. There are so many more interesting things to think about when you’re 14. That’s exactly how it should be. The good news, therefore, is that when you leave a class thinking “Oh My God, that was the worst experience of my life, I can’t believe that happened. I messed up the starter, got completely off-track on the main part, and forgot about the plenary altogether – the students are laughing at my incompetence“, they’re leaving the same class thinking “OMG, Jess said she wasn’t going to come out tonight, but I’ve found out that she IS going out with Katie, and she’s supposed to be Nicole’s BFF, but Nicole and Katie had a massive fallout over what Alex said to Holly about Laura”.

9. Those who can…

Develop a thick skin. Inside a school, you will hear and see students saying and doing things which can feel like personal attacks: “This lesson’s boring, miss”, “Oh God, not history again”. Don’t fly off on one. It’s not personal (see point 8). It’s just teenagers engaging mouths before brains, and saying the same things which adults often think in different contexts, but are too well-trained/polite to give voice to. I generally take the view that it’s best to never show weakness. Humour can help a lot.

In my NQT year, my first Y11 form group were less than impressed with me replacing their previous form tutor. In my first term, I opened the drawer to my desk to find an advert for hairloss products cut out and placed there. I looked up at a room of suspiciously silent, smirking 15 year-olds. I pulled it out, read it to them, and then said that I was very grateful for the suggestion, but I planned to grow an enormous comb-over so I could be a proper boring history teacher. That was the last time they tried anything personal. If I’d flapped and got upset, the next one would have doubtless been an advert for penis enlargement.

Outside school, every politician and journalist for the last thirty years has worked on the basis that most teachers are useless, most schools are failing, and standards are always falling. Only they, the heroic know-nothings, can fix this, usually by bashing you over the head with something. This generic attitude has trickled down to more than a few citizens, resulting in the odd situation in which the overwhelming majority of parents are highly satisfied with their own child’s school, but many are apparently convinced that all the other schools in the country are chaotic dens of knife-wielding feral, illiterate gangsta yoof, and crap, thick, lazy teachers. This won’t change, and you may want to install a cut-out device on your radio to switch off automatically whenever the Today programme has a discussion about education. On the plus side, Gove is gone.

Also, it is a lesser known ancient law (like shooting Welshmen with a longbow in Shrewsbury and driving your sheep over London Bridge on Shrove Tuesday), that if anyone says to a teacher “Those who can, do, those who can’t teach”, then that teacher is legally allowed to punch them hard on their smug, contemptible, clueless face. Honest it is.

10. Enjoy the kids

I saw some sort of discussion on Twitter the other day where someone suggested that one didn’t have to like children to be a good teacher. Let me be clear : yes you do. If you don’t like children, then do not be a teacher. You’ll be terrible. In addition, you’re going to hate your job, like a Policy Exchange staffer having to work with actual evidence. Also, you’re a horrible human being, get out of my department.

There are so many things I dislike about being a teacher, but none of them are connected to the kids. I still enjoy being in a classroom with the students, and their funny, naïve, open, energetic and inspirational ways. It’s liking them which makes me want to work hard for them. It’s that classroom experience which keeps me coming back each year.

Also, here’s the thing : teenagers, like most children, can spot if you like them a mile off. And if they know you like them, they are much, much more likely to want to work for you. They will come to your lessons happier and more attentive. They will also seek to retain your approval by trying to deliver what you want them to deliver. I’m not saying do this cynically (you can’t anyway, teenagers can smell fear or spot a phoney from miles away), just that this is at the heart of what happens in a classroom : that human relationship. It’s central to everything, including their learning. If you don’t like them, then they will be far less motivated to learn, and motivation is everything: Nuthall’s analysis of learning

Before some crusty old bugger writes in saying “It’s not your job to be the students’ friend”, I’m not suggesting you invite them out to the park to play on bikes. But just as it’s possible to convey to your own children how much you like them despite remaining in a completely dominant parental position of authority, so it is entirely possible, and indeed useful, as a teacher to allow them to know you actually quite like them as people, while remaining in complete control of your classroom.

There’s more. Much more. But baby steps, ok ? Welcome to the chalkface.


7 thoughts on “Welcome to the chalkface : advice to an NQT

  1. Having taught grades 7-12 in the U.S. for over 30 years, I hope you can hear me applauding your advice all the way to where you are! I started losing this wonderful perspective my last two years before retirement. No teacher is outstanding all the time, but I have a feeling you’re pretty close to it over half the time. Thank you for this great post.


  2. “If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.”
    Carl Jung

    When facing problems with particular students or classes I use the “other hand” technique to communicate with the shadow component that requires healing. Changing my inner world (my consciousness) leads to improvements in my teaching practice and student behaviour. http://t.co/N36xP6umja


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