Last June, Sadie posted about training for primary teaching and looked forward to becoming an NQT. Here’s the sequel.
Rewind to Sunday 31st August and you would have found me sitting on my sofa staring down the barrel of my first year as a teacher, wondering what the new academic term would bring. My classroom was beautifully decorated, I had planned my first few weeks of teaching and I was armed with plenty of ‘back to school’ activities to get to know my new class. Adrenaline had kicked in and I was looking forward to making a difference to the children of the inner-city academy I had chosen for my first teaching role. I felt well-rested, eager and raring to go.
Flash forward to present day: I’ve survived my first term as an NQT and the metaphorical onion has revealed its layers, the reality of teaching has become apparent and during the past four months I have experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. It has been exhilarating, exhausting and at times overwhelming.
Initially, I felt as though I was treading water, simply keeping afloat. For the first time in a long time I felt insecure and out of my depth, I continually questioned everything I was doing. It quickly became clear that teacher training does not fully prepare you for the challenges encountered during your first post as a fully-fledged teacher. It is an immense learning curve. I learnt more in those first few weeks than I had in my entire training year. Move over PGCE, welcome to the world of full-time teaching.
The deprived school in East London was a stark contrast to the primaries in Cornwall and Devon where I had completed my training. I was dealing with a high proportion of children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) and over half of my class were considered to have Special Educational Needs (SEN). The high volume of SEN and EAL pupils forced me to adapt my teaching and think outside the box. Thankfully, this is where pedagogy came into play and all those research papers I scrutinised during my PGCE began to form the basis of my teaching across this diverse range of pupils.
To make matters worse, I was also tackling extreme behaviour issues and became aware early on that embedding consistent behaviour strategies in the day-to-day routine was key to ensuring Sarah wouldn’t run out of the classroom when she was feeling frustrated or that Fred wouldn’t lash out at other children when he couldn’t keep his temper under control.
Combine all this with the announcement that two executive heads were parachuting in due to the secondary’s ‘catastrophic GCSE results’, the ensuing resignation of the primary head teacher, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a pretty tough start to an NQT year, but I’ve not let it put me off… yet.
My first term was a blur of planning, marking, getting to grips with behaviour management strategies, learning about my pupils, getting to know colleagues and spending more time than expected within the four walls of the classroom. My partner forgot what I looked like and when I did surface at home late into the evening I spent a lot of time drinking coffee, marking, planning, completing paperwork and preparing resources, not to mention compiling evidence towards to the teaching standards for my NQT file and striving to meet weekly targets set by my NQT mentor.
As a full time primary teacher, I expected to teach 80 percent of my 30-hour timetabled week, with only 10 percent of time allocated to completing NQT tasks, observations, reflections and training, and a further 10 percent allocated to the two remaining, yet fundamental, aspects of the role: marking and planning. An incredible burden is placed on this 10 percent and, no matter how hard I tried, I found it impossible to keep up – leaving all outstanding tasks to be completed in my own time.
Those who know me well would describe me as incredibly organised and highly efficient, qualities I pride myself on. Yet I found myself struggling to get everything done – there simply wasn’t enough time in the day. I led a miserable existence for those first seven weeks. I was working 14-16 hour days on a regular basis, which was completely unsustainable of course. Inevitably, I became ill and despite the fear of falling even further behind I took a sick day. Physically and mentally exhausted, I began to question whether I had made the right decision by pursuing a career in teaching. I hate to admit it, but for the first time I had serious doubts about my future within this new profession.
Thankfully after half term something clicked. I realised that I was trying to be a perfectionist – working too hard, ticking every box, exceeding expectations and trying to make every lesson amazing. I took some time to reflect on my teaching and acknowledged that, in education, resilience is a daily necessity. I wanted to be the perfect teacher, but teaching is a lifetime’s craft. I will never perfect it, nor will I ever complete my ‘to do’ list. Once I accepted this, I began to master the art of resilience. Although I still work on Sundays and am yet to fully establish the elusive work-life balance, I’m working on it. I’ve begun to know when to stop, when to let go and when to switch off, I’ve started to look after myself and feel less guilty about meeting friends, pursuing hobbies or having an evening off.
My teaching philosophies and principles are steeped in the work of the Cambridge Primary Review and the Cambridge Primary Review Trust and I have always endeavored to demonstrate these in my day-to-day practice, but when you’re bogged down by bureaucracy it’s easy to forget about the great intentions and aspirations you had at the start of the year.
My first term of teaching has provided so many challenges that I’ve inadvertently discovered so much more about myself. I have become less self-critical, more forgiving of my own mistakes. Whereas I was once left feeling battered and bruised by observation pressures, scrutiny and the persistent need to develop subject knowledge across the curriculum, I now focus on the positives; recognising my own successes, reflecting on mistakes, identifying areas for improvement and developing a reassuring support network. My colleagues and fellow NQTs have been an invaluable source of support through the highs and lows, both in school and online.
Recently, when re-reading the CPR final report, I had my own light-bulb moment (the kind that I love seeing in the children so much). I remembered precisely why I became a teacher in the first place: to make a difference. The key aims and priorities outlined by CPR and CPRT reminded me that being a teacher isn’t simply about teaching the curriculum; it really is about so much more.
I strive for this kind of principled approach not only to the curriculum, but also the whole experience that I offer children in my care. At times I have been a therapist, a mediator, a comedian, a disciplinarian, a motivator, a guardian and a source of comfort. I use the CPRT aims as aspirational tools to remind me what’s important – over and above government priorities. The CPR final report provides the evidence to remind us that we can (and must!) trust ourselves as professionals to provide for pupils’ development and learning. Great teaching doesn’t have to be complicated, it’s about getting the simple things right.
Despite all its trials and tribulations, teaching truly is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling careers there are and at the beginning of the year I promised myself I would remember this. It’s not always easy to cultivate a positive outlook, especially in the depths of a dark and gloomy January, but it really does make a difference and I feel so much better for it. It reflects in my teaching too. If I’m tired the kids won’t get the best from me. I need to look after myself. We all do. So, once I’ve finished this blog you’ll find me on my sofa relaxing and enjoying the last few moments of the Christmas break, before the New Year – and the new term – begins.