Early career teachers: Working with other adults in school

This article was written for SecEd magazine 

As an new teacher, you are now likely to have a classroom of your own and, although that classroom is your castle, you must resist the temptation to raise the drawbridge – rather, you should warmly welcome your colleagues in.

Of course, not all advice you receive will be good and so you will need to be discerning. However, if you listen to your colleagues’ experiences, you can achieve expertise beyond your years of service and learn from other people’s mistakes without having to wear the scars. So, who might offer you advice and how should you respond to it?

The headteacher

It is natural to fear your headteacher because they are the boss, after all. But most heads are not fearful, they are supportive and kind and will be more than happy to offer their advice when needed.

The best advice I can give you is simply this: headteachers are human too and you treat them as such. Be polite, of course – but avoid deference or a tendency to “put on a show” whenever they walk by your room, and try to be yourself.

As I say above, your head is more likely to warm to you if you are modest and open to feedback, and project yourself as someone keen to improve as a teacher and fit in on the staff.

Having said this, your head may be wary of a new teacher who is desperate to take on extra responsibilities too soon. Do not run before you can walk. Focus on being an effective teacher first and foremost, get to the end of your teacher-training, then pick up the pace a little if you feel ready.

Head of department

Your head of department or subject leader is likely to be your first line manager responsible for your performance management and CPD. They will probably make decisions about which classes you teach, too.

Most subject leaders still teach a significant timetable and are very knowledgeable about your subject specialism. You would do well, therefore, to mine this rich seam of knowledge, particularly with regards to curriculum design and long and medium-term planning.

They will be able to place your teaching within a wider context and help you understand how teaching in your subject progresses as pupils travel through your school. They will also know the pupils, including what they are targeted to achieve and what good progress will look like.

Your subject leader, if they are long-standing, will know what has been tried before and what worked – and what did not.

So, if you have got any ideas about how to improve the way your subject is led or taught, cautiously run it by them first to see if it has been tried before. And try to be diplomatic – no-one likes the newbie know-it-all.

Mentor or coach

You are likely to be given a mentor or coach, someone from within your department who you will meet on a weekly basis to discuss your role. Take full advantage of this rare opportunity to have your thoughts and actions gently challenged. They may make you think through your ideas and look at them from a different angle.

No-one is perfect and everyone can benefit from an honest appraisal of their work. So, use this time to try new things. Invite your mentor into your lessons to get feedback so you can learn and develop. Although it may feel daunting at first, you have nothing to lose – so acknowledge your mistakes, act on feedback, and show a willingness to listen and learn.

Teaching assistants and support staff

An effective working relationship with any teaching assistants who support your lessons is essential to your pupils’ success, but remember that it is a two-way process.

On the one hand, it is your classroom. You are the teacher and, as such, you are responsible for planning an ambitious curriculum, teaching an engaging lesson, and assessing pupil progress effectively. You are also responsible for setting the expectations and boundaries, and for issuing rewards and sanctions.

You must, therefore, make sure that your teaching assistant knows what you plan to do in every lesson, what pupils will be expected to achieve and what learning should result. Your teaching assistant needs to know what behaviours you will and will not accept and what the consequences of any poor behaviour might be.

Of course, you would do well to ask their advice on all the above and check that they agree with your intentions, but ultimately it is your room and your rules. However, your teaching assistant is likely to be a font of knowledge. They will know more than you about how the school functions and about its systems and structures, policies and procedures. They will know who is who. And they will know about your pupils’ capabilities, as well as any difficulties or disabilities they may have. You should therefore talk openly and often with them to prise from them as much intelligence as you can – and then act on it.

Your teaching assistant is also in the privileged position of being able to observe lots of different teachers toiling at the chalkface and will know what your pupils are capable of achieving – and how your pupils behave – for other teachers and in other lessons. Ask them what works for others and, conversely, what does not.

Administrative staff

You would do well to get to know your school’s administrative staff – office, care-taking and site staff, catering and IT staff, and so on – because they are the grease that keeps the cogs turning. Ask their advice. Ask what you can do to help them be more effective at what they do. For example, what notice does the reprographics team need to be able to produce a class set of worksheets? What is the best way of seeking help with IT equipment? How does the cleaner like you to leave your classroom (chairs on floor or on tables) etc?

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that teachers are somehow superior. It takes a whole staff to run a school so treat all your colleagues as equals and ask for and accept their advice.

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