Don’t stop believing

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I’ve read several tweets this week from trainee teachers and NQTs disillusioned with teaching.

Many say they are contemplating quitting the profession.

If you are a trainee or NQT, or indeed a recently qualified teacher, struggling with your first term of teaching and close to quitting, this blog is for you. Spoiler: it is my attempt to convince you to stay.

Of course, teaching is not for everyone and I would not want you to stay in the classroom if you are having a wholly dreadful time of it and are absolutely certain you’ve made a mistake. Or indeed if teaching is having a profound and damaging effect on your health and wellbeing. But I would caution you against making a hasty decision because, believe me, it does get easier.

And I know this year is different: Covid is causing countless difficulties for schools and the uncertainty about future closures, coupled with the stress of infection, is adding to new teachers’ anxieties. Capacity is also a problem: many NQTs feel they are not in receipt of the support they need because their mentors and colleagues are stretched to the limit.

If you are struggling, please talk to somebody. You are not alone. If you think you are, then talk to me.

So, here goes… this is why I think you should stick it out…

I went into teaching a little later than most. I started out as a cubby reporter on a local newspaper. A high-pressured newsroom didn’t scare me: I’d grown up on building sites doing summer work with my dad then paid my way through university by being shouted down by disgruntled customers whilst working on a complaints line.

Then, with undergraduate debts to repay, unable to afford the postgraduate qualification that was, at that time, a prerequisite of joining the National Union of Journalists which, in turn, was a prerequisite of becoming a staff reporter, I had to quit the paper. I quickly fell into a job in telecoms. But, after a few years, I had risen to a senior management position. The pay was good, as was the lifestyle. I was in my mid-twenties, working hard and playing harder.

All seemed right with the world. But it wasn’t. Cue existential crisis…

One day, at the dawn of this millennium, I woke up and realised my life was meaningless. I was a faceless doll working in a grey room in a grey building with grey people all day and for what? What was the point of me? I needed purpose. I needed to rebrand!

And so, it was a brand-new millennium and a new brand me!

I made a decision: I was going to be a teacher; I was going to inspire young people just as my teachers had inspired me.

But then I started my PGCE and my dreams of ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ fell apart at the seams…

It didn’t help that I went from earning a decent salary to paying for the privilege of teaching. I’d saved enough money in the months prior to starting my teacher-training to scrape through the course, but it was tough living like a student again – not least because I was now a student with a mortgage. (There were no grants, bursaries or golden handshakes in my day, sadly.)

Nor did it help that I was several years older than most of my fellow trainees.

But the worst of it was my first school placement and thus my first foray into the classroom.

To be fair, I was warned. My course tutor told me the university had considered ditching the school because it was in special measures and they’d had several complaints. But, they thought, because I was older and had leadership experience, I’d be able to cope so they’d give the school one last roll of the dice.

Unfortunately for me, it was a loaded dice.

The school had been in special measures for a while by the time I arrived, failure was entrenched, and staff turnover was high. Well, I say ‘turnover’ but that term suggests some staff leave and others arrive. Staff certainly did leave, and in huge numbers, but unfortunately no one came to replace them. It was more a cliff-edge than a conveyer belt.

The school had a very bad reputation. Willing supply teachers were hard to find and so many post-16 classes were cancelled, and other classes were combined, with students left to watch television in the canteen.

Hence, at the end of my first week, my school-based mentor and head of department (who also quit before the end of my placement), said she thought I was ready to fly solo rather than waste my time observing her and team-teaching with more seasoned colleagues.

And thus, I found myself, two weeks into my ‘training’ and after just one week in a school, teaching almost a full timetable without any help or support. Of course, I should not have been left alone in the room, but a flagrant flouting of ITT rules was the least of my worries…

Student behaviour was atrocious. The canteen was like a scene from Fight Club. Staff cars were routinely damaged. Some parts of the building were no-go areas for staff never mind some students. The fire alarm sounded fifteen times a day. Not because some cheeky young scamp had smashed the glass to get out of class but because some cheeky young arsonist had actually set fire to the building.

You might say my early teaching experience was literally a baptism of fire.

It didn’t help my mood when winter started to draw in, and the nights grew long and dark. Plus, it was nearly always raining (or at least that’s how I remember it now) and snow fell deep that year meaning weeks of indoor play (and I use the word ‘play’ loosely; ‘riot’ might be more accurate).

Those few months felt like years and I blame that placement for my grey hair and wrinkles. Well, that and my three daughters.

All of which made me think of quitting teaching every day.

I remember struggling out of bed at the claxon call of my bedside alarm feeling sick to my stomach, and then the lonely commutes home, feeling lost and alone, out of my depth, utterly exhausted.

Though I told no one, I deeply regretted my risky change of career and yearned for a return to my cushy corner office and the generous expense account. But I was scared to admit to anyone else that I’d got it wrong.

Against all odds, I persevered and survived to the end of that placement.

My university tutor wrote a glowing report based not, I suspect, on my teaching abilities but on the simple fact I was not dead.

The school even offered me a job. Reader, it will not surprise you to learn I turned them down.

And life got better. My second placement was a different world entirely. I was well-supported and actually got to do some teaching rather than simple crowd-control. It was still tough learning the ropes and often feeling unprepared or unskilled, barely staying one step ahead of my students. But I was learning and that’s what counted.

I even began to enjoy the university element of my PGCE, relishing writing essays again and reading countless academic texts. Again, it wasn’t easy, but I was learning and improving all the time. With ever-increasing knowledge and skills, my confidence began to improve.

I passed my ITT year and I got a job in a great school. ‘Great’ not because it was high-achieving or that the students were always well-behaved; neither was true. ‘Great’ not because I found being an NQT a lot easier; I certainly did not. But ‘great’ because I felt right at home there; I was surrounded by fantastic colleagues who became (and remain) friends. And ‘great’ because the students, though often edgy and sometimes naughty, had an infectious spark and I knew I was making a difference to their lives.

I stayed at that school, despite being advised to move on after a year, for eight happy years, rising from NQT to Assistant Headteacher. I only left in order to become a Deputy Headteacher otherwise I think I’d still be there to this day.

That’s not to say my NQT year was any easier than my ITT one, however. It too was hard. There was so much to learn, and I made countless mistakes… each and every day.

Being an NQT is tough because you are doing most things for the first time and that takes a lot of mental effort. Nothing is familiar and you can’t rely on habits and routines. Especially when it comes to pastoral care which I felt was neglected during my training.

Yes, being an NQT is exhausting – emotionally, mentally and physically. Plus, there’s the added pressure of being monitored and assessed.

It takes time to get to know all the staff and, as we know, students like to push boundaries with new teachers, testing their strength and resolve.

But, though still tough, my NQT year also got easier with time. Because with time came familiarity; with time came routine; and with time came knowledge and skill and confidence.

Teaching something for the first time is always going to be the hard. The more you teach something, the easier it becomes simply because you develop automaticity and free up mental capacity. You become able to anticipate students’ misunderstandings and misconceptions, to pre-empt their questions and difficulties. And the more you explain something, the easier it gets and the clearer those explanations become. What’s more, the more familiar you become with a school’s systems and structures, and policies and procedures, the easier you find it working with them.

So, yes, I understand why you may be thinking of quitting. Sitting here, twenty years later, you may assume I found it all so easy. But don’t be fooled. We all found it hard. It is hard. What you feel now is normal. Don’t worry. It does get easier.

Teaching is tough but it is tough because it matters; it is tough because you are doing something important, you are improving the world around you one person at a time.

Never forget the impact you have on young people’s lives and never take it for granted. Teaching is a superpower.

So, never forget you are fantastic. You make a difference. And I applaud you.

And never forget you are not alone. Teaching is a profession, after all. You’re one of us now. And we look after our own.

So, above all, if you’re finding it tough, do not suffer in silence. Talk to your mentor or a trusted colleague. Talk to your family and friends. Or talk to me.

With help, you will get through this and you won’t regret it. I promise.

Good luck. Now go forth and change the world.

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