The first day at a new school is probably the scariest moment in a teacher’s career, made more daunting by a new title “NQT”. I have spent the past year calling myself a trainee and I am still wondering when I will actually be seen as a “proper” teacher.
When people realise that you are an NQT they start to view you slightly differently; there are those who assume you will make more work for them, and people who make bets on how long you will last. Most are genuinely lovely and remember what it is like to be newly qualified. I am lucky – the majority of people I’ve met fall into the final category of lovely and supportive colleagues.
Teaching is unlike any other job I’ve encountered. Never in your first week of a “normal” job would you be exposed to six groups of 30 young people a day who differ so vastly in ability and personality, and be expected to learn their names and forge relationships with them. It feels as though the pressure is on from day one to make that impact. You can’t afford to have an off day in your first week, or else word will spread that you are the weak one in the herd.
Making things more complicated, you must tread the fine line between showing your students that you are a reasonable and approachable human being and setting down your behaviour boundaries.
As I write this, I still don’t know if I’ve got it right. With some classes I feel as though I might have gone in a bit hard and “shouty”, leaving myself with no further sanctions. Then there are the classes which are so well behaved that you relax and crack a joke.
Does this mean I have broken the “golden rule” that is passed down through the teaching profession and encouraged as a behaviour management technique – that you should not smile before Christmas? I’m sure I will find out soon enough if this was a rookie error, but you have to do what feels right at the time.
The first week went by in a blur. I have six lessons a day and they roll by at the speed of light. Before I know it the day is over. There isn’t much I can distinguish, although one very vivid moment has stuck in my memory.
Just a few days into the start of term, I was shattered and starting to question if I was cut out for the job. I had my tutor group for PSHE period 4 and we were doing circle time based on a positive and a negative from the week. I was hearing the usual “I got to see my friends”, “I don’t like this subject”, “I’m scared of the big kids” – and then one of my year 10s said: “I’m looking forward to my first drama lesson because I have you and my friend said you are awesome.”
This was the glimmer of hope I needed to get me through the rest of the week and came just at the right time. When you’re exposed to so many students in such a short space of time, it is impossible to click with all of them instantly, but the ones you do connect with will tell the others.
When starting in a new school, there is a constant feeling of dread mixed with hope. Every imagined scenario feels “worst case”. I must remember that there will be bad classes in the first few weeks.
The first class that I had a bad experience with was a low ability year 10 class. Unfortunately it was the last lesson of the day and so I ended up mulling it over all night and thinking I was the worst teacher ever.
I didn’t see the class again for another week so I had time to build up the anticipation of our next meeting too. But when I met with them again I didn’t back down, I reinforced the rules that I had laid down in the first lesson and followed them up with the school behaviour policy, resulting in the lesson being more enjoyable for me and the students.
I must say that it is no help if, when mentioning these experiences to other staff, you hear the ill-fated phrase: “Well, they are fine for me.” You just want to scream: “I am so happy for you! But they have made the last hour hell for me so perhaps we could share good practice rather than you making me feel like a terrible teacher!” Obviously it is not their intention to make you feel this way but emotions run high in the first few weeks, and it is important not to take things to heart.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help or admit these bad experiences. They are not a sign of weakness and nobody is indestructible, even though they might make out they are.
Another difficulty I faced were the echoes of “my last teacher didn’t do it like that” and “the person you have replaced was amazing”. I’m sure she was but hearing things like that can make you feel as though you are failing, even when you are not.
If you have replaced somebody who was popular with the vast majority of the student body it will always be difficult, but you cannot pretend to be someone else. The students will get used to your way of working. I felt uncomfortable and did begin to question myself the 10th time I heard this, but after I had met my groups a couple of times they began to recognise my way of working and what my expectations were.
I did not try and change my ways, but acknowledged the work my predecessor had done in a positive way and explained that I worked slightly differently.
It is easy to get disheartened in the first few weeks and feel like the whole world is against you. Because you have so much information to digest, it feels as though the world is passing you by at 100mph and your body is in shock.
On reflection, my first weeks as an NQT have been a success but if you’d have asked me on the Wednesday of my first week, I would have said the world was ending. So much has happened, it begs the question what does the rest of the year have in store for me? And can I handle it?
Lyndsey Hall is a drama and dance NQT from Leon School and Sports College in Milton Keynes.