Seven golden rules for early career teachers

Written by: Joel Wirth | Published:
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If you are to survive and thrive as an effective teacher for the rest of your hopefully long career then you must follow these seven golden rules, says Joel Wirth


1, Find your ‘promise’ in compromise

Most of the mathematics they taught you at school will have been – at best – moderately useful. This is one of those times. Imagine the simplest of Venn diagrams – two ovals with one area of overlap. One oval is you – Alex Norman – the other is labelled “teacher”.

Survival as a teacher involves successfully discovering your classroom self, the sweet spot of overlap between the two, the area you’d label Ms or Mr Norman.

There is no escaping the power that has been newly bestowed upon you. That’s all the stuff in the “teacher” oval – the rule-giving, the sanction-enforcing, the I-stand-at-the-front-ness of it all. And you have to accept this. You can’t be the clever exception – the one who will be able to go in and be authentically Alex Norman – because your students don’t want this. They want you to be Ms Norman, their teacher, who sets boundaries and runs an ordered classroom but who does so by being as much of themselves – as true to Alex Norman – as possible, not just some automaton, mindlessly dispensing homework and detentions like confetti.

You need to decide what Ms Norman’s classroom is going to be like and ask yourself how Ms Norman would react in any given situation.

You will find your full potential in the compromise between the institutional power you have as a professional and the persuasive power you have as a person.


2, Find the ‘elation’ in relationships

Every year, I ask the students leaving school with the worst behaviour records to tell me what advice we should pass on to teachers and who their favourite teachers have been. Every year, the answer is the same.

They like the teachers who set clear boundaries, who are consistent in applying those boundaries but who do so by being on their side. This is key. Teaching is conflict moderated by persuasion.

There is something inherently combative about 30 of them facing one way and you facing the other. Conflict – un-handed-in homework, poor conduct in lessons, a moment of crisis that sees a child throw a tantrum, chair, f-bomb – will happen.

Never take these things personally. At such times, you react firmly but calmly – always mindful that no-one’s reputation should be tarred and feathered for life as a result of a minor misdemeanour.

They’re children. Be on their side. Be the grown up at all times. Always mend your relationship as swiftly as possible.

Tell a child off for talking when you’re talking (you must) but find a reason to make a positive link within two minutes – ask her a question that she will know the answer to, smile at her, give her a job to do (even if it is only opening the window – say please and thank you). Like them even when they don’t like themselves.


3, Find the ‘aught’ in laughter

Giving me a tour of their school, one headteacher said to me that the truest measure of the effectiveness of a school was found by looking in classrooms at the number of kids still wearing coats (unsuccessful) or at the number of students laughing (successful).

This laughter was, he felt, the truest test of a functioning education system. From the travails of SATs in year 6 (whose miserable tentacles reach deep into years 4 and 5), to the crushing weight of the GCSE and A level curriculums (“we’ve not time for that – there’s so much content to cover”), your work will present you with ample opportunities for tedium and drudgery.

That is why it is crucial that you find the time for you and your classes to smile whenever you can and laugh at every opportunity (but never in cruelty). Very little binds you in a sense of common endeavour like shared joy.

Some staffroom mushrooms will tell you not to smile until January – ignore them. Instead, recall the very best of times you had as a child – you will find laughter and fun at the core of all such memories. Never forget that. Take your inner child into your classroom and let them out to play as often as you can.


4, Find the ‘us’ in discussion

There is a temptation to think that a lesson is a one person show – it is you up front with all this lovely learning to disseminate and the clock ticking.

You know you have got to get to slide 16 so that they’re primed and ready for Thursday’s lesson and there’ll be hell to pay from your HoD if you don’t get through the SoL/ SoW (how we love a meaningless acronym).

But while there will always be an element of truth in that rather loveless, transactional portrayal of the classroom, you do need to remember the kids.

Most ECTs – most experienced teachers, in fact – get it most often wrong when they mishandle classroom discussions. There will always be a temptation to rush this bit, usually the bit that happens just after you have established the frame of the lesson. We know we need to engage the learners so we open something up for discussion but what happens is so often little more than lip-service to the idea of dialogue.

Don’t get this wrong. Handled well, discussion will do most of your work for you. Through enquiry, students will make room for the complex mental architecture of whatever you are trying to teach them.

You need to encourage their questions, celebrate every raised hand or furrowed brow, punch the air at all the wrong answers (they’re the best – they mean you’re still in a job). When a child asks the question you didn’t plan for, you need to celebrate that and undertake to answer it – if not now, later. Let your questions breathe – give them time to settle and allow their brains space to accommodate the new pathways being opened before them.


5, Don’t be the ‘or’ on the corridor

Get a senior colleague to walk you from your classroom to the staffroom. You will take this journey a few times a week.

It is when you will be seen by kids you do not teach and they need to see you being a teacher – after all, you might teach them next year. Get that senior colleague to explain all the rules that will apply.

Can the kids eat here? What are the rules for being here at break? Lunch? Who can use the lift? Can they have phones out at break? Sometimes you will be so desperate for a mouthful of staffroom coffee that you will want to “professionally not see” the two students kissing on the corridor or a flotilla of un-tucked-in shirts, but you need to act and be seen to act. You can’t be part of a conspiracy of poor choices. If those students see you not applying rules they know on the corridors, expect them to bring that experience into your classroom next September.


6, Nurture the ‘art’ in partnership

Your training was hard. For many at the start of their careers, the sheer weight of what is required of you – assignments, the placements, the lesson plans, meetings with mentors – will have been a shock to the system.

By now, that notion of teaching as a walk-in-the-park, 9-4 job with 13 weeks’ paid holiday will seem bitterly ironic. An inevitable consequence of taking a step into the profession is the ending of some/much of whatever your life was like beforehand.

You might be able to cling on to Wednesday five-a-side but those Monday macrame classes might have to go – to say nothing of Wacky Wednesdays at the Lion with the 3-for-1 cocktails from 7pm to 8pm.

If you have a partner with a job outside education, you are going to find that relationship tested. They will likely get frustrated as you launch into a set of 30 mathematics books at 8:30pm or respond to an email from a parent over the weekend.

Whatever happens, make sure you cling on to Date Night Tuesday. Teaching never ends. You could do it 25 hours a day and eight days a week – and will, unless you find the off switch and make space for whoever is the special other in your world.


7, Don’t be the ‘ECT’ in hectic

It is going to go wrong. You are learning to ride the penny-farthing of balancing your responsibilities and duties while juggling all the day-to-day minutiae of the classroom.

You will forget things, miss messages, mix messages, forget to do your duty (Wednesday break – write it down somewhere!), get a name wrong, not know the rule for that or, perhaps most dispiritingly, watch helplessly as a meticulously planned lesson heads coastwards down the toilet bowl of 8SN’s apparent inability to sit still for more than six seconds.

This will happen. And you will find yourself at such times. You will get through. You will panic that your reputation will be sullied or, worse, be indelibly cast in amber by your apparent mishandling of whatever you mishandled. But such worries are wasted.

The answer, perhaps oddly, is not more planning. Solutions are rarely found on the bedroom ceiling at 4:36am or in a more assiduously crafted worksheet/resource/PowerPoint dragged together at 3am. You are your own lifelong teaching resource. Look after you. A good night’s untroubled sleep is almost always the answer.

  • Joel Wirth is a former teacher and senior leader who now works as a consultant headteacher. Read his previous articles via http://bit.ly/seced-wirth


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