Dear Newly Qualified Teacher,

Posted by Matt Butcher on September 3rd 2017
It works

You worked so hard for this day; for the fear; for the anxiety and this sheer sense of bewilderment. Very soon all these feelings; all these emotions will be kicked into touch by groups of wide-eyed kids calling you their teacher. Only then will you truly 'get' the fact that you're not in Kansas anymore; that you have well and truly landed (crash-landed!) in Oz: the wonderfully crazed and mixed-up world of teaching. A world I miss every day of my life.

But this isn't another tale of woe; nor is it a post designed to make you feel worse or more terrified than you already do - like that's possible!? Maybe I'm too late to the party? I'm pretty sure that - by now - you'll have taken on as much generic advice as your brain can take. Hopefully though, you'll have already latched on to the couple of items that made your ears twitch, got you sitting-up a little straighter or even managed to shake you from that constant state of panic you find yourself in. Much better to hold tightly to those bits of advice that floated-your-boat; than flap around clutching randomly and trying to retain the rest. You see there's only so much generic/handbook advice you can take. Here, you’ll find are a few less conventional bits of advice. Please glue-stick yourself to a few of them. So let's strip this teaching lark naked and expose the rude bits that few are happy - or prepared - to share.

#1 Perspective

If I could've given my NQT-self one piece of advice fourteen years ago then seeing the bigger picture would've been it - it's just so hard. You want to make an impression; to fit in; to look like you're a natural and take everything in your stride. But that pressure you throw on yourself is more dangerous and hard-hitting than anything the job can throw at you. Being afraid to ask questions; bottling up worries about your workload and how you manage it; or taking on too much - these are the perfect fuel for the 40% of NQTs who leave the profession within five years of taking their first class. And teaching is - no matter what you're told - a job. You and your family come first; and you should strive to become the best teacher that your family-life allows you to be. Teaching with an eye on the bigger picture will help you keep anxiety down to a more manageable level and face the challenges of the job with your wellbeing as your priority.

#2 Ambition

In my early career I made the conscious decision to resist the lure of promotion and senior leadership. I looked upon it in the same way a chef might work from pot-washer to different sections in a restaurant, or a footballer learning their trade in the lower leagues. All I wanted to do was teach; to work and learn alongside the kids and ‘perfect’ my craft. Advice came from all angles: move schools frequently, fast-track promotion paths, don’t stand still (chance’d be a fine thing!) and all the time I sensed a surprise – almost disappointment - by my perceived lack of 'ambition'. But what's more ambitious than wanting to be the best teacher in the world?

aside, this is a game-changer. Think very carefully about showing ambition by taking on multiple roles during your first year of teaching (if you’ve already been signed up then don’t panic – discuss your concerns with your line-manager). In my experience, any additional role in school will dilute the quality of your classroom practice. It’s basic physics: the more things you try to juggle, the more difficult juggling becomes. It took me around eight years to make the switch to senior leadership. Ambition is subjective. I loved my first school. So I never left.

#3 Integrity

The only non-negotiable in my classroom was my teaching philosophy. You come into our learning environment and - to quote 90s RnB sensation, Montell Jordan - 'This is how we do it' and if you don't like it then don't feel you have to hang around. But it isn't that simple is it? The endless lists of dos and don'ts; the observation hitlists; the hoops we have to jump through to prove to others that we’re awesome. It took a school improvement consultant (and former Ofsted inspector) to help me see the light. Don’t go getting yourself in trouble, but establish who you are in the classroom; don’t try to be something you’re not – be the very best version of YOU. Don't be like him or do it like her. Find your ‘knack'; your unique selling point; establish what matters to you; and never let it go.

#4 Plan Efficiently

What if I asked you to plan your meals for the next six weeks? The potential banana skins of such a plan terrify me (perspective…I know!). If you’re anything like me, you’ll be having a takeaway before the end of week one. I take the same view over planning. ‘Each to their own’ is a saying tailor-made for teaching, and I won’t ever criticise other approaches to the job you will grow to love – unless they’re totally ridiculous! But how far ahead should a teacher plan? There's the long-haul approach: a term or half-term. This appears to be quite a favourable method of planning. While it satisfies a craving for organisation and the need to feel prepared, many teachers get so far ahead that they fail to see what's staring them in the face - what their pupils actually need. Today. Right now. In my opinion, planning should be responsive and you can only react if you're brave enough to let go of a little control. Once you're happy, try planning a few days ahead; never more than a week. Your pupils will reap the rewards; you’ll learn more about your role as a facilitator of learning; assessment for learning will go through the roof and – most importantly – you’ll not waste time typing up lessons that never make it off the page. Who needs to know what they’re having for dinner in five weeks anyway?

#5 The most important person in your classroom is YOU!

It's the fit2teach motto and the most important piece of advice you're likely to be given other than to lock away your glue-sticks. As a kid I spent my Summer holidays making dens, having water fights, skimming stones and getting into trouble. As an adult I spend my Summer holidays making dens, having water fights, skimming stones and getting into trouble. Social media cruelly alerts us to all the school-work we ‘should’ be doing during our time away from the classroom. For many, the pull of school is too strong; a necessary sacrifice some teachers have to make. Again: each to their own. But – please – proceed with caution. If you do not look after yourself; if you take your classroom home with you too often, you'll get squashed by it. Ignore the talk of an ‘expectancy’ or ‘having no choice’. There's always another way and even during your darkest days it's vital for you to know there is light at the end of the tunnel. You can have a healthy work-life balance and be an amazing teacher. It won't happen this week; not this term and - most probably - not this year. But it’s around the corner – I promise. And we have the data to show it can be done; when you’re ready. Start small with the advice in #6; but at least - for this year - make the right choice and recharge your batteries during those holiday periods. Sleep.

#6 Don't be your own worst enemy!

When we analysed last term's data submitted by our fit2teach users, we found a correlation between this most simple of things; and an improved work-life balance. We hear so many complaints from teachers struggling to keep on top of their marking/grading. Remember though that you're the boss. If you plan to produce work that needs marking then said work needs marking. If pupils are producing work in Maths and English that requires marking/grading, then assess your history outcomes through drama, debate or art. Be cute - or mindful - about the volume of 'work' your pupils are producing; and consider whether you could match - or even enrich - learning through non-written outcomes. Rarely would I ever plan for written outcomes in maths, English and foundation subjects in a single day. That’s a midnight marking session waiting to happen right there. It won’t do you any good and the poor kid that gets your 23:55 comment won’t appreciate it either.

#7 Love the ones you need...

I lost count of the number of times the exceptional Maureen in our school office bailed me out of a fix. She's since retired; and I don't think the school will ever be the same. She’s a classic example of a vital member of the wider school-family who knit the whole place together. I once fell out with a caretaker and spent a year rummaging around in a dark stockroom (don’t ask!) and my no-questions-asked relationship with our school cleaners was often fuelled by end of term gifts (often – but not exclusively – alcoholic). These wonderful people didn't need me to enhance their working life; but I desperately need them – every day of the school year. I relied upon them – you will too – so look after them; have their back; and with a bit of luck you'll be fine.

#8 Sharing is caring

Simply put, I was once the most selfish teacher to ever walk the Earth. I wasn’t a bad person but if I had an idea, I’d hoard and protect it like my life depended on it. How ironic that I'm now a part of fit2teach; helping teachers get their mojo back; sharing experiences, time and resources with people I can’t even see. And that’s only possible because of social-media. The boom in teacher-social-media is something to be celebrated not shunned or taken for granted. For the first time in years, you have access to free professional development 24 hours a day. Whether in our Facebook fit2teach Staffroom or the hundreds of other groups available to join; teachers have created a global community to inspire and support you on your way to becoming whoever or whatever you want to be. You will share so much in your first year of teaching; you’ll take far more than you give but quickly learn how crucial an open, honest, sharing approach is for your success and sanity. In time you’ll get over the ‘my class’ mind-set and open the hug out to everyone. When you do, your success and confidence will start to shine far beyond the walls of your own classroom.

#9 Find your inner-child

From ‘Pick and choose your battles!’ to ‘Can you really get away with those skinny-fit trousers?'; so many words of wisdom have stuck in my mind. I remember one piece of advice for all the wrong reasons – because it really annoyed me: ‘You’re not their friend.’ They meant my pupils obviously. To this day, I still don't get the fuss or concern. I interpreted the message as needing to show discipline and be professional – which is an actual thing I got taught during my teaching degree. I didn’t need telling not to rock up at their birthday parties. Maybe they mis-placed the high-5s for an act of genuine friendship? If those kids came bouncing to school; talked endlessly at home about their teacher; about their learning and their day; then whatever relationship I, they or my colleagues thought we had must have had an impact. That solitary piece of ‘advice’ inadvertently forged my teaching philosophy. I’m a bit stubborn so – rightly or wrongly – I played on it. It gave me my knack and made me Mr B. I made it my mission to learn as much about my pupils as humanly possibly (in a non-creepy kind of way). Their likes and dislikes, hopes and fears; their achilles heel and hidden talents. Football teams, dance-steps, computer games and the differences between a trot and a canter. I went beyond the idea of ‘knowing your kids’ by embracing my inner-child and allowing my pupils to see me as Mr B: their teacher and a big-kid. Like one of them. Not a friend. But one of them. I could relate; they could relate. And when kids can relate to something; to someone; then they learn and thrive. I went beyond knowing the child as a learner, towards knowing the child as a child. That knowledge of the children in your care will give you the edge over any teaching style, any resources and any level of experience. Knowledge is power and my six-year-old son is – by the way – my best friend.

#10 Hang in there...

Teaching is bloody hard. It's brilliant. But - wow - it's hard. In a few years time, you'll look back on your NQT year - maybe your first few years - and laugh. You will. You'll cringe at the things you did and at the decisions you made. You'll remember the tears you cried and those early years of firsts. First hot-drink in your classroom; first kid lined up outside. Your first register/roll-call; first photocopier nightmare and your first lesson. Your first assembly; your first parents' evening; your first shocking observation lesson and your first dodgy PE kit. And you'll smile - especially about the things that went wrong. You see, succeeding in teaching is more about what you don't do than what you do. Being a successful teacher - like any successful person or pupil - requires failure. Succeeding in teaching is about failure after failure and about how you deal with it. It's about celebrating the highs and running with the lows. Once you embrace this you become a little less fearful; a little less anxious. You can start pushing yourself out of your comfort zone; start taking more risks; because getting it wrong becomes as much of a positive as getting it right. And those children in your care will see this; and they'll love you - even more - for it.

So off you go. But never by yourself. Seek advice and lots of it. Eat well; drink plenty; rest when exhausted and (please!) take your 'Me-Time' - you'll certainly earn it. Keep an eye out for the new fit2teach App coming out in a few weeks and - should you need us - just give us a shout. Remember there are 25,000 teachers feeling just like you right now - and that's just in the UK. Not a single one will be perfect, nail the best teaching style or become the best teacher - because neither of those things exist.

Please stick around. Consider joining the staffroom and ‘Liking’ our FB page – even registering to see what the fuss is about. And – most importantly - good luck.