Teaching is absolutely the best job in the world, but it doesn’t always feel like that. The first year of teaching was, for me, the hardest. Yet in a way it is almost the best: in no other time of your career will you go so far so fast. By the end of the year, you will seem to be decades ahead of where you began. Here are some of my tips for new teachers.
Fake it til you make it
No-one needs to know you’re a new teacher, and it can be helpful to forget this fact yourself. Cling to all your past experience, whether that be in your placement school for your PGCE, or your Summer Institute teaching practice with Teach First, or your TEFL experience, or even tutoring your sisters/brothers. It all counts in the big performance of not carrying your new teacher baggage with you. Pretend, pretend, pretend.
Learn their names and use them
With every new class, I have a clipboard with the seating plan. Within a week, the clipboard can go away. Consult it for every question asked, for every hand up, for every cold call. Use the students’ names as often as you can – it means a lot to a child that you have learned their name, and you will be surprised at how offended they will be if you mispronounce it, even by a syllable.
Call home to say nice things
My mentor used to make three positive calls on a Friday before going home – no matter how bad your week, this will make you feel better and pave the way for a more positive Monday. On my darkest days even now I will call home to five or six students to say “well done.” It is great for the student, but also reminds you: you have done a good job. Indeed, parents will often be magnanimous in assigning you as the cause of their child’s wonders – on a tough day, take the credit.
Praise three before sanctioning one
Your students come into the room, and inevitably the first thing you will notice is the one (two, five, seven) doing something wrong. The temptation is to immediately call out these students. In the early days, however, a wall of misbehaviour can feel overwhelming: if you call out one/two/five/seven and not the other one/two/five/seven (“it wasn’t only me!”) you can redouble your problems. Try praising three before calling out any. Lee Canter talks about “behaviour narration”: “I can see X is standing behind her chair”, “has taken his coat off,” “is ready to learn,” “is doing the right thing,” for three students will usually ensure you have far fewer to sanction as more and more fall into line, wanting you to say their name positively. Most students just want some attention. If they know you will give it for positive things first, they may well switch their behaviour.
Don’t back down
That said, you will need to sanction students. In the heat of the moment, I know I often ran to the wrong sanction; usually one too harsh for the crime committed. No matter – stick to your guns. You threatened a one-hour detention? They sit a one-hour detention. You know you were wrong and you probably won’t do it again, but if you back down or negotiate with students who have done something wrong they will not learn to respect you. That said, do use that hour to reassure the student that you know they can succeed. And remember: it’s not the severity of the sanction but the certainty. Three minutes of their lunch hour will hurt just as much (and you can get on with your life).
At the start of the year, look at your free periods and when you see your classes and set out a marking schedule for yourself. If possible, give yourself at least a day – don’t try to turn around a set of books from Wednesday to Thursday, for example. Think about how big (or how demanding) your classes are and make a rota; so all things being equal I would mark year 7, 9 and 10 one week and then year 8 and 11, as year 11 will want your most brilliant marking prowess. (This is, of course, assuming you are an English teacher with a normal amount of classes.) When you take in books, ask students to turn to the page you last marked: this way, you can have the last target you set in the back of your mind, as well as saving valuable seconds (they really do add up) by not having to find the right page to start on.
When attempting to “fake it til you make it,” it can be tempting to emulate your mentor, or your own favourite teacher from school, or the scary teacher you wish you were (I have tried and failed at all of these). Students see through it. You have to be yourself. I find it really hard to not smile and have a laugh with students; in the early days I suppressed this and found myself called out as a classroom ogre. It didn’t feel right. You will find your own classroom personality, and it might not fit any of the preconceived ideas you have about what being a teacher is. No matter. No-one will be you.