Ten tips for first year survival

Dear (pre-NQT) me, 

I hope this letter finds you well. I am writing to tell you a little bit about what to expect this year, because, trust me on this one, you’re in for a bit of a life-changer.

This year you’re going to know yourself on a whole new level. There will be moments where you are so tired you don’t actually know how you get up and stumble to the shower when that alarm goes off. (Change your alarm by the way- it’s far too gentle for this year!).

There will be moments where you are so stressed you wake up in the middle of the night to write out to-do lists, moments where you are juggling 1002 jobs (on said to-do list that seems to be growing faster than jack’s magic bean stalk), moments when you see your family tiredly force a ‘oh dear, that does sound bad’ when you moan about the same year 10 kid for the tenth time in a week and there will be moments where you genuinely look in the mirror after finding the sixth new grey hair that month and ask yourself out loud ‘why did I do this again?’.

But, this year there are also going to be some real golden moments. Friends will keep telling you that you’re lucky to have a job where you can make a difference. That “when they leave work, they’ve just helped to make a company some more money, but you’re changing lives”. Most of the time you will feel like a huge fraud and force an ‘I suppose so’ smile and wonder what differences they can possibly mean? Surely no one is learning from your overtired, easily irrational self on a Thursday afternoon?

But then those golden moments that seemed few and far between back in September start to creep in more regularly. At some point, the ratio of tired and stressed to happy shifts in the balance somewhere. You start to learn to juggle the impossible to-do list and start to shrug off the angry outbursts of a student (who has probably had a far worse weekend than you). You feel full of joy when a difficult student finally comes round and goes from avoiding all eye contact to the occasional ‘alright miss?’ You enjoy those hallelujah moments when observations go really well, but you care way, way more when a student says ‘thanks miss’ on their way out and means it. You will find yourself genuinely laughing at something funny a young person in your class has said and you will learn so many new things that you didn’t have a clue about from the kids that you’re supposed to be imparting the knowledge to. You will feel way too young to be called ‘Miss’, to be responsible for actual real people’s education or to be thanked by a parent but then you will feel secretly overjoyed that one of your students has bothered to tell their mum you’re their favourite teacher and smile all the way home (even when you’re stuck in traffic).

Above all you’re going to be so proud of yourself for sticking at it this year. You will never feel like a hypocrite again for telling a student they need to stick with It when it feels too difficult and the word resilient may as well become part of your name.

I’m not going to pretend that you walk out of the door on the last day of the summer term feeling like you’ve found yourself and can’t wait for the new year to begin (you’ll be bloody knackered) but when you cry your way through the thank you cards and thoughtful handmade little gifts, you will start to feel like maybe, just maybe, you can actually do this.

Here’s a few tips and tricks that might help you to get going a little quicker this year. They are not re-inventing the wheel and to be honest, most of them are just common sense but please stick with them- they really will make a difference!

Ideas for you this year:

1.Every single time you lend out a precious pen, write that students name on the board! They leave the room once the pen is back and get to rub off their own name. (They love this part and you don’t have to take out a small loan and become Ryman’s favourite customer).

2.Build relationships with parents right from the start. I know this is one that has freaked you out a bit. You feel awkward and annoying when you pick up the phone to call home but you will start to do this way more towards the end of the year and realise just how amazing parent support can be and how much of a difference it will make. So just do it! Make a habit of calling home at least one day every 2 weeks. Whether this is to talk to a few parents about particularly tricky kids or just to tell a parent how amazing their child has been. It really pays off! Especially if you call on a Friday. The student’s parent/ carer is nice to them all weekend and said student comes back in thinking you’re the best thing ever.

3.Find a work friend. This one is fundamental to your survival. You need a friend in school that you can talk with, cry with and laugh with. Make a point of not off-loading all of your school based questions on this person. Just remember- there are times in the day when you have been surrounded by people no older than fifteen who are making your life seem like a mini hell and you need someone to remind you that you are a real person and not to take it all personally.

4.Say no. This one for you (and anyone who knows you) is going to be really tough. You want to please everybody and you want to be able to say yes to everything, but the problem is, in this job you really can’t. Believe people that tell you ‘just focus on the relationships and stuff that goes on in your classroom first’. It really does mean you won’t burn out doing those five extra things you’ve said yes to- whether it’s an extra lunchtime club, weekend course or whatever. Say no to start with and come back to these things either In a term or two or whenever you feel like you are really ready to take on more. Saying no doesn’t make you a bad person or teacher, it just means ‘I’m sorry but I’m really busy with just finding by feet at the moment’- it will actually be to the benefit of your teaching and to everyone who has to know you this year. (Side note – say a huge thanks to your boyfriend for putting up with you this year!).

5.Have a golden moment. Someone on your PGCE will tell you to: ‘have one golden moment a day’ and it’s a really good piece of advice to follow. Even on those days where you’ve been told to F off twice before break, 30 out of 32 students haven’t bothered to do their homework, your packed lunch is sat on the kitchen table at home and you’re sure life doesn’t get any worse, something will have happened that is good (trust me). Whether it’s one lesson out of five that went well, one kid that smiled at you or someone who held the door when you were juggling your piles of marking and running to make it back to your classroom before the bell rings and the zoo breaks loose. Focus on the positives.

6.Leave school at school (as much as you can). This is one you still probably won’t have mastered by the end of the year. But do try not to talk about school to friends and family all the time. Ration yourself! As much as they love you, your story about how little Johnny keeps asking what the title is eight times a lesson even though you told him four times already that it’s on the board (where it is every single day), will get boring to them, even if it seems like the centre of annoyance in your universe at the time.

7.Counting glue back in. Much in the same way as the pens, glue sticks are like gold dust or the odd socks in the washing machine. They genuinely disappear in to thin air and when your department budget is low and you’re getting a class of 26 to stick in with 4 glue sticks, time literally stops. Say at the start: there are 15 glue sticks coming out, we aren’t going until 15 glue sticks come back in. They will get used to it and once they’ve spent 10 minutes of their break one time because someone’s put one in their bag by mistake and someone else threw one behind the radiator rather than putting it back in the box because ‘dunno why, I just did’ they soon realise it’s easier to look after it.

8.Be strict on the little stuff. This is the killer. For some new teachers, behaviour management is totally natural and isn’t ever something that really features in their targets or their thought processes and whilst you’re not exactly struggling, it’s worth getting the small stuff right from the start. Write out a clear behaviour policy for yourself from the start, know it inside out and stick to it. For example, if you decide it’s fair to give students one chance on a late homework, do this every time and only accept signed notes from parents/ carers after that. Have a happy smile and a sad smile on opposite sides of the board. A student name written under sad smile means a warning, name ticked means a negative behaviour point and name ticked twice means a detention. Under happy smile means positive points, getting to leave the class first etc (make sure this fits in with your individual school’s policy). Students actually appreciate it when you are firm and they know you’re being fair if you are consistent.

9.Don’t mark every single word they write!! For you as a bit of a perfectionist, you will start the year feeling like you need to mark everything you read. You want your students to feel appreciated and like you care about their work (which you do) but marking every single thing will result in a burn out and will actually be detrimental to your teaching. Only deep mark work that you have really prepped your kids for and they have had enough time to write something meaningful. Aim for maybe one piece of deeply marked work per student every two weeks in KS3 and one a week in KS4 to start with, other than that, small comments, verbal feedback and peer feedback work just as well to help your kids make good progress.

10.Buy a good brand of pink pens and stock up! For you, pink pen wins after you’ve tried out a few different colours. Find yourself a pen that writes smoothly. You spend a lot of time writing with it so it has to be comfortable to hold and because it’s pink, that way when almost every single item of your clothes is covered in the stuff at least it’s pretty!

Last but not least, keep your creativity. Sometimes in the midst of exam prep, marking, planning, phone calls home, parents’ evenings, data and meetings… planning fun and ‘out there’ lessons really does come at the bottom of your priority pile. But don’t lose sight of them. Those lessons that involve getting your ‘I hate English’ fifteen year olds galloping (yes actually galloping) along to iambic pentameter and laughing as they re-enact funny moments from Shakespeare, or where students are making really meaningful debates from a lesson based around making a Christmas Carol bunting chain-link, those fun and inventive lessons that you kinda want to try and are kind of scared that they will flop remind you why you did this in the first place!

Finally, prepare yourself for a bit of cheesy and cliched advice. Don’t give up! This year has the potential to break you, but stick with it and it might just be the making of you. 🙂