It’s been a fair while since I took my first step into a classroom knowing that I would be paid for the pleasure. Over that time I’ve got better at some thing and worse at others. But there are some things that I’ve come to be sure of. No great answers; no real wisdom… just experience.
1. Being a teacher is not like I imagined as a kid
I realise that this is very sad, but when I was young I quite liked playing at being a teacher. I had a little exercise book into which I recorded the register of my imaginary pupils. I set homework (long before I actually had any myself!) and organised my class in rows (despite that never happening in any of my primary classrooms). At that age the things that seemed fun to me were doing the register and telling children off.
When I first got my own class I was still excited about doing the register for real, and about writing reports, being on playground duty, parents’ evening… all the things that made me feel like being a real teacher.
It turns out, the novelty soon wears off!
2. Your reputation can – and should – be cultivated
Every teacher knows deep down that being liked isn’t a sensible aim in teaching. That said, relatively few want specifically to be disliked. It can be a fine balance to strike. In my early years I was probably “liked” more than I am now. It didn’t make me a better teacher, and it didn’t help those first cohorts. I wasn’t weak, or ineffective, but I just wasn’t as effective as I might have been.
The teachers I most admired after my first year – and indeed those that I still do – are the ones whose bark is worse than their bite. I taught a troubled girl in my third or fourth year and had a fantastic relationship with her. But when she left, she told me I was only her second favourite teacher. Number One position went to the woman in Y6 with a dragon-like reputation. It was only then that I noticed that that reputation only extended to those not in her class. She was a dragon in the corridor so that she could be a mother in the classroom. It worked. I’ve never quite mastered that balance, but I’m working on it! (Well, maybe not the mother bit!)
3. First contact with parents matters
If truth be told, I was nervous of parents in my early years. Fearful that perhaps they might catch me out. Reality is not quite like that. Most parents are happy so long as their child is happy. But for those fringe cases, the first contact you have with a parent can be instrumental in making the year go well.
This is something I’ve seen best in others. At the start of an academic year a colleague knew he was receiving a child with a reputation for challenge, and for a challenging parent. He took steps to make contact with that parent before the year even began, to outline transition plans, to discuss how best to meet his needs, and to make arrangements to catch up again in September. The parent was won over before the year even began. It didn’t make the problems go away, but it made it a partnership for dealing with them, rather than a confrontation.
4. Children act how you imply they should
This isn’t true of all behaviour, sadly, but it goes a long way towards it. High expectations breed high standards; I have no doubt of that.
My Y7 cohort have had their assessment week during the same week as the Y6 National Curriculum Tests in a neighbouring corridor of our middle school. In Year 6 they took as few as four tests, and the remainder of the week was a far more relaxed affair. They were rightly rewarded for a year’s effort towards that monumental event. My classes took 8 tests, including longer ones than they had in Y6, and in between they got on with their regular lessons. One child asked if there was going to be a “relaxation” day on Friday. I told them they had the relaxation of RE, English and other lessons. The child responded with a knowing smile, a mock roll of the eyes, and carried on.
I was comforted that my message of hard work was clear. The children knew what was expected of them, and they expected it to continue. There were no complaints, no arguments, no moaning. Just a recognition that they were older, and expectations were higher.
5. All work and no fun…
I hate residential visits. Or at least, I do at this stage: I’m currently organising one that leaves in a few weeks, and starting to organise one for the following year. They’re a nuisance, they demand too much of my time, they exhaust me, and they bring relatively little return to me as an individual. And yet, I wouldn’t stop doing them!
An opportunity to work with children in a completely different environment; to see them meet challenges that are new to them – even if it’s just making their own bed; to engage with them individually on a different level; to form memories that you know will last them a lifetime. Who could turn that opportunity down?
6. Guilt is best got over
I shouldn’t be writing this. I have a residential to organise; I have reports to write; I haven’t yet finalised my Writing assessment levels; I haven’t planned my lessons in detail for next week. The list is endless. It always will be.
But we cannot allow the guilt of the profession to weigh constantly on our minds. Yes, there is always something that needs doing, and even then more that could be done. We are, though, mere mortals. Learning to package the guilt and to set it aside for a few hours is essential for your mental wellbeing.
7. Always think of the effort/benefit ratio
In line with number 6, there are always things you could do to make your teaching just that bit better. But it is important to balance the potential with the effort and energy required. Will making 30 sets of beautifully laminated illustrated problem cards help the children to learn how to multiply any more effectively?
Sometimes primary teachers particularly have a tendency to prettify more than they need. And if that’s the way you like things, then so be it. But be wary of bemoaning a demanding workload for which the only demandant is yourself.
Training gets delivered. I could train you in the teaching of Maths, or how to use Moodle, or how to teach phonics (well, not that one, but the point is the same), but that’s just not the same as professional development. That has to come from you.
I went on a series of ‘new teacher’ course as an NQT. I can’t remember a thing I learned from them, but who knows, maybe they were useful at the time. Now, however, very few courses would appeal to me. Sometimes training is important – new software, new models of working, etc. But for real professional development you have to take the lead. The starting point I’d recommend is Twitter. I’m currently reading Daniel Willingham’s “Why don’t students like school?” and I can see already the impact it will have on my teaching. I would never have known about it had it not been for Twitter, and I cannot see a single circumstance in which “training” would have delivered the same benefits.
Don’t wait for someone else to put you on a course: get out there and find what will help you to become a better teacher. Twitter and blogs are an excellent starting point.
9. You will be cast as both hero and villain. You are neither.
In my experience, teachers have a tendency to overemphasise the extremes. Two parental complaints in a year will bring some teachers to the edge of resignation. Two parental compliments can leave them on Cloud 9 for days. As ever, the reality lies somewhere in between.
Of course take note of what is said at either end of the spectrum, for better or worse. Keep the complimentary cards and letters for a lifetime; discard the complaints at the end of the year. For your own benefit, though, let neither have too significant an impact on your life.
10. The holidays are great; don’t try to deny it to detractors
The old “you only work 9 till 3” and “always on holiday” jokes can seem irritating. Sometimes they are. But those who make them generally fall into two camps. One group know all too well what a joke they are making. They are often the long-suffering partners, children or family members of teachers. They make the joke in sympathy. Accept the sympathy.
Others will make the joke through ignorance, and no small amount of argument from you will change their view. I find that in these cases the best responses fall into two camps. Generally I stick with “Yes, it’s great – I don’t understand why more people don’t teach!” In most cases the joker will soon explain their rationale – usually another misunderstanding of the role, but sufficient to demonstrate that they’re not up to the job.
In extreme cases, I reserve the right to use my exceptional response: “Yes, it’s the best job in the world. If only you’d worked harder at school yourself, you could be doing it”
 Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) writes about teacher reputation in his excellent blog at http://headguruteacher.com/2013/04/09/post-100-12-steps-to-a-great-teacher-reputation/
 If you want to start reading far better blogs than this, then you couldn’t do much better than to start by visiting this excellent post by headteacher and blogger John Tomsett (@johntomsett) about edu-blogging: http://johntomsett.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/this-much-i-know-about-edublogging/
For people to follow on Twitter, take a look at these two posts:
75 education people you should follow by Sam Freedman