Dear New Teacher,
As we approach the start of the school year, I’ll bet you are experiencing quite a range of different emotions. You’ll be excited, I hope, and so you should be. Don’t let anyone dampen that and avoid spending time with cynics or more ‘experienced’ teachers that have forgotten why they signed up to it all in the first place.
You will probably also be feeling quite apprehensive – maybe even scared – about the prospect of being a ‘real’ teacher for the first time. Don’t worry! That’s very normal. I’ll soon be going into my third year as a qualified teacher and I still feel that mix of nerves and excitement as September approaches.
I have both good and bad news for you.
The bad news is that teaching is a really challenging profession. Your to-do list will never really be completed, you will probably have emotionally-draining encounters with certain pupils to deal with and you will likely spend large amounts of time marking books and searching in vain for glue stick lids.
But the good news far outweighs the bad because actually, as hard as teaching is, it is a truly brilliant job. You will find yourself getting absurdly excited about the smallest steps your students make in the right direction. You will laugh with them about football or about how one of them saw you in Tesco. You will stifle a sob and try to look cool at the Leavers’ Assembly as you wave goodbye to pupils you have proudly watched turn from children into young adults. And you will, I hope, work with great colleagues who will pull you through on your bad days.
I have found becoming a teacher to be one of the most challenging things I have ever done in my life. And one of the best. A lot of what I have learned I had to learn the hard way, stubbornly and through experience. So New Teacher, here are three things I wish I’d known and that you need to know:
1. It’s okay to put yourself first. This may surprise you but when you become a ‘real’ teacher you do not suddenly become endowed with superhuman powers (although some teachers like to act as though they are). You still need to sleep enough, eat properly, get some fresh air, spend time with people who care about you and so on. It’s absolutely vital you find a way to switch off from work and that you are strict with yourself about this. As a task-orientated person with a passion for to-do lists I would probably have worked myself into the ground through fear of failure if it weren’t for my husband and friends. Oh, and Pinterest.
You can’t live at one hundred miles per hour for years on end and you don’t need to. If you don’t already have a hobby that is totally different from what you do during the working day then you might soon find yourself overworked and unhappy, so please decide on something you enjoy that will give you time to relax and unwind. Clue: reading blogs about teaching doesn’t count, even if they are as brilliant as this one is.
2. It’s okay to take time off. I have met teachers with whom this idea would be distinctly unpopular because they refuse to miss a day of work on account of the fact that the children ‘need’ them. Well yes, the children need a good teacher providing high quality lessons for them and preferably this should be the person who normally teaches them and with whom they have a strong relationship. But I’ll remind you again that you are not Batman or Catwoman, and if you are properly ill you will most likely need to take at least one day off to recover. I am not giving you permission to slack off for weeks at a time so you can catch up on all those Netflix episodes you haven’t watched yet. But I am asking you to look after yourself and be responsible about what you can and can’t do.
Let me put it this way. You may think your children ‘need’ you, but here’s what they don’t need. They don’t need their teacher coughing all over them and sneezing over their worksheets, or getting snappy and grumpy with them because she is not in a fit state to be teaching. And they don’t want to have to strain their ears for the duration of the lesson because she has lost her voice and is barely emitting a whisper as she outlines the complexities of quadratic equations at the front of the classroom. I once worked with someone who, rather than going home sick, preferred to punctuate her lessons that day with frequent trips to the staffroom across the corridor so she could vomit into a bin before continuing to teach the class. This is not heroic in my opinion. It’s sheer madness! So please don’t do it.
3. It’s okay to make mistakes. Honestly, it is. Few mistakes that teachers make leave them in an irredeemable situation, and those that do are usually the kind of things that end up in the papers and which I’m sure you are well aware you shouldn’t be doing anyway. You will commit errors of timing or planning and you will learn from these and do better next time. You will make subject knowledge mistakes (all too easy when you are an MFL teacher like me and have to think in several languages at once) and you will learn not to be embarrassed or defensive but to reward the kid who points it out and remind your class that you are not perfect.
Perhaps the hardest mistakes to overcome are relational ones. You will probably find yourself losing your temper and saying the wrong thing or getting into an argument with a pupil that spirals beyond anything you intended. I say this from experience, so please trust me on this: there is very little you can do or say in your capacity as a teacher that will make it impossible for you to rebuild your relationship with a child. I have been impatient, sarcastic and on occasion downright rude to some of my pupils. I am not proud of it one bit. But it did teach me that children are more forgiving and understanding than we sometimes give them credit for. So get ready to apologise when necessary and learn from your mistakes.
There are plenty more pieces of advice I could give but those three are probably enough for now. I’ll finish, New Teacher, by wishing you the best of luck and by congratulating you on choosing to dedicate yourself to such a great profession. If you have managed to get through the training and are soon going to actually get paid to do this thing then you are clearly brilliant and will go far. Just be forgiving of yourself and others, stay teachable and make sure you have fun.
All the best,
P.S. One last thing: guard the glue sticks with your life. Your sanity and department budget depend on it!
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