What I learned in my NQT year

I’m not going to lie, I had a difficult NQT year. There were times when I really thought I wasn’t going to make it through. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to be surrounded by a department full of the most amazing colleagues anyone could wish to have, I might well not have done. It was a massive learning curve, but here are a few things that I found out about myself – and the system
For the final observation of my NQT year. I was graded good which I suppose I should have been disappointed about. I wasn’t aiming for outstanding particularly. Whenever I teach an observed lesson I have the words of my wonderful PGCE tutor Debbie Myhill in mind. She told us to ‘teach the lesson that shows them who you are’. I hope that who I am is a good teacher. Day in, day out that is who I try to be. I don’t want to spend the weekend before a scheduled observation crafting an outstanding showpiece lesson that doesn’t reflect who I am in the classroom. I want to give my pupils consistency, reliability, quality. Day in, day out. It’s bloody hard enough doing that without trying for fireworks as well.
I know to some people that will sound pathetically lacking in ambition, but after a couple of years of reading every book, article, blog and tweet about teaching that I could stuff into any overlooked nook or cranny of my overloaded cerebral cortex I’ve realized that less is more. I need to focus on embedding the best stuff into my practice and learning to do it as well as I possibly can. I love Twitter but sometimes I feel that I’m peering into all these perfectly arranged shop windows and I wonder if they really reflect the reality of other people’s teaching lives. What I wasn’t prepared for is what a messy, trial and error business teaching is. A lesson that works with one class falls completely flat with a different group of pupils. An activity that has everyone engaged and working purposefully at 10am on a Wednesday morning is greeted with listless apathy at 2pm on a Friday afternoon. If I don’t have the freedom to experiment and, yes, sometimes fail, then how the hell I am I meant to improve?
But we don’t say these things to each other very much. The tyranny of the lesson observation and the spectre of performance management inhibit us. Often, we feel we are only one step away from the dreaded ‘requires improvement’ judgement that will trigger a cascade of intervention and, who knows, even capability proceedings. So we need to keep up a façade of serenity and calm purposefulness that often belies the insecurity and panic bubbling away only just underneath the surface. It isn’t helped by the fact that everywhere we look, whether it is in the staffroom or on Twitter everyone else is doing the same thing. Maybe they are all perfectly composed and always on top of their game. Maybe I am the only blithering idiot blundering through hostile terrain without a map. But somehow I doubt it.
So, some advice to senior management. If you are really committed to the wellbeing of your staff then you need to allow them to express their feelings of self-doubt and failure without worrying that it may have a negative effect on their careers. You don’t need to tell us what is wrong with our teaching: we already know. Teachers are the most analytical and self-reflective professionals I have ever met. Treat us like fellow professionals rather than oversized pupils. Get rid of graded lesson observations and focus on specific and helpful feedback that allows us to set our own targets and priorities for improvement. Then give us the space to allow that to happen. (Oh wait, that IS what we. do with pupils.) And, just a thought – if you really want pupils to make progress that is lasting rather than superficial stop fetishing the necessity to ensure that all pupils make progress within every 20-minute segment of every lesson or even, dare I say it, within every individual lesson. You can’t. All that does is create a culture of shallow learning. It means teachers don’t dare to be honest about what they are really doing in the classroom.
I know I have still got a lot to learn before I can call myself a good teacher. In reality, I will always be grading myself as ‘requires improvement’: after all, what teacher doesn’t? That’s why we are so prone to waking up at 3am on a Sunday night, sweating. But it would help if being able to assess myself this way was treated as a cause for celebration rather than concern. We need more honesty in teaching – and less fear.

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