It has, without a doubt, been a whirlwind of a year. I have to come out and say that if I thought the PGCE was hard work, I hadn’t seen anything compared to what I have faced this year. Now, I wouldn’t claim that to be a typical NQT experience, but then I have never aimed to be a typical teacher. The reasons for such a hard year are many and complex. Some are circumstances forced on me, some are down to how I approached things, and how much I have chosen to take on.
One thing I can say is that whilst much of the difficulty of the PGCE was based on workload, paperwork and dealing with systems I did not agree with, I have been able to push myself even further this year for one single reason. Last year was about me satisfying people to give me a qualification, and hence many of it’s details were futile, although necessary for the end result. This year it was about real children and making a difference to their lives and hence, whilst it has at times been a struggle, it was always worth it.
So, what have been the challenges? The first one is unsurprisingly the transition from playing the PGCE game to actually being a class teacher. To me this is as much a culture shock as anything else. As a trainee you are used to thinking in weeks and days, one regular observation after another. You have to keep improving and you have to keep showing ‘perfect’ practice. Once you are in the job it changes, and is more about the long game. I have found this is less about having the stamina to keep it up full time, and more about the way priorities change and how this reflects in your practice.
For example I began this year wanting to be all singing all dancing, and jump straight in to the kind of exploratory, child led lessons I felt my choice of workplace had given me the remit to do. Big mistake. I began the year working at the edge of my ability in terms of pedagogy, and as a result it took me a long time to get the routines and respect in place that is needed if a class is going to go with you to the kind of learning culture I aim for. I was thinking in the short term, PGCE mindset which I should have been thinking about the long game.
My biggest piece of advice to new NQTs would be even if you are capable, don’t try to be the all singing all dancing teacher you want to be from the start, or even the one you were for your final observations on teaching practice. There is a temptation to think you have something to prove, especially if like me 150 people applied for your job. However, compared to the PGCE game you have a long time to prove these kind of things, it is much more important to get routines and expectations in place even if, dare I say it, you are not doing great lessons in terms of teaching and learning.
As a trainee I totally underestimated the amount of work my class teachers had done to get the class to a point where I could walk in there and start teaching them. Once I got into the long game mindset I did things differently. The rules had changed, and I found myself doing some things I had previously been very critical of other teachers for doing. I realised they weren’t doing them because of the impact they had then, which can sometimes be questionable, but the impact they would have to the bigger picture, and the longer term. I also realised that every single little detail doesn’t actually matter as much as you think it does when you are a naive trainee. Sometimes you don’t do certain things in the best way possible, as long as you always have in mind the long term goal of high quality learning it often doesn’t matter. You really have to let some things go.
Another of the biggest challenges for me this year has been behaviour management. This was something which came up on my PGCE, not as being poor, but not quite at the level matching the judgements people made of my planning, learning and other aspects of pedagogy. I even requested to be sent to a more challenging school for my final placement, and ended up with a very difficult year 2 class in an inner city primary with very challenging behaviour.
Having identified this as an area to work on I ended up teaching one of the most challenging classes in my school. Some people might have felt this as too much of a challenge, but I think for me to progress in this area I needed to confront it head on, and I would not change the class I had this year for anything. At times it has been a struggle, but I have grown so much in terms of my practice and I think I have come out of it many times the teacher I was this time last year. Also, whilst they were sometimes hard work, I had a class full of really inspirational young people, and I have learned so much from them and really enjoyed their creativity and individual take on things.
It has also really made me test the boundaries of my philosophy in terms of child centred learning. It would have been very tempting with this class to have kept them stuck to their chairs and completing overly structured tasks, if only to keep the classroom manageable. I am really proud to say this is not at all the approach I have taken, although I have recognised the need to do this kind of thing sometimes; all as part of the long game.. Some could argue my approach is only successful for motivated, well behaved children, I have seen that it can be done even with challenging pupils, and in fact some of my biggest successes have been in motivating such children with things they were genuinely interested in.
Other challenges have been more a part of challenges and expectations I have set myself. Trying to integrate 30 netbooks into my teaching was at times very difficult, not helped by the innevitable technical hurdles that a new project on such a scale presents. My own expectations for our child-led Learning Agreement Time projects was also a huge challenge, but one that I have learned an awful lots from.
I have also managed to integrate ICT into my practice in such a way that I never want to go back to teaching out of context, separate ICT lessons. I have also been very proud of the children I have worked with in this area, and seeing their IT skills progress to the point where they are independently making decisions about the best tools for their learning has been great to see. Taking on the development of a school radio station has also been a major challenge. Although this has in some ways not progressed as far as I would have liked, it has had some major successes, not least when we took it to the Education show and the children worked alongside an impressed Professor Stephen Heppell.
Despite the challenges, there have been many successes. One, of course, being making it through the year and after 6 observed lessons passing my NQT year.
Another great success was the reception I got when speaking at my first TeachMeet at the BETT show about the success of our class blog. The blog itself has also been a big success, with nearly 10,000 people from over 50 countries stopping by to look at what we have been learning, with many of them leaving comments or featuring our work on their own sites. The recognition of my work in new technologies has resulted in an invitation to work with a Local Authority group on promoting 21st century learning across Birmingham, and being one of only 50 to gain a place on the UK Google Teacher Academy.
However, the biggest success has to be the progression I have seen in the 31 children I have taught this year. The changes I have seen in their confidence, their work ethic, and their general attitude towards learning has been phenomenal, and I am very proud of the hard work they have all put in. There are of course many areas to continue to work on in my teaching, and that will be the subject of a future post, but I am pleased to have taken a class through a whole year and really made a difference to them.
It has been a much harder year than I thought, but it has also been more successful than I could have imagined. I only hope that next might be a bit easier, but just as successful.