3 things I wish I knew about teaching as an NQT.

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My last blog post about being an NQT – at least for the foreseeable future – is on teaching specifically. I’ve learnt so much the hard way over the past two years and the three things I want to share have become close allies for me moving forward in my career.

Expect failure – and learn from it quickly.

I’ll never forget at the beginning of Summer Institute (part of my Teach First training) one of the main leaders of the charity standing up and declaring that we ought to ‘fail a lot and fail quickly’. I didn’t fully understand the meaning of this until I got in the classroom in September. I failed at everything it was possible to fail at – including being late for work on my very first day. There’s a great TED talk I listened to by Astro Teller titled ‘The Unexpected Benefits of Celebrating Failure’ which really made me reconsider my perception of failure. As an inventor, he talks about not just learning from making mistakes but revelling in them, actively seeking them and celebrating when they occur. The purpose of this is to focus more sharply on doing things better and potentially rooting out things that might have stopped you from being the best you can be later on down the line. Understanding failure as an essential part of the process of learning has helped me massively in my teaching, not only for myself but for my pupils too.

Big dreams aren’t bad – just hold on to them tightly.

I am naturally a blue sky, big vision thinker. One of the reasons I came into teaching was to make a difference to the pupils I teach. What I wasn’t clear on was what this difference might look like or how I might do it. Within days I’d lost that vision I had and resigned myself to merely ‘getting through’. I assumed it was unachievable for me as a teacher due to extraneous factors. This was one of the worst things I ever did. After a discouraging year, on the last day of school I received a card from a pupil who was both able and challenging. It didn’t have the traditional ‘you’re the best teacher ever’, or ‘i’m going to miss you sir’. Instead it read this:

To Mr Burns,

You’ve enabled me to be all that I can be.

Thank you for everything.

Adam (Pseudonym)

My dream was to make a difference to the pupils I teach. For some reason I thought it would mean they would turn into little prime ministers, standing on their soap box in the playground preaching about inequality in society. Instead I realised i’d made a difference to some of the pupils in my class, with one claiming that i’ve enabled him to be all he can be. It’s safe to say i’ll be keeping this card forever, holding on to my dreams tightly, always looking to edge them forward in small steps.

Never stop learning.

I love reading. I love learning new things. I love the satisfaction of opening up new corridors of knowledge to see that it is utterly endless. When I began teaching, for some reason, this became the last thing on my agenda. Subconsciously, a lingering feeling of my time for learning ‘being over’ began to creep in to my thoughts. My approach was to race through two to three books in a half term to steal some more learning for myself. This suffocated my practice as a teacher. I realised this when pupils like Adam would ask me why a relative clause needs two commas; why Hitler rose to power; why gravity is so powerful or who decides what we learn in school. My answers were dusty at best, since they had been sat stagnant in my mind for so long. At worst, they made no sense, for I was unwilling to claim that I didn’t know. It made me feel sad that as a so-called ‘gatekeeper of knowledge’ I had no time to develop my own. This has since changed and I am carving out time in my week to study the difference between phrases and clauses and who decides what we learn in school – we’ll save those for subsequent posts. Please, never stop learning…or you’ll end up like I did.

 

Here’s the TED talk if you’re interested:

 

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