A guest post by @
It dawned on me this week that I am approaching the ten year anniversary of quitting teaching after the first half-term of my NQT year. This post is a reflection on what went wrong then, why I’m still in teaching, and, perhaps most importantly, what I’ve learned from a decade of QTS.
Before September 2006
My PGCE year went well. Perhaps too well. I had the opportunity to work with some genuinely talented trainees and learn from top quality lecturers at Leicester Uni. (Secondary Geography, since you asked). We embroiled ourselves in the pedagogical topics du jour. I remember, in one seminar, making a speech about the moral dangers of the ‘fake it till you make it’ approach to teaching, and getting a resounding round of applause from my peers. What a schmuck.
But I had a pretty successful first placement at a school in the town where I was living. I put the hours in, that’s for sure. And it seemed to be paying off, my learning curve was giddying. I subsequently found out that – on the strength of placement one – I’d been handpicked to go to one of the toughest schools in the area for my second placement. Cheers. I hadn’t even got through my NQT year before Uni staff were telling me I needed to become an ET as soon as possible. I got the first job I applied for.
To paraphrase De La Soul, stakes was high.
September to October 2006
But the cost was beginning to be felt. I became overtaken by the need to reinvent the wheel for every single lesson. It had to be new, fresh, exciting. I went from teaching a handful of lessons per week on my PGCE to a 90% timetable, and in that context my lesson planning obsession was unsustainable.
I don’t have a lucid or clear memory of those days. I can’t say if the SLT were helpful; I don’t remember. I’m not sure how much of my workload was picked up by other staff, though I’m sure it must have been. (If that was you, you know who you are: thank you!). There were lessons where the kids would crawl on the floor under the desks. They would mock my attempts at discipline. They weren’t all bad; some of them still come to mind with fondness, but I really did have some difficult students to deal with. I had no concept even of how to begin to teach them! Bottom set year 8 is burned into my subconscious. I forgot I was on lunch duty pretty much every time. I would sometimes wake in the morning with strained vocal chords from shouting at the kids in my sleep.
At the end of each day I would gather up the carnage, realign the desks, put on my iPod on and fly out of there as fast as my no-longer-shiny shoes would carry me. I would not look back. But very soon I’d reached my limit, and then I broke.
The week before half term – barely 7 weeks into my illustrious career – I handed in my notice, in tears in the head’s office. All aspiration had drained away. Later that week I overhead a conversation between a couple of middle managers about who had the better rate of employing staff who made it through. One of them had backed me, the other had not. Cheers.
Turns out that the only other NQT at the school had also handed in her notice; we both left at Christmas. That last departure, strutting like a punk out of the gates for the final time, remains one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. I scored four goals that Saturday. Just sayin’.
January 2007 to June 2009
I got out, and tried to stay out. I had pretty low overheads at the time and so my teacher wages lasted me another four months. But the bills needed paying, and despite sending out stacks of applications, no one would have me. A school down the road was looking for a cover supervisor. I applied and got called to interview. I went along totally lacking in confidence, and unsurprisingly got turned down. Then a week later I had a call from the school to say that the vacancy had come up again. (I later learned that a good friend of mine had been offered the job initially, but found something better inside a week!)
I learned the stuff that I really wished I’d been taught as a trainee: how to conjure a lesson out of thin air, how to manage behaviour, how to rely on my subject knowledge, how to give verbal explanations of concepts without props. Contingency plans.
It was another tough school. A shoddy ‘Grade 3’ at the time. A year into the job and the History teacher went off on maternity. The maternity cover teacher lasted a couple of days, before thinking better of it. The next replacement lasted about 5 weeks. Then they asked me. Fourth choice. Cheers.
I turned it down and decided to do something else. I worked with a mate who sells (a lot of) books on the internet. I catalogued all the pre-ISBN books, and created listings for each one. Then I got married and moved to the West Midlands, with the intention of working with a friend in his landscaping business. I figured I’d watch and learn and set up my own business in due time. Us Brummie lads love a spot of grafting, after all.
The credit crunch. Remember that? No one needs their garden landscaping when they’ve got no money. People’s optimism waned and the recession grew deeper. And it was winter. I got laid off. We found out that my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we had no income, and we’re living in Dudley. It’s like a Springsteen song, but without the murderous undertones.
I started looking for jobs and the first thing that jumped out was the local FE college and a vacancy to teach BTEC Level 2 Travel and Tourism. Now it so happens that during my very first placement on my Geography PGCE I was asked to teach this to a handful of kids, so I applied. The interview didn’t go great, if I’m honest, but the people seemed nice, and so I was hopeful.
I didn’t get the job. I had a call on the Thursday to tell me I’d been unsuccessful. Then, the following Thursday, I got another call offering me the job that they’d just turned me down for. Their first choice had found something better! That’s now happened to me twice.
January 2010 to October 2016
The morning I was due to begin at the college it was bitterly cold. I woke early, showered and overdressed. (Turns out the dress code at an FE college is, let’s just say, ‘loose’ by comparison to that at a school). Just before leaving to do the thing I never wanted to do again, I hugged my wife and my eyes welled with tears. The vortex that is teaching had sucked me back in. Given all my previous experiences I was sure that it was just a matter of time before it would swallow me whole.
I struggled through the first term. I fought with a whole host of demons. But I made it. And then something happened. There was an internal vacancy in the Sport department, and they knew that I had a joint honours degree in Sport Science. I applied, and I got the job.
Since that day I’ve taught at Levels 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. I’ve taught BTECs, A Levels, NVQs and Foundation Degrees. I’ve gained my NCFE Level 2 in Fitness Instructing, and started a Masters as well as my TAQA. I’m a ‘champion’ for English & Maths in our department and for TEL on my campus.
It’s been 10 years since I quit teaching. And 6 since I returned. I’ve come a long way and I’ve learned a lot. I’m glad to be in the classroom and no longer feeling like I’m about to lose my mind. So, given all that experience, here are just three things that have emerged over the years as central themes for me in my teaching. I could say much more but I’ve droned on long enough. Maybe one of these will resonate.
Three Lessons Learned
1. Behaviour is the bottom line. I’ve been in some challenging schools and seen ‘behaviour management’ done well and seen it go horrendously wrong. You have to figure out a way of inculcating an atmosphere in which learning is the preeminent thing, and where everyone knows that they have a role to play to that end. I use humour and openness wherever possible, but gone are the days when I’d shy away from invoking the disciplinary procedure. Do what you have to, but don’t scrimp on behaviour.
2. Be real. This probably merges with the one above, but, put simply, humans relate to humans. So be human. If you find something funny then laugh. Apologise when you’re wrong and back down if you have to. If you don’t know the answer, say so. The kids, the sentient ones at least, can spot a fake at 100 paces. This relational element of teaching, of course, is the great obstacle faced by the devotees of online learning.
3. Know what you’re talking about. Or perhaps more accurately, have a coherent knowledge of the domain and how it interacts as a body of knowledge. This means that you can anticipate left-field questions, or identify gaps in student understanding and the likely knock-on effects of those gaps further along in the learning. You can then move away from barrelling your way through the Spec and start to make explicit linkages across the domain that will assist the students in terms of their own schema building. Plus, it’s fun to know stuff!
October 2016 onwards
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.