The Ghost of Lessons Past
In Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge eventually confronts the error of his ways after being presented with the sight of his own gravestone. The realisation that life is short leaves him determined to go back to the present and live his life for the better.
If I had the chance to go back to my first couple of years as a teacher, and live it all over again, here’s what I would like to know beforehand:
I can’t say this enough: Stick with it. Write these three words on a post-it somewhere visible on your desk and recite it to yourself daily. Any great pursuit takes years, not months. You won’t master it in your first year, nor your second. Keep going. I promise it gets better.
Find great mentors
Your school should assign a mentor to you, and you should be thankful for them. But that doesn’t mean you can’t seek out your own too. Look around for teachers you admire and copy what they do. Sometimes their methods might conflict and that’s okay. Take a critical view and decide what might work best for you.
When the going got tough I began to disconnect from the job and get lazy. I had to remind myself that I was in the process of becoming a professional which meant showing up and doing my best work even when I didn’t feel like it. It meant caring and remaining emotionally connected to the job, holding high regard for how my work was going to impact others in the long-term.
I used to want to win arguments, to prove to others that I was right and they were wrong. I didn’t listen to what others were telling me. I had to learn how to have important, honest conversations; with my mentors, my line manager, parents and students.
You’re learning so you’re going to make mistakes and annoy most of the people you work with – staff, parents and students. It takes courage to own up to your mistake, and nothing defuses tension quite as wonderfully as saying you’re sorry.
Pursue high quality leisure
When I clocked off at the end of the day I would spend hours of my free time watching YouTube videos. It was a convenient trapdoor to mentally escape from the trials of the workday. But like a lot of internet-based entertainment, it drained me of time, energy and opportunity. I still watch Youtube, but in addition I now pursue entertainment which is more analogue than digital. For instance, when I feel the urge to browse social media, I’ll read a book instead. Rather than watching a twenty-minute video on Youtube, I’ll spend that time exercising.
Remind yourself why
Becoming a teacher is a choice. My reason will be different to yours, but whatever it is, you chose to teach over other ways of earning a living. Keep this reason in mind to help you persist when the work becomes stale or difficult.
Don’t get too attached
Don’t strive for recognition or praise. Doing good work is enough. Your generous efforts, not the results, should be where your focus lies.
The only time I ever saw my NQT mentor smile was when I gave him a bottle of wine to thank him for his help. People like to have their efforts recognised, and even something as simple as a written message of thanks might be kept for a lifetime. If you really want to treat your mentor, give them something they really want: more time. Why not look for something that could be of mutual benefit to you both and offer to help them with it, such as preparing lesson resources you could both use.
The biggest mistake I made when I began teaching was skimping on sleep to get more work done. It seemed to be effective for a short period of time (a couple of days), but eventually I burnt out and it ruined my work.