5 Reasons Why I Had a Horrible First Year in Teaching (and How Not To)

Learning from my mistakes

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

If it is true, as Wordsworth wrote, that ‘the child is the father of the man’ then logic would have it that the novice is the teacher of the expert. We learn from our mistakes, as the adage goes. I certainly had to.

But that doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistakes as me in order to learn not to do them. A wise person doesn’t just learn from their own mistakes, but also those made by others.

What, then, should you avoid doing at all costs in your first year of teaching? Well, exactly what I did, for I was not a wise person.

I present to you the 5 don’ts (and 5 preferable dos) I learnt the hard way during my horrible first year in teaching:

DON’T – Stay off social media

You’ll have already heard a lot about how your first year of teaching is going to be really busy so it makes sense to stay away from time vampires like social media as much as possible.

But Twitter can be a good exception to this rule.

There you’ll find a community of education professionals, like you, who engage in conversations around teaching. What is commonly referred to as ‘Edutwitter’ has daily discussions (and arguments) ranging from everything you could imagine: behaviour management to classroom displays; career advice to subject knowledge.

Many contributors are very generous and share their resources for free.

I have personally found it helpful to see that many other teachers are tackling the same problems I’m facing. It has made me feel less alone, giving me greater confidence that actually, for the most part, I do know what I’m doing.

DO – Get on Twitter

Begin by searching for topics that interest you. In this context, ‘teacher’ would be an obvious one to try, or ‘education’. Do you like what they’re saying? Then give them a ‘follow’. Then look for other people worth following by seeing who they’re giving ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ to.

A word of warning though: while it’s a wonderful source of wisdom, one emerging danger with all social media is that it quickly becomes an echo chamber in which you will quickly only hear from lots of people who conveniently agree with you. This can be very disorienting as it can give you a false impression of how ‘most people’ feel.

Follow people whose viewpoints resonate with you, but also follow those whose opinions are contrary to your own. It is important to hear opposing views in order to receive a more balanced commentary on education. You don’t have to agree with everyone, but just as you wouldn’t surround yourself with ‘yes men’ in real life, nor should you online.

DON’T – Learn as you go

Observing other teachers and copying them is really all I need to do, isn’t it?Practice makes perfect, surely?

Well, yes and no. You will certainly learn through practice and certainly from observing others, but you’ll also pick up bad habits along the way. And remember: practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Better, then, to practice the good, rather than cement the bad.

CPD (remember this term because you’ll hear it often) stands of ‘Continuous Progression and Development’. At the time of writing there has never been more experts writing books, blogs, Twitter threads (and even TikToks) with the intention of helping teachers of all levels improve. And it only appears to be growing.

In my training year only one book was recommended through my initial training provider: How to be a Brilliant English Teacher by Trevor Wright. Amongst all the uncertainty in that year, that book turned out to be my bible. I should have read others (I wish I had), but I didn’t know what else was out there. For me, book recommendations are where Twitter really shines. I have read several books now and each has had a huge and immediate impact on how to I teach. Books are superb for cutting your learning curve – unlike me, not only will reading help you get better at teaching, you’ll get better at teaching faster (and spare yourself some humiliation along the way).

DO – Read books

Twitter is overflowing with book recommendations. But another word of warning: it’s really tempting to read books on topics you’re already competent at. I spent this past week reading the brilliant A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland, convinced that it will help me as a teacher because which teacher doesn’t need more subject knowledge?

While it wasn’t a waste of time by any stretch, I did use it to conveniently ignore another book on my pile I should be reading more urgently: Running the Room – The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour by Tom Bennett. If I was being honest with myself, my behaviour management is not as sound as my subject knowledge.

Note to self: more on modelling behaviour, and less on Moby Dick.

DON’T – Blame others

The problems I had when I began teaching were, on reflection, largely self-created. I’ve managed to deduce this because I still teach in the same school, to similar cohorts of students, with largely the same staff and resources available. But now, five years in, my days feel a lot more manageable.

What changed? Frankly, I did. I used to expect quick results, thought I could do it all by myself, and took more than I gave. Now I am more knowledgeable, more skilled and a far better teammate to my colleagues.

Rather than willing everyone else to change, I had to do it myself instead.

DO – Take responsibility

Resist the temptation to find fault in other people. It’s a simple cop out that is all too easy to do and lets you off the hook from the tricky business of changing.

Concentrate instead more on what you can control, which is yourself and what you do. Focus on improving one aspect of your teaching at at time, starting with the most urgent and go from there.

DON’T – Go it alone

As a novice teacher I foolishly imagined I was working in conflict with those around me: students, parents and staff. I believed that in order to do a good job I had to do it despite the students who were poorly behaved, the parents who wouldn’t reply to my emails, or the judgements of other teachers.

Which of course wasn’t true; just a bizarre state of paranoia. It was only when I began to open myself up to others that I began to get better at teaching: becoming more familiar with my students, co-operating better with and seeking advice from other members of staff.

DO – Play well with others

When you have a problem, the solution will likely be in the form of another person. A mentor, ideally, or perhaps a sympathetic ear from a trusted friend. Good colleagues are good because they reduce the suffering of work. They can often provide solutions you would have never imagined yourself because it’s likely they possess skills in areas that for you are a weakness.

And they’re fun – other people have the power to surprise us and make us laugh.

DON’T – Work yourself silly

A teacher’s workload has become the stuff of urban legend even amongst those who do not teach. I heard dozens of horror stories of teachers working every evening and all weekend to keep up. Some well-meaning friends and family even discouraged me from the joining the profession in the first place.

But how much work is too much? It depends. Some people are simply gifted with a greater capacity for demanding work than others so you’ll need to figure out for yourself where the line is.

I personally like to do some planning in the evenings. I actually enjoy sitting at my computer after everyone else has gone to bed, listening to a podcast and thinking about the next day’s teaching.

That won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and not everyone’s personal circumstances will allow for it, but I’ve been doing it for years and it’s what I prefer.

I used to think that I could cut down severely on sleep to help fit everything in, getting just a few hours kip each night. Even typing that now, I realise quite how ridiculous it sounds. And needless to say it proved to be a disaster. It is certainly possible to work too hard.

DO – Work sensibly

In Aesop’s fable The Goose & the Golden Egg a countryman, unsatisfied with his goose only laying one egg a day, kills the goose and cuts it open thinking he’ll get more eggs. Of course, there aren’t any more eggs, and he never gets another egg again.

Part of managing workload is figuring out how productive we can be (getting our ‘golden egg’) while being mindful that as soon as we push ourselves too hard for too long, we risk burning ourselves out (and killing the figurative goose).

Monitor your energy levels regularly and adjust your work rate accordingly. I find that I get a lot of work done at the beginning of a week because I’m well-rested from the weekend. Understandably I get a lot less done at the end of the week because I’m tired. And that’s usually okay because I can then compensate for it at the beginning of next week.

The sun has now set on this year’s summer holiday and despite my mistakes; the lessons I learnt the hard way when I began teaching, I’m actually looking forward to the next academic year.

And so, on that note, I wish you a good one.

Or at least one not quite as horrid as my first.

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