What I Wish I’d Been Told When I Began Teaching

The Ghost of Lessons Past

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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:

Persevere

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.

Work hard

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.

Communicate

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.

Apologise

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.

Be grateful

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.

Sleep

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.

25 Mistakes I Made When I Started Teaching

How my dream job turned into a nightmare

addition black and white black and white chalk
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Although it was years ago, I can still recall the observer’s face when I close my eyes at night. His head shaking as he scribbled down comments, eyes rolling each time I opened my mouth. 

Despite quality training and expert guidance, my learning curve as a new teacher had dwindled to a flatline, and I had little idea why.

Since then I think I’ve figured out what I should have known then: the 25 mistakes I made when I started teaching.

Being lazy. I’d had jobs before, but I was not prepared for the relentlessness of a school day nor the workload expected of teachers. I simply had not been in the right environment to develop the good habits that would enable me to make the most of my time and I quickly became overwhelmed.

Working too much. It turned out that working as hard as I could was not the answer either. I slept less and less which made it hard to concentrate and manage my mood.

Thinking I could do it alone. Help was everywhere, but I was too cynical to see it and too proud to seek it out. I felt too ashamed to admit I was struggling so I tried to endure it alone.

Asking too much of others. There is a fine line between getting help and having someone do it for you. I tended to lean a little too heavily on the latter, asking my mentors for things I should have taken upon myself.

Overthinking. I’d go to bed looping over in my mind the worst moments of the day and then wake up imagining all that could possibly go wrong in the day to come. It was no way to live.

Resorting to anger. My main feeling throughout those first few years was the fear that I would fail. When I was put under stress that fear would sometimes manifest in outbursts of anger.

Managing my time poorly. I wasted a lot of time: chatting with colleagues, getting cups of coffee, wandering the school corridors. It was nice, but none of it helped me become a better teacher.

Not drinking enough water. Using my voice a lot in a stuffy classroom without having a water bottle to hand meant I ended many a day severely dehydrated. Not only was this bad for my health, it compounded my feelings of stress and tiredness.

Drinking too much caffeine. I was already nervous. Adding caffeine into the equation meant I was usually tense; I would unconsciously clench my jaw and hold my breath. This in turn put the students on edge and as a result my classroom often had the atmosphere of a tinderbox.

Not sharing. I would spend hours creating lesson resources, but through a fear of judgement I rarely bothered to share these with my colleagues.

Having an ‘Us and Them’ mentality. I’d somehow got it into my head that students and colleagues were opponents, rather than allies. If I was going to succeed at teaching it would be despite them, not because of them.

Looking a mess. I got the not-so-bright idea that I could be more efficient with my time if I cut out any chores I thought were unnecessary – I stopped polishing my shoes, ironing my shirts and even getting regular haircuts.

Taking everything personally. I took feedback to heart and allowed it to upset me.

Taking everything too seriously. Have a sense of humour. Don’t let anyone make you angry or bitter or mean. Take the slings and arrows lightly and keep going.

Blaming others. Most of the problems I had in the classroom were my fault, but it was very tempting to tell myself otherwise: that I was a victim, someone else was a villain, or that I was in a helpless situation. None of which were true.

Hoping for the best. When planning lessons, it was comforting to simply hope for the best, that somehow the lesson would by chance work, and I’d be positively surprised. Having a well-thought-out plan always worked much better.

Being selfish. By concentrating too much on my own problems, I lost sight of the students’, whose problems I should have been trying to solve in the first place.

Forgetting why I wanted to teach in the first place. Losing sight of the reason for starting meant I didn’t have the comfort of the bigger picture. Remembering why I chose teaching made the struggle worth it when it got tough.

Not getting out enough. My problems always felt enormous because I’d stay sat in one place, my worry expanding to the size of the room until it seemed overwhelming.

Doing the hard work for them. Desperate for students to put pen to paper, I’d end up taking the challenge out of the work, lightening the load anyway I could. Eventually, my students avoided challenge at all costs.

Looking for greener pastures. I let myself believe that I’d ‘fallen into’ teaching, which really wasn’t the case. Becoming a teacher was a choice, but when the going got tough I questioned it, wasting my time daydreaming of other places I could be.

Gossiping. I’m ashamed to admit I would talk about colleagues and students behind their back, feeding feelings of resentment and wasting my time and energy.

Running away from feedback. I hated criticism and sometimes ignored it to my detriment. I failed to see the wisdom that could have helped me.

Not giving back to my mentor. By not offering anything of value to my mentor, he only offered me the bare minimum in support. The rare moments I managed to help my mentor, he often reciprocated in kind.

Ignoring family and friends. I neglected the people I love. Sometimes that meant not making the effort to see friends. Other times, although I was with people physically, I was too caught up in my own thoughts and anxieties to really be present with them. Further still, I didn’t seek their perspective on the problems in my head to get a true gauge of how serious (or not) they really were.

Perhaps you’ve recognised some of these in yourself. If so, take comfort knowing that you’re not the only one. And by spotting your mistake, you’ve taken the first step in getting better. Who knows, maybe you’ll even get your observer to crack a smile?

Best of luck for the year ahead.