Those we advise not to teach

Mr McCotter’s gown rippled a bit, as he stifled a laugh. My 16 year old self had just told the careers master that ‘teaching was an option’, not my top option, mind, but a possibility nonetheless. His reaction told me that I should not even be considering it. This was the mid-80s. Perhaps morale was low in the profession then; I do vaguely recall industrial action over pay and conditions. Perhaps no self-respecting careers master (and McCotter was certainly that) would allow one of his star pupils (and I was certainly that) to don the gown.

I imagine everyone in teaching today had conversations like that. It was always other teachers seeking to dissuade. No colleague in the staffroom can complain that they weren’t warned about the marking workload, disrespectful teenagers and unsupportive parents. And yet, like the miracle of the sperm that makes it, we swam against the tide and made it into the classroom. Now we are the teachers, and some of us are advising on careers, and that bright boy or ambitious girl is telling us that they too wish to teach.

Do we put them off? Do we tell dark, Govean tales of Ofsted dementors and progress trackers? Are we edu-Kafkas, who warn them of teacher K, who was once satisfactory but who has woken this morning requiring improvement? Or do we nurture the naive spirit, the one that says ‘I know all that, but all I want to do is to teach children’? In them, do we see the 16 year olds who were once ourselves, and do our hearts leap a little at the thought that, despite all the bad stuff, this is still a profession that the best people want to be part of?

I’ve always tried to be an encourager. Yet, I have spent a good part of the morning in Whatsapp conversation with two brothers – one a teacher, the other having just quit his sales job. Niall teaches Maths in a Catholic girls school; he has found a way to be both good at his job and to lead a full life beyond the school gate. He thinks Barry, the other brother, would also make a great teacher. Barry left his job on Friday, seeking to set up a trophy business like our Dad. He may need another job, to make sure ends meet for him, his wife and two kids. So Niall sent him the link to the UCAS teacher training website. Which is where I stepped in.

Barry is a great person. He has stacks of personality, is bright and would be a wonderful motivator for young people. Several years ago, I tried to push him in the direction of teaching. But this morning, I have my doubts. I don’t think this is a job that can be combined with setting up a business: that just plays to the myth that our evenings, weekends and holidays are all our own. And I don’t think that teacher-training should be entered into lightly, fitted around other interests. On top of all of this, I am suspicious of those who believe that great teaching is somehow synonymous with sparkling personality. Many trainees start pretty modestly but, through their hard work make it to become good teachers. These are the ones I would encourage. They are the ones who will not be demented by the soul-sucking Ofsted ghouls, who – when they are told that they require improvement – will likely say ‘ Don’t we all?’ So I say to Barry: Are you willing to put yourself in the place of the learner, realising that there is much you do not yet know about teaching? Are you ready to battle hard on school placements, in settings you did not select, with pupils who do not yet trust you? Are you prepared to get out the school books yourself, to learn the stuff you need to get others to learn? Are you aware that you will be planning lessons, having them ripped apart by mentors, and marking work by kids who did not quite get the thing you thought you had told them? Are you ready to do that, while at the same time writing assignments for university tutors? Are you prepared for the shock that all of that is just the beginning, that the job itself is more arduous still? And, through all of that, are you confident that you will still believe – because it is true – that this is the best job in the world?


5 Things NQTs can be.

Twitter is bouncing with advice to NQTs right now. If you have found your way to this blog, then you probably already know that. I’d say: read it all. The advice comes from good people, with sensible, practical things to say. But you cannot follow it all. I offer these 5 items as things you can be, not just things you can do.

  1. Don’t be afraid to say No, but learn to say Yes. Many of the most exciting things that will happen to you in teaching will have been suggested by others. Would you like to go on this science trip? How about joining the staff choir? The Year 7 footballers would love you to coach them once a week. If you can agree to do at least some of these things, your working life will be all the more fulfilling. On the other hand, you cannot do everything, and it pays to learn how to turn people down without shutting the door in their face.
  2. Build alliances. This could be counsel from Machiavelli, but you don’t have to be a prince to benefit from this advice. Everyone who works in your school (perhaps even some of your fellow NQTs) has more experience in that setting than you do. You have to assume (and hope) that it matters a great deal to them: in some cases, this is their life’s work. So, don’t criticise another teacher (‘they don’t seem to be able to manage 7A3); don’t diss the displays; don’t complain about the reception in the reception. If you need to vent, you should be mindful of who you let your guard down in front of.
  3. Be constructive – or have a ‘growth’ mindset. This should apply to all your dealings, including the above. Actually, you too have experience, and you have a valid point of view: find the forum where it can be expressed, and offer your ongoing help too. More broadly, this is the attitude you should adopt with all of your students. Those who say they ‘cannot’ do something, get excited on their behalf: you are about to show them that they can! Those who say something is too easy for them, discuss with them how you can differentiate for them too.
  4. Be on time. As with many walks of life (what would I know?) others are depending on you to get your bit done before they can do their bit. Obviously this relates to prompt marking and feedback: your students will learn better if they can attach what you say with what they have done. But it can also govern your relations with office and technical staff. You need to get your requisitions in for your lab technician; if you want your colour copies back, reprographics need your original in three days in advance; if your reports aren’t done on time, you are putting pressure on people further up the chain – those who proof-read, or countersign, or post the things.
  5. Be prepared to work extremely hard. Some well-meaning colleagues will urge you to hold on to your work-life balance. In the main, these are people who have found the shortcuts they can live with, or who have built up a fund of resources they can call upon in a tight planning spot. Look to them, and realise that one day, you too will be able to tell others to spend a little time with yourself. But, in the meantime, this teaching lark is tough: it does take time to get it right, and you should be prepared to put that time in.