This time last year, I was preparing to start my first official year as a primary school teacher working with reception children. To this day, I still have friends, family and acquaintances questioning my career choices. ‘Why would you want to become a teacher?’ ‘It is not a 9 to 5 job… Do you not want a life?’ ‘Those who can’t do, go in to teaching’ ‘What are you going to gain by teaching young children five days a week?’ Well, I am going to tell you…
Being a teacher (and a reception teacher at that) is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. You become their second parent, nurturer, play partner, social advisor, and of course their educator. That is not to say that it is perfect. As a teacher, no matter what year group you go in to, you will experience the highest highs and the lowest of lows (my work friends and colleagues will vouch for me). There has been many an evening when I have got home at half 6 and worked through to 11 with a splitting migraine and not had that voice in the back of my head saying ‘Erin, your job is currently your life, can you maintain this’. The honest answer is no. As I prepare to embark on my second year of teaching as an RQT, I have learnt some tricks of the trade and life lessons which may help future, potential NQTs survive their first year.
- Do not buy your own laminating pouches
Looking back to last summer, I must have spent at least £50+ on laminating pouches in order to laminate display lettering, posters, labels etc. for the classroom (in an attempt to be super organised). I quickly found out when the first term began that the school does provide pouches for staff to use. However, words of caution, laminating pouches are expensive for schools to buy and they can not be recycled. So I now only laminate what I will reuse year on year. Yet what I would suggest and recommend is buying a cheap laminator for home use. I bought an A4 laminator from Wilkos for £15 and it is still going strong. This has been a God send for me.
2. You can not do everything
I will admit, I am a slight perfectionist and I like what I like. I have come to realise in my NQT year that this is a strength and a weakness. I can not do everything and there is a cut off point. My cut off point either ended in illness or high levels of stress because I struggled to let the ‘never ending to do list’ go. I felt like I couldn’t leave work or go to bed until I had scribbled every single thing off my list for that day and it just wasn’t realistic or sustainable. Whilst writing this I can just hear my Mum’s voice ‘IT CAN WAIT UNTIL TOMORROW WHEN YOU SIT BACK AT YOUR WORK DESK AT HALF 7 IN THE MORNING ERIN!’ Even though I did not think this at the time, Mum you are right.
A teacher’s to do list is never ending and as soon as one thing is ticked off, another 5 get added so you have to prioritise what is the most important. If it is not urgent, then leave it until tomorrow or whenever you can give it the attention it deserves.
Another handy tip is to delegate. I struggled with this at the beginning. But your teaching assistant (if you are lucky enough to have one full time or even part time) is there to assist your teaching and help with the never ending workload. So share out the jobs and don’t feel bad about it. They are there to help you and they will do this in whatever way they can. Whether that be running to the photocopier or tidying up the creative table.
3. You are the most valuable resource in the classroom
This year I have spent hundreds of pounds on a variety of resources that I felt the children would love and benefit hugely from. Whether it be a self selection storage unit from IKEA or a variety of seeds for the children to grow from the local garden centre. Erin has bought it all! Yet what I realised, more so towards the end of the third term is that you as the class teacher are the most valuable resource. The storage unit and the seeds have a purpose but you as the adult set the learning environment each and everyday for each and every unique 4 year old, that walks through that classroom door.
Sometimes it is difficult to practise what you preach. You are only human and there are some days when you feel like ‘I can’t deal with anything today’ or ‘I am exhausted, there is no way I can teach phonics this morning and then do five guided writing groups by 12 o clock’. But for me, when those children walk through the door to greet you in the morning with a smile or a hug, you realise IT IS NOT ABOUT ME, IT IS ABOUT THEM! Negative thoughts and feelings aside, I am here to educate and inspire. That is why I went into teaching after all.
4. Pinterest and Twinkl can be lifesavers
Whilst training to be an early years teacher, I was encouraged by a number of educators to stay clear of using sites like Pinterest or Twinkl. Whilst I agree to an extent that teachers should not become completely dependent on these sites for ideas, planning and resources. They are still lifesavers when having a mid term mind blank! Yes, we all have them.
In reception, we teach through child initiated play. We use the children’s interests to plan lessons and activities, whilst linking these interests to a specific skill. These skills range from being able to count to 20 to being able to listen attentively and share with one another in their play. That means I have to plan, make and resource around 7 different activities a week (excluding lessons, interventions and guided groups) for the children to access independently. This can be enjoyable if you have some creative ideas up your sleeve. But sometimes I will be sat there wracking my brain for a lightbulb moment and this is where Pinterest and Twinkl come in and save you. Pinterest and Twinkl are free to use through your school and they provide you with some amazing ideas that you can magpie and bring to life in your classroom. So they do have a purpose!
5. Drink and eat well
My family and friends will laugh at this as I wouldn’t say I am the best advocate for talking about being healthy. I have not always seen my ‘body as a temple’ within my NQT year. I will admit I did not eat well. I got into bad habits of bringing in ready meals and snacking on sweets, crips and doughnuts. Come on… who doesn’t love junk food. This was not helped by my stash of chocolates that I stored in my cupboard for after school or the endless trays of ASDA iced doughnuts that ended up on the table in the staffroom to celebrate someone’s birthday (yes, I would never be able to resist not having one). I will be honest, those choices did not make me feel good long term. I felt low physically and it affected my weight, my skin, and my general happiness. Eating badly was a short term fix. But what I will say is everything is fine in moderation!
Since finishing my NQT year and having a 6 week summer made me realise that I need to start my RQT year with a health plan. Otherwise, you end up just burning out and becoming extremely ill.
Find a plan that works for you. I know it sounds easier said than done. But plan your meals at the weekends and make them in advance. Factor in regular exercise and go before or after work to reduce stress and drink plenty of water. Do not do what I did and live off three vanilla lattes a day as you end up dehydrated and then the migraine kicks in. It is a never ending cycle…
6. Lessons do go wrong occasionally
As a trainee and an NQT, planning lessons can take hours… You really have to think about what you want the children to learn and the logistics of it all. The best lessons that I have observed are the ones that have really been thought about in advance. But it is soul destroying when you have planned an amazing lesson in your head, typed it all out, practised it in front of your mum the night before and the delivery goes south. It is even worse if you are being observed and you feel like that could of been ALOT better.
First things first, do not be too hard on yourself. You are new to the game and no one expects an NQT or a highly experienced teacher at that, to know everything. Secondly, this is how we learn and get better, by making these mistakes.
I will never forget one of my close friends and colleagues at work giving me a pep talk, after I went into meltdown over a ‘bad lesson’. She said ‘Erin, get a grip, you did not die and it can always be put right’ and this has stuck with me ever since. Also, more often than not, you actually think it is worse than it actually is. So have fun with it and laugh it off. It’s not the end of the world.
7. TALK, you are not alone
I am not going to sugar coat, but teaching is a whirlwind of emotions. In one day you can feel like the best teacher in the world and the worst teacher in the world. This is because teaching is so personal. Being surrounded by children and staff all day (on a bad day) can be one of the most lonely and isolating places in the world. I felt as an NQT that I have to come across as optimistic and okay all the time. I wanted people to see that I was coping alright on my own. BUT THIS IS AN ILLUSION. Everyone has bad days, everyone cries and everyone has a cut off point.
So, TALK! Talk to your family, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends, husbands/wives, work colleagues, therapists and BE HONEST, because more often than not, they too feel the strain of everyday work related stress and upset. We have all been there. Once I took a deep breath and spoke openly, I felt like a weight has been lifted and the curtains had been drawn back. ‘Erin be yourself and talk to people if it gets too much’. I am not invincible, I am only human.
8. Find your own style and take risks
There are multiple teaching styles, so trial everything and go with what suits you. The beauty of teaching is that you don’t have to stick to one style. Education changes all the time so why can’t we, as educators. I always worried that ‘going my own way’ would lead to lots of mistakes and personal failures. But without trying things, you’ll never move forward and you do become stuck in a rut. The best lessons I have taught are ones where I haven’t played it safe. It becomes the land of the unknown because it could go one of two ways. It could be awful or it could be a game changer lesson. However, if you don’t take the plunge how will you ever find out.
9. Have a life beyond your job
This, for me is the biggest life lesson I have learnt within my NQT year and I am still working towards this going in to my second year. As an NQT, the goal is to survive by the end of the summer term and essentially pass your first year as a teacher. You go into the job giving it 100% all the time and you do end up neglecting yourself. However, if I could rewind time and speak to myself a year ago I would say ‘You can be an amazing teacher and still have a life. It is all about a work life balance’.
This term ‘balance’ gets banded around a lot, yet it is so relevant, especially in teaching. I am entitled to time away from my job, that is not to say that I switch off and don’t care because that is the furthest thing away from my character. Sometimes I care too much. But I should be able to enjoy my weekends, evenings and holidays without worrying about my job and the never ending to do list. This summer made me realise how little I did for myself within my NQT year because I had six weeks to fill to refocus on what is important. Whether that be going on holiday, going for a walk in the countryside, or cozying up on the sofa and reading a tonne of amazing books and essentially doing nothing, but relax.
Your job is not your life, it is a part of your life. Remember that!
10. STOP and reflect
Finally, we have made it to the last point of my blog post. So, I will try to keep it short and sweet.
When you can, whether it be in your lunch break or at the end of a difficult, stressful school day, take ten minutes to stop and reflect. Yes that means getting off the treadmill occasionally and reflecting on your personal achievements. As a teacher you achieve so much within one academic year and you learn a hell of a lot about yourself. Think of where you started and where you are now and celebrate it!
You are only an NQT once so enjoy it. You are changing and inspiring the lives of the next generation and you are doing an amazing job, so keep going and believe in yourself!