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An honest guide to finding your feet in the first few years of teaching

I opened this document 2 weeks ago and writing the title above was about as far as I got. It’s now 4 P.M on a Tuesday afternoon and after a fortnight spent procrastinating on how to put all of this together I think now might be a good time. That being said I’ve promised to treat my self to an hour of marking at 5 P.M so let’s hope things go well this next hour otherwise this could be a rather short read.

Finding your feet in the first few years of teaching seems a strange concept to offer advice on. I’ve been asking myself “is it even possible to ever truly find your feet in teaching?”. Just when you think you have nailed it, something new gets thrown into the mix, and you can find yourself back to square one again.

I started here at Beanfield primary in Corby in 2018, one year as a student before starting as an NQT in year 3 the following year. I’m actually still in year 3, yet despite my experience, I feel I still haven’t ever done a “proper year” due to the time lost during the 2 national lockdowns. But then again what does a proper year look like? In fact, better yet, what does proper teacher look like?  Is there anyone out there who has truly found their feet? I wonder if I asked my colleagues that question now what they might say? Probably a few replies along the lines of “I’m winging it” or “ask me on Friday” I know that’s what I might say. But the truth is this isn’t a job you can wing and the time, effort and pride (not forgetting the occasional tear) we put into this career is evidence of that.

Me and my old year 3 dream team on world book day during my NQT year

Not everyone can do our job, I think a lot of people think they can, they might even think its easy (what with our 9-3 work day and 12 weeks holiday a year…) but could they come into your room and decipher the hieroglyphics (or as we call it here in school cursive handwriting) that for some strange reason a child has written in purple pen, upside down, back to front and in the wrong book , completely disregarding your meticulous modelling of the task to the class beforehand? Or maybe teach dance to a group of 30 7-year olds, whilst possessing the co-ordination of a baby giraffe and agility of a slug? And of course, most importantly, this all has to be done with a big smile on your face. Now I know I can do these things because that is a usual Friday morning for me at the moment, and if I can do it so can you! So the next time somebody asks you if you have found your feet have a good think about it before you doubt your expertise. Now I know I might be bias here but I honestly don’t care it needs to be said, us teachers are pretty amazing! We just need to remember that sometimes.

Whenever I think about finding my feet and settling in I think back to my first ever staff meeting. Here is just a snippet of the abbreviations and terms that were thrown about.

  • PIXL
  • PM Data
  • QLA
  • SPAG (I knew this one luckily)
  • Washing lines
  • B1, B2, E2, E1, A1, A2

It was like being on an episode of Line of Duty. I blagged my way through it somehow and hoped that people did not notice my inexperience. Now I find myself fluent in speaking in this strange teacher code language. Whilst I had struggled on for a while especially through those first few meetings, there comes a time when you just have to embrace the fact that you are inexperienced and ask the questions you don’t have the answer to, they might seem silly, you might even provoke a couple of eye rolls around the room, but again who cares. We need to put ourselves in the best position we can to do our jobs and asking for help, advice and re-assurance is going to help you find your feet that little bit quicker. Once I started asking questions I didn’t really stop, I don’t really think there is such thing as a silly question, we don’t stifle our children’s inquisitive nature so don’t stifle your own. Therefore, I would advise you to make the most of all those “exciting” staff meetings, the “inspirational” training days and even those “really fun” Feedback and Data CPD training sessions on teams you have somehow found yourself in. I know they can seem like a bit of a drag on occasions, but you really do get out what you have put into them, so be the chatterbox in the room and embrace the opportunities.

If you have ever met me, or even seen me organised is not the first thing that will jump into your mind, a child in my class once politely described me as “dishevelled”, I had very little comeback if I’m honest, he had summed me up pretty well. I had actually always thought that this trait of mine would be my Achilles heel in teaching. I remember the first day of my P.G.C.E I rolled in with a coffee and a brio, everyone else on my table had a copy of the lecture slides already pre-highlighted (in colours I had never even knew existed, yellow, green and pink was my limit, still is to be honest) on top of this they were discussing the long list of reading they had done in preparation for lecture. That instant feeling of inadequacy washed over me, the same one I had in that first staff meeting. Yet a year later come graduation I was still in there with the best of them, in fact many of the highlighter brigade had decided that teaching was not for them and never made it that far. This was probably when I came to realise that just maybe my way actually worked for me.

So, I started my N.Q.T year with that little bit of self-belief we all need. But again, in our job it’s so easy to judge yourself and your practice against others. I obviously didn’t learn from my first day of university because I did this exact same thing when I started as an NQT and that self-belief soon dissipated. My year group lead at the time was (and still is) incredible, I have never met anybody so organised in my life, she is an amazing teacher and one who I admire very much, so much so that in my first week I tried to step up her level and become Mr organized … I failed, in fact I failed so much that I had a bit of a meltdown resulting in my colleagues rallying around and lifting my spirits with some chocolate and a bottle of prosecco. After that day I decided once and for all I was not going to try to be someone else and make the best of what I have, and whilst organisation is not top of the list, many of the traits I do have are invaluable in this career and will serve me just as well.

So, you need to become the best version of yourself. For me that means to this day I don’t keep detailed notes in every meeting, however in these meetings I believe that I’m one of the most vocal and professional in the room, I ask questions, I challenge things I don’t agree with and defend things I do. My way isn’t the right way, neither is yours but as long as it is the right way for you and the children you teach then who cares, just be yourself, let the weaknesses becomes strengths and utilize them every chance you get. Although thinking about it, one small tip I will give you is that if you are a chatterbox in staff meetings like me please stop asking questions any after 5 P.M, your colleagues will appreciate it.

I told myself I was going to write a paragraph on time and workload, but I feel there really is not much I can say to help, this job is hard and at times it can feel like there are not enough hours in the day, that’s probably because there isn’t for us teachers. But what I will say is things do get better, you will get quicker and better and things won’t seem so daunting the second and third time around. I promise my self I won’t work at weekends, I rarely break that promise but the compromise is that my working day can get a little long at times. Teaching is a game of give and take, you have to make the rules that suit you best. Like I have, try to make a few promises to yourself and find a way to stick to them, no matter what!  Your wellbeing is your priority, remember that, and don’t be afraid to remind others if you feel they ask too much of you.

Enjoying my work free weekend with yet another afternoon tea

As I’ve been writing this I have been thinking about some of the more experienced teachers that I have met and worked with these past few years, teachers who without a doubt must have found their feet by now. But if I step back and think about it I don’t think those with years of teaching under their belt are so different to me. Yes, they have more experience and they can probably churn out a sequence of planning a little quicker than me, but they certainly aren’t living the 9 A.M to 3 P.M, 12 weeks holiday a year dream people speak of. They work just as hard as I do and seem to share to same highs and lows. So, I suppose thinking about it there is no such thing as finding your feet in teaching, in fact who would even want to? I don’t imagine anybody has ever truly found their feet for long in this job. If they think they have then it can’t have been for very long because if you stand still for long in this job you will quickly yourself left behind and standing alone whilst your colleagues are swept away with the new and exciting initiatives and pedagogies that we frequently adopt in school. Whilst I am no expert, my advice would be, don’t worry too much about finding your feet just be yourself, accept change and don’t be stubborn, before you know it things will fall into place without you even realising.

So, my hour (ish) is just about over and I’m going to finish off here. Reading it back I’m not sure any of this will actually help you to find your feet, the reason being is that I don’t actually know how to find my feet, yet despite this I’m still doing alright (some might even say pretty good). As long as you can adapt to the changes in school both big and small you will continue to flourish and with this will come the confidence and self-belief needed to go the distance in this profession. At the end of the day if you love working with children (which is kind of important for this job), you work hard and most importantly you take time to look after yourself, then you are following the recipe for a successful career.

Thanks for reading,

Timmy O’Brien