Term 1: September to December
I came straight from the Summer Institute in absolute panic. My head was overloaded with acronyms and ideas that I didn’t really understand: what did AfL and EAL mean again? What’s the difference between Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories? Why does everyone keep going on about this Bloom guy? Above all however, I was most afraid about surviving my first few days of teaching hoards of hormonal teenagers and children. I had envisaged an infinite number of things that could go wrong: perhaps they’d constantly ask questions that I didn’t know the answer to; that I’d stand at the front of the class and not remember what I was supposed to teach and I was ridiculously worried that I’d try to light a Bunsen burner and somehow singe my eyebrows off (thankfully this never happened and my eyebrows are still intact). On top of this I knew I would have to get my head around the workings of the school day, getting to know my colleagues, putting a portfolio together, new IT systems and weekly observations.
In truth, I have no idea how I got through those first few weeks, they went by in such a blur. I got so nervous every time I was observed, speaking a hundred words a minute. I worked all hours of the week and barely thought about anything but teaching as I tried to take everything in and get on top of things. A few things did surprise me however. Firstly, despite the frantically busy days I really enjoyed myself and felt a momentous sense of achievement to survive my first few weeks of teaching. Moreover, the behaviour of students was much better than the St Trinian’s-style rioting I had imagined. Inevitably with being a new teacher, a few students tested the boundaries, checking how much misbehaving they could get away with. I had expected this so asked around for advice and received lots of suggestions. My most valuable advice given was to think about what my expectations for the classes were and stick to them. This was really difficult (and sometimes still is) as each class, each student even, is individual and what works well with one child may not with another. This was especially profound during my first term when I had not yet built relationships with students. I mistook all behavioural discrepancies as students being rude or simply being disruptive for the sake of it. I often forgot I was dealing with emotional children; being a teenager at school certainly isn’t an experience I’d like to relive! Sometimes just asking one of my pupils if they were okay would allow me to realise that there may be a reason behind their behaviour and they sometimes just want someone to talk to about it.
Term 2: January to March
By the last week of term in December I had started worrying that teaching wasn’t for me. My ever-growing workload had been showing no signs of reducing and by the last few days marking books had become such a slog. My worries were alleviated when I came back in January feeling like I’d had a proper break. I’d had time to get on top of things, was much more prepared for this term and finally knew the names of (almost) all of my students. Furthermore, whilst my main priorities last term had been just to make it through a lesson without chaos ensuing, or to teach a lesson without running out of time, I felt like I had moved past this point. My mentor and I were able to focus on developing more things in my teaching.
One thing in particular that I wanted to improve was my subject knowledge; I’m confident in teaching biology as it is my degree specialism but not chemistry and physics. I had last term seen this lack of knowledge as a hindrance, but this was perhaps more because I was reluctant to ask for help from my department as I did not want to appear to be incompetent. Nevertheless, as I knew my co-workers better I felt more comfortable with asking for assistance, and the support I received from my department was overwhelming. Interestingly, teaching subjects that I was less confident in wasn’t always a bad thing because I had less knowledge of them to begin with I was able to think more about how to simplify things and had a greater understanding of any misconceptions that students might have. This also allowed me to consider that simply a stronger knowledge of biology doesn’t equate with teaching it well; it was often hard to relay this knowledge to students who aren’t nearly as fond of science as I am. The PGCE subject-specific sessions at the IOE and regular communication with my tutor there was additionally invaluable.
Another thing I aimed to focus on more this term was my tutor group. During the first term when there were so many things going on my tutor group fell to the bottom of my priorities. Yet this bunch of wonderful people were the ones I saw every morning and it is my responsibility to ensure they are ready for the day. At first I found the vertical form system challenging because there are vast differences between students of different age so keeping them all interested and enabling the form to work together isn’t easy. This term I assigned roles to everyone in my form, such as mentoring, maintaining the form board and KBA checking. This got students talking to each other more, and form time became easier as the students got to know each other better.
Term 3: April to July
The weeks following the Easter break were some of the toughest in my training. Throughout term 2 I’d seen myself steadily improving as a teacher; I had built relationships with students, parents and colleagues; my portfolio had taken a nice shape and I felt so much more comfortable in the classroom. These had led to evidence of clear progression in my mentor meetings and portfolio. However, by April I reached a major plateau, I wasn’t improving as noticeably as at times it was as if I was going backwards with my teaching. Getting through a lesson without my timings falling apart was no longer a big achievement, I was having to focus on smaller details that would make a discernible impact, such as Afl, stretch and challenge and ensuring that all students were making progress. These were things that I struggled to include in my classroom and hence became so preoccupied with, that my day-to-day teaching suffered, meaning that my lesson grades and feedback suffered.
Thankfully throughout this time my wonderful mentor was so supportive and gave me lots of advice and resources to perfect this. During this term I also made more of an effort to observe other practitioners and wished I’d always set aside the time to do this more since the start. I learnt so much from seeing so many different teaching styles and every teacher I saw was so enthusiastic when giving me tips and help with improving my teaching. The community at KBA is so supportive and there are so many approachable members of staff that would help me with anything. As I improved at these things my general teaching started to pick up again and I got back into the swing of loving my job.
There were lots of highs and lows throughout my first year of teaching and at the end of it I’m still a long way off being the finished article, but I don’t think any teacher would say that they ever are. People will offer loads of advice to help make a trainee year more manageable and different things will work for different people. For me, in hindsight there are a few things I wish I’d known or done differently in my first year. Firstly, I would have planned a bit more in terms of marking. I was advised that I needed to mark every 5 lessons or thereabouts, so I did no marking for the first few weeks, until I’d taught all my classes at least 5 times. Of course I didn’t think this through because suddenly nearly all my books needed marking in the same week and I had a huge backlog of marking that took me weeks to get on top of properly.
Secondly, I wish I hadn’t been so afraid of asking those around me for help. I didn’t want people to think I wasn’t good at my job and couldn’t cope, I found that keeping people in the loop when cracks started to appear is much better then falling apart under all the pressure and stress. As I’ve already emphasised, the staff community at KBA are overwhelmingly supportive and want to help, and everyone knows what it’s like to be a trainee. One of the joys of being a trainee was that I got to experiment all the time with different techniques to see what worked for me and for my students. People didn’t expect me to be revolutionary in every lesson I taught, and it’s definitely okay to miss the mark occasionally, as one of the most crucial parts of the training process is being reflective and taking action based on those reflections.
Finally, I would say that one of the most important things in this job is to make time for yourself. For me, I would always ensure that I kept at least one day a week work-free, usually Saturdays. Despite the odd comments from friends and family about the ‘3 o’ clock finishes’ and apparently endless holidays, teaching is definitely not a job that finishes at alongside the school bell, and term time is very intense and exhausting. It’s easy to get swamped by work and forget to call family; eat some proper home cooked food or catch up with friends, but working all day every day becomes counter-productive as everything takes twice as long due to tiredness. My first year was incredibly difficult, but I also loved it as this constant challenge made every day feel different; one day can be full of students testing your patience, only for these students to be working really hard a few days later. There are feelings of elation when mini-breakthroughs are made, be it a certain student finally handing in homework after months of their previous homeworks being consumed by various dogs or falling into puddles, or when you see a student exclaim ‘ohhh’ when suddenly everything that you’ve been teaching them over the past few weeks falls into place.
I hope my reflections help you through your training year and that you fall in love with the profession in the way that I have.