Scary, busy fun: welcome to the wondrous paradox of teaching

How to meet the challenges of your first year in teaching

At our inaugural UCL ECT Induction Conference, we asked our early career teachers to sum up their first week of teaching in three adjectives. Unsurprisingly, we were met with the raft of emotions encapsulated in the word cloud above. We hoped that it at least bought our ECTS some comfort to know they weren’t alone in their experience of a dizzying first week! We were heartened to see ‘fun’ and ‘exciting’ take centre stage, but also mindful of that pesky green ‘scary’ looming ominously to the right, and the large purple ‘overwhelming’ dominating the emotional landscape. Thinking back to my first day in the classroom 20 years ago, I remember those feelings well: from the panic of first break duty; the fear of opening the door to that class; to the lingering doubt that someone somewhere would finally discover you really had just been faking it all this time and cart you off site pronto; thankfully punctuated by those rare glimpses of pride when the chaos faded and that tiny voice whispered, “yes you do belong here”.

We also used our conference time to explore some of the biggest challenges our ECTs might face in their first year of teaching as they work their way through the Early Career Framework with UCL. Unsurprisingly, “time” dominated their concerns and the seemingly impossible task of juggling the demands of self-study, with school meetings and lesson planning, as well as pinning their mentor down to those all-important mentoring sessions. Another concern was that the material may be a repeat of what they had already learned last year.

Therefore, 20 years later as a Programme Leader for the ECF at the UCL Centre of Educational Leadership, I find myself, alongside my wonderful colleagues, thinking about how we can help early career teachers to dial down the “scary”, minimize the “overwhelm” and zoom in on the “fun”, and I can’t think of a more important job. Here are our humble offerings, knitted together from our combined 60+ years’ experience at the chalk face and our conviction that the UCL Early Career’s Programme will provide you with the knowledge, resources, and confidence you need to thrive in your first year of teaching. So Early Career teachers, here is our advice for you as you embark on your first year:

Dialing Down the Scary

Shutting the door and sitting in your own classroom for the first time is an intoxicating mix of terrifying and exhilarating: no longer are you bound to the chains of how their last teacher did it, but at the same time, the sense of responsibility can be frightening. Add to that getting to know new colleagues, learning new behavioral systems, not to mention making sure you are fluent in the school’s curriculum, and it can all feel terrifying. That is why we want to make sure that you are never on your own. As part of our programme, you will be meeting your mentor every week who will be working through a carefully curated curriculum designed to help you address the common challenges ECTS face. What’s more, the curriculum has been deliberately sequenced to make sure you get on top of the important stuff first, so you have a solid base to build on. So, be honest with your mentor about your fears. They have been there too. They are not there to judge, but to support, and help you become the teacher that YOU really want to become. In your camp, you also have a facilitator who you will meet half termly alongside other ECTS in schools in similar settings. Therefore, you will always be part of a supportive community who wants to work with you to celebrate your successes and help you through the hard times. Draw on your support team when you need to.

Minimizing the Overwhelm

There is no doubt about it: teachers have a dizzying array of tasks to fit into their working week, and therefore rely on high levels of automaticity to accomplish so much at once. For example- in the same way as experienced drivers no longer need to think about how they change the gears- a seasoned teacher, who is fluent in the curriculum and school systems, will spend much less time scripting their explanations or thinking about how to establish an effective classroom culture because it will come automatically to them. Sadly, for you, however, cognitive load will still be high, and you will certainly be crunching those gears in the first few months! Therefore, it is very important that you establish effective routines that help you to embed the right habits in your classroom. For example, making proactive behaviour management skills a habit will certainly save you much more time than relying on reactive ones. This is exactly what our first module of study is designed to do, and we are confident that by working through it alongside your mentor and online community, you will be able to forge effective habits that will make your work life balance much easier in the long run.

Zooming in on the Fun

Teaching is a serious business, and I am quite sure that you have entered it because you are serious about making a difference to the lives of young people. However, with the stakes so high, it can be easy to feel that if you are not drowning in a sea of thank you for changing my life forever cards, you just don’t cut the mustard. Sadly, this pressure sometimes stops us from enjoying the wondrous and absurd world of working with young people. And yes, you should certainly be allowed to enjoy your job! So, embrace the wonder, comedy, and camaraderie of working in a school. Try and find the humour in the mistakes you make. Most of all, zoom in on the fun because teaching is after all, a truly joyful profession.

Two failed lessons and a packet of crisps

Wednesday: 15.40, 2004, in The Red Lion

Your confidant is waiting in the pub for you: cider and black on the table- chair stretched out. He has heard there has been an incident with big Shane Lofield and knows you’ve had a mare. You regale the tale of why you thought it was a good idea to swipe his books off the table in front of the whole class while he lights up his second fag. By the time the third fag has been stubbed out, you’ve found your humour. Your mentor, Birch, has arrived and vowed to help you resolve the issue tomorrow. Your face crumples up in laughter as you recall your pathetic moral indignation. 17.30, and you secure the deal with Birch. For the price of a pint, he has agreed to use his powers to help this struggling NQT out. With that, you vow to do better and trot off home to plan your A level lesson.

Wednesday: 18.50, 2019 and you are still at school.

You are handing your colleague their third tissue, reassuring them through bleary, tired eyes that it was an easy mistake to make and that yes they are still a great teacher, but to little avail. With only 10 mins till they shut the school, you avoid any meaningful conversation and instead opt for the ‘tomorrow’s another day band aid approach.’ Before you leave, you check your emails and find another email from another teacher who is struggling. As the caretaker kicks you out, you slope off home, thinking you still have to plan your A level lesson.

On the train home you muse back to the early days, and at the risk of looking back through rose tinted spectacles, you can’t help but think there is a lot you miss about the ‘Birch’ approach. You smile as you imagine how Birch would react to the latest insistence that all marking must contain a feedback loop of red pen, green pen, purple pen…all the colours of pen, and can’t help but think that whilst he certainly would have been pulled up for his fondness of the pub, you feel a strange sense of liberation whenever you think of him. You feel that perhaps there was some wisdom in the Birch approach that is lacking today.

But what exactly is this wisdom that is lacking? What explains that frown of exasperation on your forehead that has found a new home as a neat wrinkle?  You suspect part of your problem rests with those adverts: the ones where the new teacher looks out to a sea of wonder as she cunningly lets the balloon explode; the ones where the fashionable new English teacher inspires with just the opening of a book; the ones where the new teacher glides out the school gate with a bed of roses scattered at their feet by adoring pupils. Why? Because they raise the stakes even more…they suggest that if you are not transforming lives everyday, drowning in a sea of ‘thank you for changing my life forever cards’, and inundated with Oxbridge offers for the Year 11s you really turned it around for, you just don’t quite cut the mustard.

Has the glamorization of teaching and the cult of the ‘hero’ teacher made us slaves to a new master? An insipid and more dangerous one?

Today, just one innocent scroll through twitter can leave you with the feeling that you are failing your pupils if you have not prepared 30 personalized name cards for your class, hand painted a curriculum map on your wall, absorbed and made a beautiful dual coded summary of the all the latest edu research, and knowledge organized the living daylight out all the units you will teach. ‘It’s all about the kids you see; if you really cared-you would be doing it too’, your screen screams at you. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that in a recent survey on twitter, most teachers voted that, above all else, their biggest fear was ‘not being good enough’. 

Now I am certainly not saying twitter isn’t a great tool for CPD; that we shouldn’t aspire to be the best that we can be, or want to make a difference. Merely, that I do miss the days when you didn’t have to be perfect, when it really was ok to laugh at your mistakes, do things your own way, and dare I say, even enjoy it.

New teachers – let me tell you a secret that us oldies have known for some time.  There is little dignity in teaching, let alone much space for heroics, and sometimes it is a slog. But, most of us don’t even try to be perfect – we recognize the folly. We know it is enough to care and reflect, and that sometimes it is a good idea just to shut the door and do things your own way. You know your kids and have a hunch, and most of the time you will be right, even if it does (dare I say it) contradict the way everybody else is doing it. Most of the time your students will be so much better for it. However, when it does mess up, there is always time to correct it tomorrow because we are agents of our own classrooms. You don’t have to be a ‘trad’ or a ‘prog’, there is wisdom in both. And most of all, you certainly don’t have to be a hero. The best teachers aren’t.

From Warriors to Architects: My 3 Lessons in Leadership From Implementation Science

On a bleary Friday morning in January, I found myself desperately trying to finalise last minute cover and cursing myself for agreeing to add another new ‘thing’ to my workload. I had little idea what ‘Implementation Science’ involved then, or how learning about it would become so pivotal to my outlook on leadership. Distracted by the niggling doubt that there was something else I had forgotten to do,  I waited in the room for an introduction to the project, consoling myself by chomping down on a free croissant.

Pioneered and led by James Manion and Mark Quinn from The London Centre For Leadership and Learning, the Implementation Science project involved forming a ‘a vertical slice’ of  8 members of staff, which included teachers, heads of house, SEN teachers, Faculty Leads and SLT. Under their guidance, our aim was to apply research from Implementation Science to maximise the success of a new policy in our school: the central tenet being as the Bananarama song goes, “it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it”.  My new policy on T&L was to be the guinea pig policy. It didn’t occur to me to be nervous about this until I realised just what scrutiny I was holding the new policy up to, but nor did it occur to me how vital the feedback of this vertical slice would be in making the policy infinitely better, and how grateful I would be for my involvement in the project.

Leadership Lesson One:

Whilst I knew I had to surrender my policy to the group with the good grace of agreeing to make changes, I found myself leaving the first few sessions simultaneously shell shocked and enlightened. Obviously the value of gathering feedback from your colleagues was not an alien concept to me; however, the key difference here was that we were all established as equal stakeholders in the project, with the time and space to really listen and value the perspective of colleagues across the whole school. I was relieved to discover that we were more aligned than divided in our aims, but also slightly unnerved by the realisation that so much of the communication of my vision was assumed rather than realised. The feedback from the first session was amplified by each stakeholder collating further data from other linked colleagues at the school, meaning that by the end of the second session we had a pretty solid idea of the policy as it was would be received. Needless to say by the end of the second session, I had learnt key leadership lesson number one: ‘the people are the intervention’, and on the advice of the group I had resolved to make much more profound changes to the policy than the initial ones I thought I would.

Leadership Lesson Two:

The policy itself was already ten times better as a result of the feedback, but leadership lesson number two centred around the pace of change. High stakes accountability and more often than not, an urgent need to affect results, can create a ‘quick fix’ culture, meaning that leaders become warriors, desperately running the gauntlet of endless unexpected obstacles, rather than architects, skillfully laying down long term foundations for effective change. The danger of the ‘warrior’ approach lies not only in worn out leaders, but also worn out staff, tired of working towards an initiative only to have to change tack next year when it dies out in favour of the next new thing, slightly more cynical, slightly more weary.

Leadership lesson number two: this time I was determined to be an architect and not a warrior! As a result of our participation in the Implementation Science project, our improvement plan spans not one year but three, utilizing the ‘Law of Diffusion of Innovation’, Guskey’s model of change and ‘The Concerns Based Adoption Model’ (Hall and Hord 2016) to bridge the implementation gap. It builds in ample time to communicate ideas with all stakeholders, provide necessary training, secure resources and embed structures and evaluate and make necessary changes if we need to. What’s more, our initial vertical slice will remain ‘guardians’ of the project, making sure we do not fall short of our agreed aims and approach.

Leadership Lesson Three:

It is early days, but I have a sneaking suspicion that being an architect will suit me far better than being a warrior. Furthermore, at a time in education when there is a moral imperative to adopt an evidence based approach to the interventions we select for school improvement, surely there is an equal moral imperative to use an evidence based approach in implementing them? Therefore leadership lesson number three is as the famous song goes, to always to think as much about how I do it, as what I do, and to shut the door on that dark forgotten cupboard of quick fixes and ‘unlived’ policies.