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.

Published by elainenlong

Teacher and Leadership Development |UCL Centre for Educational Leadership | 20 years at chalk face as English teacher, HOD &AHT in Notts, Shanghai, H.K & London

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