“Anybody who wins one will tell you it’s a team effort”
Winner Of The Award For Most Outstanding New Teacher 2001
Now deputy headteacher, Oaklands Primary School, Leicester
Winning the teaching award was a fantastic fillip for the whole school and anybody who wins one will tell you it’s a team effort. For me the most wonderful part was reading my students’ nominations. I was amazed by how many there were and what they had said. It didn’t immediately impact on my day-to-day work but gave me some lovely opportunities and a wider sense of the profession I was part of.
I’ve always wanted to teach and never lost that desire. I’ve had a very winding career path with lots of changes of role and setting, which I highly recommend. It makes for a very interesting work life!
I started teaching in 1992 on the Japan Exchange Teacher Program (JET) and I worked in Japan for three years on that and then for two years as an Eikaiwa teacher returning to Britain in 1997. I did one year as an SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability) TA (Teaching Assistant) in an inner city secondary school, then my PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) course so I started my official teaching career in the UK in August 1999. I won my Most Outstanding New Teacher award in 2001.
THE JOB, CHANGES AND CHALLENGES
I have always wanted to be a teacher and I remain one because I’m a learner. I’ve been doing it for 27 years and I learn something new about the job, about the students and about myself every single day. It’s a phenomenal job.
I think my teaching style has changed over the years in some ways inevitably because I’ve now taught every age and stage of teaching that’s possible, from TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), to EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) and up to Masters level at a University. I’m currently a deputy in a special school for autistic children. Obviously you need to adapt your style to suit the students and the course/ subject that you’re teaching. However, fundamental things have stayed the same: I want my students to learn about themselves and about the world, not just about the subject at hand. Most of all I want any student of mine to develop their ability to communicate what it is they think, feel and believe.
I don’t think that pastoral care is a bigger part of teaching now than when I began. I think it’s always been a big part of the job; however perhaps we are, as a profession, now more aware of young people‘s mental health and the need to nurture as well as challenge them. Having taught adults as well as children from age four upwards, I would say that is true of all learners. Relationships and mutual respect and struggle are the cornerstones for good learning.
Social media from me is invaluable as a learner and leader. I have become a huge fan of EduTwitter and finding people online with expertise and experience that I don’t have is really valuable to me. Since starting a new job in a school for autistic children in January I have learnt enormous amounts about how the world might be experienced if you are autistic by following #ActuallyAutistic adults on Twitter. It has transformed my understanding and given me insights that would otherwise take years of in-school practice to acquire. In such a short period of time I couldn’t possibly gain the same level of understanding through simply reading a book or by waiting for CPD course to come around. You can also find your tribe online, get advice, even coaching. However, there are some difficulties inherent in how social media functions as Cambridge Analytica has shown us and I don’t think we fully understand the impact it will have on developing brains and social skills as yet.
My best moments in teaching have all been while working with amazing stories, from recreating the birth of Greek gods from chaos to order with 60 year 6 children, to watching two year 3 teachers orate the pre-battle speeches from Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle’s’ Egg whilst their classes got into combat formation, to my year 11 class spontaneously talk about their fathers after listening to me read the creature’s story from Frankenstein. It is a privilege to share those moments when story connects us as humans, as we are all raised up out of the mundane and into the magical.
The moments that I am most proud of my teaching career are when a student connects with a text or an idea and it visibly shifts their sense of themselves and the world. It is pure joy in those moments and you can never quite predict when or where they will come, even if you plan for awe and wonder! Another favourite thing is when someone says ‘Oh I prefer the book to the film or the TV show now’- that thrills me to bits.
I’m always delighted when I see former students, although many of my students have now got children of their own, which makes me feel very old. I have however kept a professional distance from most, except one who I initially nicknamed ‘naughty Lucy’ due to her tendency to get into arguments and intrigues. She was in my first ever A-level class, stayed with me for three years completing A Level English Literature and then staying to complete Communication & Culture. She went on to do a fascinating piece of literary research to earn her PhD and is now an academic registrar. She is still stroppy and fabulous and I’m thrilled to say that I’ve known her now for half of her life.
The best piece of advice I can give a newly qualified teacher is ‘find your tribe.’ Make sure that the school you choose to work in is the school that will let you be creative and make mistakes and isn’t too long a commute- the teaching day is long enough as it is! Get yourself a good support network; it doesn’t have to be face-to-face, it could be joining a twitter tribe. #WomenEd #BAMEd #LGBTEd are all fantastic grassroots movements on Twitter and there is a twitter group for almost every subject or specialism too. You will get support, great resources and an endless supply of inspirational quotes.
What I wish I’d known as an NQT is something that I used to tell my PGCE tutees and I still tell staff now: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
THE TEACHING PROFESSION
Teaching is a very complex and demanding job; nobody gets it right all the time. If there was one way to make a perfect lesson, everybody would teach that one way all the time, but there is no magic bullet. So don’t focus on individual lessons, try and think about the whole day, the whole week and remember the magic moments.
Education has changed a great deal since I started teaching, particularly in terms of government policy. There was no national curriculum until 1999, we’ve had levels, not had levels; added SATS, taken away SATs, had A*-U and now 1-9; and OFSTED has been invented. All of those things can make teaching seem all about data, as if outcomes is the tail wagging the dog of learning. In that accountability landscape, children can get lost but it’s our job to make sure that children (and learners of all kinds, including teachers) are always at the heart of everything that we do. Teachers need to be led by head teachers and senior leaders who are close to the ‘shop floor’, who put people before processes, and who actively work to keep workload manageable. We need to share resources and work together more and find a way to not be competing. I stay in teaching because I can’t think of another job where I can learn something new every single day. There are some terrible lows but immeasurable highs and constant challenges in the best sense of the word.
To encourage others to stay in teaching, we need lots of stories about how wonderful it can be to be in the classroom, but we also need to be honest about workload, stress, the effects of external scrutiny and poor school leaders. We also need to remember that it might just be the wrong school for us, not the wrong job. My best piece of advice is: Before you give up teaching, try a new school.