There were three pieces of advice given to me during my initial teacher training (four if you include ‘don’t do it’) that remain with me now almost 10 years later.
Number one; don’t smile until Christmas.
Number two; never turn your back on the class.
And number three; in the staffroom, sit with the radiators and avoid the drains.
Picture me now, a fresh faced 23 year old secondary geography NQT, back to the wall and stony faced, staring unblinking at my students before reversing carefully out of the room in search of colleagues who have taken time out of their busy days to exude their joy and declare their love of the job to anyone who will listen.
Yes, this advice has stuck with me… not because it was good advice but because, longer term, it has helped me build better relationships with my students and manage the workload and demands of this profession.
It has helped me know what not to do. But maybe it’s time to rewrite this rueful rhetoric.
This is what I wish I’d been told instead.
Smile at the students
A smile is one of the most basic but most powerful forms of communication we have and, crucially for some of our most vulnerable students, it is universal; it might be the first, or even only, thing you can do to reassure a student who is new to English or has a learning disability that they are safe and welcome.
Smiling at the children is not a sign of weakness and nor will it impact negatively on your ability to manage their behaviour. In fact, the very opposite; let the students know that you are pleased to be there and happy to be with them.
In the words of Haim G Ginnott; it is your daily mood that makes the weather. You possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.
In my own experience, students are motivated to work and behave by a wide range of internal and external factors, but having a positive relationship with their teacher is definitely one of them.
And the carrot is mightier than the stick.
Ultimately, they’re more likely to be able to stay in your sunshine than keep running from your rain.
Trust the students
And they can only be as trustworthy as you trust them to be; if you never give them the opportunity, how can they show you that they can do it? Of course, we all know that, with some classes, turning your back is a genuine risk!
Tell them what you’re going to do and tell them why. Tell them that you trust them and know that they can get it right. Then take the risk – whatever the outcome, it’s either an opportunity to praise them or an opportunity for them to learn from their choices.
The bottom line is this; sometimes you will need to turn around. You’ll need to speak to an individual student or a colleague. Blink. For your own sanity, you need to build a trusting relationship with the students.
Teaching is a team task
It’s rewarding, fulfilling, the right kind of challenging, fun, worthy and comes with – at least in theory – thirteen weeks holiday and all your weekends free. It’s wonderful, but sometimes it is really, really hard.
Seeking the support of your colleagues is fine. Listening to the woes of a colleague who has had a tricky day is also fine.
Neither of these things prevents you from sharing good practice, celebrating your successes, or enjoying those magic moments when a student ‘gets it’… or just says something hilarious.
I have, over time, learnt that the line between radiators and drains runs not between staffroom seats but through every teacher’s heart.
So, if you’re about to embark on your NQT year it is probable that, like me 10 years ago, you’re being bombarded with the wisdom of everyone who feels they have a stake in the education sector… so, basically, everyone.
Take it all, including mine, with a pinch of salt – you’ve come this far and it isn’t rocket science. Be yourself, be there for them and be there for each other and you can’t go far wrong. And, even if only for the little year 7’s on their first day at big school… smile.