I totally forgot to mention in part 1 that Sue Cowley came to my then school to film a documentary for Teachers TV about how to manage behaviour, particularly as an NQT. As well as answering our questions, the behaviour pundit also came into some lessons. She worked closely with a friend of mine and you’ll never guess what she said:
‘This is some of the worst of behaviour I’ve ever seen.’
That’s right. Sue Cowley- Getting the buggers to behave– Sue Cowley. Sue motherfuckin’ Cowley agreed with us niave, nervous, and inexperienced NQTs. The tragic-comedy in all of this? SLT continued to perpetuate the same BS: You’re lessons are shit. You don’t care about the kids, etc. etc. You’d think they just wanted to finish at 4:30pm while the rest of made ineffective seating plans until 9.00pm.
As I indicated that part 2 would be more of a positive read, from here on I’m not going to get into too much detail of the events themselves, but rather their impact and the lessons which I think you, as an NQT, can take away. Anything else (whilst would be entertaining) probably wouldn’t be beneficial. Which is what you want, right?
Learning from mistakes
Whilst the senior mentor let me have it, my subject mentor adopted more of a buddy-like approach. In fact, we didn’t even have weekly recorded meetings. Instead we spoke as and when- often about Quentin Tarantino movies when he gave me a lift home! The relationship an NQT has with their mentor really is the beginning or the end of a good teacher. School leaders, if you’re reading, get this right and you can guarantee yourselves a happy, healthy bunch of NQTs who will give it their all. The control-freaks who ‘rigorously’ follow procedure and cc 5 people into emails for the slightest ‘mistake’ from an NQT are NOT good mentors: They’re incompetent shit heads. (If no one wants to work for you, you are incompetent. It’s not rocket science). Pick people with life experience and emotional intelligence. (One of the main reasons NQTs/trainees contact me on Twitter is due to poor mentoring. It really is sad how common the problem is).
My mentor was what was then referred to as an AST so there was much I could learn from him. I observed his lessons a few times and he would draw my attention to the subtle but impactful habits used by experienced teachers. If you remember in part 1, I said there was stuff I could have been doing better, so that’s what I worked on: engagement, pace, use of voice, and remaining calm. On my PGCE I was taught to teach a three part lesson which my mentor outright told me to ‘bin’ and switch to a multi-part lesson. Something I still do to this day. And it works for me!
So after the aforementioned miserable half-term, I decided what exactly it was I needed to work on and got down to it. I would liaise with colleagues and even meet up with old PGCE friends. In short, I got the whole multi-part lesson thing down to a T. Remember the senior mentor who took my head off in part 1? Only months later she gave me an outstanding (and a hug!) for another observed lesson with the same the class as before. (In fact, we still speak occasionally and in her work with NQTs she actually quotes from my first book – The Unofficial Teachers Manual- during training sessions. Ain’t life funny?) The lesson here is that pain- NQT pain- is most often temporary. I thought my whole world was over after that first obs, and I actually couldn’t believe that it wasn’t. As an NQT mentor I’ve witnessed much NQT pain and the overwhelming majority of qualified teachers- while we inevitably go through stressful bouts- never speak of the same pain again.
Never again did I get an ‘inadequate’ lesson. Every observation after that was ‘good’ or better. (It’s funny how everything from your NQT year always stays with you. I can remember the class codes, the pupils names, and the obs feedback from way back then but have forgotten the same from only 4 years ago).
You’re right to wonder how in the midst of the school behaviour crisis I became an ‘outstanding teacher.’ (Don’t you just hate it when someone gets one outstanding and thinks they’re the world heavy weight champion of teaching? I’m outstanding! Look at me! Look at me! Yeah, me too).
You see, while I was sharpening up my game, SLT finally accepted- probably due to pressure from unions- that we indeed have a behaviour problem. The beginnings of a consequence system were put in place and SLT were present on the corridors and would put pupils in isolation whenever they outright blanked us teachers. Uniform and behaviour ‘purges’ became frequent. Because of a change in whole school policy then, behaviour was on its way up. (And Thank God it was. Had it not been, I probably would’ve clicked ‘submit’ on the MI5 job application that I dabbled in 2 years prior).
But this wasn’t the only reason behaviour in my classes improved. If you recall in part 1 I said there were a couple of things I was doing wrong in this respect, e.g. going from 0-60 in 2 seconds and jumping to sanctions (which couldn’t even be enforced) without warnings. I stopped those, but the other thing I was doing, I actually wasn’t doing per se. Like probably most NQTs I had an aura of nerves about me. I didn’t know it but the kids knew it, my mentor new it, and it was the psychological equivalent of a sign on your back saying ‘kick me.’
Perhaps to protect my self-esteem at the time (which was spectacularly fucked after that second observation) my mentor actually didn’t tell me I had the sign until after Christmas when he told me it had gone. I wonder had I been aware of it before, perhaps I could’ve done something about it. NQTs, there’s a good chance you have an aura of nerves. It’s by no means your fault and it definitely doesn’t make you a weak NQT! Be assured that it will vanish (probably some time during Autumn 2, actually) and your classroom environment will be much better: Like I said- pain is temporary.
For the next 2 or 3 years, behaviour continued to improve most probably due to a combination of robust behaviour policy and better planned lessons. In fact, I was even nominated for a teacher award by a bunch of pupils in my third year at the school. I didn’t win mind you, but still!
Throughout my NQT year and even beyond, I can hand-on-heart say that the thing that kept me sane were my funny and supportive colleagues. (The then key stage 3 co-ordinator told me if I don’t let her push in front of me in the photocopier queue, she was going to stick her tongue in my ear. My niave NQT ass thought she was joking so I continued to photocopy. Within seconds, her tongue was in my ear. Disclaimer: don’t do this!) I could write an entire blog on the funny antics alone. If you’re reading this as a PGCE student, when it comes to looking for jobs remember that a schools OFSTED grade has pretty much zero bearing on how happy you’ll be at the school. Walk around the department and if the teachers seem like fun, get the job!
And as for my ratmate? I rang the landlord the next day and he tried to convince me that it was a mouse that ran over my foot, not a rat, therefore not a problem. I was like ‘Bitch, I’m a science teacher! You don’t think I know what a rat looks like?!’ So SLT were trying to convince me that bad behaviour was my fault, and this idiot was trying to convince me that a rat is a mouse. You know when you actually start to believe it’s you that’s the crazy one? Anyway, they got the council to put down some poison, and I never saw the rat again. I had however, had enough of the occasional noise, the unsavory characters and the poor insulation so I left with a month remaining on the 6 month lease. I then moved to a nice swish apartment on the canals in the city centre. I saved most of the money I wanted to, so why not eh? I even passed my driving test shortly afterwards. Life was good again.
That which doesn’t kill you . . .
I’d say the first term of my NQT year, along with one more prolonged negative experience (discussed in detail in another blog) really opened my eyes to the concept of well being.
You have no doubt heard Nietzsche being quoted as a solace for people who have had bad experiences, the assumption being made that they make you stronger. From reading around, it seems that in the psychology world the jury is out on this matter. In short, some argue that yes, they do in fact make you ‘stronger’ but others argue that people who have experienced trauma (not saying I experienced trauma, but you take the point) are actually more likely to experience more, i.e. trauma actually makes you ‘weaker.’ What I think everyone will agree on, however, is that after any bad experience, you will do your utmost to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
This is the route I took.
The aforementioned SLT (for a time at least) showed a flagrant disregard for the wellbeing of their staff. Other schools I have worked at have on occasion done the same but never without vocal resistance from me. The good thing about being on the wrong side of 35 -instead of just being 25- is that the older you get, two positive changes take place- or at least they did for me. Firstly, remember that aura of anxiety? It gets replaced by a shield of bolshiness which you can access whenever you need to. I don’t walk around with an attitude problem(?) but whenever the wellbeing of me or my colleagues (I was also a union rep for 4 years) has been flagrantly disregarded, I’ve made it bloody clear.
Do the same when you’re a good, established teacher.
Thank you for reading.
By Omar Akbar
Teacher; Author: The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual: What they don’t teach you in training and Bad School Leadership (and what to do about it)