Andy Sammons (@andy_samm) is Head of Department in a large secondary school in the north of England, and author of 'The Compassionate Teacher'. Here he shares his reflections on his first year as a teacher, and offers some advice for newly qualified teachers on the road to unconscious competence!

by Andy Sammons
5th August 2019

I remember it as clear as day: in the six weeks preceding my first term as a teacher, it genuinely felt as if I was walking on air as I eagerly visited my school and started to put the finishing touches to my classroom.

It’s that same feeling I get even nowadays when I’m creating a resource or doing some kind of data analysis that I think is going to be the key to our students’ success. And yes, you’re very likely rolling your eyes. 

The uncomfortable truth 

I was fortunate to land in a school that fired me intellectually – it lit a fire that continues to sustain me. However, the uncomfortable truth for Newly Qualified Teachers (and indeed to all colleagues starting in new schools) is that there is a vulnerability in not being established in a school. Just at the time when you need things to be most forgiving professionally and emotionally, schools will always find ways of testing you, and you need to be prepared for that.

In my first year, I wasn’t aware of my vulnerabilities, really. But my school didn’t beat them into me: they asked me the right questions to allow me to reflect on my areas for development. I remember one situation when I was with my mentor and she said, ‘How do you think your classes are doing?’ Until that point, I hadn’t encountered any behaviour problems to speak of, so I shot back with glee ‘Well, they’re definitely getting what I want them to get, and they’re learning!’ She just said, ‘Great. How do you know?’ Cue stunned silence.

Unconsciously competent 

Although I am most certainly not the Karate Kid, I did meet my Mr Miyagi in my first school. Sadly, many of his like are declining in numbers in our schools. This remarkable man introduced me to the importance of the journey from being ‘unconciously incompetent’ to ‘conciously incompetent’ and finishing at ‘unconciously competent'. Most teachers worth their salt will tell you they are always somewhere between the second and third of these (irrespective of track record or years served).

Whenever I am given the privilege of mentoring inexperienced colleagues, I make it clear to them that I am comfortable with mistakes, and I expect them to get their heads around that very quickly. Teaching is immeasurably complex, and anyone who makes out like they’ve cracked it from some kind of lofty plateau is - frankly - not worth listening to.

Above all, it’s crucial to be kind to yourself, and not expect too much. I've suggested five tips in terms of things that should give you a fairly firm footing, but the most crucial thing to remember is that it’s 100% not about your mistakes: it’s all about how you react to them, though. I’ll be honest: this was originally a ‘top ten’ but for brevity and true essentials, I think five is best.

The golden rules 

Your NQT year will be hugely influenced by your school and your context. There are two golden rules to always remember: firstly, not all schools are the same – I’ve worked in some appalling places, and some truly inspirational places. Secondly, preparation is your insurance policy; trying to think ahead and anticipate things should help you feel more able to handle anything that can be thrown at you.

Your first week as an NQT: a survival guide

1. Know your timetable. Embrace your inner geek. When you get your timetable, reproduce it and put it in your planner/workspace/phone. Colour coding is an excellent idea as it will help you settle into the patterns of the working week in terms of when you have what classes.

2. Know your kids. Your school will have a data system, and if they have any sense of organisation, they should have sorted you with a password and access to the information you need. As a useful starting point, when you have your data you’ll be able to customise and properly rationalise seating plans.

3. Behaviour policy. Neglecting to spend some time with this is – simply – asking for trouble. In many ways, and for reasons far beyond the realms of article , schools will be much more inclined (and able) to support you when you’ve followed the behaviour policy. Put simply, if we ignore this, we’re making is difficult for people further down the chain in all kinds of ways that’s impossible to fathom.

4. Customise your classroom. Whether you print off free displays, invest in posters or design it yourself from some kind of weird and wonderful idea from Pinterest, it’s crucial to customise your space as much as possible. Putting a stamp on things is vital: even more so if it’s something you can refer to and use to support your classes.

5. Every cloud… Your school may well have some kind of online platform, but even if it doesn’t I cannot recommend having a place where you store your lessons and resources online highly enough. Not only does it give you the reassurance that you can reuse things you create, but it also allows you to tweak and be mindful of your improvement.

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