If I had a pound for every time I said 'it's been a while', I’d probably be a millionaire. Being an adult is hard for a multitude of reasons (paying bills, learning that you can’t survive on instant noodles alone, paying bills, being sad about not being able to afford a sofa with a wow factor, the constant flow of laundry, paying bills…) but mostly because you seem to have no. Time. At. Any. Time. It’s like living through the Second World War and getting ration stamps but instead of receiving little mints you’re offered measly bits of time. Or something. Since September 2021 I have been working full-time (as most adults do) in East London and boy, has it been a rollercoaster. To give you some perspective, it’s my first year as an Early Career Teacher (ECT) and I am currently in charge of a Year 4 class, a fact that I still sometimes can’t get my head around. As we are now exactly halfway through the academic year and I am currently sitting here in my pyjamas, I thought I’d use this opportunity to reflect and give you guys a taste of what my experience has been like thus far.
Before I even started school in September I’d been doing research via the Internet and through conversations with colleagues and other people who work in education; in short, I wanted to be super prepared for the year, and I was bursting with ideas about what my classroom was going to look like. Not just the displays and the layout of the tables, but how I wanted my children to be behaving, and how the culture of my classroom was going to form. Even so, I quickly realised that nothing really prepares you for your first class – you can do as much research as you want but until you get in there and actually meet the kids, you’re never going to be fully ready. You don’t know what the children will be like, you don’t know what the dynamics will be like or even how you are going to act because you’ve never had to play the part before. You have to be thrown in to make all of these discoveries. People say the autumn term is the longest because it takes time for the children to settle in, for you to get to know each other and for you to establish those all-important routines. I agree with this – from September to December it seemed like a long slog, and it was all very intense, not just because this was a new job but because these were my first few months of working full-time, period. Now that we’ve reached the halfway mark, things have slowed down somewhat and, in fact, I’m stuck in a bit of a rut – but more on that later. Routines take time. I’ve always known that I’m a bit of a perfectionist but through teaching so far I’ve realised that children really need a slooooow pace to get where you want them to be. So often in life we’re limited by our own view on how things should be done and forget that other people are different. How are you going to get 28 vastly diverse humans to understand a concept? Or line up acceptably? It might never happen, but to try takes time. I don’t think I’ll ever underestimate this again. Schools are very overloaded places. There’s a lot going on and things can change at any time. I enjoy the fact that every day is busy and I’m never bored, but obviously it can be incredibly exhausting. I get to school between 7:15 and 7:45, and usually leave between 4:30 and 5:30, but again, each day presents new challenges and I may need to stay behind for meetings, to mark, to get on top of admin or even just to tidy up. One of the biggest things I’ve learnt so far and what I still need to get on top of is my delegation of teaching assistants. I’m not going to lie – it’s weird to find yourself in charge of not just little humans, but also several adults who may or may not be several years your senior. A lot of teaching assistants have been working in schools for longer than I’ve been alive, and it seems strange to delegate tasks to them or to set a precedent for the class, which the TAs also have to go along with. I know I need to rely on them more, but sometimes I just like to take matters into my own hands. This, however, will cost me in the long run because I’ll end up exhausting myself or not being able to get everything done, which isn’t fair on the kids, and ultimately…everything is about the kids. As a teacher you’re lucky to have the same TAs for the whole year; I’ve had quite a lot of change so far, and it can be tricky to deal with. It’s also difficult for the children because children really need consistency, and they actually like knowing what to expect each day. By not setting routines it’s actually harder for them to trust you, and you need them to trust you. Having said this, as a new teacher I’m aware of my position as someone with fresh ideas and an opportunity to try new things. During my training year I was encouraged, going forward, to experiment, and I suppose this is how I’m going to improve my practice over time. What you realise is that people can give you advice, but ultimately every teacher has their own way of doing things. You have to find your own style and be confident in your abilities.
Another perhaps slightly obvious realisation is that no year is going to be perfect, and you are human. It’s impossible, I think, to set yourself a bunch of tasks and complete every single one as a teacher – the lists are never-ending, and you aren’t going to mould your children into perfect citizens. It’s futile to try. Instead, focusing on certain needs and setting priorities will help you to fulfil achievable goals, and therefore you won’t feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment at the end of the year, because, as my deputy head told me, your good is always good enough. Some days I come into work feeling incredibly inspired – I make a huge effort, exert my creativity and am on top of every issue that comes my way. On other days, I find myself just trying to make it through to 3:25. This is okay. This would be the case in any other job, in any other person’s life. Teaching is hard because you always have to be thinking about other people, but there’s no point putting your own mental health on the line. Ah, mental health! It’s been the hot topic of conversation throughout the pandemic. At the moment, I’m in a bit of a funk, and wondering if a ‘halfway slump’ exists, or if this is just New Teacher Syndrome. You do start off the year on a bit of a high (though during my very first week I didn’t eat enough and burnt out by the Friday) but now that I’ve found my pace, I’m getting weighed down by a strange combination of numbness and overwhelm. I guess there’s pressure to get the children to progress as much as they can by the end of July, and simultaneously I’m wondering how much I’ve actually managed to achieve since September. If you know people who work in education – or public services – don’t forget to check up on them. I’m sure with the arrival of spring and nicer weather things may seem a bit lighter, but the workload is always going to be hard to manage. That being said, I’m excited for how much I’m still going to learn, and how what I learn is going to help make my day-to-day smoother, my teaching better, my life easier. I’m excited to put everything I’ve learnt this year into practice next year, and who knows what year I’ll be in next year? *