'I am a teacher. Specifically, I am a Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) working in an inner-city London school.' At dinner parties, when asked the inevitable ‘so what do you do?’, this sentence always merits the same response. ‘Wow! That must be so challenging’. Now, it’s easy to get very preachy as a teacher. ‘Yes, the hours are long but the pay is poor’ I invariably quip back. A polite laugh is my reward. I tend to stop short of: ‘Yes I know, changing lives every day, at the coalface, the nation’s future really is in my hands’.
So preaching (or humble-bragging) is something that I shall take pains in this article to avoid. How best then to give you an insight into my life dear reader? Well, follow me along a typical, albeit fictitious, day. Why fictitious? Firstly, because I have to change the names of the young people I work with, and secondly, because in teaching there really is no typical day. Every day is different and the young people you spend the vast majority of your time with guarantee that.
So, where do I work? I work in one of London’s most deprived boroughs, at an inner-city academy. Over half of our pupils are classified as having English as an Additional Language and nearly a fifth are on Free School Meals. But your thoughts should not jump straight to metal detectors and me at the front of the class desperately trying to maintain some semblance of order as the class runs riot. We are a ‘good’ school (that’s Ofsted saying that, not just me) and discipline is extremely good. I would never want to work in a school where my job is mainly crowd control. Yes, we have difficult pupils and challenging classes, but I can easily teach and having to escalate behaviour management beyond a simple ‘please stop talking over me or your name is going on the board’ is rare. We have a huge range of pupils, from first generation immigrants fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq, to many upper-middle class children from nuclear families who live in properties worth millions. That eclectic mix, that melting pot, is one of the things I truly love about my job.
So, let us start our day, say a Thursday. My alarm rouses me at 0630am; from this point on I know it will take me exactly thirty minutes before I am out of the door. The walk to work takes another thirty minutes, this is time to gather my thoughts and marshal in my head all I need to achieve today. I arrive at the departmental office at 07.30 and automatically make a bowl of porridge in the microwave and a cup of tea. I am the first one there, bar my head of department. A true workhorse, he once took a day off sick and people saw this as a sign of the end times. We exchange pleasantries and I log on to a computer in the shared office space.
I now have an hour to prepare for the day. I check my emails and update my planner. This planner is my bible; it contains every last thing I have to remember and as I always say to my pupils: ‘if it’s not in the planner it doesn’t exist’. All my lessons, my tasks, pupil data, detentions, homeworks and meetings, it’s all in the planner. I update my ‘to-do’ list based on an email from my Head of Year and then print out some worksheets. I finish my porridge and head to reprographics; do my photocopying and then head to my classroom.
I am a form tutor and my form arrives at 0840. My job is to provide pastoral and administrative support for them. I see them twice a day, for a 20 minute tutorial in the morning and for afternoon registration. This morning I read out the notices and check how many of them have organised work experience for the summer term. Numbers are pretty dismal so I suggest some routes, talk to some individuals about sending off CV’s to companies they might like to work with some day. I realise that unlike contemporaries of mine when I was at school, many of these pupils will not come from families which will have a professional network to draw on.
I remind the ‘naughty kids’ in my form that they are on a Head of Year Detention after school and then ask to see Ismail’s report card (again, fake name). I put him on Tutors Report on Monday after his name came up in a series of corridor incidents and emails from his subject teachers mentioning his negative behaviour in lessons. I see he’s been doing ok, but some teachers still comment that he is chatty and disruptive in class. ‘This isn’t good enough is it Ismail?’. ‘No sir’. ‘Right, so we’ll stay on report next week and see if we can turn all these comments into positives’. ‘Yes sir’. Behaviour management is all about setting boundaries and re-establishing those boundaries should they be crossed. There is no point putting a pupil on report if his poor behaviour isn’t going to change. Hopefully, the message has sunk in.
Then the teaching day starts. The first class comes in, Year 7. You settle them down and begin to outline the lesson for the day. The problem with Year 7 is that they haven’t quite adjusted to ‘big school’ yet and so everything is a question, and quite often that question is simply shouted at you without a hand being raised. This can get rather draining and so you re-establish the rule that if you want to speak you must first raise your hand and then make a very obvious show of praising one particular student who has stuck to this rule. (In fact, you go even further and reward this student with a ‘Merit’ mark because nothing quite ensures good behaviour from Year 7’s like Merits).
‘Let me explain what the lesson is about, I may well answer your question, I am a proper teacher you know, I can show you the certificate and everything’. (Sacdio giggles at this joke. Sacdio is clever, you like Sacdio). You set them off on a task and brief the Teaching Assistant as to what you would like her to do. Today she is going to be working with Paolo, who arrived from Brazil half-way into the first term. He has very little English and requires different work to the rest of the class. As a teacher I am as responsible for his progress as well as every other child under my care and so I need to work out what he can achieve and prepare work just for him.
Then, before you know it, the lesson ends and you have Year 8 and 9 following in short order before break 1. Teaching is a job in which you’re never looking at your watch or winding down the clock. Everything seems to go at lightspeed and before you know it Year 9 are out of the door and you are left alone in your classroom. Thursdays are the day you’re ‘on duty’ and so must spend the first half of break patrolling certain corridors telling pupils that the only places their allowed to eat their sandwiches is the canteen or outside. Most kids comply straight away but you double back and find some Year 9 girls flagrantly carrying on with their comestible transgression and so you order them to wait for you outside of the faculty office. Duty over you have time for quick trip to the loo or cup of tea (never both) and then back to the classroom as the bell rings.
The rest of the day consists of two double lessons, GCSE and A level classes. You like these more than KS3 because every pupil there is more mature and, particularly in the A level classes, they have chosen your subject above all else. However, during both doubles you have to spend a good amount of time going through exam technique, because at Key Stages 4 and 5 we are not just teaching for the love of our subject, but indeed we must also instruct out pupils on how to jump through hoops whilst ticking exam board mandated boxes. Your sixth-formers do particularly well with some presentations you set them last week and you write down in your planner that you can now demonstrate ‘independent learning and resilience’; you make a note to bring this up with your mentor the next time you have your weekly NQT meeting. As an NQT you must demonstrate that you are meeting the eight-teaching standards, and a termly report is submitted to the local authority and a judgement made on your progress towards meeting these standards.
So the school day is over. It’s only 1530 but you know you’re going to be here until at least 1830. Firstly you have CPD meeting. These are put on once a week for NQTs and trainee teachers, and will focus on a particular area of good practice. Today you have some English teachers delivering a session on ‘Marking for Literacy’. Then you are back in your classroom and completing your admin. You log data and detentions on the management information system and make some phone calls home. One of the parents you contact doesn’t have particularly good English but you get the message across through a cousin at the same address. Then you plan your lessons for the next day and mark some A level essays. You had high-hopes of marking your Year 9 books but seeing 30 of them piled up on your desk, and seeing the clock at 1900 dissuades you. You’ll mark them at the weekend.
So that was a flavour an average day as a NQT, not that there is an average day. You work long days, and there’s very little time to stop, especially when the pupils are in school. I also work on Sundays to catch up on marking and planning for Monday, but that’s rarely more than a few hours of work. It is a tough job. You are given a huge amount of responsibility and there are certain deadlines that you simply cannot miss. There are days when I grit my teeth and say to myself that I’m not going to be part of the 40% of NQTs who don’t make it to the end of their first year of teaching (that’s having had already completed teacher training and Qualified Teacher Status). There are constantly plates spinning and you must be organised and at the top of your game at all times.
However, there are many positives. I feel incredibly well supported by my school. I am receiving excellent training and mentoring and I really feel as if they are investing in me as a professional practitioner. I am not micromanaged, and I definitely do not have a dull office job that I hate, unlike most of my friends from university it seems. The pay is not terrible; I started off on £29,500 p/a, although I get a £7,000 adjustment for the increased expenses of working in the inner-city (or ‘danger money’ as we like to joke).
My advice to anybody staring down the barrel of the NQT year is this: fake it until you make it and just get to Christmas. It really does get easier!