When facing your first couple of years as a teacher, the adjustment to managing a classroom can feel a bit overwhelming. You’ve finished your teacher training with the drive to be the greatest teacher you can be, but you know it’s going to be a huge learning curve. You’ve probably got a lot of questions about how you can make the most of your experience as an NQT.
As experienced teachers ourselves, there are a fair few tips we can offer to help you in your first couple of years in the classroom. For us, a key part of thriving during this adjustment and learning stage was to see new colleagues as both potential mentors and friends.
Education can be a turbulent industry, and as a new teacher, you’ll soon find that this is what brings teachers of all experience levels together. We lean on each other to ask questions, discuss issues with specific lessons or pupils, share lesson plans, and talk through any problems we are facing. At one point we were all an eager NQT, just like you.
To show you just how much support there is out there from your peers, we asked our teaching community on social media to share helpful anecdotes from their career journeys, and things they wish they’d known in their first couple of years of teaching.
Below, you’ll find their practical, tried-and-tested tips to survive (and thrive in!) your first two years as a teacher.
Your colleagues are there to help you
So you’re ready to begin your first term. You know you’re going to feel like you’re in the spotlight as an NQT, but remember that your colleagues are here to help. If you don’t know an industry acronym or get lost down a school hallway, that’s totally fine, your colleagues will expect you to have lots of questions. So ask away! These are all great opportunities to bond with your colleagues.
As Sammie McFlinty told us when we put the question to a Facebook Group: “Ask for help! Nobody expects you to know everything. Be honest with yourself and others about what you're finding hard. Chances are, experienced teachers have found a solution to your problem already.”
In fact, bonding with all school staff is important to your success. Katie Louise told us on Facebook: “Make sure you become friends or are friendly to admin and TA staff. You never know when you will need their help.”
Be prepared, and plan your time
Even though your workload might be lighter as an NQT, it’s helpful to get into good time management habits early. For example, plan in time for marking once you receive your timetable for the year.
Jasmin Sian Bryany told us: “Plan the whole term’s marking at the start of the term so you know what pieces you’re marking and when to do assessments.”
Tom Wallsgrove, who is currently an NQT, also told us that planning is key to reducing stress: “Make sure you have a plan on when you mark books. Don't let it build up endlessly as you will add additional stress you don't need.”
Be selective about the advice you take on board
Being able to take constructive criticism on board is essential for learning in any profession. Everyone will have their own opinions as to how things should be done, and it’s important to respect that. But that doesn’t mean they’re right and that you don’t have a right to question and challenge in a fair, diplomatic way.
As Jan Kikezos says, you should also trust your intuition. That’s what makes you a unique teacher: “You’ll never know everything or how to do everything and neither do your line managers, SLT or the teacher who’s taught since the Stone Age so be selective with advice you’re given.”
However, respect is always necessary: “Never undermine your colleagues, even if you disagree with them, have that conversation with them in the staff room and never in front of kids,” says Laobhaoise Ui Chiardubháin.
Lesson Planning 101
As teachers, we want to deliver our subject lessons in a way that engages students. We aim to inspire a desire to learn, and at the same time get the results the school is looking for. Here are some excellent tips we’ve gathered around effective lesson planning.
Keep it simple
A great starting point is to seek out existing resources, instead of trying to invent new methods or strategies in your allotted lesson planning time. There’s no need to be a trailblazer at the beginning of your career, that will come in time and with experience.
“Don’t reinvent the wheel by spending hours creating new resources. Use Schoology, TES etc. and instead tweak to suit your own style of teaching”, says Kate Louise Edwards on Facebook.
After all, it’s the teaching hours and the way that your students respond that will give you the greatest learning experience – not reading hours of theory. As Katie Hasler told us: “Make sure you’re spending a lot less time on the planning than you will be on the teaching. The students should be working a lot more than you in the lesson.”
Some other great considerations when it comes to lesson planning are:
- “In general, you don’t need to over-plan your lessons. Your first draft is usually the best.” – Linda Catherine
- “You might have to have a few boring lessons.” – Cat Bones (and that’s perfectly OK!)
- “Don't be afraid of textbooks! Sometimes the simplicity of talking through a page or two, discussing, questioning and then working through the activities is just perfect. Easy for you and the kids actually enjoy it.” – Jennifer Tabb
You don't need to create a new, brilliant lesson every time. Talk to your subject colleagues and find out what they’re doing, and what they’ve found their classes enjoy and respond to. This can be a great way to learn, and also to encourage and inspire each other.
Cathy Warren told us: “Colleagues are often hesitant to share lessons as 'it's nothing special' but adapting a lesson plan to your style of teaching [is] quicker than writing a whole new lesson. Consistently being 'good enough' is actually very good!”
Each lesson is a clean slate (be kind to yourself!)
If a lesson doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, don’t worry. You haven’t failed, you can re-plan it and try again.
“Not all of your lessons will be a winner,” says Laura Boddington in one of the Teacher’s Facebook Groups we spoke to. “Don’t spend all your time thinking about that one awful lesson where everything went wrong, the kids won’t give it a second thought.”
So, when things don’t go to plan, how can you stay agile and keep adapting? Sarah BN’s advice is: “Be really organised with your lessons in the first year so that you can just pick up and adapt easily next year. Plan an outline for a half term ahead, and be fully planned and resourced a week ahead.”
It’s also a good idea to keep a lesson journal, just for your eyes, so you can make notes on how lessons went when your memory is fresh. Lily Emm says: “When a lesson doesn’t go quite to plan, change it as soon as you can after the lesson (before you forget!) to improve it, even if it’s just a misspelled word! It makes the next year so much easier. Everything goes a little smoother.”
A journal is also great, because it can remind you of what went well too. Laura Cooper Schwab told us that she kept a diary in which she wrote down three positives from the day, no matter how big or small they were. Then you can tell yourself: “Even on a bad day I managed this!”
Prepare for off days and emergencies
It’s also important to have some “emergency” lessons in your back pocket that are fail-proof and you know students will respond well to. Teacher Zoe Keen gave this important and stress-busting advice: “Have emergency lessons ready for observation. For example, say OFSTED come in last minute. Have some generalised stuff to do with your topic ready to go can really save you in those last minute situations ... Also emergency simple lessons for when you are having a rough week or lots of other paperwork to do that you can just do, saves you time and stress.”
Managing relationships with students
Managing a class willed with young people can be a rewarding experience, and like all rewarding experiences it comes with its own challenges.
“Acknowledge that you work with the hardest group of clients (teenagers) who are hormonal, push boundaries, are learning who they are, and are sometimes rude to you. A teenager’s job is to be sometimes difficult, they’re just doing what’s natural teenager behaviour. Don’t take it personally or get upset. It’s not personal, they’re just teenagers finding their way,” says Suzanne Chalke.
Heather Clements-Wheeler is another teacher who echoes this important point: “Kids are hormonal and sometimes they lose it. This isn’t because you’re bad at your job or your lesson is not fun enough. It’s because they’re going through massive changes and have no idea how to deal with them. Sometimes they surprise themselves in how they are both good and bad!”
A lot of people will tell you that as a teacher you need “a thick skin” but we prefer to think of it as exercising compassion. Like any muscle, you need to flex your empathy! The more you take yourself out of situations and realise that they aren’t about you, the more you can be “out there” with students rather than “in your head” and beating yourself up over so-called mistakes.
While we all want to be liked, it’s important to set boundaries with students early on. You can be firm, but fair. You might not always hit the nail on the head with that each time, and of course kids are likely to think you’re unfair no matter what you do, but have courage in your convictions and don’t be swayed in order to be liked. As Clair Bennet told us on Facebook: “Maintain standards. Don't open give threats and discipline that [isn’t] carried through.”
You can’t succeed with every child (and they won’t all like you)
As a teacher, you’re going to make a difference to a lot of lives. You might never even know the extent of the impact you had on a lot of kids. We all remember our favourite teachers… and we also remember our least favourite teachers. The important thing is to be yourself, not act how you think you “should” act. And always respect students as individuals with their own opinions, likes, and dislikes.
As Michael Nelson told us on Facebook: “Don’t be afraid to use your personality within teaching. However, know the limits and boundaries. The old adage “Don’t smile till Christmas” worked in the 60s and 70s. However, schools used capital punishment then! Understand their world, don’t think that all students are the same; they are all individuals!”
Stephanie Bou also reminds us how important it is to remember that we can’t ever know what’s going on outside school for all of our students. She says: “Some kids have it rough at home… sometimes, they take it out on you without knowing why. Treat them with respect and care for them, and tell them you are proud of them when they succeed, they will respect you for that. Don't suffer in silence, get some help with behaviour, that's why policies are in place. Cry if you need to but never in front of the kids. You can't make a difference in all pupils life, you need to accept that (and it's hard to).”
Managing your workload
In teaching, tasks can pile up. Especially if you’re having to deal with unexpected issues, which will arise. And, as you’re working with children, they probably will – regularly. While “self-care” and “wellbeing” might sound like buzzwords which are easier to throw around than actually do, they are important.
Ask yourself what you need first, and then your pupils. You are the teacher, and if you aren’t performing at your best then your students are going to miss out. So many teachers we spoke to stressed the importance of encouraging healthy habits like scheduling in exercise, eating healthy food, and making sure you have enough sleep time before you even think about lesson planning.
Weekends are precious, sleep is even more precious
While it may feel tempting to “get ahead of yourself” instead of relaxing, Philip Downing cautioned: “Try not to work weekends. You risk forming a habit you’ll struggle to break later.”
It’s all about finding the work-life balance that works for you, and ensuring you have time to escape the pressure of work so that you don’t burn out. That includes doing all you can to ensure that you have time to relax and unwind every day. Sharon Burn on Facebook advised us: “Always set an hour of down time before bedtime. Decide when your downtime starts and don’t work past it no matter what. The work can wait.”
You’re bound to be surrounded by colleagues talking about their own work habits, and it can be difficult not to take that on. Shell Swaine’s advice around this is really important: “Don’t feel guilty when colleagues talk about all the hours they put in, e.g. “I was up until 3am Sunday morning marking,” etc. Bigger fools [they are] for doing that. IF they did in fact do that.”
While for some teachers it will feel less stressful to work some evenings and weekends, for some teachers this can feel like too much pressure. The important thing is to do what works for you and not judge yourself against others. Charlotte Katyleigh says: “Don’t take anything home. Find time in school to do it or add it to the ‘to-do’ list. Learn to prioritise tasks and don’t feel like a bad teacher if you don’t get through them all.”
We think teacher Michael Nelson had the perfect last words on this: “Ensure that if you give extra time for things....it’s on your terms!”
Be selective with extra commitments
When you’re getting started in teaching, there might be extra pressure to “prove yourself” by jumping into extracurricular activities. While it’s tempting to sign up for events and after school clubs, Warren TD Mundy cautions: “Anticipate how much time this will take. Sounds harsh at times, but too many new teachers end up agreeing to use all the free time for events and burning themselves out.”
The pressure to say “yes” to these sorts of commitments can feel like a lot, and learning to say “no” is difficult for some of us. Rhian Alexandra on Facebook gave this great advice: “If you don’t feel confident to say no to someone’s face, say ‘Can I get back to you’ or ‘Can I think about it?’ Then tell them ‘No’ via email!”
Find your own ways to be efficient
Efficiency is something that we need to find on our own. Processes are obviously helpful to give everyone direction, but tweaking them so that they become tools instead of stumbling blocks is important. Again, this takes time and as you develop confidence in your judgement, you’ll probably find your efficiency increases.
Anna Bee told us on Facebook: “Learn how to cut the right corners... much of what’s demanded is unnecessary and rarely chased. Just someone higher tick boxing for themselves.”
To-do lists are a necessary evil, however they should be seen as something to take the pressure off of having to remember everything all at once rather than being a stick to beat ourselves with. Teacher of 17 years Helen Kenworthy says: “Best advice I got was to remember that the to-do list is never going to go away or be completed. Apply the thirds theory: a third of your day should be sleep, another third your work, and the final third spent with loved ones and doing what you love. Saved my life, and as a result I still love my job, 17 years after qualifying!”
Marking is one of the areas where many teachers feel the pressure pile up, and one of the biggest efficiencies as a teacher is finding a way of reducing the amount of marking required. Sarah Turner Smart shared how she manages her marking: “Do regular samples across your class of 8-10 and then share whole class feedback of common misconceptions / areas to develop for them to all make improvements, rather than trying to mark everything all the time.”
Teacher Amy Haines highlights another way of saving time with marking: “Don't mark everything in depth. Think about which things are "tick and flick" and which things will benefit from looking at more carefully. My department started using code marking a while ago and we've found it a real time saver.”
And as Lara Loker reminds us, not every lesson needs to create more marking for you. Diversity is important, both for student engagement and for your wellbeing: “On five lesson days, assuming you don't do six, make at least one lesson a no marking required and low energy delivery. Be kind to yourself.”
Find your tribe
What do we mean by finding your tribe? Essentially, this means finding a close-knit group of people you can rely on to be there for you when you have problems, give you support, and share your thinking. A great way to start to build your support network is to identify which teachers at the school you admire the most, and ask yourself why their work resonates with and inspires you. Invite them for a coffee and ask to pick their brain. When you spend time with people you admire, you’re more likely to stay motivated.
Jem Jo told us on Facebook: “Remember you are still learning and perfecting your skills. You can learn something new every week! Seek the kind and experienced members of staff to help you. That's my reason for success.”
Of course, don’t worry if you feel like you don’t connect with many teachers at your school. The online teaching community is incredibly active, so join Facebook groups, set up a Twitter account and follow other teachers (and us @pupilprogressuk!) and join the conversation.
Another tip from teacher Lindsay Marie Dovey to fellow art teachers is: “Still can’t find anyone in your school you mesh with? Join NSEAD! Join the union, join the forum and then join sketchbook circle. You'll never regret it.”
Find a mentor or teaching ‘buddy’
Lots of teachers told us that having a “buddy” or mentor was a hugely important part of their career development. Ben John Taylor told us in his Facebook comment: “Find a teaching buddy to share your thoughts with and plan together! Halves the workload and you are able to bounce ideas off each other.”
Some schools will have mentorship schemes as part of their own development programmes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t seek out people that can help you in different ways. As teacher Charli Hayden told us: “Find a mentor. Even if your official mentor is rubbish. Find someone you admire and decide that this is your unofficial mentor.”
However, that doesn’t mean their word should be gospel. While a mentor can support you, encourage you and give guidance from their own experiences, as Olly Williams highlights: “Everyone does things differently. It’s your classroom, they are your students: be the teacher you want to be!”
Remember why you’re doing this
The final point to make is to remember to enjoy what you’re doing! Teaching, though it feels difficult sometimes, can be the most rewarding profession.
Teacher Vicky Lyons shared this motivational advice, which we think makes the perfect final words for this guide: “You will fail, you will fall, you will fuck up. You need to get back up each time, stronger and better. Learn from mistakes, brush off the irrelevant stuff. And remember, you will also experience success - small, minute, vast - but it all all makes you remember why you chose this job.”