Notes from the Classroom

VintageSchool

The school year is drawing to a close. This year has been a challenging, frustrating, exhausting and disheartening experience for much of the time. As a newly qualified teacher (NQT in education-speak) I have been subject to an extreme level of scrutiny, with two mandatory lesson observations to endure every half term as well as a folder of evidence to compile to prove that I am meeting all of the required teacher standards. On top of that, I have had to teach a full timetable of English classes across the 11-18 range, preparing schemes of work for each unit topic, marking mounds of exercise books, homework, essays, coursework and exams, reading and making copious notes on the novels I have to teach and producing armfuls of resources to use in the classroom. Within the boundaries of an ordinary working day, it is impossible to do all of these things and do them well. At the busiest time of year, between January and March, I was working every night until around 11pm and all weekend too, just to keep on top of my workload. I thought I was coping until one morning in the midst of this hell of never ending marking and lesson planning, I received a complaint from a parent about something innocuous I had done and all I could do was sit down and cry. No matter what I did, it was never good enough. I was always wrong. I could always do better. I was working all the hours I could stay awake, and what for? I was earning less than the minimum wage and I was so tired and so disillusioned that I started to dread going to work. I longed for my old office job, when I had time to go to the toilet whenever I wanted, time to drink tea and chat to my colleagues, time to think, time to innovate, and the right to walk out of the door at 5pm and not have to think about work again until the following morning. What halcyon days!

At the beginning of last week, I had written my resignation and decided that teaching wasn’t for me. I wanted my life back. I didn’t know what else I could do, but I did know that I couldn’t spend another year trapped in this hell. However,  I then had my last lesson with my GCSE class. I made them cakes and cards. They gave me beautiful cards and lavish presents. I cried. They cried. We have spent an hour of every school day together over the past two years. It’s been intense. I’ve seen them more than I’ve seen my own friends. I’ve stayed awake worrying about them. I’ve secretly looked forward to seeing them, enjoyed coming up with activities I knew they’d love, and spent many hours dissolved in fits of giggles as we’ve discussed the absurdities of their emotionally charged social and romantic lives. As I read their cards and realised that they really did appreciate every sacrifice I had made for them, I had the first truly rewarding moment of my career so far. It was a magical feeling.

Teaching is exhausting. It is often thankless. The public think we’re lazy moaners. The government thinks we’re useless and need more and more scrutiny and hoops to jump through in order to prove that we’re squeezing as much value out of our students as we possibly can (though exams are too easy now anyway, so what’s the point?). Senior staff members force us to do mounds of ridiculous paperwork that has no purpose in order to tick yet more and more boxes that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with league tables. Parents complain over the slightest hint of perceived injustice towards their precious darlings. And yet every day, we turn up, teach for five hours, sort out all manner of pastoral problems and run extracurricular clubs, and then go home and spend another five hours preparing for the next day’s lessons and marking the work produced in the lessons already taught that day. At my darkest moments, I’ve got so lost in all the crap that I couldn’t see why I was doing it any more. But then I got those cards and I realised; I’m doing this job because I love my students, and even if no-one else appreciates me, I know they do and I know they are grateful for the hard work I put into making their lessons the best I possibly can. Underneath it all, the moments I have had in my classroom, just me and my students, having fun, thrashing something out and achieving a shared goal have been absolutely priceless, and I wouldn’t exchange them for any other job in the world. As I saw my GCSE class coming out of their Literature exam this week, smiling from ear to ear, saying they felt confident they had got what they wanted, happy that they had been able to do their best, I was surprised to find myself becoming emotional and had to go off to the toilet and have a secret cry. My babies had done me proud. How could I have ever wanted to leave them behind?

Needless to say, the resignation got thrown in the bin. But things will need to change next year. I will need to work smarter, not harder. I will need to book up my weekends with social activities well in advance to prevent myself from spending all weekend working. I need to take more control of my life and not let my job take over. I need to stop caring that people think anyone can teach and that it’s a job for lazy people who just want long holidays. I need to stay cynical and keep refusing to tick the latest boxes (except during an observation of course) when they have absolutely nothing to do with improving the educational experience of children. But most of all I need to never lose sight of the magic that is happening in my classroom each and every day. I make a difference. And that really does make it all worthwhile.

53 comments

  1. Oh, how I remember my first few years in teaching!! I also remember one of my professors telling me, “There will always be more to do.” At some point you just have to let your personal best be enough. Having your own blog, you may have already done this, but I recommend looking at teacher blogs, especially those that specialize in organization and time management. Believe me, it does get easier every year, but you sound like me, who will use any extra time to make your instruction even better. Don’t give up quite yet. You have too much to offer the students who need you.

    1. Yes – it’s so important to learn to step back and recognise when actually, enough is enough and not every lesson has to be all-singing all-dancing to have a powerful impact. I have just bought a book on time management for teachers so I’m hoping that will give me some useful tips! Thank you for your encouragement – it is much appreciated!

  2. Congratulations, and lucky students. But don’t carry on if it hurts. I spent the unhappiest period of my life as an NQT at a horrible, horrible school with deeply unpleasant colleagues. Children, you can change: adults with chips on their shoulder, I’m more doubtful about. So remember that whatever you do, you will inspire people, and don’t martyr yourself. With best wishes from the Northern Reader.

    1. Thank you – yes, I soon discovered when embarking on teacher training that teaching seems to attract an awful lot of unpleasant people, who are the first to espouse the rights of the child but seem completely unable to recognise that adults have the right to feel safe, supported and encouraged too. I think many people would be shocked at the bullying that goes on in staff rooms. My school is thankfully not too bad on that front but you are right – martyring yourself gets you nowhere and ultimately I need to be selfish and put myself first. Staying for now feels like the right thing to do, but I’m not thinking much beyond that at the moment.

  3. A book given to me by a seasoned colleague in the 70’s, when I was a bright-eyed, hopeful educator, Teaching As Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman, buoyed me, and it’s title often reminds me still– not of the seemingly infinite bureaucratic roadblocks, but of the challenges, (often delightful!) to find another way.– I will be cheering for you!

  4. Oh I hear you. I am in a similar position in Australia and as our lovely (not) government is about to pull more funding from education, we are going to have to be even more creative in teaching bigger classes and getting better outcomes. I remember that office job. It was boring, it was meaningless, but it meant I didn’t eat/sleep/dream my work. The thing is, I would never be able to return to that job. I just love teaching too much. Good luck.🙂

    1. I’m sorry you’re experiencing the same problems😦 I wish teachers got treated with more respect! You are right – I thought the same thing about my office job. As easy as it was, I could never, in reality, go back. Teaching has captured me in a way no other job could ever manage. Good luck to you too🙂

  5. Fortunately, many manage to keep going and I hope you, Rachel are one of them. A young Canadian woman friend taught in the UK for a year, returned to Canada and is now teaching on a Reserve in Northern Alberta. She was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic greeting she received and is lovin’ it! Obviously, moving to Northern Alberta isn’t possible for most, but it seems that you’ve learned that you are appreciated and hopefully that will support you. Just don’t get too cynical.

    1. This made me well up, what an amazing feeling it must be to get that feedback from your students! Stick at it, you’re obviously doing something right. I had some wonderful teachers who inspired me to push myself and learn and taught me to question things. I couldn’t do it and I have so much admiration for those who can x

      1. Thanks Matilda – it is a very special feeling! I’m glad you still remember your teachers – I keep going in the hope that my students are gaining something from me, and my teaching is helping them become who they want to be. It’s not an easy job but it has benefits no other job can offer. Thank you for your support and appreciation!

    2. Wow, what an amazing experience! I’d love to do something like that. I hope I will manage to keep going too – it is all worth it in the end. Thank you for your support!

  6. I totally understand how you must have felt this year, the first year of teaching is very difficult. I still remember it, although I have been teaching for 16 years now.
    But, like all things, it will become easier to manage your work with the rest of your life. If you want to, you can spend every dat untill midnight preparing for things, but in time you will learn when this is not necessary. The first five years are the hardest, that is when you get your routine and after that, it gets easier.
    And you must be doing something very right when your students appreciate you the way they do, and that is the most important thing.
    Parents can be idiots, management can be even bigger idiots, but it is the students that matter.

    Kind regards

    1. Thank you, Bettina – 16 years! You are amazing! Thank you for your encouragement – it’s good to know that it does get easier. You are so right – it’s the kids that are most important, above all, and I need to block all of the rest out!

  7. I already missed your “Notes from the Classroom”… Thanks for your honesty, and I am so glad for your students you decided to stay! And I think it’s the right approach – not to work harder, but smarter. As some already said – it might get easier with time. Maybe you can use some stuff you already prepared in a previous year sometimes (sometimes – I think it’s good for our own sanity to challenge ourselves and be non-predictable also).
    And thanks for mentioning not knowing when to visit the toilet😉 It sounds drastic, but I think I will have to mention this to a certain relative who complains about the long holidays of teachers. She can phone her friends during work hours and does so lengthily, can have coffee anytime and certainly leave her desk whenever she needs to…
    Wishing you a better next school year and all the best!

    1. Thanks Martina! Yes – I am already able to recycle a lot of the stuff I already prepared, and the more experienced you are at teaching something, the easier it gets, though the marking never reduces! Ha – yes – people don’t realise how much they take for granted at work until they don’t have the freedom to leave their desk when they want to! Thank you for your support.🙂

  8. So much of this rings true for me, as well. Your students are so lucky to have you, and it will be an amazing feeling a year from now when the results come in and you’re there to see their faces.

    If you ever want resources, please just email. I have a lot from my PGCE year, all the ones I’ve made this year, and a whole shared drive of collective resources from my department. I’d be happy to send things on if you think it would help a bit next year.

    In the meantime, I hope you are having a very well-deserved and relaxing half-term.

    1. Thanks Kate – likewise your students! Thank you – same to you – I do have a lot of resources now, and if there’s anything you need and don’t have, feel free to ask any time. I hope that you are looking forward to next year and don’t feel daunted or stressed by it. Enjoy your half term – I am having a very relaxing time, thank you. It’s good to feel supported and encouraged by others in the same boat!🙂

  9. When you’re a student you can definitely tell which teacher’s genuinely care and which one’s just do it as a job. You sound like the former which is so important. My english teacher was such an inspiration to my class and so helpful. We definitely appreciate it.

    I hope you find next year easier. And remember that those kids who came out of that exam will have brighter futures because of how you taught them.

  10. Hey Rachel: Sorry you had a tough year, glad you found your way through it. What you’ve gone through is pretty typical – beginner’s “high” followed by disallusionment when the reality hits. You will develop better and better skills to manage it all, forms, parents, workload and find that increasingly larger amounts of time are spent having fun and feeling “masterful” over time. You are smart, passionate, and committed – the students are lucky to have you. But you’ve also learned that there is no perfect in teaching and you can’t let it take over your whole life. Something about knowing you have to go in and face a group makes teaching take priority over everything else and you will learn how to be more efficient and leave time for other types of work and leisure. First year teachers (and university professors) are usually overwhelmed and spending way too much time getting on top of things. Later on, increasingly stronger teaching skills and “tricks” to save and find time help greatly in making things manageable. You are going to do great! Kathy

  11. As an ex President of our state teachers’ union here in Tasmania, what you are saying about the public’s attitude to teaching is exactly the message I spent years trying to get across to our government and the general public without much success. It’s an oldie but true that everyone thinks that because they once went to school they are experts on the subject. No one has this attitude to doctors and lawyers etc.

    I’m so pleased you didn’t resign – it WILL get easier and you WILL re-design your life accordingly. And you WILL be able to say at the end of your career that you made a worthwhile contribution to society and impacted positively on the lives of hundreds/thousands of students. That’s worth doing especially when you’re doing ity\ as well as you appear to be!

    1. Thank you Jean – it’s so true. Everyone thinks teachers have an easy life – so why aren’t they queuing up to do our jobs?! I hope it will get easier – thank you for your encouragement!

  12. I am in my mid 70s and still remember with gratitude and fondness the teachers who, like yourself, gave so much of themselves and made learning adventure. Lucky, lucky students to have such a teacher as you. I do hope that if you stay in teaching it will become easier for you as experienced teachers have already indicated.

  13. I’m glad you decided to stay. I taught for 3 yrs. in the early 1970s and I still think it was the hardest job I’ve ever had. Everything I’ve read here has made me think how lucky your students are. I personally think everyone should spent time as a retail store clerk, wait staff in a restaurant and as a teacher. There would be more empathy, understanding and support for all of us who are not corporate CEOs.

    1. Thank you Linda – I quite agree. I have gained quite a new perspective on the world since becoming a teacher, I have to say. Everyone should do it!

  14. Oh how I sympathise! I started teaching full time two years ago as well and it hasn’t always been easy. Recently I’ve been feeling a bit down in the mouth, thinking that I’m just wasting my time with kids who don’t give a damn about what I do. Your post has given my morale a much-needed boost – thank you!

    1. I’m glad I could give you a morale boost. These first few years are hard – but at least we all feel the same way and aren’t suffering alone!

  15. Dearest Rachel, what a heartfelt post this is, and how well it speaks for not only you, but, for all teachers these days. I have been to several events lately where both current and retired teachers have voiced your very same concerns and frustrations. In the current climate of numbers and test results, a public that has lost sight of why we teach children in the first place, and parents who, well, who do not see the whole picture in child rearing/educating (I learned a great deal from the failures in my life – the ones my parents let happen rather than rescue me at every corner) I know that a teacher’s task is a 24 hour a day proposition.
    You sum this up so well, to “never lose sight of the magic that is happening in my classroom each and every day. I make a difference.” I hope you keep on teaching, Rachel. You are just what the world needs right now.

    1. Thank you very much Penny – I know I am not alone and it makes me sad that teachers the world over are facing similar challenges. It is often a thankless job – but then those magical moments come along and make it all worthwhile. I appreciate your encouragement – it means a lot to hear such kind and supportive words!

  16. The first year is always the hardest. You will find ways to pace yourself without shorting the students. You will teach some of the same books that you had to read and study the first time. After you are established, you will not be under such intense scrutiny as you were this year. As for parent complaints, those always will happen. For every complaint there are many, many more compliments that you don’t hear. Complainers always make themselves. I have had some of the complainers come to me later to thank me for what I taught their child. I’m so glad you decided to stay. I believe you will be glad you did. This was a very honest post. Kids recognize and respect honesty.

    Oh, one thing I heard from parents who were trying to be unpleasant was, “I pay taxes in this district. I pay your salary.” I finally learned to answer, ” I pay taxes in this district too, so apparently I pay my own salary.” Fortunately that ended with both of us laughing and eventually solving or at least explaining the problem.

  17. I see that I am late to this party, but here’s my advice after 24 years teaching English and history in the U.S.

    1. The second year is light years away from the first. You’ll find the job so much easier in your second year, you won’t even recognize it. But if you’re not completely happy with the job after two years, you should move on to something else.

    2. You don’t have to grade everything your students do.

    3. You can change schools if the one you’re at isn’t working out.

    Congratulations on finishing your first year. The first one is the hardest.

    1. Thanks James – very wise advice! I think I am in it for the long run – I certainly want to be – so getting my work-life balance right is going to be key next year!

  18. Every time I read your blog, I think how lucky your students are to have you. I’m so glad you didn’t hand in your resignation, because you sound like an absolute asset to the profession. You are right to describe some of what we teachers have to do as ‘crap’ and your priorities are right: the students. Next year will be so much easier, I am quite sure! Best wishes. Caroline

  19. After reading this I’m going to make a point of thanking my son’s teacher for her work with him over the year. I hope that next year is better for you.

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