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Chocolate sponge and custard: a year in the life of an NQT September 3, 2010

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in Independent Education.
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Esther Spence has been an English NQT at Stockport Grammar School. She kindly contributed the article below for the forthcoming autumn issue of Conference and Common Room – due at schools up and down the country next week.

Esther Spence: no longer an NQT

Pulse racing. Palms sweating. Eyes surrounding me, staring. Silence.

Not a clichéd scene from a horror movie but my first lesson on my first day as an NQT. Far from feeling powerful and qualified, I felt the weight of responsibility hit me: I am their teacher and they expect me to have the answers.

Lessons on that first day were a blur of new faces and repeated phrases: my name, my expectations and a fun ‘breaking the ice’ name game. By lunchtime, I felt like I had made some progress, but that was before I had to face the dining room. Alone.

Hundreds of bright-eyed, excited children who knew the ropes; struggling to recognise a face on the staff table; feeling nostalgic for my own school days when faced with the chocolate sponge and custard. It was weeks before I managed to enjoy my lunch or even be conscious of what I was scoffing in between teaching, marking and planning.

Friday – library duty day – loomed on the first week’s to-do list. How will pupils react to an unknown member of staff when I tell them to be quiet? Will the I-smile-but-don’t-cross-me approach I have in the classroom translate to this environment? It did and still does. Now that I know a lot of the pupils, I enjoy talking (in whispers) to sixth-formers about what they are reading in preparation for university interviews or prospective courses and hearing enthusiastic reading suggestions from the younger years.

As the days turned into weeks and the weeks flashed into months, lessons, duties and even the dining room became a part of everyday life. But nothing became more entrenched in my routine than marking. PGCE was hard and filled with paperwork, but nothing could prepare me for the sight of three classes’ piles of homework – 75 A4 red books – sitting on my desk.

As I sat behind them, I felt as if I was barricading myself from the world, hiding in my own encampment of white, lined pages full of blue and black squiggles. Words have always been my forte; logic has not and no matter how hard I tried, I did not seem able to devise a system whereby I could walk to my car without needing a shopping trolley to carry my marking. I soon realised why my teachers had been so adamant that their pupils should ‘read every comment’ and I hear myself repeating that stock phrase to my Year 9 after I had devoted the previous evening to annotating their Lord of the Flies essays.

Arduous though it may sometimes seem, it is through marking that I can most effectively evaluate my developing practice. The ‘Reflective Thinking’ sheets used on my PGCE were all well and good, but it is when I had marked ‘enjambment’ spelled in a number of inventive ways that I made a mental note to check spellings of key terms; or, when my Year 10 wrote about Carol Anne Duffy’s poem Valentine, that we spent 20 minutes revising analytical essay style.

I think this has been one of my biggest learning curves – teaching is a continuous process where you have as much to learn (when you look at it from my perspective, anyway) as you have to teach, and this is where the fellow members of my department have been invaluable.

Initially, I was reluctant to admit any areas of uncertainty to them: I was desperate to impress because they had picked me above others and I never wanted to be deemed a bad choice. As a result, I remember spending hours poring over exam specifications so as to seem as up-to-speed as they were and cringing as I heard myself say things like: “Too much marking? No! I enjoy doing it!”

Luckily for me, my colleagues were good at force-feeding me the advice I needed, knowing that I had subjected myself to an information hunger strike. All of a sudden, a new dimension of teaching opened up when folders of worksheets and PowerPoints landed on my desk and in my inbox with notes attached like: ‘I noticed you are teaching Lord of the Flies. Are these any use?’ Suddenly, I was not only able to invent something other than the wheel at weekends, but could be useful by sending my own lovingly produced resources off around the office in response.

Being able to contribute in this small way gave me the confidence to pipe up at department meetings and undertake more responsibility. After a residential trip to Belfast with a group of pupils participating in the Model United Nations, I organised two theatre trips, both of which were a great success, and came back with a huge sense of pride at having managed to negotiate the risk assessment procedure.

Buoyed by my growing confidence, I took a house assembly and was surprised and delighted when the pupils clapped after I had finished speaking. I feel as though I have achieved a huge amount in a small space of time and, now that I am a part of the school, I will look out for NQTs on their first day in September and recommend the chocolate sponge and custard.

Newly qualified Teachers and other entrants into teaching is the fourth book in the Leading Schools of the 21st Century series, published by John Catt Educational in partnership with the HMC and Independent Schools Council Teacher Induction Panel.

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