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Settling into school life: A secondary school teacher's guide for thriving in your first year as a teacher

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female scondary school teacher at the front of the classroom

As part of our series on newly qualified teachers, Myffy Cairns, a secondary school teacher and recent NQT shares her top tips for making the most of your first year as a teacher. 

Tackling the first year nerves

Congratulations on entering your first year of teaching! No matter what route you have taken to get to this point or how much summer preparation you have done, the nerves will most definitely be kicking in for the new school year.

I trained through Teach First five years ago and can only describe the first year as a whirlwind. Balancing time between planning, marking, behaviour, staff meetings, open evenings, tutor time and parents’ evenings can be a real challenge - it was definitely a steep learning curve.

Starting out any new job or profession is always going to be daunting so here are a few tips to help you address those challenges.

Photograph of Myffy Cairns

Settling into school life

  • Make sure that you know the timings for the school day. Every school has slightly different timings and I am guilty of sometimes telling pupils to pack up ten minutes before the bell is due to go - a very awkward ten minutes. I now print out a copy of the timings of the day and stick into my planner and on my desk.
  • Know where to get support. Your mentor is a good place to start and I was hugely supported by my school, university and Teach First mentor in my first year. I used to write a list of questions each week to bring up in my mentor meetings which allowed us to make really efficient use of our time in meetings. Another great way to get support is from fellow NQTs in the school and to meet up and debrief from the day. Create a social media group and arrange regular meet-ups to share advice and funny stories.

Work-life balance

  • Make sure you set yourself limits. It was easy for me to fall into the trap of working 7 days a week at first. You need to decide what working hours suit you and follow them to ensure you’re well rested to be able to tackle the days, weeks and terms ahead. I write a to-do list every day and add things you haven’t done that day to tomorrow’s to-do list. You need to be at your best for the students to get the best out of their education from you.
  • Include things you enjoy into your plans. Whether you enjoy an evening of Netflix, dinner with friends or trying a new hobby, give yourself time to do that. I play netball every week in a local league which completely takes my mind off work.
  • Always speak to someone when you are feeling stressed. Teaching can be a stressful profession and it is ok to acknowledge when several deadlines have got on top of you. I always tried to be proactive about this and speak to someone before the deadline approaches so they can come up with strategies to support me.

Settling into teaching practice

  • Be clear on the school routines and apply them consistently. Do you want students to line up outside the classroom or walk straight in and get on with the task? Students thrive off routines, make sure these are consistent.
  • Don’t be afraid to be repetitive. It is good to try new things and mix things up a little but for your sanity and planning there are certain aspects of a lesson that can be the same. For example, quiz at the start of the lesson and mini plenaries throughout the lesson.
  • Steal as much as you can. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Use the school resources, local hubs and existing curriculum plans. If your school doesn’t have a good bank of resources, you can find lots of quality assured teaching resources online.

Final thoughts

When you start it can be overwhelming to focus on everything at once. Every half term I would set myself three new challenges and reflect on their success at the end.

These may be things such as learning the names of everyone in my classes, following up on all behaviour, making a positive relationship with one particular student, dedicating just 2 and a half hours a week to marking or reading a particular book.

Another thing you can be certain of in your first year of teaching is that you are going to be challenged and tested. But fortunately, you can quickly overcome these challenges and experience the highs of success.

I was given a very challenging class in my first year of teaching and tried several different techniques to keep lessons engaging.

I was approached by an excited parent at parents’ evening thanking me for all the work I put in to improve her son’s confidence. This was one of the best moments in my first year of teaching and there have been plenty more in subsequent years that remind me what we do is worthwhile.

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