Seven things you didn't know about being a teacher after uni
Teach First isn’t all colouring in and cutting and sticking.
You might be experiencing “second year fear” and wondering what to do after you graduate, especially during the current lockdown. That was me five years ago (minus the pandemic) when I decided to apply for the Teach First grad scheme. After seeing the one hundredth flyer around university campus, I decided to visit a careers fair, and nervously make small talk with the Teach First rep whilst trying to envisage myself as a “Miss” in front of a class of little humans. I’d always known I wanted to work with children and could never picture myself in an office job wearing high heels. Like every English undergrad, I’d been asked by countless friends’ parents if I was “planning to become a teacher” when I graduated. So, when the day came to toss my mortarboard skyward, I thought why not give it a go.
Like many others, I found the two-year programme immensely challenging but also incredibly rewarding. It also fuelled me with countless hilarious stories for small talk at parties. Like the time a child brought his Mum’s sex toy in for “bring in a toy day”. Or the time when we acted out The Three Little Pigs and the children got so invested in the story that they were convinced they had seen the pigs running around the playground at lunchtime. After two years of getting up at 6am to ice my car and drive to school like an actual grown-up, I learnt that it wasn’t for me in the long term.
But I don’t regret doing it and I learnt a huge amount. So, here are my seven lessons I learnt during Teach First to help you decide if it’s the right move for you.
1. I don’t want to stay in teaching
I loved parts of my job as a primary school teacher, but I discovered that I wanted to go on to further study and train to become an educational psychologist. It was working with the children with special needs who struggled to read, write or socialise, and not teaching the Matildas of the class how to do long multiplication, that I found most satisfying. Whilst this means that I won’t be staying in teaching, I wouldn’t have learnt about educational psychology, or had the necessary experience to be able to train without Teach First. This leads onto my next lesson…
2. You’re not going to be “Miss Honey”
When applying for any grad scheme, it’s difficult not to envisage what it’s going to be like, where you’re going to live, what the day to day job will entail, what you’re going to do when you’ve finished… I pictured myself as a “Miss Honey” style teacher, working in a school in London and living with old friends. However, the reality was working in a school in Coventry and living with strangers.
3. You could end up moving somewhere unexpected
When you apply, you rank where you’d like to live ideally, because Teach First places participants anywhere geographically. But, ultimately, you’ll end up wherever there is most need for new teachers. That means, it is probably unlikely to be the nice university city you’ve been living in for the past three years. As much as you might talk to teachers beforehand, or even Teach First ambassadors, everyone’s experience is different. You might be working in a three-form inner city school that is rated “Good”, or a small village school rated “Special Measures”. Whilst you have a six week training period in the summer filled with role play scenarios, work placement, and lectures, ultimately nothing can really prepare you for what it will be like six weeks later when you are standing in front of 30 children or teenagers waiting for you to teach them.
4. Good teaching is ¼ preparation and ¾ theatre
Throughout the programme, I learnt that you can be the most organised and prepared teacher, but children are unpredictable and lessons will almost always end up not being how you expected. This is one of the best parts of working with young people; your day is never boring or predictable. I recently read a quote by Gail Godwin that perfectly summarises a day in the life of a teacher: “good teaching is ¼ preparation and ¾ theatre”. Teach First has certainly taught me the importance of being a creative and spontaneous thinker, and how sometimes this is more important than preparation, planning and expecting.
5. It's the people, not the place, that matter
When I applied to Teach First, I had ranked London, South West, and then West Midlands – assuming that, if it was the latter, I would end up in Birmingham. I ended up moving to Coventry, somewhere I had never visited before. Whenever I told anybody about my move they said “Ah! You’re being SENT to Coventry! Poor you!”. I had to Google why everybody kept telling me this, and found out that the meaning was “to deliberately ostracise someone”. It originated from the Civil War when soldiers were sent to Coventry as a punishment. Not the best first impression.
It certainly took time to adjust to moving to a new city, without the safety net of university which provides you with hundreds of similar aged and like-minded individuals. However, it felt exciting to be doing something different to the majority of my friends who had moved to London. Whilst there was certainly less on offer in Coventry than London, I learnt to discover places for myself which felt more satisfying than living in a city where I knew lots of people and places already. My main take-away from the programme was that it’s really not the place that matters, but the people. I met some beautiful people on the programme, and we supported each other through a challenging two years. Whilst some have stayed in Coventry, and others have dispersed across the UK and abroad, I know that we will remain friends for life.
6. Be present
In my final year of school, I was always thinking about university. During university, I was always thinking about my job. Then it got to the job. It’s very easy in teaching to constantly count down the days until the next holiday. It was common to greet colleagues in the morning with “two days until the weekend!” or “55 days until the summer holidays!”. One colleague even had an app on her phone that counted down the days until the next holiday.
This quickly made me feel like I was wishing my life away, and stopped me from noticing the small things in my life that I loved, and really being present in those moments of simple pleasures. I realised I’d been treating my life as a treadmill: get through school exams, get a university degree, get a job. After this realisation I found that, although Teach First was a difficult programme, by being present each day I noticed how the small, little things in my life outweighed the overarching difficulties of the programme.
7. Practice what you preach
It was about half way through my first year when the irony hit me. I was teaching a growth mindset lesson to 28 six year olds, and they were giving me fantastic examples of what encouragement they’d give to a child who was struggling: “F A I L stands for First Attempt In Learning”, “Don’t give up until you are proud” or “It’s okay to not know, but it’s not okay to not try”. I was so impressed by how quickly they had taken on this ethos, and how you would actually overhear them using these phrases to encourage their friends in lessons and on the playground.
This was a mindset I’d taught to them, but I’d still find myself worrying over that slightly lower mark in my education essay than I’d anticipated, or that one negative comment on an observation feedback form, or how I still didn’t know how to teach long multiplication effectively… The list was endless, but the irony was evident; I needed to start practising what I was preaching and adopt a growth mindset to my own learning.
If I could give my 21 year old self one piece of advice, I’d remind myself that nothing is permanent – two years will go by in a flash. So, make the most of each day of new experiences, and savour it.
Image from Pinterest.