For those of you who are fortunate enough to have found employment as a newly-qualified secondary teacher, whether it be temporary or permanent, your life has just changed in the most dramatic fashion. From this point on, everything will be judged (disproportionately) against what happened today at work or what is likely to happen when you see that class again, and the person your family and friends thought they knew will begin to change before their very eyes. Whatever your own expectations of teaching as a career, or however your own experiences of teachers have influenced your view of the world, nothing will have prepared you for the roller-coaster ride that is the life of a teacher.
Your new school will have welcomed you with open arms, as you are the life-blood of the profession, and from the headteacher’s point of view the most important personal characteristics of a newly-arrived probationer teacher are that they are well-organised, have a positive attitude towards their new role, and that in the longer term they are willing to think outside their subject department and make a contribution to the general well-being of the school and its community. The probationer must show a willingness to seek advice from more experienced members of staff, and be able to discriminate between good advice, tempered with a healthy scepticism, and that which is blatantly cynical. He or she must also be prepared to make mistakes, learn not to take them too personally, and develop as a professional by learning from them. Above all else, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, he or she must really want to be in the classroom, and enjoy spending a significant amount of time in the company of teenagers.
A common piece of advice given to newly-qualified teachers two or three decades ago was “wear your gown, as it will give you an air of authority even if you have not yet acquired it, use your belt effectively or not at all, and don’t smile till Christmas”. Times have changed a bit since then of course, and thank goodness, but the principles behind that advice still apply: be in control of yourself and your classroom; seek respect from pupils by showing respect unconditionally, and be consistent and fair in your actions; don’t be tempted to find quick acceptance by “being liked”, or allowing your pupils to dictate the parameters of behaviour in what is effectively your classroom, a space which you are inviting them to share with you on a temporary basis, and on your terms.
Being in control of the classroom means exactly what it says- making it clear that you, and you alone, will determine where pupils sit, that it may change from day to day or week to week, or even within the space of a lesson, that there are perfectly sound educational reasons for doing so, and that to separate someone by a few yards from their best friend for a short period of time is not a despicable act of cruelty.
Once that basic principle has been established, the responsibility for the management of classroom resources should be distributed amongst the pupils as widely as possible, as it is only through a sense of ownership that a collective and productive sense of purpose can be established.
There has been much debate over the years about the significance of the teacher’s personality in his or her effectiveness as a classroom practitioner, and you will sometimes hear those of us of an older vintage recall with a touch of nostalgia the teacher who could entertain the class by performing tricks with a leather tawse and a drawing pin, in much the same way that we are wont to talk about the “characters” who used to grace the fields of Scottish football before ending up drunk in a rowing boat in the middle of the Firth of Clyde, and when will we see their likes again.
This notion of personality, often illusory, was frequently used as a substitute for solid preparation and effective organisation, and had the dark shadow of corporal punishment lurking in the background if the audience wasn’t responding appropriately to the entertainment on offer. However, the fact remains that the teacher’s person or character is crucial to, and inseparable from, his or her development as a professional, and whether we like it or not, pupils’ memories of you as a teacher in years to come will be based not so much on what they were taught, as on the way they were treated as a human being.
As for the notion of respect, there has been much talk recently of the government’s “respect agenda”, which has tended to focus on punishing those who show an apparent lack of respect in their communities, in the belief that by doing so they will be made to be more respectful.
As far as the classroom teacher is concerned, it seems to me that respect from others is something which has to be earned over a period of time, but which you as a professional must demonstrate explicitly from day one. To continue to be respectful to a young person who undermines your authority, thwarts your every effort to be inclusive, and refuses to work with you, for reasons which will often be complex and outwith your control, is the challenge which will test your commitment to the limits. Nevertheless, in terms of the behaviour of the young people in front of you, and it will be rich and varied, you must take what you see as your starting point, accept that this is how it was when you met them, and begin to develop, shape and improve it. If you enter the classroom with a notion of how your students should behave, and focus on those who don’t live up to your expectations, you will be doomed to failure. However, if in the final analysis you have a clear sense of purpose and you really do want to be there, it is a challenge which will be well within your capabilities, and well worth the effort.
A version of this article was published in TES on 9 September 2005.