When I started my first teaching post in 1995, I was bloody awful. I think I got the job in a rather challenging Birmingham School simply because I showed up. No one came to observe me until the January – when a nice Ofsted Inspector walked through the door and left giving me a “satisfactory” judgement. I was made up.
I spent two and a half years at that school and in many ways it built me. When I think back I cannot remember a single quality assurance activity – not observed, not learning walked, no books were checked; I had my coursework moderated and if I had a problem there were plenty of professionals around to support me. Of course, I had lots of problems – I was inexperienced and the school was tough.
My department was amazing; every single person was dedicated, intelligent and creative. We even wrote some teacher resource books together. I still have them and I still occasionally use them. But most of all they were patient, they knew I would get my act together and that breathing down my neck would make me resentful and suspicious. The CPD I experienced simply through going down the pub with them and chatting was amongst the best I’ve ever had.
And now, twenty-odd years later, I think of the head that appointed me occasionally. I was rather scathing of him then, wandering the school with a mobile phone and lurking behind open doors listening to lessons. Now, I cannot believe he agreed to two of his NQTs driving a lorry of aid to Bosnia that first summer holiday; he asked me to lead the Literacy Policy working party in my first term and I overheard him referring to me as “a bloody good appointment.” Back then he was a head and therefore Other.
There was no way my PGCE prepared me for me job and I still think my PGCE was brilliant. Our tutors were passionate, intelligent and accomplished, it included a wide range of experiences and, when I struggled, they took me out and fed me, reminding me I had potential. A nine month long course, even with substantial school placements, could never have prepared me for what I faced. I needed that first job in Birmingham and a couple more after that with different types of cohorts, to make me good. I needed unconditional support and belief from my elders, trust from my bosses and the space to make mistakes.
With hindsight, I can reflect on the journey that has made me both the teacher and the leader that I am becoming. In education, we are always becoming. In the same way my PGCE barely scratched the surface of how to teach, my NPQH was great but bears little resemblance to being a headteacher.
This is why I would advocate for much longer and kinder routes into teaching. Everyone should have the experience of properly working in an experiencing different age phases, mainstream and special/alternative, schools in challenging circumstances as well as those more ‘leafy’ and affluent. Every different setting can provide new perspectives, develop new skills and help professionals find their way. Giving them time to learn, to make mistakes and to become is important – I benefitted from it and I’m still here.
At the start of my career I probably would have been too intimidated to work in a special school, or a pupil referral unit, or a school with lots of EAL children – and how many choose what sounds like a more difficult path in these days of minute by minute accountability? Yet over the years I have tried each sector and found delight from working with these children – how many more teachers are out there, a perfect fit for schools outside comfortable/easy schools but would never take a risk because of the implications of it being a wrong turn? We have a responsibility to make it less risky.
Too many are being thrown in the deep end and are expected to be outstanding in no time at all. Failing your NQT year means you don’t ever come back – sometimes with more incentives for rushed school mentors to let people fail, throw them away, and look to replace with someone even newer who may be fantastic without as much support.
Still inexperienced, they are being welcomed into leadership posts with incredible pressures; when they can’t cope or struggle to magic up overnight improvements they listen to their peers in different industries and vote with their feet. Is it a surprise that this is one of the largest demographics of professionals we are failing to retain?
I am not advocating a lowering of standards. Standards will rise if professionals remain, develop, grow and invest in all children that need them. I think a kinder, longer and more varied approach to teacher training, with the emphasis on initial teacher training, will support the recruitment and retention of teachers.