Experiences of a new teacher

This is one new teacher’s account of her first year as a newly qualified teacher in a tough school.

I teach at an inner-city secondary school, where sixty percent of students receive free school meals. Eight million was spent doing up the building, and the new rules said: no chewing gum. Soon, the brand new tables had layers of Wrigley’s and Juicy Fruit stuck to their undersides.

In my first lesson of my first year, a fight broke out between two students. They went for each other’s hair and throats. The whole class were out of their seats, crowding around the two girls. Senior management arrived to remove them from the lesson. In my first year of teaching I did not have a life during term time: I sat up til ten marking students’ work and planning the following day’s lessons.

The first morning back in my NQT year, eighty or so teachers gathered in the echoing dining hall, where Cecelia, the principal, welcomed us, announced the GCSE results, and congratulated us on the rise in attainment: 58% of students had got five or more GCSEs at grades between C and A*. The national average that year was 64%. Only 32%– about 60 students out of 200 or so achieved a C or above in English and Maths.

I knew the Year 10s were going to be a difficult group. They had been at this school longer than I had, which made me think that they know things I don’t. They were intimidating teenagers, predicted Es and Ds in their GCSEs.

One minute into the lesson, and the seating plan has fallen apart. ‘Miss, I don’t want to sit there. I can’t sit with her.’ They’re adamant, forceful: ‘No, I don’t care, I’m not sitting there!’ The students eye me up, arms folded, with a look of outright disdain. I distribute a poem, a stanza to each table. Chaos descends. All the five groups I am not with raise their voices in pandemonium. A few quieter students are attempting the task, but the loud majority make it difficult to hear anything. Every few minutes I strain to raise my voice above theirs and tell them to settle and quieten down, which they do, for a few seconds. Several separate conversations are going on while groups are trying to share their observations. I turn to the girls talking to each other and ask them to stop, explaining that it is rude to speak over other people. They turn back to each other and finish their conversation. Jamie is eating crisps. Group work was an unmitigated disaster. As the door closes behind them, they burst into loud laughter.

No gum is one rule: all lessons must have a learning objective is another, to tell students what skill to be developing. The other rule about lessons is they must be divided into three parts: a fun starter, main activity, and a plenary where students reflect.

‘Adalia, gum in the bin. Chantelle, why haven’t you started?’

‘Miss, can I borrow a pen?’

My box of biros, full at the beginning of term, had already evaporated. Half the Year 10 class needed a pen each lesson. I always forgot to collect them in, so would have to scrabble around on the floor to gather any that the students had been kind enough to leave with me. Scrambling around on the floor also gave me a chance to collect the wrappers and crisp packets they’d dropped once they’d finished surreptitiously eating the contents. I root around on my desk and find a pen for Chantelle.

Chantelle raises her hand.

‘Miss,’ she giggles, ‘have you seen what someone’s written here?’ She points at the desk. I look and see that someone has etched into the desk with a compass: ‘Your mum is a c**t.’ Shocked and annoyed, I instruct her: ‘Don’t tell the others.’

My energy was waning – there was a pile of unmarked homework in the tray on my desk, and I already felt ready for another week off. The Year 10 class didn’t go in for waiting quietly with their arms folded for me to give them an instruction. I had to bamboozle them with Powerpoint presentations and clips of film and music, instructions and tasks and performances. In terms of the pecking order within my class, there were several positions above mine. By being so purely unpredictable and unbothered by the rules, they made me dread each lesson, not knowing what their mood would be.

At the end of a lesson, I looked at the bin. It was overflowing with crisp packets. Drained of energy, I got on to the floor and started picking up the litter that hadn’t made it to the bin.

At home, I settled down for some marking. I noted it was taking me five minutes to mark each student’s work and therefore I would be finishing at ten. But then at 8.30 something strange happened: every muscle in my body hurt, and I suddenly had to crawl to bed, unable to do anything more.

At six o’clock on Wednesday morning I called in sick. I sat down morosely at my laptop to email in cover work, thinking how the poor cover teacher would be so abused by my classes. The students would trash the room. A supply teacher is a school providing students with a human sacrifice…

On my return, I braced myself. Lots of sheets of A4 lined paper were strewn about the place. Some students had obviously managed to write their names at the tops of their piece of paper, but not got any further. I removed the crisp packets stuffed into the cupboard at the back of the room. A pile of incident reports were on my desk:

“Folashade was drinking flavoured fizzy water in class. I asked her to put it away. She refused. I asked her again and she refused again, angrily. She charged at me, and had to be restrained by her classmates.”

“Erez came into class and immediately would not follow instructions or do anything co-operatively. She was given two warnings for refusing to take off her coat and take her bag off the desk. ‘What? What’s my bag doing to you? Is my bag hurting you?’ I tried to send her out of the classroom but she refused to go.”

I heard a piercing scream next door. I ran to the classroom, imagining a fight had broken out, but it was just a drama lesson. ‘It’s ok, they’re just doing drama next door.’ Everyone looked miserable. ‘Why are they always having fun?’ Princess stamped her foot. ‘Please could you take out a pen,’ I said. Rude, aggressive, and undermining, one pupil snarled: ‘Don’t start on me – I’m not in the mood.’ The same confrontation day in, day out.

The glory days with my Year 7s seemed to be drawing to a close. They were in their second term at the school and, after carefully observing the years above them, had started adopting some of their bad habits. They had grown loud. And the louder they grew, the less I enjoyed being in the classroom with them. They’d completely lost interest in hearing anything the rest of the class might have to say.

Day to day I could feel I was falling down a never-ending spiral of tiredness. So much of the time teaching the Year 11s I wanted to shake them and say, ‘Stop wasting time. You don’t know what you’re missing out on. Why won’t you do something about it?’ When your students fail to see something, it naturally feels like a failing on your part. Why wasn’t I a good enough teacher to make them work harder? How did Julia do it? Her students were orderly: she narrowed her eyes at them and they fell into silence. Why would they follow other people’s instructions but not mine?

The Year 7s were always at their worst on a Wednesday afternoon. They had history in the previous lesson, which was taught across the hallway by a long-term supply teacher. His door was closed, and so was mine, and the hallway lay between, and yet I could still hear them rioting in his room. As they surged from his class to mine, I braced myself. The class spent the hour not listening to me or each other. My voice was hoarse. I had no energy. I cannot keep them quiet, I thought: I have lost the will. I can’t do it. I can’t make them listen. Controlling disruptive behaviour was sapping my energy, and I felt, once again, I was having to fight my students in order to teach them. By half-term I was lying in bed with a temperature.

One lesson I asked my class to stay behind for a few minutes during break time – they’d easily wasted more time than that in the lesson. I had to ask: ‘Can you sit down, please, Becky – you’re wasting everyone’s break time.’ ‘That’s f**king extra,’ she shouted. ‘F**king shit. F**k you.’ She left, kicking her chair out of the way.

I rang her mum. I filled in the forms: the incident report and the record of the phone conversation with her mother. I passed the report to senior management, so that they could record what action they’d taken. The forms were returned to me. I stapled five copies of the phone record to five copies of the incident report and then spent five minutes in the staffroom finding the pigeonholes to post the copies to everyone involved in Becky’s care. Students rarely attended detentions, and then what? More phone calls home; more paperwork. I remembered that in my first year I’d tried to hold Becky back on a Friday for a detention. I’d gone down to the school gate to make sure she didn’t slip away. She saw me and ran for it. I called home, and then sat down and wrote another report on what had happened. My frustrations were increased tenfold by the feeling that there were no real consequences at my disposal for misbehaviour. Nothing ever seemed to really come of all this paperwork. There was no feeling that, as a teacher, I was being supported. It made me angry, but there was nothing I could do about it.

The Year 7s in particular seemed to be growing more and more challenging by the day. The students who had come up from primary school so well trained and able to listen to each other politely, had all turned into mini-volcanoes, spewing out noise. I tried to cut down on all evening activities, to preserve energy. God, I thought, I can’t imagine working where I am and also having children.

When I asked students about their lives at school, I heard experiences of being bullied on buses, bullied in the playground, mayhem, fights and disruption. Several students had attacked another outside of school.

With only two weeks to go before the holidays, I plodded through the lessons. The Year 7s were completely exhausting. Becky just sat graffitiing her exercise book. Mahima shredded her worksheet into small squares, which then fluttered down on to the floor. If I stuck to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, most of them would be out within the first few minutes of the lesson, if indeed they managed to make it into the classroom. ‘Good, I didn’t want to be in this stupid classroom anyway,’ many an evicted student uttered.

Teaching groups of thirty rowdy, disaffected teenagers with my lack of experience meant I couldn’t get enough control. But I also felt it was because the students were not schooled in the work ethic that they needed to make real progress. And every evening, hordes of cleaners tried to scrape gum out from between the grooves of the carpets in the classroom.

One lesson, I tried dazzling them with activities: freeze-frames, drama, improvisation, matching exercises, picking up the pace of the lessons in groups of four so that there was no time for the girls to start discussing their latest plans for hair extensions. Lessons had never been this fun!

Afterwards, out in the corridor, I heard shouting. I ran out and saw two of my students – a new girl and another – trying to rip hair from each other’s heads. I bellowed ‘What on earth do you two think you are doing? Rose, go and get on-call please . . . Everyone else to break.’ Adrenalin flew through my veins, and I deposited the two by this time hysterically crying girls in different classrooms. I felt a bit responsible. Had the chaotic lesson added to their agitation?

The next lesson, ‘Miss . . . why are the lessons back like this again?’ Folashade asked. ‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘Boring,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, Folashade, but we have to do some writing at some point.’

I returned home from school crying three evenings in a row. I was feeling trampled. The end of a lesson didn’t feel as though a stampede of elephants had run me down in the way it had in my first year, but the effort was still draining: the full timetable, an after-school club, the planning, the marking, the meetings and department responsibilities. Encounters with unfamiliar students still left me feeling battered and bruised. In a school of one thousand, there are a lot of students you don’t know and who don’t know you. It irritated me that, even if I did take the time to write up confrontations, nothing would come of it. I felt the school did not demand that students showed respect to the staff, and teachers had to pick and choose their battles. I worried that a large handful of my students would be fired if they ever managed to secure a job, because they wouldn’t see any problem in speaking to their employers in the way they addressed their teachers. I felt exasperation at the endless disruptive behaviour. I just couldn’t summon up the energy to be on top of my classes.

I still felt like I’d been run over at the end of each day. It was time to move on.





About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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15 Responses to Experiences of a new teacher

  1. John McKellar says:

    Any secondary school teacher in any working- class urban area will have experienced some of these feelings of impotence, exasperation, and certainly, exhaustion – and will have their own stories of disruptive, hostile students. But, my own 34 years in secondary schools, and this personal account, testify to the irrefutable need for strong, focused, supportive senior leadership, itself supported by an informed Governance,for schools to operate within its rules and learning culture. It inevitably boils down to leadership.

  2. verykleine says:

    Some years ago I worked in a secondary school in the UK and one day tired of seeing the floor littered I forced the students -to year 10- to pick up all the trash and put it in the bin. Then they could have gone home. They did it in five minutes.
    However the day after the year 10 leader told me not to do it again because “the school has cleaners”.
    I understood then why the school worth millions of pounds was constantly dirty.
    You know, in China pupils clean their own classroom. They have cleaners in the school but the students are taught to keep the school clean.
    Sometimes if you live in a tidy environment the mind is also tidy and calm.
    Thank you for your post!

  3. Beth Budden says:

    I’ve been teaching over 10 years now and I’m on secondment at a challenging school . Some of the behaviour rings true for the first few weeks of me taking on a class of six year olds! (I was there 5th teacher this year). I can see why NQTs and less experienced teachers might crash and burn. Not for the faint hearted.

  4. daveeckstrom says:

    Of course, I wasn’t there and there is probably a lot of missing context, but from the narrative quoted above, it seems to me that a lot of the conflicts that arose in this classroom were the result of the teacher picking the wrong battles.

    As a veteran teacher, there is no way I’m starting a conflict with an adolescent about where they sit, if they want to drink a fizzy water or chew gum or if there purse is on their desk or not. You have to know that administration is not going to have your back in those situations, nor are they critical to education. Starting those kinds of conflicts are a recipe for you losing the respect of the students, because they fail to show respect to them, as young adults. Focus on the right things and make your work more effective. Notice I did not say easier–there will still be lots of battles–but at least they won’t be silly and contrived.

    • John McKellar says:

      Dave, don’t forget we’re responding to the experiences of an NQT – where was the mentoring support that ought to have been in place? And in any case, she wants to establish values in her classroom that indicate a difference between the learning context and what students need to know to leave outside the school gates. The little differences are important – gum, drinks, clutter, whatever, – if they’re required to be set aside, they should be set aside. Adolescence is no excuse for disobedience. Respect is not derived through acquiescence to the whims of one’s students. She ought not to have these battles to face in the first instance – the school has failed to establish a culture of respect, to have rules and their subsequent behaviours embedded and discipline is quite obviously wanting. The exam results clearly indicate that the school is failing its students and this must surely be largely due to a lack of a learning culture. I therefore reiterate my earlier premise that senior management is not taking responsibility, never mind departmental, or middle- management support systems!

      • daveeckstrom says:

        Ah. I read more closely and figured out why this seems like a whiny complaint to me. It’s a cultural thing.

        The acronym NQT was a clue for me. I teach in the states and the very notion of a special class of teacher that receives mentoring support, etc. is not part of our experience at all. Teachers here are on their own from the very beginning of their careers and usually the newest teachers get the most difficult students.

        The idea that students littering, chewing gum, sitting where they want and drinking fizzy water in the classroom is a serious problem is a joke, to me. Those are battles the teacher (in the US) can never win, and therefore should not engage. They don’t pick their pens and litter off the floor because they don’t have to at home. They chew gum and drink fizzy water when they want because they do it at home. Making arbitrary classroom rules that are disrespectful of students home backgrounds will not foster a culture of respect and the teacher will immediately have to fall back on his or her position of authority to enforce them. When administrators do not back the teacher on these nonsense rules (as they never would in the US) the teacher has just established her position in the pecking order somewhere below every kid who chewed gum and subsequently had that behavior validated by the school administration. It will be a long road back to respect from that position.

        The word “obedience” is not a word that any teacher I know in the US would ever use in the context of the classroom. We just don’t think that way. We talk about behavior in terms of choices and consequences. Respect must be earned, not declared by virtue of an authoritative position.

    • Peritract says:

      What would you have suggested she do?

      Should she have ignored the chewing? Should she have ignored the defiance?

      • daveeckstrom says:

        I don’t think you are understanding me.

        Of course, once you make a dumb rule (like no gum chewing), you have to enforce it. Once you make an assigned seating chart, you have to enforce it.
        My point is . . . don’t make the dumb rules in the first place, then you’ll have one less classroom management problem to deal with. It’s hard enough being an effective teacher without spending your time fighting silly battles like gum chewing that have nothing to do with learning.

  5. John McKellar says:

    Dave, the classroom culture you describe is just not acceptable in the UK. Of course, the very concept of ” teacher ” is different between the US & the UK. I believe you are only expected to deliver the curriculum and all else is dealt with by the ” administration “. In the UK the
    ” administration ” generally consists of office staff who deal with day – to – day minor issues ( larger schools might employ a business manager to manage the budget ). Teachers in the UK are responsible for the care, welfare, emotional needs of their students as well as their learning –
    ( what stressed, unhappy child will be capable of learning, after all? ). Over the years my experience of visiting students’ homes, counselling parents, dealing with students’ personal issues is quite typical. So, your pejorative language ” dumb ” ” silly rules ” is simply misplaced in the UK context – because we operate as teachers within the legal requirement of loco parentis, we have a different relationship with our students to the one you advocate. Our mores, classroom culture and school ethic perpetuate the expectation that school is not to be equated with one’s home environment – students leave whatever bad language, bad behaviours, bad attitudes that may be acceptable within their home environments outside the school gates – or they face consequences. That’s how it is! Schools that fail to deal with disruption, unacceptable behaviours, are judged as either needing to improve or failing, at which point senior management should be concerned about keeping their jobs. Now, given the image of your classroom culture and laissez- faire acceptance of student behaviours, thank goodness I work in the UK.

    • daveeckstrom says:

      Yes, our disagreement here likely has a lot to do with cultural differences, but I still wish to address a few points.
      (1) “Teachers in the UK are responsible for the care, welfare, emotional needs of their students” Um, no you aren’t. If you have been made to believe that that stuff is your responsibility, you’re being set up for failure. While they are in your classroom, obviously their safety is your responsibility, but unless you teach in a boarding school, that other stuff you mention is parenting, not teaching and cannot be accomplished in the time frame of the school day.
      (2) “what stressed, unhappy child will be capable of learning, after all?” Well, obviously no one with a bit of common sense would argue that, but I fail to understand how not allowing a student to chew gum or drink water in class reduces stress and increases happiness.
      (3) “Schools that fail to deal with disruption, unacceptable behaviours . . .” Wait a minute, now, Mr Strawman. I’ve never said that “disruption and unacceptable behaviours” should not be dealt with. I’ve merely said that picky rules like no gum chewing and assigned seating, etc. are set-ups for unnecessary conflict and should be avoided.
      (4) “given the image of your classroom culture and laissez- faire acceptance of student behaviours” So, I guess I’m not the only one who can use “pejorative language”. My phrase for “laissez-faire acceptance of student behaviours” is “respect for other human beings”. Are my students immature and in need of some social and behavioral guidance while in my care? Of course! And that is an important part of my job. Are they to be told that the way they were raised and the mores of their family are wrong because I’m a middle-aged white guy who doesn’t like chewing gum and prefers a tidy classroom? NO! I do not believe that to be proper for any educator.

      I stand by my original point, which is that rules that have nothing to do with student achievement are the source of many pointless and unproductive classroom conflicts that rob students and teachers of valuable learning time.

      • John McKellar says:

        1. Yes we are. You seem to have ignored our duty of loco parentis. Besides, there are teacher responsibility posts specifically aimed at the welfare and emotional needs of the students. I’m tempted to ask ” What do you know?”
        2. You’re missing the point by deliberately ignoring the bigger picture.
        3. What’s with Mr Strawman? Again, you seem to find it difficult to differentiate between your definition of ” picky rules ” and what is deemed well- mannered acceptable behaviours in our classrooms.
        4. No pejorative intent but the culture you describe set against our standards, would rightly be described as laissez- faire. Students can be whoever they wish to be in their own homes, but in school, the expectation is that they conform to the culture and ethos that is laid down.

        Best to leave it at that. I wish you and your students good things.

      • daveeckstrom says:

        (1) What do I know? I know you’re a fool if you’ve allowed someone to burden you with the responsibility of parenting 30 kids that you only have contact with for 1/3 or fewer of their waking hours. Name it by any Latin phrase you want, but it’s still nuts.
        (2) “Ignoring the bigger picture”? I’m talking about creating a productive classroom culture of mutual respect. What picture could possibly be bigger than that, in a school setting?
        (3) You are correct. This is mostly a matter of where we draw our lines in the sand with our students. Having said that, I remain unconvinced that the issues this teacher is complaining about are even important for socialization–do adults in the UK not chew gum or drink water on the job? Are they not allowed to have their purses on their desks at work? And they are certainly not critical for learning.
        (4) laissez-faire literally translates as “leave alone” and its common usage relates to allowing things to take their own course without interfering. This is why your argument is a strawman. I have never advocated for such a classroom environment. Obviously, the teacher has responsibilities related to setting and maintaining culture and dealing with unproductive behavior. The contrary has never been my point. I’m saying, if your rules aren’t logically derived from the best interests of the learners in your room, but for your own comfort as an adult, they WILL be challenged and you WILL waste valuable time upholding them, with no benefit to the students or the learning culture.

  6. Katy Wise says:

    It is implied in your blog post that you do not have support available to you in your work place for the issues you are facing. It is suggested that Newly Qualified Teachers experience a more positive development of their teaching role when a school has a good co-operation culture to allow members of staff to be supported by their colleagues (McNally et al., 2008), and that an absence of this can contribute to the decision for leaving the role (Engvik, 2014).

    Engvik, G. (2014) ‘The importance of networks for newly qualified teachers in upper secondary education’, Educational Research, 56(4), pp.453-472.
    McNally, J., Blake, A., Corbin, B., and Gray, P. (2008) ‘Finding an Identity and Meeting a Standard: Connecting the Conflicting in Teacher Induction’, Journal of Educational Policy, 23(3), pp.287–298.

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