Just over twenty-five years ago, in September 1996, I embarked on my teaching career. It was a different world. The Spice Girls had just released their first album, Tamagotchis were all the rage, and social media was still many years away. I was one of three NQTs at my school and our induction programme consisted of being shown how to use the photocopier. I remember asking my head of department if there was a staff handbook. Her face clouded. ‘Don’t expect to find that kind of thing here,’ she warned me. ‘They might have them at some schools, but we do things differently.’
My headteacher at the time had a very clear vision of my future. I should be aiming high, he said. I could be a head of English by the time I was 30, a deputy head by 35, and a headteacher by 40. I had other ideas. My long-term plan was to teach for a couple of years and then go back to university to do postgraduate work. But long-term plans, as we all know, rarely come to fruition. There are many reasons why, but the main one was that I enjoyed teaching too much. So I stayed on as a teacher, did a PhD part-time, and a quarter of a century later, I’m still here.
A milestone like twenty-five years might seem like an appropriate time to reflect on a teaching career. Other times for reflection might include hinge points such as applying for a new post, or as part of performance management. I’d argue, though, that if these are the only times we engage in this kind of reflection, we’re getting it wrong. Teaching is both immensely tough and immensely important. Reflecting on what we’re doing – what’s going well and what could be done differently – is something that has obvious short-term benefits, but it’s also a vital part of keeping us engaged with our lives in the classroom in the longer term.
There are many questions that this kind of reflection might involve. Some are linked to formal targets, such as how we can gain the skills required to secure a promotion, or what kind of CPD we need in order to fulfil a particular objective. Others, however, are more personal. I’m going to focus on the latter, and suggest four things that I think we should consider on a regular basis.
What are your core practices and values, and are you able to enact these in what you do each day? As an English teacher, I want my students to be open-minded, to read carefully, and to ask questions. In my department we’ve worked hard to build a curriculum that helps students to find their own voices and teaches them to look below the surface of things. Amidst the noise of externally-imposed targets and the endless churn of new initiatives, it helps to remind yourself of what’s most important to you in order to maintain your sense of authenticity.
What have you enjoyed most about your teaching recently? Tackling that difficult topic with your students, and seeing them finally get it? Witnessing their creativity and persistence? Approaching something in a different way? Teaching a unit of work that’s completely new to you? We put so much energy into our job and we deserve to get something back. What have you got a real buzz out of lately?
Where are your sources of support? Teacher wellbeing is only just starting to get the kind of attention it deserves. In a profession that can be physically and psychologically draining, it’s important to feel that there are people you can turn to for help, whether these are trusted colleagues, mentors or line managers. Think beyond your individual school, too. Tapping into professional networks – through subject associations or on Twitter – can help you to feel less isolated, as well as giving you fresh perspectives and enabling you to bounce ideas off colleagues in other settings.
What kind of difference are you making? Because you will be making a difference, somewhere. You’ll be the most significant adult in the lives of some of your students, outside of their own families. You’ll be giving a child the confidence they need to persevere with something tricky, opening the door to a career they’d never considered before, helping them to feel less alone, modelling healthy relationships and acting as a role model. Never underestimate the significance of these interactions: they may seem small, but they all add up.
Teaching has changed enormously since 1996. The pace is relentless, and there are challenges that we could never have predicted back then. If we’re going to cope with those challenges, we owe it to ourselves to stay grounded and remind ourselves why it is that we do what we do.