During the six weeks of Summer Institute – the crash course in teacher training all Teach First participants undergo – our tutors frequently told us that the next two years would be ‘the hardest experience of our lives’.
Truthfully, I became tired of hearing words to that effect over and over, that we ‘hadn’t really experienced failure before’, and in my stubbornness I refused to listen at first.
I had failed time and time again at university, taken charge of projects that fell apart, left my first degree, freezing up in class on an early York Students in Schools (YSIS) placement – to name but a few times.
These failures, though, do not compare to those I’ve experienced teaching. I often described university as a ‘safe space to fail’: to try new things, experiment, get it wrong and start over.
As a teacher it’s different. If my Year 10s do not pass their GCSEs in just over a year’s time, their whole lives will become just that little bit more difficult. For the first time in my life, my successes matter more than just to me, but to the 70 people who I’m responsible for.
And it is perhaps this weight of responsibility that began to paralyse me, make me think over and over again that I wasn’t good enough, that I shouldn’t be in this job, that I was failing my students. Yet, it is this mindset that I’ve learned is the self-fulfilling prophecy that threatens every new teacher.
Recently, being new to this profession was described to me as ‘running against Usain Bolt having never trained properly in your life’. I’m considered on a level playing field with those teachers who have twenty, thirty, or even more years experience under their belt.
I can’t simply create this experience out of thin air, I’ve got to live it. More importantly, I can’t judge myself for being twenty-two years old, in my first ever school, in my first teaching position, in my first graduate job!
Coming home at Christmas, for the first time in what feels like forever I did absolutely nothing for two weeks. Sure, it meant a little more stress on the first Monday back making sure I could actually remember how to teach (still a work in progress!), but that break helped me re-focus on the things that get me through this relentlessly challenging job.
It’s about smiling at that one student who understands, instead of shouting at the twenty-seven who don’t. It’s about forging those connections with your students so they want to work in your lessons in order to improve their lives for themselves.
Of course, I still fail on a daily basis, but these failures are not indicative of whether or not I am a ‘Good’ teacher. In Welsh, the word ‘dysgu’ means both ‘to teach’ and ‘to learn’.
I am not learning how to teach through Teach First; rather, I am learning how to learn. ‘The hardest experience of my life’ this may be, but it is not one I am prepared to give up.