It’s 1997, and you’re about to start your teaching career. In May, as you were completing your PGCE, Tony Blair led the Labour Party out of 18 years of opposition to win the General Election on a ticket of “education, education, education”; that night and the day after, anything felt possible. It’s the summer holidays now; you’ll be reading a newly published book for children called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to see if it will make a good class reader. It will for a year – but then everyone will have read it. The day before you start at school, Princess Diana will die in a car crash in Paris and her death will dominate the country in your first nervous weeks in the classroom.
I am writing to you now from sixteen years later. A lot has changed; but much is still the same. Children are still children. They still need help to handle the challenges thrown at them, be they academic, social, personal, or political. Your help. As you go through your career, try to remember:
Do what you know is right
There will be a lot of fads and fashions in teaching. You will be in the vanguard of the National Literacy Strategy in a pilot school. You will have training on philosophy for children. There will be timetabled lessons for Building Learning Power. You will be encouraged to do Brain Gym to wake up your learners’ minds. You will be given a folder containing nine Thinking Maps to use, forsaking all others. Some of this stuff is good. Some of it is hogwash. Instinctively, you will know which is which. Trust your instinct.
Make your own patchwork
You will work with brilliant – and I mean really brilliant – teachers. You will see them teach and envy the ease with which they command respect, obtain silence, and achieve astonishing results. You will try to copy them in your own classroom. Don’t. You can’t teach like them, you can only teach like you. But borrow this from that colleague, that from another. That was a really good way of dealing with a confrontation, so use that. That was a great way of explaining that idea – borrow it. Magpie ideas and techniques from everyone, everywhere, and stitch them all together into a style which works for you.
Don’t stand still. You need to keep developing, keep pace, keep learning. Each class is different, so you’ll have to re-plan every time you teach, even if it’s the same unit as last year. This is worth the effort! You’ll feel really happy in each school you work in, but the same will be true of the next one too, if you choose wisely. You’ll know when the time is right to move on, and the experience of working in different contexts with different structures will make you a better teacher.
Schools are communities. What makes them is not the lessons, but what goes on beyond and between. Get involved. Play staff football, badminton, squash. Join the bands. Help out with – even direct – the school productions. Go on the trips to Alton Towers. Walk in the hills. Supervise the queues. Eat in the dining hall. Start a creative writing magazine. These are the things that will make it worth while.
Surround yourself with radiators
John Tomsett talks about ‘sunshine’: “people who like children and have the deep-rooted commitment to doing all they can to provide them with the best education possible. You know, radiators rather than drains.” These people will enrich your career, your teaching, and your life. You will meet some drains too, of course, but don’t get sucked in. And avoid torturing metaphors, if you can.
Technology will change faster than you can, but try to keep up. Don’t jump on every bandwagon, though: trollies of laptops are not a good investment. Twitter is good though. It won’t make any sense to you yet, but it will. It will. Where technology can make a difference in your classroom, embrace it with open arms. Where it’s more complicated and the technology seems to be the end in itself, rather than the means, don’t bother.
Every child matters
That phrase will become meaningless through repetition after 2003, but try to take it to heart every day. Every class is mixed ability. You’ll be thrilled by those at the top end whose work soars and whose enthusiasm is incendiary. You’ll work hard to meet the needs of those at the bottom end so that they can access your lessons and achieve. But remember that every child in that room needs and deserves your attention equally. Every child is exceptional. Plan for it.
Keep your priorities straight
Teaching is the best job in the world. You will continue to love it throughout your career. But it is only part of your world, so make time for the rest and don’t let school take over.
Collaborate, don’t compete
External influences will try to force you to compete. Come exam results time you will be asked to check your residuals against your colleagues, your department against others, and your school’s results against your neighbours. You will compete for applications from primaries and into the sixth form, and for staff. Please don’t forget that this is counter-productive. This isn’t a race judged by who crosses the line first, but by how well everybody gets there. Share freely, willingly and widely. Give your time to others. Ask for advice, and give it when asked. Work together with colleagues within and beyond your school.
It’s worth it
Teaching is hard. Really hard. You’ll have plenty of times – you’ll lose count – where you will survey a paper-strewn classroom after a disaster of a lesson with your plan in tatters and your tolerance at zero. In these moments, more than ever, you will value your colleagues who will pick you up and dust you down – go and find them. Tell them all about it. They’ve been there too. Children have short memories, and every lesson is a chance to start again. Keep at it. It’s worth it.
There’s so much more I could say. I’m jealous of the journey you have ahead of you, the experiences you are going to have. But I am also excited at what the future holds for me in the next sixteen years and beyond.