My first year as a primary teacher

In her first year as a primary school teacher in a busy state school, Sophie Markham* learned a lot about children, parents, the education system and herself…

On the last day of the summer term lots of children had made me cards and when I read the first one I burst into tears. It was from a boy who had been shy and quiet at the start of the year, and inside his mum had written: ‘You’ve helped him blossom and become the person he is now. I can tell that teaching isn’t just a job for you. It’s your life, and we’re so grateful.’ It was the sweetest thing.

Teacher training

I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. It runs in my family: all four of my grandparents were teachers, so it seems natural to me. It hasn’t been easy, though. I’m dyslexic and I struggled at school to get high enough grades to go to university, so I’m amazed I’ve made it this far.

After finishing my degree, I had to take professional skills tests to demonstrate my competence in numeracy and literacy before I could qualify as a teacher. I found it very stressful because you’re only allowed to retake them twice. I passed my literacy first time and numeracy third time, by the skin of my teeth. It nearly killed me.

My first proper teaching job

In the autumn term after I qualified, I got some work covering for a teacher who was ill. I only expected to be there for a couple of weeks, but I was asked to stay until Christmas and then they invited me to apply for the job. Teachers who have just finished training are known as NQTs (newly-qualified teachers) and this first experience is very important.

The school is in a very deprived area and a high proportion of the children speak English as their second language. In my year one class, there are children whose parents speak Sri Lankan, Polish, Spanish, German, Romanian, Malaysian and French Polynesian, so they have seven or eight different languages between them. Interestingly, their spoken English is often better than that of the native English speakers – I think their parents are very aware of how important it is that they master it.

During the first year of teaching, because you’re on the bottom rung, you have the most work but are paid the least, which can be difficult.

Day-to-day life as an NQT

I totally love my job from 9am until 3.15pm. The teaching is great and the time I spend with the kids in class is exactly how I thought it’d be. It’s the other bits that wipe me out – mainly the paperwork.

People say that teachers have it easy because we go home at 3.30pm… I get to school by 7.30 every morning and I tend to leave between 5.30 and 6pm!

This year, I’ve been building up my resources from scratch. There's no end to the resources you can make for primary-aged children, so this takes a ridiculous amount of time. Once I’ve done all the topics in the National Curriculum once, I’ll be able to tweak my existing plans each year.

As long as I spend two to three hours planning lessons and marking homework every evening, I might be able to have the weekend off, but some weeks, I’m too tired to work when I get home, so I end up having to spend a whole day working at the weekend.

My background helps me empathise in the classroom

I constantly tell my class that some people don’t find certain things easy. Being dyslexic, for instance, I have to take extra care over things like writing reports and marking homework.

My own experience means I recognise when a child is struggling but it’s very hard to get a diagnosis for some problems now because schools don’t have the budget to assess all the children who need it. All I can do is tell the other teachers so they can take any issues into account.

My school used to have a play therapist, a speech therapist and an occupational therapist. Now, because of budget cuts, they’ve got one person who’s meant to do all that, in one day a week, which is impossible.

One child in my class had a very severe stutter, so I decided to talk to the class about how I found some aspects of learning a struggle when I was in school. The little girl didn't make much eye contact but I could see she was listening. After that, she started to talk to me more and I began to realise that she had all sorts of other difficulties. Gradually she’s learned to trust me, so we’re starting to be able to help her. It's good to know that I’ve made a difference.

Going off-curriculum

As a primary school teacher, I teach every subject, but history is my favourite. The National Curriculum has been tweaked recently so we have to focus more on British history and the background to our country. When it comes to important historical figures, you can pick the ones you think will be the most interesting, but they still have to be British.

Last summer, there was lots of great topical stuff about the centenary of the First World War, which would have been interesting for the children, but we weren’t allowed to teach them about it because that's not covered until secondary school. It was a real shame – the children would have loved dressing up as evacuees and I think it would have helped them to understand what life was like for some children in wartime.

I do go off-curriculum sometimes. I like to tell them about things that are going on in the world. When Nelson Mandela died, we talked about him. They were really interested in the segregation of black and white people in South Africa. One child said, "My dad’s white and my mum’s black, so does that mean they shouldn’t have met?" They came out with some great stuff.

Pushy parents?

I understand that people's children are their pride and joy. Precious first born? I’ve had precious second and third born! Most parents are lovely, but I’ve had to develop a thick skin to deal with the odd few who give me a hard time.

Some can be very high maintenance. For example, one child’s parents were upset at parents’ evening because their son didn’t get the highest level in every subject. He’s bilingual, so he was actually doing amazingly well, but his parents wanted him to be top of the class in everything. Interestingly, in my class, the children who had English as a second language tended to be higher achievers than the others.

It’s difficult to know how to pitch lessons because some children are naturally very able while others are less able and need extra help. I had one child who was functioning at a two-year-old’s level, and another who was reading Harry Potter at five. She’s bilingual as well!

I think some parents mistakenly prioritise academic learning above all else. Sometimes at parents’ evenings they seem more concerned with their children being high achievers than developing basic social skills, such as talking to each other and playing.

Ups, downs and quirky kids

There’s a saying that when you get a new class in September, you shouldn’t smile until Christmas. I don’t go by that, but I do believe in going in firmly then easing up, because if you don't set boundaries you can have problems. I spend a lot of time saying, “Do you think that’s sensible?” and “Is that the right thing to do?”, and I've perfected a very stern stare.

In my school, we use a traffic light system for discipline: if the children do something good, their names go on the green part of the traffic light. If they are warned about something, they go on the amber. After two amber warnings, they go on to the red and after being on the red twice, I send them into the class next door.
I’ve had children who hit, scratch and bite. One boy swallowed a stone! He put it in his mouth and swallowed it. He just likes putting things in his mouth. He wanted to see what it tasted like.

Sadly, some children have a difficult start in life. We’re always given their history, so we’re aware if there’s anything in particular going on at home that might affect them. During my training, on one placement, a seven-year-old girl threw a chair at me, then got a pencil and stabbed me with it. I’d been asked to take her into a room on her own and she was swearing at me and hitting me.

I’ve taught a few children whose mum or dad isn’t allowed to pick them up from school so we have to watch out for that. One girl was living with her granny because both parents were alcoholics. She’d been shaken as a baby and has various health issues as a result. It's awful but as a teacher you have to focus on the future and what a child can do, not on what’s happened to them.

I love being a teacher

I love having my own class and seeing the children develop. A few of my year one class were so shy when they arrived in September they wouldn’t say a word, and now you can’t shut them up. It’s great!

I got very attached to my year group and found it really hard to say goodbye at the end of the summer. In September they couldn't write, they could barely read and they often wet themselves. They needed so much help to do everything. At the end of the summer term I had a day with my new year one class and the next morning my old class came back. They were so much more grown up than the reception children. I was stunned. When you see them every day you don’t notice how much they’ve changed.

Early in the year, one little boy who struggled to join in brought in a toy to show the class. He whispered to me about it and I repeated what he’d said. Over the next few weeks he brought in more toys and each time he’d say a little bit more. Gradually I built up his confidence by asking him questions that I knew he’d be able to answer, so he didn’t feel stupid in front of everyone. I was that child – I used to feel stupid at school sometimes, so I have a soft spot for children who find things difficult.

It’s brilliant when they ‘get’ stuff. That’s what makes it worth it. For ages one of the girls in my class struggled with most things, then suddenly she just clicked with reading, which meant she clicked with writing, which meant her confidence grew, and then she clicked with maths. It was amazing to be a part of that.

*Name and identifying details have been changed.

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If only all teachers were so

If only all teachers were so upbeat about their job. Long may Sophie's enthusiasm last!

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