A lot of teachers I know are perfectionists; it’s not entirely surprising. We have high expectations of ourselves. We have an idea in mind of how we’d like a lesson to go and how we want behaviour for learning to be. Most of us have a past school teacher in mind who inspired us and whom we perhaps aspire to be like. The reality, however, is that it takes time for those ideas to come to fruition and for us to be anywhere near the same level as our past teachers.

I heard recently about an NQT who’s had to take some time off due to workload and stress. I sympathise completely. When I think back to that first year, I often felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Teaching a lesson wasn’t so much about learning and student progress as it was about survival and getting through the whole PowerPoint presentation that I’d prepared. It was about treading water and making it through till the end of the day so that I could scramble frantically to get ready for the next.

You’re not going to be a great teacher for the first few years.

It was disheartening. I had a couple years of working full time already under my belt and I had high expectations of myself. I frequently wondered what I was doing wrong. From the outside, everyone else, especially other NQTs, appeared to be coping with no problem. Of course, appearances can be deceiving; we all want to give the appearance that we’re doing well.

One afternoon, I went to have a chat with one of the Maths teachers who was an informal mentor to me at the time and expressed my frustration. This Maths teacher was—and still is—a real role model for me. She’s creative, patient, good-humoured, and explains things so clearly. On top of all that, she has an air of confidence that I’d wished I had at the time.

This is what she said: “You’re not going to be a great, or sometimes even a good, teacher for the first few years. How can you be? So much of what you learn about teaching is learned on the job. I wasn’t a good teacher probably for my first five years or so.”

So much of what you learn about teaching is learned on the job

After that conversation, I was able to feel more relaxed. My expectation was to be consistently good, if not great. I was going to go through my first year of teaching and be a complete natural, which is not to say that some people aren’t in their NQT year. I wasn’t, though. Having an experienced teacher, who I hold in high esteem, say that she wasn’t good at the start made me finally accept that neither was I. And that was OK. My expectations, while not impossible, were unrealistic.

Whatever you’re going through, someone else has been through it too. Whatever’s frustrating you is no doubt frustrating someone else. You’re not the only one wondering if teaching was the right career choice for you. Whenever everyone else looks like they’re doing absolutely fine, know that not all of them are. You’re not alone.

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