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Letters to a New History Teacher: No. 1

New History Teacher – words that conjure up so much hope and yet which flash like red warning lights ‘danger, danger’ – not allayed by those who have been through it, who look at us knowingly and let us know without saying too much that it will probably be the hardest year of our professional lives. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.

I’d also be lying if I led you to believe this is my first time. I completed my PGCE in July 2005, and took up my NQT post that same month in a London school. But today, 2014, I’m returning to work after one year’s leave (motherhood called) and am surprised to find I am filled with the NQT-style feelings I had in 2005. So I decided I needed a good talking to. Having been through NQT already, what should I tell myself as I prepare to return this September? Perhaps in doing so I can share with you some thoughts that might serve to help?

Learn to ride the wave, not control it 

On my return this September I am going to remember that trying to magically fill up 32 children’s brains just won’t happen – I don’t have Moses-like abilities to control the seas, and my teaching just isn’t that magical (as much as I’d like it to be). As a result, I have to start with the students and where they are – (1) what do they know, understand and do already? and (2) where do I want them to end up? And thus (3) what’s the learning journey I need to plan for? Too often in my NQT I started with what I wanted them to know instead of first asking where they were. As a result, the gap was just too wide and few crossed it – leaving me feeling like a failure. If only I had stopped to ask these 3 key questions (riding the wave and harnessing its power) rather than just believing that through the sheer might of my teaching ability (to control the wave) they’d be ok, there would have been fewer hellish lessons for me and – importantly – them.

They are all someone’s child

This is only something that has come to me since becoming a mum 10 months ago. Before this time I might have put it as ‘everyone is an individual’ but that seems too impersonal, too jargony. But now as a mum the advice I give myself for my 2nd NQT is to love the children in my care (and yes I am using that word!). Remember that they are children – young, needy, impressionable, frustrating at times, but deserving of your care, attention and love. I can’t begin to explain how much blood, sweat and tears has gone into the first 10 months of my son’s life just trying to get it right, and to make sure he is happy and grows up happy. And this is going to continue for years – well past 18! So I will remind myself in the deepest darkest days of the year ahead that I am teaching a class full of someone’s child; I implore you to do the same. Just because they are 11, or 15 or 18, we shouldn’t expect the world – by all means have high expectations, but don’t dash them when they don’t yet fulfil them! They each deserve help, guidance and a bit of TLC to boot. History is hard at the easiest of times (!) so when it all goes belly up, be patient, start again and work it through together – just as you would with anyone you care for.

Be the planning teacher, not the circus performer 

Too often I would get really fired up about a particular lesson and want to teach a cracking, explosive, exciting session like a circus performer (I won’t lie – it was often when I was being observed). Only to be followed the next time by a slightly damp squib as I’d expended all my good ideas last week. But, actually, had I spent a little time at the front end planning out what I was teaching as a series of lessons, I would have been able to give the children a much better diet – with lots of excitement as well. By planning the knowledge, skills and concepts that you want the children to know, understand and do by the end of the enquiry (even if it’s only 3 lessons long), you can then reverse engineer lesson by lesson (including homework), breaking down what needs to be covered, layering each week toward the final crescendo. That way you don’t need to do knowledge, skills and concepts every lesson but rather you can carefully plan for what needs to be done and when, leading to the final destination. Furthermore by planning in this way it enables you to see if some lessons appear rather mundane (and so what you can do to energise them), and you can identify which ones you might need the help of an experienced colleague to thresh out.

Heck I’ve taken up over a page already so I’ll leave it there for now. There are 4 more tips I have for myself (and you) so if you’re interested to read more, pop back next week.


Letters to a New History Teacher

This is the first in a series of blogs by Esther Arnott as she experiences “NQT2” – a return to teaching after a year being a new mum. Her return has given her similar feelings to those she had as an NQT, but this time around she has a bit of experience to share with herself and you, so these blogs are offered in the hope they support those of you setting out on your own new history teaching journeys – whether as NQTs or trainees on PGCE courses or other schemes. The blog will run through the year as ideas – and reality – strike Esther (and as motherhood allows!). She’d love to hear from you if you have particular questions, issues or features you’d like addressed.


About Esther

Esther qualified to teach in 2005 and took up a post at Lampton School in west London. She became head of department in 2008 – and this was swiftly followed by an Ofsted subject visit where she and her team achieved Outstanding in all categories. She works with a wide number of beginner teacher groups – including Roehampton University and Teach First – and she set up the London History Network to help share good practice. She became an SHP Fellow in 2009. When her school became one of the first Teaching Schools she applied to be a Specialist Leader of Education for history and has since worked with London schools to support heads of department and other middle leaders to achieve excellence. In 2012 she was promoted to leadership with responsibility for Literacy – and of course still teaching history! In 2013 she had baby Samuel, taking a year out …to now return as NQT 2!!