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Letters to a New History Teacher: No. 2

Last week I began my top tips for myself on things to remember as I start my NQT2 (here).

I talked about learning to ride the wave instead of controlling it, remembering that the children we teach are all someone’s child and so to love them, and about trying to plan lessons as a sequence rather than be a one-hit wonder circus performer. Here are my final four tips to myself.

Teach them how to talk and write

As history lovers, it’s rather easy to get caught up in the wonder of the past, telling stories like raconteurs and pouring forth our own opinions when asked. In hindsight I sometimes expected the magic of the past to be enough to engage children’s minds so as to to produce great writing. But I now know a child’s interest is not enough for great communication. In my 2nd NQT my advice to myself is to give children lots of opportunities to try talking and writing about the past. I will use word mats, thesauruses, examples of historians’ work, narratives from documentaries, film blurbs, historical fiction, other students’ essays – the list is endless – to model and unpack great historical communication. I will train them in how to craft essays and academic writing, but won’t let this be the only way I ask children to express themselves. Crucially, talking must come first. If the children can’t say it, it means they can’t think it, and so they won’t be able to write it. So planning for as much (structured / supported) talk as possible is going to be one of my top pieces of advice for my forthcoming year.

Work out a way to mark the books – religiously 

This is going to be my hardest challenge in my 2nd NQT. I hold my hand up now and admit I have never ever managed to crack marking in my first NQT. But I am going to give it a darn good try this time round. Not just because the children deserve my feedback. But also because it is the only way I know whether they understand what we are doing (see point below about history being hard!). If I don’t know what they don’t understand, how can I ever close the gap? Similarly, if they don’t know they don’t understand, how can they ever know how to get better? Two way feedback – literally a conversation about what is going well and what needs work – is the only way your children will improve. So this is my mission this year and every year onwards. My plan is to devise a marking timetable and to stick to it, religiously.

History is hard and doesn’t make sense – you’re trying to understand people after all!

My advice to myself here is to remember that asking a child to make sense of, and then convey in writing, the whys and wherefores of people totally alien to themselves in time and age (school history is usually about the actions of adults), is like trying to understand a foreign culture and explain that foreign place in a totally alien language too. I’m stealing other people’s phrases here, but I need to remind myself how alien and unnatural history is to children. So when I mark a piece of work or hear a comment that makes little sense, I shouldn’t feel like a failure. Instead I need to work out the main problem. Is the child misunderstanding the content, the concept or is it a communication issue, and what can we do about it? So actually my advice is to read or listen carefully and take time to respond. If it helps, work with your mentor to discuss common problems and what can be done to tackle them. For my GCSE students I have a common errors sheet with solutions for each one. It may seem crude but I will remember to use it as a starting point for making this past business a bit less crazy!

Team work

I started my first NQT with the mission to be Outstanding ASAP. As I return this September I now know that I can only be a great teacher with the help, support and wisdom of those around me. So I won’t be reinventing the wheel, jazzing up a resource just because it doesn’t look right, trying to cope alone with a child’s behaviour, or seeking to solve how to teach interpretations all by myself. If you are starting your NQT I can guarantee someone somewhere in your school can help you, and if you don’t have any help in history, get online to the many websites and Twitter users that offer history support (like SHP of course!). In particular online forums and communities like SHP offer amazing resources and teaching ideas, so reinventing the wheel really isn’t necessary, and you’ll see that you and your students are not alone in finding particular things difficult when teaching and learning history. Without a doubt aim for the stars with your students, but remember to rely on your team or colleagues or online communities especially on the days where your invincibility cloak doesn’t seem to work.

I wish myself and you good luck. See you soon!


Letters to a New History Teacher …

… is 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!!