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Letters to a New History Teacher: No. 8

Lunch is for wimps? Nonsense!

Margaret Thatcher ran the country on only 4 hours sleep. Lunch is for wimps. You can chill out in the holidays… There are countless phrases that made my NQT 1-self think I SHOULD be able to cope. That I shouldn’t have been feeling so completely tired, even tearful at times (lots of times if I’m honest). But as I go through NQT second time round (or what feels like it returning after having a year away to be a mum), I will not let myself fall into the same habits again – and I beg you to try the same.

It’s true: your work never seems finished. A trainee or new teacher always needs help. There is always more that can be done. And teaching history can be the very worst for this as not only do new interpretations of the past come to be, but we personally each interpret the past (small i) as part of our process of deciding how we should teach it to Anna, Dylan and Prabhjot. But it is also true that too many of us leave this profession within 5 years, burnt out, stressed, hopes dashed. That burn out can come of many causes, so that’s why it’s SO important that your own work habits regarding the teaching of the subject you adore don’t become one of them. History teaching needs brilliant graduates like you to stay for the long term. So let me share what I’m doing this time round in my NQT 2 to avoid brain frazzling.

1. Allow myself to use the textbook(s). I’ve now been privy to the monumental task it is to write a textbook. The hours, thought and care that go into each one are staggering. Sure I might not like every idea but I know there’s a lot that I do like and will make a great set of lessons. Don’t believe the mad idea that using the textbook is somehow cheating or winging it. I will allow myself to slightly tweak it for the children I teach but I will use it.

2. Tell myself I don’t need to jazz up a resource just because it doesn’t look right. It is possible to worry that history is a bit dry and so we can spend time jazzing up the look of things in the hope it makes history more enticing. But if I find myself doing this I am on a sure-fire path to hours of wasted time. Yes it’s good and right to want to dazzle the students and make them feel valued, but really, seriously, a pretty resource isn’t what we’ve all trained for so long to use our efforts for (how about I come up with a set of cracking mind-bending questions for the children instead?). AND there are better ways to spend such a precious hour. Sleep maybe?! With friends perhaps? Or how about a beer or a cuddle with a loved one?

3. Take a lunch break. By all means I’ll read a history book if that’s what I fancy, but get out of my room and into a different zone – physically and mentally. Too often in NQT 1 I would eat my lunch at the computer desperately trying to tweak a lesson. All it did was leave me stressed as I never finished the resource fully, and I’d not switched off, nor eaten properly. If I won’t do it for myself I need to ask how being a stressed teacher is serving the students or history?

4. Sleep. And have a lie in at weekends (or a nap if you can’t lie in). By god I wish I had done this in NQT 1. A good tutor reminded me that “even water takes time to digest” by way of pointing out that the learning that we experience as history NQTs is monumental. We are talking bigger than a Henry VIII feast in terms of what we are mentally digesting! So sleep is essential to allow me to mentally digest and process. But too often in NQT 1 I stayed up very late prepping or marking. These things are important – but I found that my marking and prep was far more efficient when I was fresh.

5. Take a full day off at the weekend. And enjoy the holidays. I look back and think how hard my NQT was. I think of the hours and hours I worked including weekends and holidays. But this time round I will be asking for more help – borrowing resources, using textbooks (carefully, not blindly), planning ahead so I don’t have to do last minute mad rush work at a weekend. If I don’t do this I won’t have time to just be me. And it’s ‘me’ that wanted to do this job in the first place. So I can’t lose her.

6. Say ‘not right now’. I couldn’t believe how many children came through my door asking for help. I was honoured actually. But I made the mistake in NQT 1 of trying to help them all, there and then. Putting my own needs to one side. In NQT 2 I will set a time and place for children to ask for help. I might even get all techie and do it on email so I can choose when I respond. (For those who arrive crying of course it will be different.) And I will also be having the courage to say not right now to a colleague’s request – not rudely but just “I have X and Y to do right now. I’d love to help so would it be possible to do it for you by XX date – or might someone else be able to help if it’s urgent?” I’m not saying no – I’m just saying not right at this minute which helps to prevent feeling overwhelmed.

Finally a serious word to myself (and you) about mental health. Teaching is a wonderful profession but it is also demanding. If you and I truly want to change the world (albeit in little baby steps) we need to take care of our mental health. All of the points above are about that – because burn out, being tearful, feeling overwhelmed (call it what you will) are all signs of stress. Yes, some stress is normal. But we should each do what is within our power to avoid too much stress. Working for hours and hours doesn’t make you a brilliant history teacher. Running around utterly busy doesn’t either. It just shows you work hours and are busy! But protecting your long term mental health is a key ingredient in being a great history teacher as it means you’ll be here for the long term, developing year on year into a brilliant history professional.

And finally if none of the steps above are helping you to feel less tearful then talk to someone and ask for help. This is not a sign of weakness but one of strength – knowing your own limits and when it’s time to reach out. I want to be in this game for the long term and I bet you do too. So lean on others and give yourself a break. The only burn out we should face as history teachers is that of the martyrs in the past whom we teach about.