Sunday 15th May 2016
N.B.: Thank you so much for coming to my website! You’re amazing! Please comment on this post with your experiences and the methods you’ve used when everything seemed to just ‘go wrong’. I really want this page to be a sanctuary where newbie teachers can come and get some great tips about how to overcome their struggles (and to know that they are not alone!)
All teachers can make innocent, but devastating mistakes at work. As a new teacher, you’re bound to mess up a lot in your first year. So what do you do when everything goes South?
An article by Richard James Rogers
Illustrations by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like her to do some beautiful illustration work for you too.
Being told off by your line manager when you’re just crossing the threshold of your new career can be an upsetting and stressful experience. You’re bound to make mistakes as a Newly Qualified Teacher, and you’re bound to be told off for them too. It happens to even the very best educators, and if it hasn’t happened to you yet, then don’t be complacent, because everyone can mess up at some point.
What follows next are some tips to get you through those tough times in a way that actually makes you look mature and professional at the same time.
#1: Admit when you’re wrong
Always apologise quickly and sincerely when you slip up. This could be for something relatively minor like forgetting to mark a student’s book, or something more silly like forgetting to turn up for a lesson.
Don’t be afraid of apologizing to students too. If you’re sincere, and you rectify things quickly, you’ll actually come across as being a genuine, human and approachable person. An example might be “Ah yes, Mark, you are right. I did agree to bring that textbook in for you today. It completely slipped my mind. I’ll make sure I pack it tonight for you and I’ll bring it in tomorrow.”
If you are genuinely to blame for what went wrong, then covering up your mistake can be the worst decision you make. When the real truth is uncovered later on down the road you’ll be seen as untrustworthy, deceitful and immature – the exact opposite of how you want to come across.
#2 Sleep on it
I know many teachers who have received aggressively toned, accusatory e-mails from bosses and line managers whilst in their early years of teaching, and later on too. It’s happened to me as well, and it can cause a wave of emotions to flood your thoughts and perceptions. Anger, fear, hatred, panic, worry and, of course, the desire to justify yourself.
When this happens, the best thing you can do is take a deep breath and relax. If possible, wait until the next day to send your response or to speak to the person in question. You’ll be in a better frame of mind, and your brain will have had the chance to process the information and think about solutions, subconsciously and unconsciously, whilst you were asleep (and make sure you do sleep: Tomorrow will deal with itself. Don’t toss and turn in a fit of worry the night before. Life is too short.).
This approach can be phrased as being ‘proactive, not reactive‘.
The worst thing you can do when you receive a flame (the technical name for an angry or aggressive e-mail) is to react instinctively by sending an equally aggressive reply. You’ll be acting on the basis of emotion, probably with a high desire to prove yourself right, and you could end up really annoying your boss in the process.
#3 Focus on solutions, not on justifying yourself
I once worked with a colleague who was in a right fit of worry. He was a trembling wreck, and was convinced he was going to lose his job.
The previous week, he had been leading a really fun activity with his class which involved singing, dancing and making wall art. The class loved it, but one student decided to covertly record part of that lesson on his mobile phone. The video later appeared on YouTube, and was brought to the attention of my friend’s line manager.
“What the hell am I going to do Richard? This is it, I know it. I’m finished. My career is in the toilet now”
I calmed him down and told him that nothing was ever that final in life. I told him that the very first thing he should say to his boss was not “I’m sorry, it’ll never happen again”, or “I asked all the kids for their mobile phones and he hid his” or any other justification. The damage had been done. The first thing he should say to his boss is “How can we solve this?”.
He took my advice and later reported that the conversation with his boss went a lot better than he thought it would. As soon as he shifted his focus towards solutions, his boss agreed to ask that student to delete the video off YouTube and to ask him (the student) to apologise to his teacher, which he later did. The whole situation was forgotten about that same day, and life went on as normal.
My colleague was wise that day. He realised that justifying yourself when being accused of something by your boss, especially when you’re in the wrong, only leads to conflict and argumentation. By making the focus of the conversation squarely on solutions, my colleague came across as being mature, in control of his emotions and committed to the greater good of the school.
#4 Speak with your line manager
There will be times when things happen, and you just won’t know what to do to solve the situation. Whether this is because you’ve made a mistake or not, you should always speak with your line manager, or someone with more experience than you.
A classic example of this scenario happened to me in my first year of teaching practice. I was walking along the corridor on a free period when I saw a student, who was supposed to be in class, just walking about aimlessly.
I stopped him, and asked him if he was okay and if he needed some help, when suddenly his teacher popped her head out of the classroom door and looked at me as if I was the most evil man in the world. She ushered the boy into her room (she’d sent him out of class, but I didn’t know that).
After class that teacher saw me in the science prep room and gave me a right telling off. “Richard, don’t you ever talk to my students again. I am well-capable of dealing with behavior issues. I don’t need your help”. Woah!! Now where did that come from?
I was fuming. I was doing my job and being told off for it. Ridiculous, I thought. What an arrogant, silly old bat she is. I was really mad. I asked to speak with my head of department, because I’d rather he heard my side of the story before he received a complaint next week.
We sat down together and I told him the story I just told you. He calmed me down and said “Don’t worry Richard”. He explained how that teacher had a very disruptive and challenging class that Friday afternoon, and she’s probably a bit stressed out. He advised me to just let it go and have a good weekend.
I took his advice and I’m glad I did. The situation was never brought up again. It was totally forgotten about by everyone.
Oftentimes, as teachers, we worry too much about silly things. If you ever find yourself worrying about a situation, then you have nothing to lose by talking it over with a more experienced colleague. I’ve used this principle many times in my career with great affect.
#5 Listen first, then explain
If you genuinely haven’t done anything wrong, or if you’ve been misunderstood, then you’ll need to explain your side of the story. Failure to do this may cost you your job.
Your line manager or principal might be angry with you about something. Let them vent first. Don’t get tense. Relax, and listen. Don’t react to the bubbling up of your negative emotions.
When the chance arises, calmly and politely explain your case. You’ll be surprised in the change of mood this will generate in your once angry boss. You’ll come across as mature and level-headed.
#6 Keep people updated
I was once accused of allowing my tutor group to graffiti on the tables in the Science lab. Of course, it wasn’t my kids. I knew this because we only had ten minutes together each morning and my eyes were on them throughout this. But how could I be proactive in ensuring that my name was cleared?
I set up a ‘graffiti log book’, and every morning at registration I would get my students to tell me if they saw any new graffiti on the desks. I also diligently went around the class and checked the desks myself, to really make sure that it wasn’t my kids that were making the mess.
After two weeks I presented my log book to the line manager that had accused me originally. I politely suggested that the graffiti was probably happening in the main lessons of the day, when students have up to an hour per session to scribble something on a desk.
My line manager appreciated my diligence, and we set up a monitoring system to ensure that kids who graffiti’d were identified quickly and made to clean up their mess. We even had special ‘graffiti cleaning kits’ set up in the prep room.
#7 Seek Advice
There will be times when you don’t know what to do. Instead of stewing around and worrying about things, or even plodding along and just ‘getting by’, use your inexperience as a chance to grow and develop.
A story from my own life journey comes to mind here. I was an NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) at a school in northern England and I was having problems with Behaviour in one of my Year 9 classes. I tried sanctions, tellings off, rewards for good effort and even bringing in chocolate to give to the students if they worked hard. Each strategy worked to some degree, but collectively things were still not perfect .
I spoke with a senior colleague of mine in the Science department and he gave me one tip that had an almost instantaneous transformative effect on my classroom management. He advised me to focus my attention on the work being done and not on the student who was being disruptive. “Instead of saying something like ‘John, why aren’t you working?, or ‘John, you’re not concentrating’, try ‘John, how’s that work coming along? Are you finished yet?” Wow. Such a simple piece of advice but it helped me a lot. I would later write a whole chapter about behaviour management in my debut book, in which this technique played a significant part.
Speaking with your colleagues about your problems presents another benefit too. The people from whom you seek counsel will feel flattered that you consider them in such high esteem and will, consequently, be happy to help you out. By seeking help you also show that you are mature enough to realize that you don’t know everything, and when you share your problems you’ll often find that other people are going through similar problems in their lives too.
Did you find this post useful? Why not check out Richard’s books? Rated 5 stars on Amazon, and enjoyed by thousands of teachers globally, Richard’s work has earned a place in the global pedagogical hall of fame.
Book trailer: The Quick Guide to Classroom Management