How I survived the first few years

We’ve all felt like this – but what can we do to minimise it?

Notoriously I’ve not been the most resilient or emotionally stable of personalities. I had a tough time at school, have often suffered from low self-esteem and at university I had full on melt downs when deadlines came about.

Starting my teaching journey was scary, I had lots of people telling me it was going to be the hardest few years of my life due to the ridiculous workload coupled with the emotionally draining aspects of the job: meeting pupils with the most horrendous life circumstances, being verbally abused on a regular basis, to name just a few. I spent the few months leading up to starting TeachFirst wondering whether I’d made a really stupid decision given my tendency to be emotionally volatile.

Over the holidays, while I was, for the first summer since starting teaching, properly relaxing (cocktail by the pool style) I was thinking about the last few years and it was the first time I properly realised that I have been – wait for it – ABSOLUTELY FINE. Looking at the circumstances, it does feel like a bit of a miracle. Over 3 years I have been required to change and teach in 3 different and very challenging schools, write PGCE assignments while teaching full time, fulfil the notorious NQT year and change my teaching subject.

Ok, being absolutely fine might be an exaggeration. Don’t get me wrong, there have been tears, stress and a lot of challenges, but at no point has it spiralled out of control and left me wondering what on earth I am doing with my life. Considering past life events that have caused such crisis – I must have changed something in the way I manage my life. When I look at other new teachers around me, I do think that I have fared better over the first few years than average and my mental wellbeing has a lot to thank for it.

The next step of this realisation was to formalise what it is I have been doing to look after my mental wellbeing to ensure I continue to do my job as well as possible while living and loving my life outside the classroom.

So here it is, my methods for staying sane:

1. Exercise
I’ve never really been sporty but I try to fit physical activity into my daily routine wherever I can. If I can factor it into my commute in order to leave as much time to keep on top of workload/myself then that is ideal but no matter what – I try to do something about 4 times a week. There are lots of studies which show how beneficial exercise is, not just to our physical but, with more and more evidence, our mental health as well. Studies suggest that physical activity can reduce depressive symptoms (see study), protect against depressive episodes (see study) and therefore almost definitely helps to reduce reoccurrence.


2. Sleep
I always try to get at least 8 hours 30 every night and I try to keep bedtimes regular. On the days where this has meant leaving a lesson unfinished then so be it – you will manage. Turning up to teach on 4 hours kip is much harder than winging a lesson.


3. I am now the most organised person ever
I started my teacher training as I meant to go on. I always plan in advance, sometimes I am a week ahead of myself, this means that every night I go to bed knowing that my lessons for the next day are ready and I can sleep easy. Asking me how I keep on top of this is a more difficult question to answer, I’ve not always been so organised, it is definitely something you can learn and cultivate. Take a bit of time to think about how you are going to set yourself goals and hold yourself accountable. It might help to work out how many lessons you need to plan each day or ask your head of department/mentor to check your lesson planning progression and support you in meeting your targets.

4. To begin I would work one day at the weekend
There is a lot of work when you start teaching, it does get easier but to begin with you need to manage and accept it. Embrace the fact that you will be planning at the weekend but that it is in order to make your life considerably easier during the week and you will reap the benefits.

I have spent a while trying to decide whether this was beneficial or not. On the one hand, there was a lot of teacher talk and it was difficult to switch off, but on the other, we were all going through the same experience. It is much easier to work at the weekends when your house mates are as well, you always have someone understanding to rant to and you have people to ask for inspiration when your creativity has run dry.

So there we have it, my top tips for staying sane through teacher training. Now I have identified them, I am going to make sure that I myself keep sticking to them. Teacher stress, anxiety and workload is a big issue that dominates the education news feeds. I am optimistic that it is an area that will be addressed, slowly but surely. In the meantime however, if we love the job, we need to do what we to manage the issue individually.

Is there a best route into teaching?

which route?

Today there seems to be so many routes into teaching; traditional PGCEs with school placements, schemes that train you on the job such as TeachFirst and Schools Direct, teaching degrees and QTS qualifications, to name just a few. It’s difficult to know where to start if you’re thinking about going into the profession. Now I’m not going to pretend to be a fountain of all knowledge but I can share my route in, how I found it, ‘what went well’ and ‘even better if’ (sorry I couldn’t resist it).

If I am completely honest, I can’t pinpoint a moment when I thought ‘I want to be a teacher’. I found myself, like a lot of graduates, having a small crisis over what I was doing with my life, having never found any real direction. I spent a lot of time telling myself I was never going to be a teacher, it runs in the family and I was determined to be different. Coming from a Russel group university, I felt pressure to apply for graduate schemes with big names – it seemed to be the done thing. But the more I researched, the more I realised working for big co-operate companies was not something I was drawn to. I applied to TeachFirst because it seemed like a good compromise, a reputable scheme that, if I hated teaching, would look good on my CV and enable me to, at worst, climb some other career path.

As it happens, I’m still teaching.

So what did I think about my route in?

TeachFirst throws you in at the deep end; you essentially have a job for 2 years. You teach nearly full time for those two years and come out the other side with both your PGCE and NQT year under your belt, ready as a fully qualified teacher. This route suited me down to a  tee and having reflected on the two years, I have identified several reasons as to why it worked for me:

N.B. There are other courses that operate using a similar method that are worth researching if you think this is for you (e.g. schools direct)

  1. I knew what I was getting myself in for

I have a mother, sister, aunties and uncles all who are teachers. Dinnertime has often been dominated by teacher talk, this meant that I had a good idea going into the two years of the lifestyle, challenges and workload. When I look at my colleagues who found the two years more challenging and stressful than I did, they were often people who had no tangible prior experience with teacher training. For me, this set me up with realistic expectations about what I was getting myself in for

  1. I like getting stuck in.

We all have different personalities and therefore different training pathways are going to suit different people, there is no right or wrong. The first trait that suited me to on the job training was my love of a challenge. Obviously this is a useful trait for all routes into teaching, but particularly when you are going straight into the job and being responsible for classes from day one.

Secondly, I am someone that needs to jump straight in – I am not very good at easing myself into things as I get scared easily. This may need some context and elaboration. Imagine getting into a cold swimming pool – there are two ways to approach this:

  1. You just dive in and get it over and done with
  2. You go down to the shallow end or a ladder and slowly submerge yourself

I need to jump in. If I give myself the time to think about a situation I often manage to talk myself out of it whereas if I have it thrown at me – I can normally manage to swim, not sink.

  1. I did have some prior teaching experience

This builds on my first point about how circumstance can set you up well for different methods. I had already done some teaching as part of my undergraduate degree and have always volunteered in various extra-curricular activities focussed around working with children, perhaps another reason I wanted to get stuck in. I knew what children could be like and what to expect.

  1. I’m better at learning through experience rather than through a textbook

I never got much enjoyment out of sitting in a lecture and reading around the subject, and I personally was keen to avoid this as much as possible. When you are learning on the job, yes you have to read and do assignments but you have a limited time in which to carry this out. The focus in my daily life when training lay far from the next assignment I had due in, I had too many lessons to plan and exams classes to think about to get too bogged down in them.

Having not completed a PGCE which utilises school placements, I don’t want to comment too much on who I think it would suit but hopefully by outlining the personality traits and circumstances I think set me up well for on-the-job training it may help others to identify what they feel would suit them.

I personally would recommend this sort of ‘traditional’ (for want of a better word) PGCE to people who feel they build confidence through preparation rather than retrospective achievement. Or perhaps to those that have less experience with the teaching profession prior to beginning.

So, in answer to the initial question: there is no right or wrong route, one is not better than another, there are just a variety of routes to suit a variety of people and circumstances.


I would love to hear your views on your routes into teaching and why they worked for you. Together, we can build a better picture for those looking to join the profession.