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Surviving your musical NQT year

surviving your year as a music NQT - teacher and musician

When Helen Tierney asked me to speak at Middlesex University, she specifically asked me to give a few ‘survival tips’ for NQTs.  It should sound strange to represent the first year of teaching as a journey into a dangerous wilderness but those of us who have been there know that the first year in the classroom can seem like you need to be a genetic hybrid of Andy McNab and Steve Irwin.  To that end, here’s a few of the tips that I gave yesterday.

Don’t beat yourself up

You’re a newly qualified teacher, not a newly qualified heart surgeon.  Your mistakes in the classroom, practice room or rehearsal are unlikely to result in anyone’s death.  While there’s a certain truth in saying that we’re in the profession of changing lives, you’re not going to ruin a child’s life prospects because one of your lessons was below your usual standard.  
Don’t let yourself burn out, don’t work yourself into the ground and don’t feel guilty for calling it a day when you’ve put in a solid day’s work.  There will always be more to be done in teaching and this is true whether you work eight hours a day or twenty.  

If you get one thing right, make it feedback

Good planning is great and inspiring warmups are wonderful but getting feedback right will make your life so much easier.  If you’re constantly giving good feedback to pupils, then your planning will practically take care of itself.  Fantastic feedback will also give you lots of evidence for progress, which will keep SLT off your back.  Have a strategy for giving good feedback ( here’s one), stick to it and use feedback as a vehicle to focus on teaching rather than paperwork.  

Read everything you can

You’ve just had a year of being exposed to a huge variety of excellent ideas and you are probably excited to give them all a go in ‘your school’.  This is great but, at some point, you will run out of ideas.  Reading is a great vehicle to maintain your awareness of what has and hasn’t worked in other schools.  There are some great music teacher blogs out there but also get your hands on books from the likes of Martin Fautley, John Finney and David Bray.  The more you read, the easier the job gets. 

Say ‘no’

When you arrive at your school, certain people will see you from the financial/business perspective of ‘extra capacity’.  You are a useful new resource and many people will be asking you to take on additional workload.  Say ‘yes’ to some of it because it’s great experience but have a really clear sense of your own capacity and don’t take on what you can’t deliver.  If you’re leading choir on Mondays, orchestra on Tuesdays, big band on Wednesdays and guitar club on Thursdays, then can you really take on an assessment working group on Fridays?  Just because you’re not scheduled for something at that time doesn’t mean you have the capacity.  See back to the point about not burning out but also remember that your first priority should be to get great in the classroom.   
Say ‘no’ and explain that if you were to take on the workload, then it wouldn’t be done to a good enough standard due to your other commitments.  

Be sceptical of the ‘O’ word

Well, be sceptical of both ‘O’ words: Ofsted and Outstanding.  
Both ‘O’ words are often used as justification for asking you to do something but really just translates as ‘I want you to do this and I’m giving you a seemingly indisputable reason to do so’.  Here’s a few examples and their translation:
  • “Ofsted says that…” translation “I want you to…”
  • “Ofsted wants to see…” translation “I want to see…”
  • “If we’re going to be Outstanding…” translation “I want to see…”
  • “Outstanding teaching is…” translation “I want to see…”
The worst form of this is when the above phrases are used followed by something that Ofsted really has no interest in.  Read the Ofsted myths document that’s now on its second version.  Then read the Ofsted music documents, starting with this one.  This will give you a good idea of when you are being sold a myth and when you are being told ‘the truth’.  Even if it’s ‘the truth’, outline any concerns you have if you feel it’s not right for music in your school.  Do so in a polite, sensitive manner using evidence from other schools (refer back to the previous point about reading).  

Focus on music

Any regular readers of this blog will know that I’m an advocate of making music lessons as musical as possible but it’s worth repeating here.  If you’re in any doubt as to whether your lesson is a good music lesson, start by asking yourself the question ‘is most of it musical’?  The last of my ‘design tenets’ for a music scheme of work says: 

If the work isn’t musical, then it belongs in someone else’s lesson.  

That’s the best mantra I can give any new music teacher – make is musical.