Tag Archives: teaching English

Reflections on a First Year Teaching

A SATE local coordinator reflects on her NQT year…

Teacher by dcatcherex

I sit here writing this blog with a strong cup of coffee. It’s the last week of term and my drastically reduced first year class are watching a version of ‘Frankenstein’ after studying the Philip Pullman adaptation.

I am very tired. A weekend of end of term dinners and drinks has left me feeling drained at the start of the last week. But, it was worth it. The celebrating was well deserved and I am happy to suffer the consequences.

I’ve learned a lot about myself this past year. More than once I’ve surprised myself. For example, the first time I was told to f*** off, I didn’t even flinch. Or the time I went against advice to plan a unit where group work was the basis of activity and assessment. The unit was a success – although it was more work to teach it, the pupils enjoyed it and had valuable learning experiences. Some of my pupils surprised me too, and well exceeded my expectations. Like Nicole, who started off the year in my National 5 class dejected, negative and with a real aversion to hard-work. In January, she sat her prelim and did not achieve what she was capable of. Afterwards, Nicole started coming to Supported Study and participating in class, asking questions, etc. Together we worked to get her knowledge of texts and skills in Reading up to National 5 standard. She went in to her exam filled with confidence, and left the exam hall full of optimism. I really hope Nicole gets the grade she wants, because she worked hard – for at least half the year…

Other pupils who will stand out in my memory when I look back on this year are the S2 pupil who came to school in August with an attitude problem and no desire to work and improve. He left the year a happier boy who is now reading age appropriate books with an enthusiasm I didn’t think was possible. Then, there’s the S3 pupil who struggled to write in paragraphs and is now writing critical essays about Jackie Kay poems. And the S4 pupils who refused to read anything who is now an avid reader of car magazines. These pupils, amongst many others, have taught me that many small steps can make huge developments, and that by having the right attitude you can achieve anything.

The school I have been working in is in an area which sits high in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. I was nervous before I started working at the school. I didn’t know what to expect. However, on my visit in June last year, I could sense the positive atmosphere and everyone –  pupils and teachers –  seemed happy and relaxed. At the time, I put this down to it being the second last week of term, and went back to feeling nervous.

Returning to the school in August last year now feels like a blur of getting to know names and planning lessons like they were crits. Looking back, only a few moments of the first month stand out. This period was a flurry of getting names wrong, observing other teachers, late nights and strong coffee. During this time, I didn’t socialise very much and I didn’t see my family as much as I should have.

Around November, I found Martyn Reah’s campaign on Twitter, #teacher5aday. I learned a lot from reading blogs, and following other teachers from around the country, about wellbeing and a healthy work/life balance. I took up yoga and started being more aware of what I ate. But, most importantly, I learned not to beat myself up. I had been very hard on myself during my student year, and had started off my probationary year in the same way. I learned that I didn’t need to be perfect, that I was learning every day, and that my colleagues around me were there to support me and that I could learn from them. After this point, the heat was off slightly. I started to really enjoy the job.

Teaching English this past year has been a joy and a privilege, peppered with moments of bitter disappointment: for example, when my S2 pupils did not share my enthusiasm for Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. Lesson learned. For the most part, I’ve been able to build positive relationships with my classes and, after relaxing into the year, used humour in some cases  to manage behaviour as well as to motivate. However, there have been those pupils who have been hard to reach. Most of them called Lewis. That said, for every Lewis, there were 10 Emmas or Davids who worked hard and were as enthusiastic about the learning as I was.

Throughout the year I have tried to engage with as much professional dialogue as I could. Twitter has been a great source of professional connection and learning. As well as this, being a part of SATE has meant that I have met some likeminded teachers, who are passionate about teaching English and who inspire me to be a better teacher.

Next year, I am staying in the same school. I will be in charge of the school website, something I am looking forward to learning more about, as well as running a Film Club and co-chairing the debating club. I hope to be involved in more collegiate discussion throughout the year, inside and outside school. I realise now that the positive atmosphere I noticed on my initial visit to the school was not just down to the time of year – pupils and teachers are happy and relaxed. I am glad to be continuing my work in this school.

At this point, as I finish my coffee and my first year of teaching draws to a close, my resounding feeling is one of excitement and hope. My summer reading list contains books about the history of the English language and the psychology of teaching. I am ready to continue on this path of lifelong learning. I’m so pleased that I decided, two years ago, to leave my job and embark on a career in teaching.

I feel at home.

Blue Skye Thinking

Tom Coles recently wrote about his experiences as an NQT for Teaching English, NATE’s classroom practice magazine.  You can read Teaching English by joining NATE, which gives full access to the magazine and its companion research journal, English in Education, as well as a huge array of other resources.  Find out more at https://www.nate.org.uk/ .


Blue Skye Thinking



It’s a joke in staffrooms that no-one complains about workload more than an English teacher. After four months in the job, the joke has already worn thin. Like all black humour, it operates as the nervous recognition of something truly horrific. Alongside the normal day- to-day workload of any staff member, my year as a probationer has the added challenge of naivety. For a few weeks I would ask if I could take on any more planning tasks, if I could run a club at lunchtime and after school, if I could get a look at some more marking… I was told by incredulous colleagues that I should probably get some sleep, while there was still time.

I’m having fun and I haven’t a minute to spare. Four months on, and I’ve settled into this community on the edge of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean – sheltered a little by the Outer Hebrides across the Minch. Portree isn’t quite as far west as education in Scotland reaches, but this week, as the snow fell on the astroturf and the Cullin, as the wind birled sleet over the sea cliffs of Skye, it began to feel isolated. The Total Heating – Total Control system has turned on my radiators via a radio signal from Perth. I have had my first absences due to snow and ice, my first absences due to power cuts, my first absences due to ferry cancellation. The students who wait for buses on cold mornings are beginning to envy the school boarders – with family homes too far away to travel from every day – in the hostel.

As in many things, when it comes to education Scotland is different, whether you live on a rural island or the ‘central belt’ between Edinburgh and Glasgow where most of the population lives. There is no Teach First, no School Direct, no academies or free schools, and no National Curriculum. Half as many students attend private school as in England. Most students are educated in schools controlled by a local authority – and mine, Highland Council (Comhairle na Gaidhealtachd), is almost as large as Belgium. My school, Portree High School, has a catchment area larger than Greater London. It has a little over 500 pupils.

A Scottish curriculum

The curriculum we teach, such as it is, is a policy landscape collated as the Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. It does not prescribe any content – instead focusing on what ‘experiences and outcomes’ students have. For instance, a typical outcome might be that a student should be able to say:

To help me develop an informed view, I can identify some of the techniques used to influence or persuade and can assess the value of my sources. (LIT 4-08a)

To many teachers, this is an admirable liberation; to many others, it is frustratingly vague. In practice, it seems teachers do what they have always done – they talk to each other, they interpret their task, and then do what seems right. Even if input from government to classrooms is pretty loose, there is a bright side: input from government into classrooms is pretty loose. In fact, my lessons have been improving because of the support of colleagues around me who know what they’re doing, and at times make it seem impossibly effortless.

I’m learning to understand the people in the room with me – the students. In my first lessons, I wanted to find out something about them, and let them know something about me. Our learning intentions were ‘ to be able write questions, appropriate to the audience and information we wish to discover’. In groups they questioned each other, and then were allowed to choose one query for their new teacher. The questions were a mixture of curiosity and self-protection.

  • Why are you here?
  • Do you know how wet it gets?
  • Do you know how cold it gets?
  • Where in Glasgow were you born?
  • Tennant or Capaldi?
  • Can you use a passing place?
  • Can you speak Gaelic? Mostly easy enough: but the last two were difficult.

Never mind passing places, I couldn’t drive at all at the time. And as for Gaelic – it was outwith my experience. Had I heard of Sorley MacLean (the Gaelic modernist whose birthplace, the island of Raasay, I could see from my classroom window)? No, I knew nothing beyond the name. He went to this school? He taught locally? I’ve lived in Scotland, studying literature, for 10 years and the name is as far as I got.

NATE Conference in Newcastle

The summer before I arrived on Skye, I was back at ‘home’ for the NATE conference in Newcastle. Some students on Skye thought I was a species of Glaswegian – I’m actually a Geordie. Ten years ago, I left Newcastle for the West of Scotland. Sorley MacLean wasn’t my first encounter with submerged histories: it took a move to Glasgow before I’d ever heard the name  of the Newcastle (Scotswood) -born modernist poet,  Basil Bunting:

Dung will not soil the slowworm’s

mosaic. Breathless lark

drops to nest in sodden trash;

Rawthey truculent, dingy.

Drudge at the mallet, the may is down,

fog on fells. Guilty of spring

and spring’s ending

amputated years ache after

the bull is beef, love a convenience.

It is easier to die than to remember.

Name and date

split in soft slate

a few months obliterate.

(from ‘Briggflatts’, 1965)

Approaching the conference venue, I couldn’t help thinking that even reflexive civic pride couldn’t make the giant hotel on the Gateshead side of the Tyne inspiring. It sits on a historic site of my teenage meandering, imposed into the arms of my favourite of the gorge-spanning bridges, and as a prominent reminder of what was lost from further up the hill. The brutalist, evocative, ‘Get Carter’ car park which was loved by some for the same reasons the Angel of the North is now (brash, prominent front teeth, unapologetically ugly) – had now been knocked out of the horizon.

Conference-going can be deadening – a series of obligatory but uninspiring pitches designed to improve efficiencies, outputs, or allow us to collectively moan. But they can also be an inspiring opportunity to discuss, to share experiences, to set out a collective understanding, and to discuss next steps. I am living through a time in Scotland where collective projects pop up with disarming regularity: this is the long tail of the independence debate. It was, then, a very recognisable thing, the NATE conference, despite being my first, and despite being a new teacher.

It was invigorating: a group of people gathered to talk of taking charge of the future of their work-lives, to determine for themselves what they wished to do, to share stories and skills about a job they love. Despite that, there was also a sense of being under siege, of being backed into a corner. Speakers and delegates repeatedly talked of the idiocy of policy makers, the sinister ideas of ministers – and then got down to the business of better, more humanely, delivering the curriculum. Softening the blow.

From the front of a classroom, it’s easy to wonder if education has always been like this. I revisited my old high school. It had dropped the ‘Comp’ from the title, was re-graded as an ‘Academy’, and no longer ‘Roman’ but simply ‘Catholic’. I remember a lingering ‘technical boy’s school’ mentality, and I remember feeling trained for the shipyard offices which rotted down the hill. The Spice Girls were at the height of their powers. Going to university wasn’t expected – a newly-built panoptic social security office was next door, and ending up behind or in front of its desks was likely. My graphics teacher insisted on giving some of us skills in something called ‘technical drawing’, and we learned the Hail Mary in Spanish.

I was there last year to see if anyone could remind me which exam board my Maths GCSE (modular) was awarded by – and whether it still existed. The board does, the school doesn’t, completely rebuilt a few years ago in one of the last PFI schemes. The old filing cabinets with my records had made the move; the ‘demountable’ classrooms (huts) which I’d taken every English lesson in hadn’t. It was there I first read Viz, and Shakespeare. It was there I got into my first real fight. It was there I slipped out of the school gates to march against a war.

NATE and the new teacher

What does any of this have to do with being an English teacher at the start of a working life? A few points from a position of naivety:

  1. We have an obligation to affirm the voices, languages and histories of our students.
  2. We should be duly suspicious of the ideas that are handed to us.
  3. We should be open to the idea that what we teach by accident will be more important than what we teach by design.
  4. What we leave out matters.
  5. It’s okay to be angry.

It is this attitude that I recognise and value in NATE. It is not simply a trading floor for coping mechanisms and interpretations of policy. It is a place of real professional, political, and cultural commitment. An attempt to remain autonomous from all the strains and demands of a job, and to serve students, not systems; to pick your head up and look to the horizon. I’m having fun, and I’m learning a lot.

Greed and social pride

left Screapadal without people,

and the iron band of laws

that put a vice-like grip on the people,

threatening to raise above them

the black Carn-Mors of hunger

and the Meircil rocks of famine

on which grow the poisonous bracken

from which come the deadly rocket,

hydrogen and neutron bombs.

(from ‘Screapadal’ by Sorley MacLean, translated from the Gaelic by Sorley MacLean.)


Tom Coles is a Local Authority  Co-ordinator for NATE in Scotland,  as a member of the Scottish Association for the  Teaching of English (SATE). He teaches in a high school on the Isle of Skye. These views are his own.



Welcome to SATE!

This is the first blog post of the Scottish Association for the Teaching of English (SATE).  Affiliated to the UK-wide NATE, we hope to offer teachers of English in Scotland a professional association that provides them with the opportunities to network professional learning in the context of professional update while also giving them a voice in the formulation of policy that directly affects the teaching of English in Primary and Secondary classrooms.  You can read more about us here:


We have plans for Teach-Meets around the country, using this blog to publicise and report on events members have organised and attended.  We hope in the future to run a major conference in Scotland in 2017, and to encourage action research in the classroom.  To do this, we need your help.  First of all, join NATE.  An individual or departmental membership provides access to journals of the latest research and magazines publicising the latest classroom practice.  Then – participate.  Gary Snapper of NATE is keen to receive items about classroom practice in Scotland for the Classroom magazine, and SATE hopes to form a Teacher Education committee with top academics from universities to support the publication of your classroom research. If you have any ideas for blog posts, please submit them to the Regional coordinator. And, by all means, if you are interested in furthering the development of a strong professional association in Scotland and would like to coordinate events in your local authority, contact any of the SATE officials below.

This is, potentially, an exciting time for English teachers in Scotland.  If you would like to know more, visit NATE at their national website (https://www.nate.org.uk/), or contact any of the following SATE officials.

SATE Regional coordinator: Raymond Soltysek  raymond.soltysek@strath.ac.uk

Highland Local Authority coordinator: Tom Coles tomcoles@gmail.com

Perth & Kinross Local Authority coordinator: Kerry Fraser kerryfraser@pkc.gov.uk

South Lanarkshire Local Authority coordinator: Susan Brownlie sbrownlie@st-a-and-st-b.s-lanark.sch.uk

North Ayrshire Local Authority coordinator: Jane Wilson gw15wilsonjane@ea.n-ayrshire.sch.uk

Glasgow Local Authority coordinator: Nuala Clark gw15clarknuala@glow.sch.uk

North Lanarkshire Local Authority coordinator: Katie Lane mrslaneenglish@gmail.com

Have a wonderful holiday and we hope to meet you soon!