I was sitting chatting with Kirstie Pilmer one Sunday afternoon in late May (at a safe ten feet of course) when Kirstie started telling me about how much she was enjoying her fifth year of teaching as a qualified teacher.

“Do you remember telling me it takes five years to become a fully effective teacher?” she asked. “I thought that must be an exaggeration and I remember thinking in my third year that I really was a fully effective teacher. But now I see what you mean. I don’t have to think about it anymore. I can sail into my classroom and start, I can respond to wherever the children take the learning, I can throw in anecdotes and jokes and illustrations and examples… It has become a fluid and natural process and I LOVE it!”

“That certainly won’t be how this year’s NQTs will be feeling in September, having been in lockdown since March,” I said. “Nor even those in their second year, as they only completed half of their NQT year in normality.”

We discussed the stresses and issues teachers in their first four or five years would be facing during lockdown and whatever came after it, and the fact that they would need lots of help and support.

“The trouble is,” I commented, “everyone will be needing help and support for as long as this lasts, regardless of how long they have been teaching, because it is a new crisis for everyone. No-one has ever been through this before… no-one can advise… there isn’t a book on how to do it. Headteachers have been amazing at keeping schools running in such terrible circumstances.”

And that’s when the penny dropped! We couldn’t write a book to help experienced teachers through the worst pandemic ever to hit the globe, that would be a job for the future if ever needed, but we could write a book to help those in the early stages of their professional career.

“Do you think you could tell the story of your first five years in the profession, Kirstie?” I asked. “Warts and all, that difficult class you had last year and the stresses and problems you have met on your journey?”

It didn’t take long to persuade my professional friend of ten years (Kirstie used to be my ‘front of house’ and driver for almost three years after she graduated and before she trained as a teacher) that her input would be invaluable for those new to teaching and that her contribution could be a vital part of the book. And it was thus that the idea was born.

“I have just finished my fifth year of teaching and it was a completely different experience. I was confident in my ‘teacher skin’ for the first time… it feels as though someone just flicked a switch and suddenly, I got it. Things I wasn’t sure about previously slotted into place, and now I feel like I can see the whole picture rather than lots of little parts of it.”
(Kirstie Pilmer, August 2020)

As I started to take down notes and ideas and the book started to take shape in my mind, I suddenly realised that the experiences of just two teachers (Kirstie and myself) was not enough for a balanced picture and I approached the seven esteemed colleagues at the peak of our profession, who all agreed to be co-authors, contributing pieces of two hundred words or more on their early experiences in the classroom. Then I had the idea of tweeting to see if anyone else would be interested in joining us and this resulted in eighteen absolutely fascinating accounts of teachers’ journeys into teaching, some written by teachers in the very early stages of their careers and others by colleagues close to retirement, by consultants and by university lecturers. These contributions give the text authenticity and I am so grateful to all the co-authors and contributors for their enthusiasm and time.

“Then came the wrath of the former PE co-ordinator. I naively thought he had happily swapped from PE to maths… There was bad feeling, which came my way by association… I remember one day in a crowded staffroom he said:

‘I bet she doesn’t even know the off-side rule.’

That night I enrolled in evening school to become a qualified football referee. Needless to say once I qualified, I knew more than he did about the off-side rule. Boom! Back of the net!”

(Ginny Bootman August 2020)

Meanwhile, I commenced the writing of the actual book in June and wrote solidly for seven weeks. The words just poured out… I scarcely had to refer to my research or notes. I was staggered at the way details from over fifty years ago and on through my career came flooding back – particularly the trying and tough times. I often wrote for between six and ten hours a day and my part of the book was finished in first draft in seven weeks. The fastest write ever for me.

The seven co-authors and eighteen contributors had a tight deadline too. We considered it essential to have this book available from the start of the new academic year in September. Every single one of them met the deadline and I then switched to compiling the book itself.

I spent a full week on proofing, editing and rewriting my own contribution (sixteen chapters) and on proofing the contributions as they came in. Then the document went to Richard Robinson for two consecutive proof reads and the process of publishing. Richard is the best proof reader I know – alongside my brother who also did one proofread. When all proofs were complete and all edits had been made we had exactly met our deadline of the 19th of August and the completed manuscript went to print on target, on the 31st of August. On Wednesday the 2nd September a large palette of boxes of books was delivered to Richard’s office. The remainder of the week was spent signing pre-release orders and all the co-authors’ and contributors’ copies and the big post-out occurred on schedule with books available from Friday the 4th of September. Job done!

It was during this intense process of compilation and proofing that the amazing fact hit me – the experiences of almost every one of the twenty-seven of us at the start of our careers were so very similar. That is when I finally realised how important the book might be. All except two of us had experienced similar fears, worries and stresses and a significant number of us had had to find our own way through, with little or no real help. That is the experience that has driven so many to leave our profession after only one or two years recently. ‘It Takes Five Years to Become a Teacher’ aims to help these teachers to survive and to thrive!

“Little did I realise that the window was unfastened and as I leant back, smiling and feeling cocky, the window opened right out and I literally fell backwards straight out of the window – proper Del Boy style – and landed on the back path…

Safe to say no more work was done that afternoon, and during the three more years spent in that classroom,  I never sat on the side again!”

(Alex Caunt August 2020)

It Takes 5 Years to Become a Teacher

Packed with warmth, humour and shrewd advice, this is a must for anyone embarking upon their career as a teacher. Becoming a good teacher is a skill that builds over time as we learn through experience, supported by the shared wisdom of colleagues.

Dame Alison Peacock

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