Combining an NQT with a psychology degree can really get children motivated

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The Independent Online

Richard Russell paces the room and addresses the children like a seasoned football manager giving a half-time team talk. He speaks confidently, in a mature and motivating fashion, slapping the back of his right hand into his left palm. He taps his head in a "think about it" sort of way and tells pupils to get "on it" – to focus.

If a child puts their hand up to answer a question, Russell won't say, "yes, Leon"; it'll be "come on, Leon!" to encourage them with their response. The children even celebrate when they get an answer correct – as if they've scored a goal.

Russell is not an experienced member of staff, however, but a newly qualified teacher (NQT) and has only been at the 455-pupil Nightingale Primary School in Wood Green, north London, for four months – and it shows in his enthusiasm. "It's about keeping it really lively – to keep them going," he says. "And the enthusiasm rubs off on the children. I love it here – I don't have a day when it drags; I don't have a day when I don't want to come in."

He arrives at 7am to prepare the day for his class of 29 nine and 10-year-olds, and stays, in his words, until the caretaker chucks him out at about six. That is, if he doesn't have any after-school clubs – he has instituted two football leagues – or meetings. Russell has already been elected a school governor and the head teacher tells me that the school recognises all the good that he is doing and is strongly considering fast-tracking him towards a leadership role once he has qualified teacher status.

Nightingale is a mixed school of predominantly Afro-Caribbean and white British children, but with increasing numbers of eastern European, Turkish and Somali pupils. Thirty-eight languages are spoken, including Afrikaans, Tamil and Swedish. The surrounding area is a fairly even mixture of private and social housing, with the latter slightly more predominant.

It's this diversity that attracted Russell, who is from Hull, to London. Having got a first-class psychology degree from Leeds, he returned to his home town to study for his PGCE. But once qualified, he got itchy feet. "In Hull it would be safe: I'm from Hull, I know Hull, which would have made it easier to relate to the pupils. I'd be really comfortable. But I'm 24: that's not what it's about. When you first go into teaching, you've got to push yourself." He says he wanted the challenge of a London inner-city school – which has its rewards (a standard starting salary of £24,000) but is renowned for its difficulty.

I'd been told to expect behavioural problems at Nightingale. Not a bit of it in Russell's class. He runs a tight ship, and marshals the children expertly. To address individuals and small groups, he squats down to the child's level and talks in a hushed voice and relies on the remarkably effective chant of "three, two, one, STOP!" when larger groups start to get out of hand. He displays a remarkable ability to control his voice and, what strikes me is how quiet these nine and 10-year-olds are. I began to think that Russell is strict.

"There's a difference between being strict and having high expectations," he says. "I have high expectations and I believe that, even though some of these kids have been through the most horrific things, I don't accept them not being quiet; I don't accept them charging across the room; I don't accept them having a fight."

Though he occasionally talks loudly, Russell claims to have only shouted at the class twice – and never at individuals. "A lot of these kids are angry, just angry with a lot of things that have gone on," he says. "And if I go shouting at them, what am I doing? I'm being aggressive, and it makes no sense. It's about calming them down."

Though it sounds like Russell has a grand plan, he says a lot of what he does as a teacher is subconscious and instinctive. As much as one evaluates things – and he does, picking "a million holes" in every lesson – he thinks a lot of it is just adapting to the new and wholly different situation of being in a classroom.

"You learn to read the class and you learn to read individuals," he says, "and teaching is all about individual relationships and how you treat that child accordingly. I think as an NQT you just learn how to deal with a class. You may feel good in training and think you've got some experience, but there's nothing like having your own class because then you're responsible for everything that goes on."

Instinctive or not, Russell is still meticulous in his preparations. He says that as an NQT, you can't simply wing it. You must plan lessons to have an understanding of what you're doing. And far from suffocating in the modern target culture, he says that in his ideal world, each and every child would have individualised targets, because targets work. "If you say to a child, 'that's your target,' they will work towards it."

There are four other NQTs at Nightingale, and Russell admits that it helps a lot to have other people going through similar emotions. But ultimately, the journey of an NQT is one of self-discovery and Russell says that the early days of teaching are about learning that you can't be the perfect teacher that NQTs desire to be. "At the start it's pretty stressful because you're trying to be a world beater; you're trying to do these lessons that are really jazzy. But with some of the children in this class, if I did a lesson that was exciting every time, it'd be too much; they'd be too hyper. They need that structure of sitting down quietly.

"So the challenge is accepting that you're not going to be groundbreaking every time, and you make mistakes – big mistakes sometimes. But they forgive you – that's one of the benefits of working with children."