You've qualified - now what?

Almost more important than getting through your teacher training is finding the right place to start your career. Moving away from familiar territory is not always a good idea, advises Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

It's a decision that most people ponder at least once in their lives: where to take that first job. In a sense, it's easy in teaching because schools are everywhere. But the abundance of supply isn't really that helpful, and it can be dangerous if it leads you to take the first half-decent job that comes along.

It's a decision that most people ponder at least once in their lives: where to take that first job. In a sense, it's easy in teaching because schools are everywhere. But the abundance of supply isn't really that helpful, and it can be dangerous if it leads you to take the first half-decent job that comes along.

The first year of teaching will be tiring, demanding and emotionally burdensome wherever you are, which makes it all the more important that you choose carefully to maximise your strengths, and sidestep the avoidable pitfalls.

There are a number of factors that you should take into account before accepting your first post. How much weight you give to them and in which order you rank them is up to you, and will vary according to your circumstances. But you will ignore them at your peril. What's more, unless you apply a few criteria to your search, you'll find yourself wading through endless jobs pages with no real direction.

You may first choose to narrow down your options on geographical grounds. Most newly qualified teachers start work in the area where they did their training. They will already have established somewhere to live, got used to the transport system on their way into college and at least two placement schools not too far away, and begun to become acquainted with the local educational landscape.

I would even go so far as to recommend that you don't stray from this geographical area, unless you're going somewhere you know really well - your home town or university area, for example.

Elizabeth Holmes has written a weighty but very readable tome for teachers in just this position.

"If you're used to having family and friends close by, your first year of teaching is not the time to break away from these support systems," she says. "In a new area, you'd have to make new friends and build a new social life. Finding the time and energy to do this could prove difficult."

The next factor to reckon with is the type of school, and there are more choices here than you might think: mixed or single-sex, state or private, day school or boarding, religious or largely secular, inner-city or rural, 11-16 or with a sixth form. I wouldn't be too dogmatic over this, as the unique characteristics of individual schools are far more important than the label. However, you should exercise caution if considering schools in a category where you don't yet have any experience.

You may want to target specialist schools in your subject area, but this approach should come with a health warning. Over the past few years, schools granted specialist status have sprouted up everywhere, bearing fancy names dripping with promise: arts and media colleges, sports academies, modern language institutes and so on. Look carefully at how much substance lies behind the branding. You may find that, behind the new façade, lies a school much like any other. The term "bog standard" comes to mind.

By now you should have narrowed things down sufficiently to consider a few applications or, if you're lucky, respond to a few approaches schools have made to you.

Research is important and plenty can be done on a computer. Schools have websites, Ofsted reports and league tables are published, and you may have chatted to people who already work there. But don't start filling in that application form unless you've paid a visit to the school in person, whether it's after you've formally requested a look round, or just hung around the school gates at the start or the end of the day. It's amazing what you can learn by seeing the kids come and go.

The crux, though, is what a school can offer you, and these may be issues that you clarify only at the interview stage. A non-negotiable factor should be the school's ability and willingness to marshal you through your NQT year.

Holmes sees this as a litmus-test issue: "Your first school can have a huge influence over your whole career, not least because it's where you'll work through your induction period. So never leap at the first job that comes along unless you're as sure as you can be that you'll receive sufficient support [there]."

In practice, this will mean your having a mentor looking after you in your subject area, and an identified senior member on hand to offer professional and pastoral guidance as well. There should be an established NQT programme in the school, and your timetable should be slightly lighter to give you time to adjust to all these professional development issues.

Length of contract is a smaller problem. Most NQTs are, in effect, taken on indefinitely, but if you're considering accepting a temporary contract, make sure it's at least a term in length, as periods of less than a term do not count towards your induction.

I would also recommend that you establish that there's at least one other NQT starting at the school at the same time as you, and preferably a small group of them. This would not only be a reasonable sign that the school takes training seriously, but also, and more importantly, this will be a ready-made group of friends for you. When I was an NQT two years back, I made friends for life among my fellow starters.

Make sure you know exactly what the school is offering you timetable-wise. It should go without saying that you'll be teaching your own subject predominantly, but many schools are not above slipping in a few lessons in another subject while your back is turned. "You don't mind teaching a bit of RE/Citizenship/ICT, do you?"

In addition, you'll need to know broadly the age groups you'll be teaching - not down to the last detail, but certainly, for example, if you'll have classes at Key Stage 3, Key Stage 4 and Sixth Form.

Most, but not all, NQTs are given a tutor group in the first year. This represents a substantial extra chunk of work and also a potential source of variety and reward. You need to be clear if you'll be getting one.

If you can't find anything advertised that really appeals, but know of a school where you'd really like to work, don't be afraid of making a speculative application. You'd certainly convince the school in question that you were serious about working there, and your letter might arrive as someone unexpectedly hands in their notice.

And finally, if, by this summer, you still haven't got fixed up for September, don't despair too much. A surprising number of jobs come up during the school year, and plenty of people start their careers in the spring or summer terms. Good luck.

To order Elizabeth Holmes's 'The Newly Qualified Teacher's Handbook' (ISBN 0-7494-3857-6) published by RoutledgeFalmer, at an exclusive discount price of £12.99 (RRP£14.99) plus free postage and packing, please call 01264 343071 quoting 'Indy reader offer'

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