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Learn from our mistakes: teachers share their first year faux pas

From dunking ties in custard to encouraging year 8s to smoke, experienced teachers look back on their early blunders

All teachers have been there: the nerves, the frantic planning, the struggle to get to grips with marking. The first year is a steep learning curve, and – at times – it can feel more like a mountain to climb.

But those in their first month can rest assured that everyone makes mistakes – and we have gathered together the first-year faux pas of several experienced teachers to prove it. Just remember, those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

‘I had to tone down my personality’

Russel Tarr is the head of history at an international school.

During my first year I took on as many responsibilities as possible in a misguided attempt to make a good first impression. Debating society? Sign me up. Thinktank committee? Count me in. Residential trips? Absolutely. The problem with this was, firstly, that it distracted me from the job of learning the craft of classroom teaching. Secondly, I must have come across as an egotistical know-it-all. This is not something to broadcast at full volume as a newly qualified teacher (NQT).

In my second year, I turned my personality down to a less irritating setting and worked hard to focus on my students, while learning from experienced colleagues. As a result, I found the job less exhausting and more fulfilling.

‘I learned to carry a spare pair of trousers’

An anonymous teacher in a secondary school.

A big lesson in my first year was to always have a spare of trousers at work. The number of NQTs and trainees I know who have torn trousers or had broken flies halfway through a day would amaze you. They then have to hunt around for a safety pin. It can be very embarrassing.

‘I accidentally encouraged my year 8s to smoke’

Andy Lewis is head of year 11 at a secondary school.

In one lesson we looked at the pros and cons of smoking, why people smoke and why they shouldn’t. My form was overwhelmingly anti-smoking.

“It’s disgusting,” they said. “Why on earth would anyone even think of smoking?”

Instead of being pleased by their mature response, I decided to play devil’s advocate. “Don’t you think smoking makes you look cool though?” I said without thinking.

This was immediately repeated all around the classroom, and I spent the next two weeks living in fear that I would be sacked for encouraging year 8s to smoke. What did I learn from this? Playing devil’s advocate in the classroom is a craft to be perfected.

‘Calling a student’s parent taught me a valuable lesson’

Carl Hendrick is head of learning and research at an independent school.

No amount of sanctions or rewards seemed to make any difference to one student I had who constantly misbehaved. One day, totally exasperated, I said: “Right, I’m going to have a chat with your dad.” The class reacted with an audible collective gasp.


I called home, and gained an important insight into what that student was going through at the time. I explained that I was on the child’s side, that I genuinely cared and simply wanted them to progress, but that I required certain standards of behaviour. The parent was really supportive and promised to talk things through with the student.

I learned very quickly that the job transcends the four walls of the classroom, and that by making a link with a child’s life beyond that space, you’re showing that you fundamentally care about them – at the same time you are forming a very powerful ally in helping them to meet expectations and fulfil their potential.

‘I was mistaken for a student’

Rachel Shapey is a music teacher at a grammar school.

When I was an NQT I took a class to the library and when I got there I was told to wait outside until my teacher arrived. With a very red face I explained, in front of the class, that I was the teacher. I never lived that down. What did I learn? It doesn’t matter how young you look, remember that you’re in charge and students need to respect that, so persevere.

‘I dunked my tie in custard. Twice’

Dave Peck is a former teacher and chief executive of the Curriculum Foundation.

On my first day in my first job in September 1976, teachers were expected to sit at the ends of tables in the canteen with a clear view of all the children down each side.

They also had a clear view of me as I made that all-important first impression. I looked at them, put my tray down on the table and leaned forward to take my seat.

As I did so, my tie swung forward – in slow motion, as I remember it today – straight into the custard.

My embarrassment was compounded when, only the next day, I somehow managed to give a perfect repeat performance.

‘I signed up to run a club after falling asleep in a meeting’

Jodie Lopez is a former teacher and head of education at Classroom Monitor.

I was so tired in one staff meeting that I was drifting off. I lifted my head and glanced forward just as the headteacher looked my way. Clearly I was being asked for a response to a question I hadn’t heard so I said: “Yes, absolutely.”

It was only later that I realised I had just signed up to run an extra after-school club for the rest of the year. It is lucky I was still single that year as work-life balance was soon a distant memory.

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