The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Mel Greenwood

10 top tips for early career teachers

The first years of teaching can be a challenging and overwhelming time. Mel Greenwood offers her top 10 tips to help ensure you thrive.

I am currently at the point in my career where I am ready for a fresh challenge and something new. Having worked in schools for 16 years, six as a deputy headteacher, I have taken some space to stop, rest and reflect on what is next for me. I know that not everyone can take a short career break whilst resetting but, if you can in the future, I would advocate for it. 

I would like to offer my top 10 pieces of advice for early careers teachers (ECTs.) This advice is based on my own experiences and reflections therefore, it is up to you to reflect, question and challenge my advice as you read. 

1. Routines

Get into a good work pattern as early on in your career as you can. Your first few years seem manic but, regardless of what you hear, it is not okay that you take work home every night and every weekend. There will be busy points in the year when you find yourself working at home, but your wellbeing and mental health are important, and you can't be your best self when you are exhausted.

Use a calendar or a tick list to organise yourself. Think about what you want to achieve each day, tick it off and leave your list there. Your work will never be finished so it is important that you establish clear boundaries and routines early on so that you are not burning out by the time you are into your third, fourth, or fifth year of teaching.  

Don’t tell families negative things that they don’t already know.

2. Feedback

If you are going to read about anything, read about effective feedback. Feedback, marking, or whatever it is referred to in your school setting will take up an inordinate amount of time. Feedback is important but, depending on what your practices are, it can be meaningful, or it can be pointless.

I know that school policy is involved here but reading, researching, and networking means that you remain informed. Informed practitioners ensure that their voice is respected and heard.  

3. Friends

Seek to make new friends in school. These are your people, your meme sharers, the teacher friends that you can have a good laugh and a moan with. They will remain friends for life, even when you are not working in the same school, and they will always have your back. Invest time in these relationships. You can never underestimate them.  

4. Staff relationships

Expanding on the last point, ensure that you also invest time in relationships with support staff, office staff, catering staff and the school’s cleaning and maintenance team. I cannot even begin to tell you how important these relationships will be in supporting your wellbeing and that of your students.

Schools cannot run effectively without these teams. Make sure you show your appreciation for these staff that can often get forgotten in the day-to-day busyness of the school day.  

5. Ted Talks

Get into the habit early on of making TED Talks part of your life. I have learnt so much just from watching and listening to Ted Talks. Sure, I have watched talks that I don’t necessarily relate to or agree with, but this is all part of a learning process.

I have found that as well as learning from content, I have learnt from the presentation and this is important, particularly if you aspire to move into leadership at some point. Try and make this a regular part of your life. Make it a habit to get up half an hour earlier once a week to watch with a cup of tea.

This is a point that I am still working on myself. Routine is important and I am not great at sticking to this, but we should always aspire. 

Listening to your own advice is important.

6. Planners

Never leave your report cards until the last minute. Add two or three reports each day to the list that we talked about in point one. Whichever way you look at it, reports will take a long time to write but I would like to offer a few tips.

Firstly, make brief notes to your planner throughout the year to help you remember what to write to personalise your reports. Is there anything that student ‘a’ excelled in? Enjoyed? Was determined to finish? I used to try and get one done before school in the morning, one after school and, if I was feeling particularly inspired, one in the evening.

Trust me, this is much less painless!  

7. Report card planning

Reports take up so much time that they deserve two points. Don’t write the easiest reports first! We can all think of those students for whom writing reports is a doddle - there is just so much to say and so many great things to write.

Don’t start with those reports because when you are tired, twenty reports down, these will be easy to reel off. Start with the reports that you think you will find trickier to write. Referring to point six, it is these student reports that would benefit from the notes you jot down throughout the year. Don’t tell families negative things that they don’t already know.

If there is a challenge that you are facing with a particular student, make sure this is shared through conversation, not a report card. I cannot imagine anything more soul-destroying as a parent than a negative comment that they weren’t expecting.  

8. Family bonding

Get to know the families of your students. I cannot begin to express how important this is. It is important for so many reasons but for this tip, let’s consider the cultural capital that this will garner.

When you spend time sharing positive news with families about their child, it is always so much easier should any challenges face you in the future. This sounds instrumental in its approach but, you will find that meeting families are a much more pleasant experience, particularly at family teacher conferences/parents evenings if you have spent some time getting to know them first.  

9. The power of connections

Forge connections beyond the UK. I have been lucky enough to work in a different country as a deputy headteacher and have forged many links. I now am blessed to have friends all over the world in different school environments.

This has enabled me to find out about different cultures, curriculums, and pedagogies and has supported me in researching for my dissertation, developing ideas and job hunting. You do not need to work abroad to build connections with educators working in various places - LinkedIn and Twitter are only two of the platforms that I have found incredibly useful in networking.

I feel networking in this way, I am always learning new things, finding fresh perspectives, and being challenged in my practice.  

Do what makes you happy.

10. Listen to your gut

Listen to your heart as well as your head. Your heart will tell you a lot of what you need to know. As an extension, gut instinct is real and should be considered if not listened to. If you are uncomfortable in a situation, a certain work environment or with someone, listen to your heart as well as your head.

This has saved me very many times. Be brave, stand up for what you believe. I have left a school before because I did not get a good feeling from the leadership team I was part of. This is OK - the school wasn’t working for me, and I wasn’t working for them.

My head was telling me to stay as I had nothing else to go to and with lots of bills to pay, this was a worry, but my heart told me to hand in my notice. I did, then I moved into international leadership in an incredible school that holds my heart to this day. Don’t dismiss that gut reaction.  


My final top tip - always keep your favourite snack in the cupboard for when you need it. This point needs no elaboration! 

One thing that I do wish that I had done a better job of is journaling. I wish I had taken time and space to journal my reflections so that I had something to look back on during those days, where I felt jaded or ineffective. Listening to your own advice is important. 

Practise what you preach and ensure that each day you turn up for yourself and protect your health - physical, emotional, mental and your wellbeing. 

Do what makes you happy and most importantly, as I address in point one, set your boundaries to ensure that you thrive in your role. 

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