NQT Special: Marbles and other top tips for NQTs

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NQT mentors are a crucial support during your first year. As part of SecEd's NQT special edition, Emma Lee-Potter speaks to three experienced mentors to get some handy ideas and key advice for new teachers everywhere.

 

As the end of term approaches, this year’s NQTs will no doubt be feeling a range of emotions – from relief that they have completed their first term as fully fledged teachers to apprehension about the gruelling two terms that still lie ahead.

They will not be short of advice, guidance and support though. NQT mentors up and down the country are all too aware of the challenges new teachers face and are keen to share their own expertise and experience.

Eileen Crawshaw has mentored NQTs at The Warriner School in Oxfordshire for eight years and is described by headteacher Dr Annabel Kay as “the best professional tutor in the UK”. 

Ms Crawshaw sees it as her job to make sure her NQTs feel “welcomed, comfortable and supported”. She meets her cohort at least once a week and reckons that by Christmas they should know the students in their classes, understand their requirements, be familiar with the school curriculum and routines, and have some involvement in extra-curricular activities.

She told SecEd: “Find out a little more about the students. Have informal conversations with them. Find out what they are interested in – ask ‘did you go fishing at the weekend? Did you catch anything?’ This is the time when you need to be looking at your students as individuals, not as 25 faces in a classroom.”

Dr Jacqueline Burt, student regent and curriculum leader for science at Gracemount High School in Edinburgh, agrees. She has mentored new teachers for 15 years, although her 630-pupil school does not have any NQTs this year.

“By the end of the first term, NQTs should be feeling established within the school and know their classes, students, colleagues and behaviour protocols,” said Dr Burt.

“They should be thinking very carefully about their practice at this stage and which areas they need to work on and develop.

“The main challenge as they move into the second term is to maintain their energy and their confidence in their ability, approach and delivery. It’s important to make sure that they aren’t just a one-trick pony – that they are branching out and learning new skills as teachers, so they are able to react when things don’t work out and aren’t getting stuck in a groove. They need to learn to use a whole lot of approaches and be very flexible.”

Ben Solly, vice-principal of Long Field Academy in Leicestershire, is mentoring 10 NQTs this year and believes that one of the challenges of the first term is for them to feel accepted as “proper teachers” by the students.

“It’s about NQTs establishing themselves as teachers and establishing positive relationships with the students – talking to them around school, in the canteen and in the corridors,” he said. 

Managing behaviour

During the early weeks of the first term students sometimes “test the water” with NQTs. The days when NQTs were advised not to smile at pupils until Christmas so youngsters knew you meant business have long gone – but even so it is important to establish firm ground rules and set standards.

On the other hand, Ms Crawshaw says that as the year progresses it is equally important to praise good work too.

“NQTs find it very easy to focus on poor behaviour that goes on in a lesson and forget the positive,” she said. “Let tutors, heads of year and parents know your students have done good work and get them to go and show the headteacher. 

“Continue to be consistent in dealing with behaviour – and when it comes to poor behaviour always focus on the behaviour, not on the person.”

Work/life balance

Even though NQTs have a reduced timetable, there is no doubt that the year is an exhausting one. With that in mind, they need to look after themselves properly, make sure they get enough rest and maintain a life outside school.

“January is the primary time for illness,” said Ms Crawshaw, “so eat and sleep well.

“Plan downtime, be kind to yourself and make sure you have school-free days in the holidays and for one day of the weekend. Organise a meal out or an evening at the cinema, then put it in your diary and don’t change it.” 

Mr Solly gives similar advice to his NQTs. He is well aware that some new teachers work long into the night to prepare “all-singing, all-dancing” lessons. With that in mind, he asks his group to do a time audit and work out exactly how many hours they are spending on planning, marking and relaxing. 

“One NQT was finding it very hard and was concerned that she was going to burn-out,” said Mr Solly. “I said ‘you can’t possibly maintain that. You must plan time for yourself too’. NQTs have to spend some time at home marking but it is unhealthy for them to be doing it all the time. It is about saying, for example, ‘right, on Tuesday and Thursday I’m not taking any schoolwork home’.”

Observations

Observations are a key part of teaching and CPD and Ms Crawshaw firmly believes that NQTs should make time to observe colleagues, both within their own department and beyond, right the way through the year. 

“I advise NQTs to use observations as a positive thing and to learn from them, not just look at them as criticism,” she said. 

“Continue to observe more experienced colleagues as well, not necessarily in the same subject area, and try out some of their ideas. You don’t have to observe someone for an hour, perhaps just dip into two or three lessons. I also think it’s a good idea to have a focus for observations, whether it’s wanting to see a group of your students in another class or looking at group work or Assessment for Learning (AfL).”

Dr Burt reckons that “seeing good practice is like gold dust” and that NQTs should be proactive and ask if they can shadow colleagues. She also believes that experienced teachers can learn from observing NQTs. 

“It’s a dynamic process and it works both ways,” she said. “NQTs bring in new and fresh ideas and should feel that they are contributing to their department. 

“I had a very good NQT two years ago and at the end of one observation, where she had introduced a positive behaviour strategy, I said to her ‘I’m stealing that idea’.

“She had got students who were good in class to pick a marble out of a jar and transfer it to another jar. Once the marbles were level it was a treat day. All the pupils were trying to get marbles into that jar.” 

Planning

Ms Crawshaw advises her NQTs to keep on top of their paperwork and also to use the vast array of data available to today’s teachers to plan.

“For an NQT it’s important to look at the data quite carefully to determine where your students are, where you need to go next and which students you need to target,” she said.

“At the start of the year you don’t know any of your students individually, you have no history, but by January you have a lot of information so you can work with individuals rather than a mass class. 

“With exam classes January is a good time to look at when the exams are, then work back and see when you are going to be able to complete the course and when you are going to start your revision programme. It’s so easy for time to slip away and it’s important to know how much time you’ve got.”

Meanwhile, Mr Solly reminds his NQTs “to maintain the meticulous level of planning” that they put into term one. As they progress into the second and third terms it is vital to keep the momentum up. 

“They must not plateau or think ‘I’ve cracked it now’,” said Mr Solly. “By the third term NQTs will start to get very tired but they must still deliver high levels of teaching in the classroom. The atmosphere might be more relaxed once the year 11 exams are out of the way but they can’t get complacent.” 

Talk to colleagues

As well as talking to their mentors and heads of department, Mr Solly encourages NQTs to share their experiences with other colleagues, bounce ideas off each other and discuss any worries or concerns.

“It’s probably the hardest year they will have so it’s important to have a support network around them,” he said. “They probably want someone outside the senior leadership team or heads of department that they can talk to as well – perhaps someone who was an NQT last year or a couple of years ago.”

But inevitably some days are trickier than others and on the days when NQTs feel uncertain about their teaching he advises them to remember the positive influence teachers have on young people’s lives.

“I reinforce that message with them,” he said. “I say to them ‘we’ve got the best job in the world and it’s important that you keep that in mind – even on the wintery mornings when you arrive at school in the dark and go home in the dark’.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

NQT Special Edition Download
On November 28, 2013, SecEd published in partnership with the NASUWT, eight pages of best practice and advisory articles aimed at supporting NQTs and young teachers. Ranging from behaviour and CPD to SEN and pedagogy, the articles offer valuable, practical advice and are freely available. You can read them in the best practice and blog sections of this website. Or you can download the free eight-page PDF at http://bit.ly/1aYJWUo
 


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