I want to tell you about Fran. Fran is not real. We made her up from the data we have from our Support Line. We have to, to protect identities, but her story is very true. Perhaps you will recognise her. Maybe she reminds you of a colleague. She might even be a lot like you. For Fran represents one of the highest groups of teachers who contact Teacher Support Network’s Support Line: Fran is an NQT.
Fran is a woman. She is White and she has no disabilities. She is somewhere between 26 and 35-years-old and, naturally as an NQT, has only been in teaching for one to five years. She is likely to work at a state academy and earns between £15,000 and £16,000 a year.
Fran went into teaching because she was passionate – passionate about both her subject and about the children and young people she could help. Fran enjoyed her training and had a very positive placement. Some of Fran’s friends have been lucky and gone on to successful second placements and are relishing their new careers, but Fran is not so lucky. Fran is struggling with her new placement.
We know that Fran will most probably call the Support Line at the end of the school day between 3pm and 4pm, and when she calls she will want to talk about her money issues, anxiety, stress, depression or absence from work. She will tell our counsellor that she has been suffering from stress for a relatively short period of time, but has now reached crisis point. She might say that the reality of the job is a shock compared to her expectations.
Possibly, she will say she feels like the expectations placed on her are very high and, as a result, she feels like she is failing. She might say that her confidence has been eroded and she is beginning to feel deskilled. She could tell our counsellor she is considering quitting the profession.
Or if we were telling the story in Fran’s own words, it might sound something like this:
“I had a whole other career before I decided to give something back and train as a teacher. I was 26 when I started training and, while it was hard going, I found the training rewarding. On my training placement I had a great mentor and was teaching at a ‘good’ school. I was looking forward to my first year on the job – it couldn’t be that bad could it?
After a bit of a scramble I landed a job at a school that was under immense pressure. Inspection any day soon, parents expecting the best, a head running around like a chicken trying to keep the staff, the parents, the local authority, Ofsted, the governors on side. It was a real shock.
My official mentor was busy. She was worried about her own job, burnt out and couldn’t help me much beyond telling me I’d get used to it.
Fifty hours a week. On-going low-level behaviour issues I couldn’t get on top of. Constant assessments. Parents. Not enough teaching assistants. Thirty children, some with special needs, some with not enough English, all of them needing me. Real pressure. Makes the private sector look like a picnic.
After a year in the job I am a wreck. I have moments of clarity but most of the time I am simply keeping my head above water. Just. And the water keeps getting deeper as I spend more and more time trying to satisfy the demands of being a good teacher. Clubs. Board of governor reports. Internal assessments.
I want out. I certainly don’t want a whole life like this. If I get out now hopefully I can start again in my first career, though the recession will make that tough. It wasn’t great, but it was better than this. I had value. It was pounds and pence, but it was something. At the moment I feel like I don’t exist.”
You are not alone
So what can Fran do? Here are our tips for teachers on what they can do to help themselves when starting out in the profession. First, it is vital to remember that you are not alone – most new teachers find their first years challenging. Often the trouble really begins in the second year, particularly if you had a very supportive placement. So, as you prepare for September, keep the following advice in mind.
Don’t have all the answers
Others will not expect you to know everything or have all the answers – so don’t expect this of yourself. Ask questions. After all, you are still learning and developing your skills and experience.
Know what is expected of you
Check your contract, terms and conditions and talk to your union, but make sure you are clear of what exactly is expected of you. This includes everything from breaks to planning, preparation and assessment time. This will help you manage your time and people’s expectations of you.
Focus on what you can control
Write a list of all the things that are causing you stress. Divide the list into two sections: things you can control or have an impact on and things you can’t. Focus on the list that you can control.
Prioritise and set goals
Take another look at the list of things you can control. Put the list in order of priority. What needs to be done now? What can be put back until later? This should help make things seem much more manageable.
Looking at your priority list, set yourself some realistic goals, such as: I will take two nights off during the week and have one completely free day during the weekend, so that I can spend time with my family.
Then, write these goals down. Studies show that people are more likely to reach (and surpass) their goals if they write them down.
Make sure you write them in a positive way: goals become easier to achieve when you focus on the benefits, rather than the problem.
Take care of yourself
You have a duty to your pupils, students, colleagues, employers and most of all yourself, to look after your health and wellbeing. This means that you need to take proper breaks. This can be difficult when you have responsibilities outside the classroom, but at the very least try to find some time away from the classroom and students.
Make sure you look after your voice too. Putting the voice under continual strain can lead to long-lasting damage. Make sure you drink lots of water, rest your voice when you can and use non-verbal signs if and when appropriate.
Take care of your own work/life balance. Set practical systems to ensure that you can split your work and home life. Have separate email and social media accounts for work and home, and if you do need to bring your work home with you, try to leave it in another room, preferably with a door that you can shut. If this is not possible, hide your work away, when it is time to relax (always keep your work away from where you sleep).
Try to work out how you react in certain situations. Once you begin to know yourself, you can help develop new techniques in difficult or stressful situations. First, identify your stress triggers. What automatically makes you angry? Stressed? Emotional? Now think about how you usually respond to these situations.
For example: if someone asks you to do something, do you find you are tongue-tied and find it difficult to say no? If someone is rude to you, do you clam up and get emotional later?
Think of ways you might prepare yourself for those situations. If you cannot say no, can you learn some stock phrases to give in response when someone asks you to do something? – “I think this needs more time, can we talk about this later?” – or learn new techniques such as repeating the question back to them, to give yourself more time to think?
Talk to someone
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do not be afraid to voice your concerns with trusted colleagues or friends, as they may be able to give useful advice or simply offer a sympathetic ear. If, like Fran, your mentor is too busy, who else can you speak to?
We don’t have an ending to Fran’s story. We know that she understands that she is not alone, and we have helped her set goals that are right for her future. We hope that she realises just what an extraordinary and rewarding career teaching is and can be.
NQT Special EditionThis article was published as part of SecEd's June 2013 NQT Special edition, produced in association with the NASUWT. The edition features eight pages of best practice and advisory articles aimed at supporting NQTs and trainee teachers across the UK. Download the free PDF of all eight pages here.
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).