When I was asked to write a piece offering advice for current NQTs, I thought “what have I to offer that won’t just be a bland and useless repetition of everything you have heard already?”.
Over the past year or so your brains will have been bombarded with so much advice – on all things from pedagogy and Assessment for Learning, to behaviour management, that you probably have pearls of wisdom tumbling from your weary eye balls.
You have made it through the most difficult part of your teaching career. The extent to which you are still standing and looking forward to your second term after the much-needed Christmas holidays will be largely dependent on the individual school you are in, the leadership who preside over you, and your interpretation of all the experiences you have had from the start of term up until now.
However, I am going to talk about the part of being an NQT that often gets over-looked – the potential challenges and sheer stress and confusion of the conflicting messages that you may have been receiving from your seniors, the media, the government, and from your own personal moral compass.
So far, you may have felt as if your role as a teacher is an endless game of spinning plates. You had naïvely imagined teaching as a profession where you could convey your love of a subject to the next generation, help young people to develop the academic and social skills required to function as healthy, active members of society, and provide them with opportunities to succeed and pursue ambitious careers.
You perhaps were not aware of the fervour with which policy changes could be enforced, hadn’t known how many box-ticking administration exercises you would be asked to complete on a daily basis, and to put it simply, hadn’t realised how much of your time would be taken up engaging in activities which bear little resemblance to the career you thought you had embarked on (that of planning, assessing and actually teaching your pupils).
In the wider stratosphere, you have endured politicians claiming that any old guy with a PHD is better qualified than you to undertake the professional duties that you trained so hard for; apparently it doesn’t matter that he knows nothing of how to cater for SEN, differentiate for wide-ranging abilities, or accurately assess the learning journey that each of his pupils has traversed. He has a PHD so, you know, he must really “know his subject”.
You may have read coverage of the teacher strike action in most major press publications with shock and horror; how we teachers made poor parents spend a whole day at home with their children purely to line our greedy pockets with greater pensions and higher pay. You will have asked yourself, how could these journalists have gotten our motives so wrong?
If you are a teacher of maths or English, you were probably disgusted that one bull in a china shop could be allowed to trample on your year 11’s GCSE courses with such calamitous consequences, when they are already half-way through said course. Surely teachers would be given a little notice of such extreme changes to examinations?
Closer to home, you may have been chasing the elusive Grade 1. Perhaps you are intrigued as to how this concept of “dialogue” within pupils’ books, something that was never mentioned in your year’s PGCE training, could suddenly be the make or break for whether your lesson reaches outstanding.
I would like to reassure you, NQTs, that to feel angry because of any of the above is completely natural and, I suspect, inevitable. What I would like to share with you is three simple pieces of advice.
1. You’re a teacher – be proud
Remember that the senior leadership team are only human beings. They have their own deadlines to meet and pressures from all sides. This is why they may sometimes do things that to you seem farcical.
Try to remember that they see the bigger picture and they are trying their best in the midst of numerous political and economic challenges.
Do not apply this same logic to our education secretary Michael Gove, however. Do sympathise with the fact that he is a human being trying to do a job, but stomp and shout and wave your flags in the face of policy which disrupts your pupils’ examinations, undermines the professional qualification you have studied so hard for and threatens to demolish protections to your working conditions.
2. You’re there for the pupils
Your ideal of teaching concepts in relation to one another for long-term understanding, rather than quickly for the test, may not be shared by your colleagues.
My advice to you is, amid the pressure to fill out a spreadsheet with green marks, resist the trap of spoon-feeding.
Do not give up taking risks and trying new methods of teaching your subject in a way that builds your pupils into independent, resilient, critical-thinkers, rather than the insecure exam machines that this fervent testing culture creates.
The most successful learners need to become self-disciplined, collaborative and courageous and, as valuable as exam technique is, of more value will be the scholarly qualities that you instil in your pupils.
Know the good that you are doing within your classroom, despite potentially short-sighted senior leadership team, ever-impending Ofsted inspections, this year’s fad for a Grade 1 lesson observation.
Believe that you are having an impact on the pupils you teach and keep going.
3. Learn to laugh about it all
Your emotions will have been severely tried this half-term, not least by your pupils, who will have undoubtedly on occasions fallen short of the high expectations you have set for them. Do not let this upset you. For your own mental health, take a step back, a deep breath and think calmly about practical steps that you can take – talk to their form tutor, keep them for detention, phone their parents.
Do not take it as a personal insult that, despite you committing hours and hours after school to ensuring they have every opportunity available to help them through their academic life they seemingly couldn’t care less.
They most likely do care. You are still a good teacher and, as such, you will continue to give your pupils your best, but you will not let it stress you out if they are struggling to take your best from you.
Go home. Laugh about it, with colleagues, with friends, with family. It may feel like teaching is your life but, let’s face it, it is also a job and, one day, you might stumble upon a life outside of the school gates.
Young people are the most fascinating, funny, caring, unique and forgiving humans you will ever have the pleasure of working with. Stay sane and start each new lesson with a fresh perspective, no matter what has gone before. Greet them with a smile and you will reap the rewards.
This term may have left you feeling disillusioned, frustrated and exhausted, but hopefully you are also feeling challenged, spurred-on and inspired to come back out fighting after the Christmas break and better able to teach than ever before.
NQT Special Edition DownloadOn 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
Last year’s SecEd NQT diarist wrote anonymously and is now a second-year teacher of maths at a secondary school in south London.