NQT Special: An NQT Christmas Carol

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In a period of dark mornings, darker nights, budget cuts and teacher workload, Sean Harris – with a little help from Charles Dickens and a few others – considers how NQTs might achieve levels of optimism and prioritise their development and progress as a teacher in their NQT year:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone … a squeezing, wrenching, gasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!”

So wrote Charles Dickens in 1843 of the character Scrooge, who has since become associated with our festive season of repentance and redemption.

The Ghost of NQT Past

In a Christmas Carol, the first spirit – the Ghost of Christmas Past – reminds a miserable Scrooge of a period of innocence in his life by taking him back to see his time as a child.

Scrooge is challenged to contemplate his loneliness at boarding school and the ways in which he was treated by his beloved sister and an employer who looked on him like a son. It is easy to lose sight of the person we once we were and the life experiences that have shaped the character we are today.

Likewise, as an NQT it is easy to lose sight of how far we have come at the expense of what we still need to learn. It is understandable for NQTs to feel overwhelmed by the volume of new information, processes and systems.

Debbie King, lead practitioner at the Extol Learning Trust in the North East, said: “I wish someone had told me that it was okay not to know everything. I came to recognise the need to get into the staffroom once a day and to make sure that I spoke with other colleagues within the school regularly as a way of reminding myself that we were in the same boat together.”

Timely conversations with colleagues, both negative and positive, can help you to appreciate the progress you are making and to seek support readily as and when it is needed. Sharing the journey with others, much like Scrooge did with the Ghost of Christmas Past, can help you to realise that you are not facing these events on your own. The NQT mentor plays a critical role here, however it is important for NQTs to widen their network of support beyond that of their mentor as well.

The Ghost of NQT Present

For Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Present pushes him much further than that of the previous ghost. It is the Ghost of Christmas Present that wants Scrooge to open his eyes and to understand the world in which he exists – the injustice surrounding the poor and the impact that Scrooge can have within this world.

It is imperative that NQTs build around them a network of colleagues and friends that can remind them of their purpose as a teacher and the impact that they can have, especially on the lives of disadvantaged children.

Martin Atkinson, assistant headteacher at Stopsley High School in Luton, said: “Build a network of support with other NQTs or new staff across the school. Organise marking or planning parties with them, whether they teach your subject or not, it can be quite cathartic to see that other teachers have similar thought processes and trials as you.

“It is also good to have critical friends to bounce ideas off and challenge your thinking. Collaborative planning can be a powerful tool to drive on your teaching and make you reflect on the impact of your lessons.”

Be prepared to share the journey with others who will remind you of those that you serve. It may, as Scrooge discovers, be uncomfortable at times or involve occasional feedback that you don’t want to (initially) hear, but it can enable you to have a much more significant impact as somebody that is new to the mission of teaching.

The Ghost of NQT Future

Scrooge is almost a broken man by the time the Ghost of Christmas Future takes a journey with him. The spirit appears to Scrooge as a character in a black cloak and communicates with him by pointing at him and through Scrooge’s inner-monologue. The future is bleak for Scrooge if he is unprepared to change his wicked ways.

On the relentless treadmill of teaching and with continuous pressures facing the wider world of education beyond their classroom, it is easy for an NQT to form a bleak picture of the future of the profession and their own career.

However, having a positive mindset towards the future and considering the impact that is still yet to come in your career can be a helpful way of considering the future leader of learning that you want to become – and the teacher that you set out to be.

Laura Dixon, director of modern foreign languages at Benton Park School in Leeds, made the transition from trainee teacher to a middle leader and believes NQTs interested in this career path should consider taking on a small project in their first year.

She explained: “Take on a very specific, very manageable part of the faculty or department development plan and lead a small-scale project around it. Get really used to the plan – do – review cycle of implementation.

“The conversations and meetings you will have with the current head of department (as part of this work) will give a great insight into what middle leadership is about.”

NQTs, she continues, should be careful to ensure that this project is small enough so that they don’t feel burnt-out or stressed about the extra responsibility in an already complex year of competing demands and workload. However, leading a small aspect of a development plan can help expose you to the strategies and methods that are required for future middle and senior leadership in schools, if this is the way you think you want to go.

This approach enabled Laura – who is a graduate of Ambition School Leadership’s Teaching Leaders development programme – to lead a small-scale project that launched some new ideas while also facilitating her working alongside different colleagues, which helped to develop her own leadership skills.

Part of constructing your future trajectory to leadership as an NQT involves knowing where your blind spots are and beginning to make a list or conduct an inner-audit of those areas where you know you need more support.

This can help new teachers, in any setting, to be clear about their areas of development and it enables them to build their confidence in those areas of the role that tend to make them feel anxious or pressured.

Laura Kirkland, curriculum leader of humanities at Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough, said that one of the core areas of development for her NQTs has been that of learning to understand how to read and analyse data. Laura – also a Teaching Leaders graduate – has used software such as SISRA Analytics to help NQTs identify the underperforming pupils in their classes and then to use this data to inform conversations about how they can identify and tackle their barriers to learning.

She said: “Use data to inform your conversations with your mentor and with colleagues. If you don’t understand it easily, don’t be afraid to ask for advice or support. The most effective teachers do this consistently.”

Peace on NQT earth

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me.”

So declares a reformed Scrooge by the end of Dickens’ redemptive story. Scrooge is ready to embrace any challenge that life throws his way and is committed to serving communities of disadvantage.

By the end of the NQT year, teachers should also seek to hold this same spirit of optimism, determination and resilience. Below are some more pointers from our Christmas advisors.

‘What the Dickens’

Some further advice from Martin Atkinson at Stopsley High School (@bealfeirste_AFC):

  • Organise visits to other similar departments in other local schools and develop a network to share ideas and resources. Social media is also a great place for this.
  • Read leadership and teaching periodicals and books. There are currently an abundance of good leadership books available focusing on education. Most of these books are written by educators who have been through the journey and they offer practical advice and tips.
  • Teaching can be a tough gig, and as teachers we are probably some of the worst people for dwelling on the negatives. Ensure that you reflect on each day by thinking about how you’ve made a difference, who you have helped and what good deeds you have done. These will most certainly outnumber the disappointments of the day.

‘Bah Humbug!’

Some further advice from Laura Dixon at Benton Park School (@LDlleeds):

  • Seek out and keep the positive pupil voice of why they feel proud of their progress and experiences in your subject.
  • When it is dark and miserable with all the deadlines looming and it is all a bit too overwhelming, the thank you cards and the reflection of “I’m proud of what I’ve done today because...” from just one child makes me remember that I do the most important job in the world.
  • More practically, remember you’re human, you’re fallible and you’re at the beginning of a wonderful journey where you will get tonnes wrong every day. So don’t beat yourself up, seek advice where you can, and remember that not every day can be good, but there can be good in every day. Your job as an NQT is to find those glimpses of good and build on them.

Face the challenge

When having observations, don’t pick the easy lessons. Your worst lessons can become your best lessons – so believes Deborah Basket, assistant principal and ITT lead at Excelsior Academy in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (@MrsMathia). So, pick the classes that challenge you the most, because these classes provide a fabulous opportunity for some serious mentoring, development and progress.

Final chapter

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

Dickens leaves us with this image of Scrooge. Likewise, throughout your NQT year, you have the potential to have a positive impact not only on the lives of disadvantaged children but across your entire school community and the lives of the colleagues that serve in these communities with you.

Just remember to make sure that you enjoy a well-earned break over the festive period and have a happy new year!SecEd

  • Sean Harris is a former deputy headteacher and NQT. He is North East area director for Ambition School Leadership and chair of governors at James Calvert Spence College in Northumberland. You can give him a festive follow at @SeanHarris_asl

NQT Special Edition: Free download

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NQT Special Edition – eight pages of best practice advice aimed at NQTs and trainee teachers as they come to the end of their first term. All eight pages, published in November 2018, can be downloaded as a free pdf via http://bit.ly/2FGrF77


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