NQT Special Edition: How to fail as an NQT...

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
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New teachers are not always given great advice. Sean Harris gives us some examples of pearls of ‘wisdom’ that are best ignored – but also offers NQTs some more sensible tips...

Benjamin Franklin claimed that “ill customs and bad advice are seldom forgotten”. It appears that the Twittersphere backs this up as I found recently when I asked for recollections of bad advice and poor experiences from teachers’ first years at the chalkface.

As such, this article includes some of the worst examples of this so-called “advice”. However, I have also included some of the more sensible guidance I received from NQTs and from some more experienced teachers who survived and thrived in their first few years of teaching...

‘Don’t plan your lesson. Just turn up and see what happens!’

Amy Forrester (@amymayforrester), an English teacher in Cumbria, was given this piece of duff advice in her first year of teaching. Fortunately, she chose not to adopt this advice and her blog offering practical pedagogy and support to teachers is testimony to this.

Gisele Mahoney, an NQT serving pupils at Norham High School in North Tyneside, also rejects this approach. She reminds NQTs of the need to be prepared and to think carefully about how they go about the lesson planning process.

Be prepared to adapt your lesson resource. Be suspicious of any resource or plan that suggests you can implement it without any kind of adaptation.

Be prepared to share your resources with other schools or classrooms. In doing so you create opportunities to access other colleagues’ resources and can find out how lessons have been adapted to suit the needs of other pupils.

Spend your time planning sequences of learning episodes/lessons rather than putting all of your hard work into stand-alone lessons. It is not all about the observation, but rather where you are trying to get pupils over a period of time.

Sherlayn Allon, a recently qualified teacher at North Shore Academy in the North East, urges teachers to think “forensically and smartly” about how they plan lessons.

If using PowerPoint, use this as the basis of your lesson plan. It is not necessary to spend lots of time producing wordy plans to sit alongside your slides.

Be prepared to review and reflect on how your lesson delivery went. You do not need to do this for every lesson, but use the notes sections of slides or annotate with a pen what went well and what you need to consider ahead of the next lesson.

Discuss your reflections with a peer or with a colleague/mentor. This is a good habit which will support your on-going development as a teacher.

‘Get students to routinely copy objectives down from the board’

Jon Tait (@TeamTait), a deputy head and director of a Teaching School, was handed this pearl of ill wisdom in his NQT year. Fortunately, he ignored this advice and has gone on to publish a number of books and articles offering robust support for teachers when it comes to engaging pupils.

The author of 100 Ideas: Engaging learners told me: “It probably takes three minutes per-lesson, five lessons a day, five days per week, 39 weeks per year to work out that a pupil would spend on average 50 hours writing learning objectives if we followed this advice!”

Back at Norham High, Ms Mahoney offers the following practical pointers for engaging our learners without copying down objectives:

Explain verbally the rationale behind your tasks but do not feel the need to display objectives every few minutes. I found we made too much of this at university.

Use a “bell task” (activities posted on the board or distributed to students as they arrive to class that should be started at or before the time the bell rings) to engage your pupils when they come into the room. There are hundreds of examples on Twitter, Tes and other online forums.

I take the register in French to engage my pupils in speaking French from the moment that they come in while also setting good routines for the class.

Encourage some members of your class to take responsibility for aspects of the learning environment – giving out books, collecting in homework, co-leading tasks...

Ms Allon adds to this debate: “Why do some teachers feel the need to have such long objectives in the first place?” She adds, for example:

We have a trust-wide policy of two sharp targets that help to set the tone of learning. One objective linked to challenge and one linked to aspiration. I do not think it useful to have objectives that every pupil can achieve in the first few minutes of a lesson. Instead, objectives should be short and easy to understand for pupils.

Ensure you have a bell task that hooks in the learning or context of the lesson. Word searches and other activities designed to stagger the time are rarely used to engage the learning context. Instead, use visual stimulus or questions linked to what pupils will study in the lesson.

In addition, question any task that involves pupils copying large chunks of information from a board. Ask yourself, “what learning is taking place here?”. Challenge pupils to use techniques like skim-reading, scanning and summarising to ensure tasks like this are hooked into learning instead.

‘Don’t smile until Christmas’

JK Wilson (@mrjkwilson) is a vice-principal of a comprehensive school in the Midlands. Needless to say, he was quick to dismiss this terrible nugget of advice that he – and many other new teachers – was offered. He said: “I smiled and had some of the best class relationships that year!”

Ms Allon adds her thoughts:

  • Understand that this is simply bad advice! Smile, but do so against the consistency of following school systems and procedures for promoting positive behaviour.
  • It is important to set your tone and an NQT being referred to as a “strict teacher” in their first few years of teaching is no bad thing.
  • Understand that it is more beneficial for you in the long-term to over-emphasise school systems and apply sanctions than not following them at all.
  • Be consistent in your expectations and make sure that pupils understand that you are prepared to follow policies and procedures like your colleagues.

For my part, I remember a colleague offering me some like-minded advice in my NQT year – something along the lines of “you need them to not like you”. For the majority of NQTs with common sense, they quickly realise that pupils with a real dislike for teachers is a recipe for classroom capers.

So I would take time on a Friday afternoon to target three pupils who had done something really well and I phoned home to speak to their parents/carers about them and their work. It encouraged me to finish the week on a positive and made sure that pupils and parents understood that I was prepared to finish my week by staying behind to commend and affirm positive behaviour.

Ms Mahoney, meanwhile, said: “I don’t agree with the idea of not smiling until Christmas, but it is true that I could have been more firm in my first couple of terms.” She contributes her advice:

  • Try not to take things personally when pupils misbehave. Pupils will occasionally get things wrong and it is important that you point this out to them when it happens.
  • Challenge even the smallest of issues in your classroom as it reminds pupils of your high standards. If it is preventing you delivering the lesson that you want for your pupils then be prepared to make a stand – even if it means upsetting some pupils on the way.
  • Learn not to shout or be aggressive. Model the type of behaviour that you expect from your pupils. It is too easy to raise your voice and then be surprised when they raise their voice back at you.
  • Speak to colleagues in nearby classrooms if you need support with specific pupils and go and observe colleagues to see how they are developing positive rapport with hard-to-engage pupils. It is really important to see these pupils in other settings.

‘A good teacher can teach anything’

Eleanor Bernardes (@Nor_edu), is now head of engagement at LKMco, and fortunately was also swift to dismiss the poor advice that she was offered. She said: “I was an English teacher teaching French when I received this advice!”

Yet it appears from the Twittersphere that a number of NQTs have picked up similar advice and ideas from their early teaching experiences. This can place unfair pressure on NQTs when covering lessons or taking on form tutor duties, making them believe that they should be able to support their tutees through all aspects of their studies during the exam season.

Ms Mahoney advises: “Don’t worry when you are given cover lessons. You are not expected to know everything. Use cover lessons as a good opportunity to find out what pupils are studying in other curriculum areas. Ask pupils to teach you about aspects of their learning in other disciplines.

“Team-teach with a colleague from another subject area so that pupils can make cross-curricular links and so that you can confidently apply your teaching skills to other curriculum areas.”

Similarly, Ms Allon adds:

  • When I leave cover work as a maths teacher, I do not expect colleagues to know all of the answers. When leaving cover work, be mindful of the fact that your colleague may not know the context/subject knowledge. This helpfully reminds pupils and colleagues that you are not expected to know everything.
  • Leave a space for comments or lesson feedback on your cover lesson notes to invite feedback from colleagues about the lesson and the aspects that pupils perhaps struggled with.
  • Use YouTube videos of modelling answers in cover lessons to walk and talk pupils through questions/answers. I especially find this helpful when leaving maths work for my year 11 pupils.
  • At the start of a cover lesson, challenge the class to present to you brief feedback or recap on their learning so far. In addition to upskilling your subject knowledge it can helpfully remind you what pupils are studying in other areas of the curriculum.


The first few years of teaching can be a steep learning curve. It is essential to have people around you who will be able to sharpen and support your practice. Alongside the importance of planning lessons, following school systems and developing your subject knowledge, it seems that ensuring you have the right mentors and coaches around you is equally important.

As I wrapped up my discussion with Ms Mahoney at Norham High School her NQT mentor, Jenn Rouse, beaming with smiles, told me how fantastic Gisele’s most recent observation had been and the ways in which she had developed as a practitioner.

Ms Rouse, curriculum leader of humanities and an NQT mentor, took great pleasure in seeing her colleague grow and develop. Shortly afterwards, a pupil came by and spoke in fluent French to Gisele. It reminded me that behind great pupils are great teachers, and behind great teachers are brilliant mentors – prepared to offer great advice. Oui, c’est ça!

  • Sean Harris is area director (North East) for Ambition Institute. Sean is chair of governors for James Calvert Spence College in Northumberland and a trustee of the North East charity M10 which develops young people to participant in international community development opportunities. You can follow him on Twitter @SeanHarris_NE

Further information & resources

NQT Special Edition: Free download

This article was featured as part of SecEd’s 10-page NQT Special Edition in our June edition. To download a free pdf of all 10 pages, which offer advice for new teachers across a range of topics including behaviour, classroom practice, wellbeing and more, go to the SecEd Knowledge Bank. The NQT Special Edition was produced with kind support from the National Education Union. Visit www.sec-ed.co.uk/knowledge-bank/nqt-and-trainee-teachers-10-pages-of-tips-advice-and-support


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