NQT Special: Five steps to failure!


School leaders Sean Harris and Ben Ryder explain the five steps NQTs should definitely avoid if they want to have an impact beyond their NQT year!

According to Sir Michael Wilshaw, it is a “national scandal” that an estimated two-fifths of newly equipped teachers depart the teaching profession within five years of joining it.

Increasing demands to demonstrate progress at all times in your lessons, a persistence to pack further subject knowledge into key stage 4 courses, and widening working hours each pose a real challenge to NQTs about to take on a full timetable and maintain something of the energy and skill that has got them this far.

These five steps are guaranteed to help even the most dedicated, enthusiastic, promising NQT fail as a teacher. 

If you are looking to have minimal impact in the profession and lead students to “less than expected” outcomes then uphold the following principles!

Over-plan and never take a break – especially during your holidays!

You dash into the school building, barely making the audible sound of the bell ringing out to the latecomers dragging themselves up the school drive. You were planning until 1am and the bags under your eyes are enough to carry the excess worksheets that you felt compelled to create.

It’s two weeks since half-term. You don’t remember much of it as you spent it sat in front of your laptop writing a new scheme of work for year 9 because you care about them so much. Every lesson in the scheme of work has been carefully crafted with interactive whiteboard games to engage every student in your classroom. You might be tired but you break a smile, like a war veteran returning from conflict, as you plug your memory stick into your laptop. At this point you realise, amid your mental and physical exhaustion, that the classroom is not equipped with a whiteboard and the school last renewed its software licence in 1995. The slides won’t display. Your students won’t progress. Perhaps you should just leave the school premises now.

The Reality: Many teachers fall into the trap of over-planning. Furthermore, choosing to remove all “rest and play” from your holidays is an easy way to underperform in the classroom. The Department for Education recently revealed that some teachers in England are working almost 60 hours a week. It is imperative that NQTs establish healthy work and life rhythms at the start of their journey into the profession. Ernest Hemmingway once stated: “I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” The same could be said for our classrooms if we fail to take a break.

Never ask for help – it’s the first sign of a weak teacher!

You have worked hard all term and you are struggling with some specifics. You struggle with the same class every week. It has got to the point where your heart fills with dread whenever you wake up on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning as you know they will enter your room and for 55 minutes you will be required to demonstrate progress with them. 

The only progress you have managed to demonstrate rests in the fact that they now know which room you teach in and they know your name. The teacher next door manages to have the same class sitting in absolute silence and their reports suggest that she has managed to move them eight sub-levels of progress in just one term. At least that’s what it looks like! 

Still, it would be unprofessional to ask her for support. It is the first sign of weakness and you don’t want your students or colleagues smelling your fear of this class. You will sweat it out. It’s only another five months until the end of the year and there is no guarantee that you will have them for the rest of their three years in secondary education.

The Reality: The Future Leaders Trust, with which we both work, exists to address educational disadvantage by transforming outstanding teachers into effective and inspirational school leaders. One of their core values is “No Islands”. They believe that effective school leaders exist to support each other and to promote effective practice across all schools for the students that will benefit from it. 

The same should be applied to any teaching professional. Asking for help, especially in the genesis years of your journey as a teacher, is not a sign of weakness, but rather a clear indication that you want to benefit from the experience, expertise or creative energy of others.

Have a messy desk – never tidy it and rarely look at it!

The students entered almost 10 minutes ago and the Carry On “Doing It Now Task” is not going to keep them engaged much longer. You can’t locate the resources for the “Activate” task because they are lost in the abyss of your desk. You are well-versed at keeping sensitive information about students confidential because once it is placed on your desk it is never seen again. The various cups, worksheets, broken stationery and confiscated artefacts that litter your desk only really need to be cleaned at the end of term. You can probably nominate a couple of students to do this in the last week of term when you put on a DVD anyway.

The Reality: Students pick up on the state of your classroom. A student once remarked to me: “Sir. You are always telling me to be organised but your desk is a right mess!” I have always tried to maintain the “tidy desk, tidy mind” principle since then. Aside from the testimony it gives to your classroom visitors, it is also an important way to help juggle and manage the various articles of information and resources that will enter and exit your classroom on a daily basis throughout your time as a teacher.

Take all advice to heart. Take it personally and dwell on it all weekend!

You slump in your regular staffroom seat having just delivered a lesson that seemed to be your worst yet. To call it “teaching” seems a little far-fetched. You stood at the front of the classroom and watched as all but one student behaved terribly and made “less than expected” progress. And that’s because he was absent! 

You attempt to lick your wounds and share your battle scars with the experienced colleague sat opposite but he replies: “That’s odd. They are always okay for me.” He gives you advice about having to firm up with the class and having to adapt what you are doing. You listen but decide he hates you and is secretly conspiring with the class to destroy your self-esteem as a teacher.

The Reality: We know that direct, timely and personalised feedback to students can help them improve in terms of academic progress. Yet, some teachers struggle to accept this type of feedback from trusted colleagues and mentors. 

It is important to identify who these trusted colleagues can be and to also seek out personal feedback on how you can improve as a practitioner.

Andrea Wood, a deputy head in charge of professional development at Newstead Wood School in Bromley, writing in SecEd’s NQT special edition last year, said that teachers need to “keep reflecting and self-evaluating on their practice. It is something many forget to do” (Starting the journey to outstanding, November 28, 2013: http://bit.ly/1gizXv7).

In my first year as a school leader I found it useful to regularly ask my headteacher for feedback. On one occasion, I asked the head how I might have more presence as a member of the senior leadership team. The head responded: “You just need to grow a pair.” 

It was easy to take it personally but it was some of the best advice I was given in the first few months of my new role. It was about me developing more presence as a leader and making bold decisions – even if it could have been put more politically correctly!

Constantly complain – and go on social networking sites to vent it!

You have started to listen carefully to advice and to act on it. That said, the only person that you are taking advice from is the disgruntled member of staff who appears to occupy a darkened corner of the staffroom every day. Like him, you are eagerly awaiting the sound of the lunch bell so that you can sit and verbally sound off about the school leadership team and those students that, in your opinion, will never meet their expected grades because of their behaviour and complex needs. 

Your mind is awash with ideas for the next comical status update that you can upload to Facebook that conveys your ill-feeling to the students, the school and the community.

The Reality: Some teachers enjoy a good moan from time to time. Be mindful about how this can influence your thinking and how it can cloud your judgement as a newly qualified or recruited staff member.

There are times when, as school leaders and classroom practitioners, you want to protest about an individual child or a group of students, but this too often can remove you from a belief that all children can succeed and a moral purpose that says that you went into teaching to help all children regardless of their age, ability, background or character.

Social networking sites are an excellent way to share resources and to light up beacons of excellent practice in the teaching community. Be mindful of posts and updates that call your moral purpose or belief in “Every Child” into disrepute.

Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, writes: “Think about what people are doing on Facebook today. They’re keeping up with their friends and family, but they’re also building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand. They’re connecting with the audience that they want to connect to.”

The question, therefore, is not so much what does your status say about you, but rather what might a status update say about your role as a teacher and the children and communities that you went into the profession to serve?

  • Sean Harris and Ben Ryder are both associate leaders at the Northumberland Church of England Academy. They are both on the Future Leaders school leaders training programme and have experience of learning from mistakes in their journey as teachers! Visit www.future-leaders.org.uk


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