Hang in there! Surviving and thriving as a new teacher

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
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The NQT year is commonly accepted to be one of the most challenging in teaching. However, despite the challenges that many of you are facing – especially at a time of Covid-19 – now is not the time to think about quitting. You must hang on in there. Matt Bromley explains why...

I have received lots of messages from NQTs recently who, having crawled to October half-term feeling exhausted, have returned to school contemplating quitting the classroom.

Many told me they are disillusioned with teaching and are finding it harder than they had expected.

Cold days and long nights do not help, of course, and it is usual to struggle at first. Even seasoned teachers find this half-term the most difficult of the year.

But this year is different, of course: many NQTs have expressed particular concern about their preparedness for teaching because their initial teach training (ITT) was cut short by the first coronavirus lockdown. What is more, continued disruption caused by Covid-19 this term has left them feeling unsupported by their mentor and other colleagues who, understandably, are themselves struggling to cope due to staff shortages and the added pressures of providing remote learning. If you feel shaky because of this or due to your training being cut short, I have one thing to say...

Don’t worry – you are ready for this!

In many ways, you are even more prepared than your predecessors because the lockdown last term and the tumultuous start to this term have given you a baptism of fire.

Of course, teaching is not for everyone and I would not want you to stay in the classroom if you are having a wholly dreadful time and are convinced that you have made a big mistake.

AUTUMN 2020 NQT SUPPLEMENT: This article first appeared in SecEd's bi-annual NQT supplement (November 2020). This 12-page publication offers a range of advice for NQTs and recently qualified teachers. We focus on issues including wellbeing, teaching and pedagogy, CPD, induction, mentoring & more. Download this for free here.

Nor would I try to twist your arm if your job is having a profound and damaging effect on your health and wellbeing. But I would caution against making a hasty decision because, believe me, it does get easier. The run-up to the end of term one is always the hardest, in part due to the weather and because the autumn term is usually the longest, but this year because of Covid-19 as well. So, what you are feeling is normal and natural in the circumstances.

Although, I did not have a global pandemic to contend with when I started teaching, I did consider quitting in December. So I speak from experience when I say...

Hang in there – life gets better

I went into teaching a little later than most. I started out as a cub reporter on a local newspaper. Then, with undergraduate debts to repay, and unable to afford the mandatory journalism postgraduate qualification, I had to quit the paper and fell into a job in telecoms. After a few years, I was in my mid-20s and I had risen to senior management: the pay was good, as was the lifestyle.

All seemed right with the world. But it wasn’t. Cue existential crisis. One day, at the dawn of this millennium, I woke up and realised I needed purpose; I needed to rebrand! I was going to be a teacher.

But then I started my PGCE and my dreams of “O Captain! My Captain!” fell apart at the seams. It didn’t help that I went from earning a decent salary to paying for the privilege of teaching. I had saved enough money to scrape through the course, but it was tough living like a student again.

Nor did it help that I was several years older than most of my fellow trainees. But the worst of it was my first school placement and thus my first foray into the classroom...

To be fair, I was warned. My course tutor told me that the university had considered taking the school off its books because it was in special measures and they had had complaints. But, because I was older and had leadership experience, they thought I would be able to cope.
The school had been in special measures for a while and staff turnover was high. As a result, many post-16 classes were cancelled and other classes were combined, with students often left to watch television in the canteen.

Hence, at the end of my first week, my school-based mentor and head of department (who quit before the end of my placement) said she thought I was ready to fly solo rather than “waste my time” observing her and team-teaching with more seasoned colleagues.

And thus, I found myself, two weeks into my “training” and after just one week in a school, teaching almost a full timetable without any help or support. Of course, I should not have been left alone in the room, but a flagrant flouting of ITT rules was the least of my worries.
Student behaviour was “challenging”, to employ an old euphemism. The canteen was like a scene from Fight Club. Staff cars were routinely damaged. And the fire alarm sounded about 15 times a day – not because some cheeky young scamp had smashed the glass, but because some cheeky young arsonist had set fire to something.

Yes, my early teaching experience was literally a baptism of fire.

It did not help when winter started to draw in, the nights grew long and dark – plus, it was nearly always raining and snow fell early and deep meaning weeks of indoor breaks and lunches.

At this time, I thought about quitting teaching every single day. I remember struggling out of bed feeling sick to my stomach, and the lonely commutes home, feeling lost and alone, out of my depth, utterly exhausted.

Though I told no-one, I deeply regretted my risky change of career and yearned for a return to my cushy corner office and expenses account. But I was scared to admit that I’d got it wrong. This might be you now (albeit I hope to a much lesser degree!), half a term into your NQT year.
Don’t despair. Against all odds, I persevered and survived to the end of that placement. And you will too. Trust me.

My university tutor wrote a glowing report based not, I suspect, on my teaching abilities but on the simple fact that I was not dead. The school even offered me a job. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I turned them down.

And life kept on getting better. My second placement was a different world entirely. I was well-supported and actually got to do some teaching rather than simple crowd-control. It was still tough learning the ropes and frequently feeling unprepared or unskilled, barely staying one step ahead of my students. But I was learning and that is what counts.

I passed my ITT year and I got a job in a school I stayed at for eight happy years, rising from NQT to assistant head. I only left to become a deputy headteacher, otherwise I think I’d still be there now.

Mistakes, glorious mistakes

That is not to say that my NQT year was any easier than my ITT one, however. It too was hard as you are now discovering. There was so much to learn, and I made countless mistakes, each and every day.

Being an NQT is exhausting – emotionally, mentally and physically – because you are performing most tasks for the first time and that takes a lot of mental effort. Nothing is familiar and you cannot rely on ingrained habits and routines.

But the more you do something, the easier it becomes simply because you develop automaticity and free up mental capacity. You become more able to anticipate students’ misunderstandings and misconceptions, to pre-empt their questions and difficulties.

And the more you explain something, the easier it gets and the clearer those explanations become. What is more, the more familiar you become with your school’s systems and structures, and policies and procedures, the easier you find it working with them.

Also, you get to know the staff and know who to go to for help, and as your “newbie” status fades, students become less inclined to test the boundaries and so behaviour improves. In fact, if there is one nugget I would like to have known back then, it is this: the reason students seemed to behave much better for my head of department and senior leaders was not because of something I was not doing, nor because of something they did. It was simply because of who they were. When I became a headteacher, students behaved because of who I was, not what I did. There is no secret strategy, so don’t punish yourself.

My NQT year got easier with time, as will yours. Because with time comes familiarity, with time comes routine, and with time comes knowledge and skills and confidence.

The impact you have

We find teaching tough because teaching is tough, but it is tough because it matters; it is tough because you are doing something important, you are improving the world around you, one person at a time. Never forget, especially on your hardest days, the impact you have on young people’s lives. Teaching is a superpower. And you are a superhero.

Furthermore, never forget that you are not alone. Teaching is a profession, after all. You are one of us now. And we look after our own. So, above all, if you are finding it tough, do not suffer in silence. Talk to your mentor or a trusted colleague. Talk to your family and friends. With this help, you will get through and you won’t regret it –

I promise.

  • Matt Bromley is an education advisor and author with more than 20 years’ experience in teaching including as a secondary school headteacher and principal, further education college vice-principal and MAT director. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and for Matt’s archive of best practice articles for SecEd, visit http://bit.ly/1Uobmsl


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