Secrets of success for NQTs

In any profession, the hardest part is getting started. But in some ways the newly qualified teacher (NQT) has greater obstacles to overcome. The leap from the relative security of the PGCE year can be a shock from which some do not recover. But they are probably doing better than they think.

New teachers have to hit the ground running. “In a way it’s like asking medics to perform heart surgery after just 40 weeks of training,” says Sara Bubb, The TES Magazine columnist and education induction consultant.

“The same is expected of you as an NQT as someone with many more years’ experience.”

She adds that new teachers can find it hard to adjust to the deep end, where they might not get the level of positive feedback they were accustomed to during training. And that can make some feel like they are failing when they are not.

Jenni Marshall, 23, from High Barnes, Sunderland, decided after her PGCE year in Nottingham that she would stand a better chance of finding work and getting a foot in the door career-wise if she came south rather than return to her native North-east. She promptly landed a job teaching Year 5 at Edward Feild Primary in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, where she is the youngest member of staff. But there were difficulties adjusting to a new area, and she found herself lacking a good social life. “I’ve been lucky and got into a really good school. But I was put into an isolated neighbourhood. Where I’m from, I had known everyone in my street. Fortunately my boyfriend moved here with me. We go for bike rides and I’m now planning to join a jive salsa class. But I’m sure lots of new teachers find themselves in a similar position.”

For the first couple of months, she concentrated on work, as any new teacher does, acclimatising to her new conditions and workload. “Getting out and making new friends outside of work is quite tough because of the lack of time. It is exhausting and then in the evenings there is always something to get done for the next day.” She would not change anything for the world, though. “The children I teach are aged nine and 10, and at that age they are very curious about everything, which I find delightful. And there’s a lot of humour in class.”

So what should a new teacher’s expectations be? As Sara Bubb points out, the training happens in the better schools, whereas there will tend to be more vacancies in schools with higher staff turnover. “Your first year will never be as smooth as your training, which can be a real culture shock.”

But at least in schools with a lot of NQTs, there is some support to be had from a shared experience. But what if you are the only NQT in the school? Is it lonelier, and are expectations higher? Do you have to try harder to prove yourself?

Kelly McKay, 23, is the lone NQT in a staff of 30 at Castledown School, a secondary comprehensive in Andover, Hampshire, where she teaches English to Years 7 to 11.

It’s a challenging school in a grammar school area. How does she cope with this daunting prospect? She says: “I’m young and new. I tend to be quite strict, trying to establish classroom routines. When you train, you teach, but it’s not your room. This is. You need to seize control.”

She started last July so had a slight advantage of getting to know the school and spending time with some of the Year 10 pupils ahead of the September rush. This was a boost to her confidence.

“Teaching is all I ever want to do, so I am ready for how tough it might get. I work till 5pm, then I go home and eat, and then work 7 to 10pm. I try to have weekends free, though will usually end up working four hours on a Sunday.”

But, like many teachers, she loves the fact that each day is different, even when it’s especially intense. “It was quite tough around Easter when the Year 11s were rushing to finish their coursework, they were being shouted at by everybody. I was working long hours, and it was a bit miserable, but I knew it would end.”

If the very young can lack the confidence and security to surmount these obstacles, age and experience are not always guarantees of a smoother ride.
Sandra Luxon was older than some when she entered the profession. At 37, she had previously worked in adult education for nine years, and taught English as a foreign language in Turkey. The new life as a primary school teacher, however, was unexpectedly rough going. She landed a job teaching Year 1 in an inner-city primary in Nottingham, but only lasted one term.

“Very quickly, I was on the verge of depression. I kept bursting into tears at school and I couldn’t sleep at night. This was partly because it was a tough, challenging school, with a lot of special needs children. But the main problem was with inadequate mentoring.”

She feels that, in a school like this, mentoring is important, yet the mentor will often not have the time, or the personal qualities, to do this properly. She believes her mentor was over-stretched, also being a numeracy co-ordinator, special needs co-ordinator and a governor.

“A lot of the children had severe behavioural difficulties,” she says. “One boy would keep exposing himself. Another little girl kept running away. They would all shout and swear at each other, and there was a lot of vandalism and thieving. Controlling them was impossible. They were used to the freedom to play they’d had in the foundation stage unit, but they couldn’t really adjust. Every day, I just didn’t know what was going to happen and I was afraid of losing my temper completely.

“I felt I was struggling, but neither my mentor nor my headteacher would take my concerns seriously. Based on a few observations, and factoring in the expectations for a tough school, they did not think I needed any real help. I asked my mentor for strategies to manage all this kind of behaviour. She told me to get a wind chime - that would calm me down.” Fortunately, a temporary position came up at the school where she had done her graduate teacher programme, Albany Infants, in Stapleford, Nottingham, though she says she would probably have quit the first school anyway.

As the year ends she will have to look elsewhere for another post. Yet she believes that leaving her permanent job was the right thing to do. “Had I entered the profession a lot younger, the experience might have ruined me. If you’re young, just out of uni and you land a job like that, you might feel that you can’t give up, no matter how bad it gets.

“I am lucky to be back at the school where I did my GTP, and I love my job. But what if? What if I wasn’t mature and had support systems? What if I hadn’t been absolutely sure that teaching was what I wanted to do? What if I hadn’t had the successful experience of teaching a class for my GTP year? I could have just felt a failure and thrown in the towel. And that would have been a waste of my training and a personal tragedy.”

How to get through the first year

  • Get your expectations right. If you batten down the hatches when you go in, you are more likely to make the adjustment. “Teaching is like driving,” says Sara Bubb. “Once you’ve got the hang of it, you forget how hard it was to begin with.”
  • It’s all about feeling confident and comes with good planning.
  • Don’t be discouraged by faltering first steps. “A bad lesson is not the end of the world,” says Kelly McKay. “Sit down and work out why it went wrong, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Nobody expects a perfect NQT.”
  • New teachers can flounder without significant feedback. Schools’ induction regulations - observation within four weeks, then every six weeks thereafter - are the minimum. If you feel you are not getting enough, you should ask for more. “NQTs should of course expect support and guidance but if there are problems, the onus is on the NQT to raise concerns with the induction tutor or headteacher,” says Jeff Cull, head of NQT induction at the Training and Development Agency for Schools.