Grainne Hallahan

How schools can support ‘class of Covid’ NQTs

While trainee teachers have been denied precious classroom time in the pandemic, they may have acquired valuable extra skills and insight, trainers tell Grainne Hallahan, as they suggest ways in which schools can offer support to this year’s NQTs

Covid: How schools can support NQTs who had their teacher training disrupted

Every teacher remembers their training year as a challenging time. Whatever your route into teaching, initial teacher training is a journey of growth and exhaustion.

Now, add a pandemic into the mix, and you’re really up against it.

This is the reality for today’s trainee teachers: school closures, remote teaching and, for some, personal tragedies have overshadowed their training year.

What’s more, they have spent far less time on school sites and in physical classrooms than is usual for a trainee teacher. We might, therefore, assume that this cohort will be less prepared to face the challenges of the classroom. But is that really the case?

Experts who have been working with trainees this year certainly don’t seem to think so. In fact, they believe that qualifying during one of the most challenging times in education’s history may actually have had unexpected advantages.

Samantha Twiselton, director of Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University, says that, as a result of the pandemic, this cohort may be beginning their careers with a better appreciation of the role of education in society than newly qualified teachers in previous years.

When schools had to close to most pupils, she explains, everyone could suddenly see that schools were much more than just places where children went to learn. And when pupils began to return, trainees had a chance to see how much the children valued their time in class.

“Student teachers could see just how pleased the children were to be back,” Twiselton says. “The prominence of relationships and the joy that pupils and teachers get from being in a room together would have been more obvious than ever before.”

This experience may even have given this year’s cohort a stronger sense of the power of teaching than trainees have had in the past, Twiselton continues.

“Trainees this year will know that they can transform students’ lives,” she says. “Teachers help to fill the gaps [in society] and are part of the solution.”

Jan Rowe, head of initial teacher education at Liverpool John Moores University, agrees with this.

“I think it’s invigorating for a student teacher. Although it’s [been] hard, student teachers have seen schools at their best, and felt part of the change,” she says.

However, training in a pandemic has also brought practical benefits, she adds.

For instance, there has been an enormous push to upskill teachers in the use of technology to allow them to deliver remote teaching, and trainees have been a part of that. “[This year’s] student teachers will be uniquely skilled,” says Rowe. “I think these students will have a lot of training in using technology effectively. And these are skills previous years’ students won’t have had.”

There have been some benefits to training in a pandemic, then. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the unique experiences of this year’s cohort, Rowe continues.

“Trainees this year have not had a uniform experience. [For some students] their time has been interrupted by needing to self-isolate, or by bubble closures – the same way all of the teaching profession’s lives have been disrupted by the virus,” she says.

Twiselton agrees, adding that it is not only school placements, but also university teaching that has been disrupted, and while this doesn’t necessarily put students at a disadvantage, it does need to be taken into account when thinking about how best to support them in their first year of teaching.

So, what support will September’s early-career teachers need? And what can schools do to make sure they provide it, amid everything else that is going on?

1. Give your NQTs time

Newly qualified teachers are always given extra PPA time, but those starting their careers in 2021 might need even more than usual, suggests Julia Hinchliffe, head of Orchard School Bristol. This was exactly what she did for her NQTs who started in 2020.

“[We gave our NQTs] a significantly reduced timetable this year, with 60 per cent timetables. Also, our RQTs [recently qualified teachers] have experienced a reduced timetable. This has enabled them to develop their practice confidently in an effort to keep them from feeling overwhelmed,” Hinchliffe explains.

The school has used some of the additional time to implement an incremental coaching model to support the development of those teachers, she adds.

“We run high-frequency drop-ins instead of longer NQT observations, which supports pedagogical development in small chunks at high speed,” Hinchliffe says.

As a result, her newly qualified teachers have been going from strength to strength: “When we consider the progress our NQTs and RQTs have made during Covid, it is clear they are a truly impressive group of practitioners,” she says.

2. Make mentoring a priority

Effective mentorship has always been key for early-career teachers, but this year “the role of the mentor will be increasingly important”, suggests Martin Shevill, senior education adviser at National Teacher Accreditation.

The support that mentors offer will also need to be more personalised than usual because of the lack of uniformity in trainees’ experience, he adds. “Schools will need to be mindful of expectations; [early-career teachers] may need more developmental time than in a normal year.”

However, the new Early Career Framework should be a supportive tool here, he points out. “The Early Career Framework is one of the most significant changes to the profession in recent years,” Shevill says. “With its greater emphasis on mentoring and its professional development curriculum, it is coincidentally timely.”

3. Tell them it’s normal to feel underprepared

After such a tumultuous year, this coming September’s early-career teachers may feel unprepared to face the pressures of the classroom and may lack the self-confidence required to manage a class full of students.

“The worry is they will feel they’re not ready,” says Rowe. “Actually, every student says that every year. But they [the incoming September cohort] don’t know that; they feel like they’re in a unique position.”

The answer, she explains, is to make sure that this year’s early-career teachers realise that every teacher who has ever completed their training always finishes feeling as if there is still more to learn. Those feelings are totally expected and normal, and this year is no different.

“I think students are ready,” Rowe says.

And perhaps they are – they just don’t know it yet.

Grainne Hallahan is recruitment editor and senior content writer at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 19 March 2021 issue under the headline “How to support your 'class of Covid' NQTs”

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