Having been involved in primary and nursery teaching for almost 25 years, I know that a child’s early years are formative. The experiences they have, and the relationships they form, will have a big impact on the rest of their life.
While these first few years need not define their path, we know that they will have a major bearing on it. Similarly, as teachers, it could be argued that our first few years in the profession will have a huge hand in shaping the rest of our careers.
I will never forget the children in my first “real class”. Although now in their early thirties, those amazing little people will – in my mind, at least – always be the wonderfully joyous six- and seven-year-olds whom I loved teaching.
I was fortunate enough to teach many of them for two years in a row. I will always remember the moment when, as I packed up the classroom at the end of those two years, one of my pupils looked up at me and said, “We’ve had a lot of happy times in this room.” As you can imagine, the tears flowed.
How will Covid shape careers?
Similarly, I remember clearly my colleagues from those days: the headteacher who I admired and was terrified of in equal measure, the deputy head who encouraged my interest in additional needs, and the classroom colleague who taught me more about teaching than I had learned at university.
Those early years really did shape my career. Now, as a relatively experienced head, I can still trace some of the DNA of who I am and how I operate to those first few years.
So how will starting a career in the age of Covid – including an interrupted teacher-training experience – affect the current cohort of NQTs? And, perhaps more importantly, how will it shape them as they move forward into the rest of their careers?
Health and wellbeing at the heart of the curriculum
Clearly, individuals’ experiences will differ. However, if my new colleagues’ first two weeks in the job are anything to go by, I suspect there may be some common threads to the experiences shared by this year’s NQTs.
Before the start of term, I gave my colleagues – including NQTs – very clear permission to place health and wellbeing at the heart of our curriculum.
We were keen to ensure that all our pupils felt supported to deal with the range of emotions that their different lockdown experiences, and subsequent return to school, had brought.
Our new teachers have relished this experience and have provided tremendously safe spaces for their pupils to reconnect with physically being in school. The NQTs tell me that, quite quickly, their pupils were showing a real hunger for learning across all curricular areas. Perhaps absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
There have, of course, been inevitable challenges associated with our new ways of working. Our NQTs have been planning creatively to ensure that they can still deliver hands-on, interactive lessons, while considering issues such as social distancing and enhanced hygiene and cleaning routines. There have been some very practical lessons to learn for my new colleagues, too – like just how long it takes 25 young children to wash their hands.
A lasting impression
The experience of lockdown highlighted the very real benefits of digital learning. During this time we relied heavily on a digital-learning platform to help our pupils stay connected with their teachers, classmates and their school work.
As the pupils have re-engaged with lessons in school, our NQTs have been exploring the potential of digital technologies as valuable tools in meeting lots of diverse post-lockdown learning needs. We are also aware of the need to be measured in relation to this approach, as many children may have experienced increased amounts of screen time during lockdown.
We are mindful that there is always the possibility of a full or partial school closure in the future. For this reason, our NQTs are keen to focus on how digital technologies can be used to support distance learning. And their youth gives them a distinct advantage over me here.
So will starting their teaching lives in this post-lockdown world leave a lasting impression on this year’s NQTs? I think, inevitably, it will.
But this does not need to be a negative. I am seeing NQTs who are placing health and wellbeing and nurturing approaches at the heart of everything now. They are planning the curriculum carefully and holistically with the child at the centre. They are selecting teaching approaches thoughtfully and they understand the importance of digital learning.
As a headteacher, I view all of these as massive positives.
There is no doubt that all teachers, including our NQTs, are working in exceptional times. But, in the words of Bear Grylls (or Clint Eastwood, if you prefer), they are quickly learning to improvise, adapt and overcome.
I applaud all NQTs and wish them well for everything that lies ahead
Alan Shields is head of a local authority primary school in Glasgow