It is the first few weeks of your NQT year. You have, no doubt, spent time after school putting the final laminated touches to your classroom, meticulously dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on your lesson plans, and wondering which activities will best inspire your classes with a love of your subject.
And yet, when you glance down at your timetable, your excitement fizzles somewhat. Your first lesson tomorrow is with a "notorious" Year 11 class.
"Ooh, them? They’re tough," a staffroom veteran tells you sagely as they munch digestives. Then you have that Year 9 class, the ones who reduced a supply teacher to tears just last week.
By the afternoon, you might need some respite, but you can see you then have the Year 7s with a reputation for climbing the walls.
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You might wonder why the timetable gods have dealt you such a poor hand, but, if you are new to the profession, this could be by design. According to Tom Bennett, the government’s behaviour management tsar, newly qualified teachers are frequently chucked “in at the deep end” when it comes to challenging classes.
Writing on Twitter, he said the practice of giving new teachers the most challenging classes "needs to stop".
Still hearing from training/ beginning that they are routinely given the most challenging classes, behaviourally or by ability to teach solo. This needs to stop. The hardest classes need the most highly skilled teachers. ‘Getting the easy class’ should no longer be seen as a perk— Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) October 8, 2019
“The hardest classes need the most highly skilled teachers,” he wrote. “‘Getting the easy class’ should no longer be seen as a perk.”
Speaking to Tes, Mr Bennett said NQTs often told him their timetables were unfairly loaded with more challenging groups.
“New teachers being given more challenging classes is still a very common thing. I frequently encounter NQTs who tell me they've been saddled with a full timetable and tough classes,” he said.
“It's less common for more senior staff to openly say they 'deserve' easier classes – although that was something I remember from 15 years ago – but the implication is clear: many teachers feel it is their right to teach older, more able or better-behaved classes.
“And that cannot be right, when you consider these groups need the most talented and experienced teachers leading them, and new teachers need to learn the craft of their job slowly until they become more capable.”
He pointed out that the practice “abandoned” the basic principles of teaching.
I’m amazed how often I see basic principles of teaching abandoned when it comes to teaching teachers, eg matching challenge to ability; giving novices beginner-level tasks through which they develop craft competence etc. But no: in at the deep end for some.— Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) October 8, 2019
After all, teachers would not throw quadratic equations at a child who had only just mastered numeracy – this would clearly be demotivating and, frankly, rather cruel.
Yet, when it comes to new teachers, Mr Bennett said schools can be guilty of treating them as "cannon fodder".
One history teacher agreed, reporting that "getting the more challenging classes just made me not enjoy the job". She even considered leaving the profession.
I agree, in my experience as a trainee teacher getting the more challenging classes just made me not enjoy the job. There were moments when I honestly thought I couldn't do it anymore.— Ms AC History (@MsACHistory1) October 9, 2019
And teacher Rachael Gács said that as an NQT, she was "literally given the worst classes in the whole school".
There is literally the opposite culture in some schools, i.e. OFFLOAD the most difficult classes to the NQTs!! As an NQT I was literally given the worst classes in the whole school, last period of the day! I moved on to another school straight after NQT.— Rachael Gács (@rachaelgacs) October 8, 2019
Some recently qualified teachers have told Tes that even when they can cope with the level of behavioural challenge in these classes, they would like to teach higher-ability, well-behaved groups as well, to develop skills in stretching the most able.
However, some teachers said they felt having tough classes as an NQT had helped them to learn behaviour-management skills.
Twitter user @MrC_CompSci, a computer science teacher, said he had benefited from having a “notoriously difficult class” during his PGCE year, although he acknowledged that the support of his mentor had helped him to develop good strategies for teaching this class.
I see your point, especially as an NQT. However in my PGCE year, was given a notoriously difficult class with behavioural challenges as well as a high mix of complex SEN. As it was PGCE had support of mentor always & felt that experience was absolutely necessary for expectations— MrC (@MrC_CompSci) October 8, 2019
The charity Teach First, which sends highly qualified graduates into classrooms in disadvantaged areas after an intensive five weeks' training course, said they put various measures in place to ensure their teachers are not overwhelmed.
A spokesperson for the charity said: "We advise our partner schools that trainees should be given a range of classes, giving them broad experience to support their development. We ask that trainees not be given classes that experienced teachers would find difficult to manage."
"All our trainees are given a school, university and a Teach First mentor to support them during their development. These mentors ensure that our trainees are getting exposure to good teaching practise and all support is tailored to their needs and requirements."
"Therefore, if a trainee is finding a class particularly challenging, our first step is to provide additional support such as extra coaching, and pastoral support where appropriate."
Mr Bennett said the practice could drive up attrition rates. Tes has recently reported that one in seven NQTs leave teaching after their first year in the job.
Any school that permits this needs to have a long think about the conditions it expects new teachers to endure. Not only will it drive up attrition, but it produces teachers with scar tissue where good habits should be. It cultivates survivors, not educators.— Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) October 8, 2019
So, clearly, the practice of sending new recruits “over the top” could come at a cost for a profession with a poor retention rate.
A little challenge is a good thing. An endless endurance test? Possibly not.