Be prepared

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Your first term as an NQT seem like being lost in a maze. Gerald Haigh helps you find your way.

What lies in wait in your first term as a newly-qualified teacher? Is it like teaching practice writ large, or something of a quite different order?

Denis Hayes, senior lecturer at Plymouth University's Rolle School of Education, last year asked Devon primary NQTs about the surprises and problems of their first terms. The work is as yet unpublished, but based on the main points he found, students can get some idea of what to expect (with the help of Bill Lowe, deputy head in charge of NQT induction at Coundon Court comprehensive in Coventry, who adds a secondary perspective).

The basic and perhaps most important finding is that it will be harder than you expect.

"Nothing could have prepared them for the intensity of the first half term," says the Hayes research.

The answer, simply, is that you have to hit the ground running, with as much preparation done as possible. And that doesn't just mean academic preparation. It means making sure your classes will have paper to write on, textbooks to read and chairs to sit on. It means reading the timetable and mentally rehearsing the way the day is going to go - how will this lesson end, and how will this one begin? How much marking will that lesson create, and how possible will it be to avoid a big marking load in another lesson on the same day? The less of this mental rehearsal and preparation you do, the mor likely you are to be swamped.

Bill Lowe points out that getting up to speed can be a problem for all new staff, not just NQTs. "We have regular sessions for all new staff," he says. "A clear induction programme about the practicalities. The head always does one of these sessions - it's symbolic as much as anything so they see the head as wanting to welcome them."

Hayes found that primary NQTs would have liked some advice on setting out their rooms "as they never had the opportunity to do this while training".

When you visit your school during the summer term before you start your new job (as you must do) put the layout of your room on the agenda. Talk to colleagues about it, look at the existing layout, make sure that what you have in mind is possible and permissible. Bear in mind that what worked well on teaching practice may not be so good in another school.

Colleagues were so busy at the start of the year that they didn't have much time and energy left for NQTs.

Do as much as you can before term starts. When you visit your school, don't just wander about picking ideas up by chance - have an agenda and a list of questions. You may have to be politely assertive - "Can you find a moment to talk to me about the school marking policy please?" At Coundon Court, Bill Lowe makes use of the school's three advanced-skills teachers (ASTs) to fill this gap. "Each NQT has an AST as guide, philosopher and friend, outside the formal assessment structure. I know schools are busy, but it's down to the degree of emphasis that the senior management team put on staff induction, and making sure the message gets across to departmental level."

Few NQTs have starte a class off on a new school year. "The first day was a highly significant and emotional occasion for them."

Make sure in advance that you know, hour by hour - even minute by minute - what the first day routine will be. Experienced colleagues will know, and much may remain unexplained.

If necessary, draw up a timetable of the day and ask until you are sure what you will have to do at each point.

At Coundon Court this year, four out of five NQTs have already done time in the school on PGCE placement, and one is a former pupil. "This is excellent for continuity," says Bill Lowe, "we can build on their PGCE targets and progress."

In fact it's not at all uncommon for NQTs to land jobs in their placement schools. If only one of a group of NQTs is in this position, then he or she is clearly going to be a huge source of information and help to the others.

Access to resources could be a problem "as they did not know where some things were kept, or the procedures for getting hold of them".

Put it on the agenda for the preliminary visit. You need to know where to find books, paper and other materials to equip your classes. If you want to use the OHP, you need to know how to get your hands on it. Is there a booking system, for example? Just something else to sort out before the first day.

The proffessional task of teaching was less of a problem than the "settling down" process - "discovering the way that things were done in the school and being absorbed into the school culture".

A good head will say to a new teacher: "Just concentrate on your classwork. Don't be in too much of a hurry to do extra things."

It's good advice. Your classroom teaching is the foundation upon which all else is built. You're anxious to run a drama club, to help with the basketball, to take a group for violin. Be patient. There's time for all that later. For the first half term, at least, focus tightly on the basics of the tasks in the classroom. Do as good a job there as you possibly can. You won't regret it, and your colleagues will see and approve.

Bill Lowe adds, though, that being absorbed quickly into the school culture may not always be completely desirable. "Perhaps they won't make comments about the way things are done straight away, but you can expect an NQT to be observant and reflective, ready to make constructive contributions later."

He feels, too, that although out-of-class activity needs to be limited, it's useful for an NQT to be on staff working groups - "they rub shoulders with experienced colleagues that way."

Time management is the biggest worry.

There are two main points to bear in mind. One is that you can't be at full throttle all the time. Pace yourself, pick the "star" lessons and find short cuts (worksheets, OHPs, video, reading aloud) for some of the others.

The other point, though, is that good preparation can head off a massive marking load. At the extreme, if, instead of teaching a maths concept you say, "Turn to page 18 and do numbers one to 45", then you have given yourself a quiet lesson at the expense of having to mark 30 sets of 45 problems - 1,350 altogether.

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