Do you need the sharpest pencils?

8th September 2006 at 01:00
Perhaps not,says David Mattin. Instead NQTs should set realistic goals - and remember there's life outside school

This week 35,000 people have worried, perhaps unduly, about pencil pots.

And name tags. And pupil behaviour, and staffroom politics, and how often to use the whiteboard. Sound familiar? Then you're probably one of the ever-so-slightly nervous newly qualified teachers (NQTs) who have just started their careers. What should you expect? What will be asked of you, and how best should you rise to the challenge? "There's a certain psychological shock associated with those first few days at school," says Sara Bubb, a lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of London.

"The key is to make your task manageable. Cut down the year into bite-size chunks. Set realistic goals, and remember how far you've come."

There is, of course, a structure in place. First, you should immediately be assigned an induction tutor; a senior member of staff who will act as your mentor through the difficult terrain ahead. You'll meet him or her every half-term for a formal review, but aim for a close working relationship: ideally you should talk informally at least every week. At the start of the year, though, it is time to sit down with your mentor for the all-important discussion at Transition Point Two of your Career Entry Development Profile, where you'll review the strengths and weaknesses that became apparent during your PGCE year - as recorded in your CEDP folder - and create an action plan.

"Aim to leave that discussion with specific targets agreed," says Sara Bubb, "and the more specific, the better. You might aim, say, to identify the three most difficult children in your class, and allow extra time to address their behaviour."

Classroom observations also form a part of the induction process, and your first will be in the next three to four weeks. "Observations are nerve-wracking, but NQTs consistently say they are the most helpful part of the induction process," says Sara Bubb. "Press for that first observation, and get informal feedback as soon as possible."

Remember, too, that all NQTs in England and Wales teach only 90 per cent of the full timetable. The remaining 10 per cent is "induction time"; you should spend it developing your skills by observing other teachers, attending local education authority courses, and improving subject knowledge. All that will only help ensure you meet Qualified Teacher Standard, a judgment that will be made by your headteacher at the end of the year.

There are a few crucial differences for teachers about to start work in Scotland. First, the Scottish Induction Scheme (SIS) allows NQTs a generous 70 per cent teaching timetable. Jim McNally, an induction expert at Stirling University Institute of Education, says the 30 per cent is an acknowledgement that new teachers need time for career development, "but also that it will take them longer to plan lessons. Use it to make sure your planning is really good."

Under the SIS system of guaranteeing every NQT a one-year placement, new teachers are assigned to schools instead of hunting for a job themselves.

That means a few probationary teachers have been posted to unfamiliar areas; if you are one of them, allow yourself time to settle down and expect a challenging first few weeks.

"Starting teaching is an emotional challenge under any circumstances," says Jim McNally. "If you're in a new place, even more so. Also, Scottish NQTs should realise that the school they've been assigned to will know a limited amount about them. Be proactive in changing that, and developing working relationships with the teachers around you."

Apart from the formal induction process, though, it's the onrush of key dates in the teaching calendar that can trip up NQTs. Are you ready for harvest festival? What about Black History Month (October)? The first parents' evening could be just six weeks from start of term; do you know all the children well enough? "Good planning is the key, but that may mean a change of mindset," says Sara Bubb. "Trainee teachers are used to doing extremely thorough, Rolls-Royce planning. But now there is much more to do.

You need to learn to get by on Ford Fiesta planning: good enough to get you from A to B."

And when it comes to planning and organisation, says Dr Kevan Bleach, who lectures on induction at the University of Wolverhampton school of education, and is deputy head at Snead community school in Walsall, it's often the nitty-gritty details that count.

"Make sure you have a collection of pens and pencils; someone in class will forget theirs. Have a seating plan in your classroom with the children's names on. Establish your ground rules early."

After that, it's often attitude that separates successful new teachers from those who struggle. "Remember, the school invests a lot in its NQTs," says Dr Bleach. "It wants you to succeed. That means if you're struggling in an area, speak up. Problems caught early can almost always be solved by means of coaching, extra observations, and courses. Just view the year as a learning process."

Naturally, though, staff at your school will be keeping a keen eye on how you're doing. So what qualities will they be hoping to see?

"Number one for me is how NQTs relate to the children," says Dr Bleach.

"Can they build a rapport with the pupils, manage behaviour, and motivate? Also crucial is tangible enthusiasm for their subject. And, of course, excellent lesson planning. But no one expects NQTs to deliver the full package immediately."

There's another quality that you can use to your advantage, though, and it's one every NQT is guaranteed to have: the very fact of being new. Dr Bleach: "Don't forget that a fresh pair of eyes is part of the value you bring as an NQT. Any good school will have schemes of work, but if an NQT has a great idea on how to teach something differently, then I'm pleased.

Just make sure you strike the right balance between innovation, and respect for what is already in place."

The central message: that if you can view the NQT year as a dialogue between you and your school, and not one giant test, then already you're halfway there. Few schools provide a better example than South Dartmoor community college in Devon, which last year took 16 NQTs. Headteacher Ray Tarleton says there's no doubt that the new teachers who thrive are those who see themselves as part of a culture of learning. "We had one NQT who devised a new lesson, then asked an experienced member of staff to teach it while he observed. That's excellent practice."

But don't forget, too, that the trials you face will be particularly fresh in the minds of another group of your fellow teachers. Dan Vile, a PE teacher, was an NQT at South Dartmoor last year. "Training prepares you for the teaching part; it was dealing with parents that I found most nerve-wracking. As for the most helpful aspect of training, that was definitely observing experienced teachers. Not just in my subject area, but across the board.

"To this year's NQTs, I'd say: get used to the feeling that there is always more to do. Be organised, prioritise. But also make sure you schedule in some free time. You'll need it. Even at the busiest times, you've got to have a life outside school."

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