'Give me responsibility'

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
That's what staff crave early in their careers - and what keeps them in the job. Gerald Haigh reports

It's the start of a new school year. Six weeks ago your first summer holiday as a teacher stretched into the misty distance. Now you are back in the staffroom with an NQT standing uncertainly around. Maybe you should ask if she's OK, but she is quickly and solicitously gathered up by a senior teacher. Nobody, though, is looking for you. You are one of the grown-ups now.

How does it feel? Lonely? Frightening? Or are you aware of being a proper teacher, one of those who can tell a pupil off without making the others giggle.

Ideally, of course, the transition to being a teacher who stands on your own feet should feel both seamless and progressive. When that happens, it's motivational not just for the people concerned but for those around them, not least their pupils. There's a strong sense of this in practice at Dartmouth high school in Sandwell, near Birmingham, where Richard Machin and Vickie Savage have just finished their third and second years of teaching respectively.

Both are enthusiastic and in love with the very idea of the job. "I'm proud to teach," says Richard. "I'm doing something where I'm giving back. That sounds cliched, but it's true. It feels great - it really does. It's a way to live life."

Vickie agrees. "You have to find it rewarding. I have pound;9,000 of student debt, and I've been to university for four years. You have to love the job."

And Vicki's not mercenary. It is she who confesses to having told her NQT mentor "I can't believe you're paying me to do this job."

The question is - mindful that many young teachers are not nearly so happy in their work as these two are - just how is that level of job satisfaction achieved?

Part of the answer lies in the two people themselves: committed to teaching, well trained on their PGCEs (Richard at Birmingham University, Vickie at Liverpool Hope) but much credit has to go to senior management.

The NQTs come under the wing of deputy head Anna Bennett.

"As senior induction mentor, I see all NQTs weekly," she says. "I do all their observations, together with their heads of department, and I run an out-of- hours induction course which is fixed on the calendar."

Both teachers feel they were well looked after through their induction.

Richard, especially, appreciated help with the occasional difficult pupil.

"I didn't have dramatic problems, but there were one or two problem pupils.

Anna would pull them out, and they'd spend two or three weeks out and they'd be fine afterwards - they only had to be out once."

From that level of support, though, how did they cope with being cast ashore at the start of their second year?

"It wasn't like that," says Richard. "It was more like a transition - not really a feeling of year one to year two. By the end of my first year, I was quicker at planning for example."

Vickie agrees. " I didn't feel towards the end of my NQT year that I actually was one. I was given brilliant opportunities to organise and take children to events, and I came back in September feeling 'Let's go again!'"

They don't feel they've now been deserted by Anna Bennett either. "I keep in touch," she says, "Not formally, but I ask them how they are and whether there are problems."

Perhaps the most significant event for both Richard and Vickie - and, paradoxically, the cause of much of their inspiration - was the devastating fire that destroyed 22 of Dartmouth's teaching rooms in November 2003, two months into Vickie's NQT year.

"We had to go off site to Wolverhampton University's Walsall Campus," says Vickie. "It was a nightmare - draining hard work."

The positive side of this experience, though, was the co-operative spirit that enveloped the whole school, and brought out leadership qualities across the board. "I had a strong head of department who supported me through it," says Vickie.

A year earlier, Richard had his own deep-end experience, explains Anna.

"Within his first term his head of department fell ill and two months later sadly died. The second in department, who was new, had to take over. Then there was the fire just into Richard's second year."

Being in an improving school overcoming difficulties, under strong leadership at all levels, has been significant in keeping Richard and Vickie in the job and showing a degree of enthusiam that's humbling to see.

"I'm proud of the place I work in," says Richard. "Our new head of department came with aims and ideals. He was disciplined and he delegated clearly. I was crying out for that level of organisation - the key word for a successful teacher."

Perhaps the most important factor in keeping them focused has been the school confidently and progressively giving them more responsibility.

"Promotion within the school has been the big one for me," says Richard.

"I'm the department's SEN co-ordinator, and I'm assistant head of Year 8, supporting on attendance, behaviour issues interviews with parents, monitoring absence."

The effect on his self esteem is visible. "What's kept me here is that I'm thought of in that way - that people have confidence in me," he says.

For Vickie, that feeling started when she first arrived. "I was given a hard part of the A-level PE syllabus to teach," she says. "People told me it was hard, but they asked me to do it."

Now, through her second year, she has been assistant head of Year 7, and has been encouraged to develop PE and outdoor activities of her own, including an after-school swimming club for primary pupils. "Girls'

football didn't exists before I came," she says. "Now it's in the curriculum and I'm sports co-ordinator, working with a cluster of schools."

None of this has happened unplanned, says Anna Bennett. Teachers are encouraged to look ahead to see where their careers are going.

"At the end of the NQT year our teachers write another action plan," she says. "Then we make sure their development needs are met - not just courses but looking at good practice elsewhere and within the school, training, shadowing. This goes on throughout the second year and into the third. I don't just let them disappear.

"Every NQT we've had for the last three years is now in a promoted post either here or in another school," says Anna Bennett. "None has dropped out of the profession."

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