Rookies could do with a hug

27th October 2006 at 01:00
You're a newly qualified teacher, and I'm your headteacher. What would you expect from me during your first year? Support, I hope. And lots of it. I'd appoint a member of staff to look after you, but I'd meet you regularly as well, to share the ups and downs of life in your classroom. I'll already know the names of your children - I make a point of doing that - and they'll behave well because we insist on that at our school.

You'll be on a very steep learning curve, so you won't be filling in endless pieces of paper that I don't have time to read and which keep your energies away from your classroom work. I'll join in with some of your lessons, and I'll chat to your pupils.

At the end of your first year I'll ask how you feel, and you'll probably say: "Utterly worn out, but I've really enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to my next class in September."

Hopefully, most NQTs' experiences will be similar to those, although recently I've talked to several new teachers whose initiation into teaching seems to have been the stuff of nightmares. Take Adam, for example.

Three years ago, Adam was earning very good money in another job, but he had no real sense of fulfilment. He came to teaching because, like others, he "wanted to do something really worthwhile and make a difference". Filled with enthusiasm after training, he took the first job that came along and was put in charge of a Year 3 class, usually an ideal age group for a newly qualified teacher.

Right from the start, he found his class difficult to control, and he wondered what he was doing wrong. After all, everything had been fine on his teaching practices, and he'd thoroughly enjoyed them. Then he discovered that other teachers were experiencing class-control problems too. Supply teachers seemed to be in the school every day, but none of them lasted very long, and a few seemed to walk out before the end of the day.

What to do?

Well, turn to his mentor would seem to be the obvious answer, but she was on sick leave for a term, suffering from stress. He battled on. Although he asked advice from several other teachers, they were fully occupied trying to cope with their own classes. Eventually, the head took over as mentor, although the "advice" she offered seemed to consist of demanding and "marking" infinitely detailed lesson plans that occupied all his evenings and most of his weekends.

After a term, he was told that his work wasn't satisfactory, and he was "on target" for failing his probationary year. Depressed, his lessons began to suffer. Why plan exciting things, he thought, when the children just messed them up? What was the point? The self-doubt began to creep in. Perhaps he wasn't right for the job and should have stayed in his old job.

Like all NQTs, he had non-contact time each week, when a supply teacher taught his class and he could escape for some additional training with the local education authority.

Then, one morning the supply teacher decided she'd had enough and she, too, walked out. There was nobody to take the class and the head was forced to step in. She couldn't control the children either, and another senior teacher was summoned to help calm a particularly violent child. At home time, the teachers were called to the staffroom. They were told not to tell Adam what had happened, and when he appeared the next morning the head said his children had been fine. This was the final blow to Adam's morale, until a colleague, horrified by what had happened, told him the truth.

But what could he do? No NQT wants to have a big row with his headteacher, although personally I'd have been sorely tempted.

Contact his union? Well, unions don't always move very quickly. The local authority co-ordinator? Certainly, but could he guarantee he'd be fairly treated? He decided that the only option was to leave, then do some supply teaching for a short time, until he'd regained his confidence.

Adam's story upset and angered me. And the next day, when I watched my three NQTs working their socks off, I felt like giving them a hug. Just to show how much I value them.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove primary school, Camberwell, south London

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