First days in school for a newly-qualified teacher can be terrifying. But a structured support system can transform the experience. Carolyn O'Grady reports
Few newly-qualified teachers approach their first job with equanimity. Even after a long and successful teaching practice most will feel a fair amount of terror. How long they take to move from that state to one of capability and confidence will depend on their own abilities but also to a great extent on the kind of support they receive from their first school.
"An NQT is not the finished model. They need more than a shoulder to cry on. They need to go on learning," says Hazel Hagger, Oxford University's tutor for professional development and one of the authors of Oxfordshire County Council's guidelines on the induction of NQTs.
The guidelines set out a structured and formal support system which is important, "not least because it prevents the NQT from feeling they are a 'burden' or a 'nuisance'," she says.
While in many schools induction still means an occasional meeting in the pub with another teacher or even less, many LEAs and individual schools are now establishing more formal induction schemes for new teachers*.
At the heart of these schemes is usually the mentor, a teacher assigned to look after the NQT and hold regular meetings with him or her. In secondary schools it is often a head of department supported by the teacher in charge of induction in the school. In primary schools the mentor is probably the deputy head or even head of the school.
John Ward, modern languages co-ordinator at King Alfred's School in Wantage, Oxfordshire, a 1,800-pupil comprehensive, has acted as a mentor several times. "Class management and discipline is always the main topic," he says. "NQTs often expect to be in charge straight away; to be in control of every situation. They find it difficult to judge when to be strict and when to stand back and relax a little."
Other difficult areas are subject application, lesson planning, prioritising and balancing needs within the classroom. New teachers also need advice on school systems and on the responsibilities involved in being a form tutor.
It is these sorts of areas which NQTs can review with their mentors and decide on the best source of support where needed. Help might include advice from the mentor or someone else within the school; talks with specialists, for example the IT expert or the librarian; and practical workshops on aspects of practice.
Observing another teacher give a lesson is also highly recommended. "The quicker the mentor and NQT get into each other's classrooms the better, " maintains Linda Schofield, an associate adviser with responsibility for NQTs in Devon, which has for some years had a well-thought-out induction scheme in place.
"NQTs tend to overestimate what they can achieve and they are apt to be unrealistically perfectionist. A visit to another teacher's classroom is a dose of realism. They can see that it's not always great there either. A good mentor keeps the NQT in touch with what he or she can realistically achieve."
Often these observed lessons can take a particular focus. "I lacked confidence in science teaching," says Rosie Turner, an NQT last year at Collaton St Mary's Primary School in Paignton, Devon. "Chris, my mentor, specialises in science and he taught a sample lesson which I watched. It fell into place much more for me."
Mentors also often observe the NQT in his or her classroom. It sounds harrowing, but, followed by a proper debriefing, can be very useful. Mentors' comments should be constructive, focusing on the way forward out of difficulties, advise the Oxfordshire guidelines. "Saying 'fine' isn't enough, " commented one NQT on her mentor's inadequate reaction.
Mentors are usually modest about their role. "I'm a friend and a colleague, " says Michelle May of Bicester College in Oxfordshire, who was herself an NQT two years ago, and remembers only too well how difficult it was "not knowing how things worked".
Linda Schofield emphasises, however, that teachers with only a year's experience can make very good mentors. "It would be shortchanging the NQT if they were not given someone with experience and ability. They have to have a role model."
The role changes with time, however. "Mentors are usually very supportive and close at first, but gradually as the L-plate teacher grows in ability and confidence they should become less protective and more like a colleague, " she adds. The two will then begin to meet less often.
Can this be the case, however, when the head of a school is the mentor? It depends on the school and the head, says Schofield.
New teachers can be frightened of showing themselves up, and never entirely relax. But one found the informal meetings with her head and mentor immensely reassuring. "It was nice to know that someone was there. I felt comfortable and secure."
Occasionally, of course, mentoring can go badly wrong. There is a personality clash; a teacher who is already overloaded with work is appointed and can't give the job the time and energy it needs, or the mentor doesn't have enough status within the school to fight for what is needed to provide proper induction for the NQT: a specific course, for example, or more sessions with herself or someone else. Occasionally, too, mentors don't know how and when to back off as the NQT gains in confidence and competence.
In these situations the headteacher in charge of the induction programme would probably be the best person to approach. In a small school, however, such a person may not exist, in which case it could be an LEA advisor in charge of induction.
NQTs emphasise, however, that help comes not only from the mentor or teacher in change of the induction programme: other teachers can be a source of advice, support and inspiration. A friendly staffroom is one of the best supports there is, and one important duty of a mentor is to make sure that the NQT is known and helped by everyone within the school.
* Profile for Professional Development: Induction of Newly Qualified Teachers. Oxfordshire County Council Education Service. By Hazel Hagger and Andrew White of the Department of Educational Studies, University of Oxford