A recent census by Education Datalab found that a tenth of all newly qualified teachers (NQTs) left in their first year, and after three years, a third of them had left.
This is particularly worrying given that teachers become their most effective after three years in the classroom. Behind this data are stories of new teachers left to flounder in our schools. One NQT from the Midlands whom I spoke to this year hadn't had a mentor meeting since September. Others were left to sink or swim with tough classes, and others lacked basic encouragement.
And these NQTs will continue to fall as cannon fodder if the cavalry doesn't arrive. It's crazy, considering our massive retention problem, that there are more "interventions" going on for students than there are for the staff who need to teach them day to day. This startling lack of interventions for a struggling NQT risks the education of not just one or two students, but hundreds.
There are huge shortfalls in teacher training uptake, and we can’t afford to fritter away those we already have. So, how can we change this in our own schools?
Words of wisdom and encouragement
Teachers stay in teaching because they feel like they are good at it – in 2015, 94 per cent of teachers said they saw this as either very important or fairly important as a reason to stay in the classroom. And yet, some NQTs are observed three or four times in flawed one-off observations and damned with false "judgements". Some are deflated, some consider quitting, others hear little in between – few have informal observations or meetings or encouraging words.
The PGCE is like a warm blanket. An NQT year can feel like you're being left out in the cold to fend for yourself.
A simple “well done, you’re doing a great job” can go a hell of a long way. At the end of my first year, my headteacher gave me a hand-written card and it started with “wow, what an impact!” written in capital letters. I can’t remember many of my observation reports from that year but I distinctly remember this, and I’ve kept it. It meant the world to know that I’d been accepted into that teaching fraternity and that my boss had faith in me.
To excel, NQTs need to feel secure. They need to feel that colleagues and leaders think highly of them and that they are valued members of the team and school. It’s daunting being surrounded by people, in a new environment, who all seem to be better than you at the job. Whether they are or aren’t, that doesn’t matter, it's how the collective make the NQT feel that makes the difference. NQTs need to feel that they are making just as much of a difference to the school as they are to the students in their classes.
Meetings to talk
Being an NQT can feel as though you're are stuck in one of those movie scenes where there is a person stood in the middle of a crossroads and all the vehicles are just flashes of light around you. You're frozen and everything else is moving at light speed. No one stops to say: “Hello – is anyone in there?”.
This is understandable, given the pressure. But that’s where keeping the scheduled NQT meeting sacrosanct is surely vital. Spending an hour touching base with someone of experience within the school environment is absolutely essential. And it shouldn't be in a "tick box, make some minutes" kind of way, but more of a: "Here’s some biscuits, let’s have a chat about anything you need or want to and find some solutions to it."
When I was an NQT, I could very quickly blow a relatively minor problem out of proportion in my own head so it suddenly became an avalanche of self-doubt. I was very lucky I had my parents on hand most of the time (who were both teachers) and a very supportive head of department. I needed someone to put everything in perspective for me. I think we all need that, but new teachers need it especially.
“Teaching is a craft that takes years to perfect” – the perfect message
Last month, an NQT told me they were planning to quit because they already knew what their Year 11 results would be like and what that would mean for them. They were already anticipating the “exam review meeting” where they would be told their students hadn’t made enough progress.
I don’t think it's uncommon for teachers to already be thinking about the results of their students, a couple of terms into their career. But no one had told this NQT that actually, results don't matter at that point. Maybe this was because of an oversight or because they genuinely believed that they could be judged on results so early on.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, teachers become their most effective after three years in the classroom. At times, it seems like we expect miracles from teachers who are fresh out of training.
I’ve heard of teachers only a few months into the profession being judged on the “progress of their students”. I’ve heard of others being subjected to excessive scrutiny and high-stakes accountability. I’ve always argued that teaching takes a long time to master, and actually, we should be asking, does anyone truly master it?
In teaching, we have this idea that people should be able to hit the ground running. Forgetting the plethora of things to learn, it took me a good two or three years in my first school to feel like I’d built a reputation for classroom management where I could relax a little. NQTs have so much to establish control over and yet the system seems to encourage us to search for quick fixes.
We need to protect our new teachers, and even those in their second and third year, from the excessive accountability systems and judgements that seem to have engulfed the profession. They need time, they need space and, above all, they need trust.
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