Thriving, not surviving: thoughts about being an NQT

So much is said about how NQTs should expect to struggle through their probation year. Many experienced teachers remember how challenging their NQT year was, so surely it is a given?

I completely disagree. Many of us made mistakes, struggled, and merely survived our NQT year; becoming better teachers in time (mainly once established in a school). If new teachers can listen to the mistakes that more experienced teachers have made and how we have overcome these, then surely NQTs can instead thrive during their first year in the classroom?

A disclaimer before sharing five of my thoughts on thriving during the NQT year and best reading that I share with early career teachers who I work with: I survived my NQT year, I certainly didn’t thrive. I learned a lot about teaching and learning, behaviour management, admin, and especially myself during that year and have a lot of time to support early careers teachers with what I have learned since.

Thought one: high expectations are everything

September went smoothly as I enjoyed the honeymoon period with my classes. I thought “what an excellent start, my behaviour management must be great”, while they were busy sizing me up. I had never really had to communicate my expectations to the students; I had trained in the classrooms of some really good teachers who had spent months establishing high expectations and routines with their classes. Sure enough, by the end of September, I felt a sudden change in the classroom climate. I quickly realised that my behaviour management was not great and it actually felt pretty absent at times.

At times, I was embarrassed of the students’ behaviour in my classroom during my NQT year. It wasn’t just me who had picked up on this either and my mentor encouraged me to observe how some more experienced teachers managed behaviour. Eager for quick fixes (which definitely don’t exist), I went to observe two other teachers: one was an experienced teacher and member of SLT and the second was another experienced teacher, who difficult students seemed to adore. This was eye opening, but I couldn’t see their behaviour management in action. It was only through discussion that I found out this was a result of high expectations that had been communicated and then reinforced.

In his brilliant book, The Learning Rainforest, Tom Sherrington (2017) compares establishing the conditions of learning to the roots of a tree. As the roots are essential for the growth of the tree, the classroom conditions are essential learning to happen and, when established, they allow for the development of knowledge, and subsequently facilitate further possibilities. Alongside the development of relationships, establishing the conditions is vital for a classroom conducive to learning. Below, I expand upon a couple of points for establishing the best conditions:

  • Pygmalion effect and Golem effect: without going into the backstory about the names, the Pygmalion effect suggests that if we have high expectations of students, then they are more likely to be successful, whereas the Golem effect suggests the opposite. The Pygmalion effect in the classroom was demonstrated by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968): in the study, teachers were told the names of students who would bloom during the year, despite the fact that these names were random. Nevertheless, the bloomer students performed better on a test eight months later. Always have high expectations of what your students can achieve, no matter what your first impressions are.
  • Establish routines: state what you expect students to do (e.g. don’t talk over one another), model expectations, and constantly reinforce them. At the beginning of the year, I spend time going through my expectations with my classes and explain why each one is necessary to establish an effective classroom. I am then consistent and persistent throughout the year with these expectations; I return to them at times if I feel it is necessary to. I even do this for presentation of books (explicitly modelling how I expect them to set out their work) and for routines such as questioning and what they will need to do at the end of the year.
  • Rigour: rigour fits in with the two points above, but be relentless with your expectations of students and never let them drop. Don’t settle for low-level disruption, sloppy thinking, mediocrity, laziness, half-hearted answers or incomplete answers. A perfect example of a school that gets this right is the Michaela school in Brent. Their rigorous approach, as outlined in their book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers (2016), is outstanding; their first set of GCSE results showed the incredible impact that rigour had on their students’ lives (Weale, 2019).
  • Teach to the top: Ian Warwick (2015) described how often the most able students are subjected to ‘differentiation by punishment’ whereby, once they complete a task, their extension work is merely to complete more work. Teaching to the topic avoids this problem and, in my experience, leads to more engagement from all students. Plan your lessons to stretch your students, before scaffolding to ensure all of your students can access the learning.

Thought two: never forget that you are the expert

During my ITT and NQT year, I was frequently told that I taught too much from the front. I was told that the best teachers spoke for less than five minutes (I have never found evidence that supports this claim), should have the opportunity to “do things”, and that students learn best when they discover new information for themselves. I made big changes as an NQT to change my practice to meet these expectations; these didn’t work. I had students running around the classroom to gather knowledge or working in groups to digest information or solve problems. They definitely looked busy, but knew significantly less than I hoped and had no chance of knowledge transfer. The problem with both of these claims (particularly in science) is that much scientific knowledge took humanity thousands of years to discover for themselves. True, students will discover something if we manage the conditions, but will they have learned the correct thing? How do students know what to focus on?

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) explain why how these methods don’t work based on our understanding about the human cognitive architecture, the effect of overloading students’ working memory, and the idea that students are novices. Guided instruction is instead necessary to effectively develop students’ knowledge and understanding, and this isn’t possible if you are not allowed to talk or actively teach your students. I discovered Barak Rosenshine’s (2012) paper early into my career. It provides an accessible and well-considered set of principles by which explicit teaching can be most effective. Tom Sherrington (2020) has produced an excellent set of masterclasses that look at each of Rosenshine’s principles and how they can be enacted in the classroom.

I now teach all new content through explicit instruction and shudder at the thought of allowing students to build inaccurate schema of the fundamentals of chemistry. By all means look at the research out there on discovery learning approaches, but I would suggest avoiding making this mistake. The recent surge in online CPD (explored below) means that there are also some great videos of strategies for implementing effective explicit instruction (for example, see Pritesh Raichura’s talk from researchED Loom https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7C7K-r7J6-w).

Thought three: simplicity is often perfection

Too often as an NQT, I over-complicated everything: I invested hours in producing various activities, powerpoints, and resources that just didn’t work; I spent hours marking ineffectively; and tried (and failed) to develop my own behaviour policy that deviated from the whole-school policy. Jo Facer’s (2020) researchED talk completely resonated with my experiences. Here are my notes based on her talk, but I’d definitely recommend watching as her answers to some of the questions asked were brilliant!

  1. Having a million lesson resources: some lessons involve a plan, powerpoint, worksheets, etc. This can result in split-attention, where students are having to access information from a range of places. It can also be time consuming to prepare and print out. Solution: creating a (maximum) two-page spread of everything that will be covered during the lesson. This focuses teacher thinking on the lesson content – the teacher can annotate these to ensure their thought-processes are clear. At the end of one cycle, all of the resources can be brought together to create a single booklet (again, reduces printing time the next year).
  2. All the activities: at times we can direct more student thinking to what we are doing, rather than the content that they are learning. Solution: simplify down the lesson to a basic, consistent lesson structure.
  3. Marking: too much marking and marking that is not of high enough quality to move the student forwards. Solution: whole class feedback – read through student work and jot down the successes, those students who have not met expectations, any spelling errors, or misconceptions. Students can then respond using tasks focused on the misconceptions. If students do not have the same misconceptions as the others, then jot down individual improvements for them to work on.
  4. Pedagogy: many teachers will use the wrong pedagogy to make things fun (often discovery based). Keep pedagogy simple. Solution: we need to ensure that the students are listening (constant questioning), check that the students understand what we are saying, and then how do we ensure that students are remembering and connecting knowledge.
  5. Behaviour: when behaviour is bad or teachers are dealing with large amounts of poor behaviour, it has a significant impact on learning. Solution: embrace the whole-school behaviour policy and ensure that it is implemented throughout the school consistently. If there are issues with behaviour, then changes should be made. If there are no behaviour systems, then use a three-step system: warning, detention, or something worse.

Thought four: keep on learning

I have frequently heard it said that there is no such thing as the perfect teacher. I certainly have never come across them and I am fortunate enough to work in a school full of incredible teachers. The best teachers continue to push themselves to learn: Dylan Wiliam (2010) emphasised the importance of ‘creating a culture for the continuous improvement of practice’ and ensuring that teachers were ‘accountable’ for their development in a talk on how to increase the quality of teachers.

Although not an extensive list, below are just a couple of places where I have found articles, videos, and free CPD about teaching in general:

Subject knowledge, and subject pedagogical knowledge in particular, is even more important. Associations and organisations exist to support teachers in most subjects. I am a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and Association for Science Education (ASE) and I consider these invaluable in terms of hearing about new ideas about science, ways of teaching difficult concepts, and articles that I can share with my students to broaden their horizons. Be sure to consider the relevance of each idea though, since there are several articles that encourage a discovery-based approach.

Thought five: you are a person before you are a teacher, prioritise your wellbeing

Teaching can easily become your life. I know of teachers who work at school until it closes, then go home and eat before continuing to work into the early hours of the morning. Those teachers are also the ones who are first in each morning and also work on weekends. During my NQT year, I started in a similar way to this and tried to ensure that everything I was doing was perfect (something that I’ve accepted does not exist in teaching). I quickly realised that this was unsustainable and made changes:

  • Determine when you work best during the week and stick to it. Personally, I work best on a Saturday morning. I get planned and resourced for the week ahead and then avoid working on the evenings.
  • Exercise and reflect. I try to talk a walk or go the gym and often spend the time just processing what’s happened during the day outside of my normal workspace.
  • I ate so much takeaway during my NQT year, which resulted in me putting on weight and feeling even more stressed. Plan time to eat, so that you avoid this. Takeaway costs also build up!

There are plenty of blogs that do this part much better than me, but these things made a huge difference and have made teaching more sustainable for me.

My colleagues still remind me of our Ofsted visit a couple of years ago when, instead of staying late at school and stressing, I left school at half three, did no work at home (I actually enjoyed a couple of beers too), before we aced the inspection on the next day. Why was this possible? I have complete confidence in my day-to-day practice and my routine ensured that everything was already prepared for the week; I wasn’t going to break this routine and run myself into the ground.

Conclusion:

Really short, thrive during your NQT year don’t just survive. As an NQT, you will be full of new ideas and (depending on how recently you were at university) some of the strongest subject knowledge in your department. Share with others, learn from others, and enjoy a challenging – but immensely rewarding – first year of teaching.

References:

Birbalsingh, K. (2016) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: the Michaela way. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Limited.

Facer, J. (2020) ‘Simplicity rules: simplifying your practice for classroom success’. Available at https://youtu.be/BQeyJjCBUBA (Date accessed 03Aug20).

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., and Clark, R. (2006) ‘Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’. Educational psychologist. 41 (2): 75-86. (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1?needAccess=true).

Rosenshine, B. (2012) ‘Principles of instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know’.  American educator36 (1): 12-19. (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ971753.pdf).

Rosenthal, R. and Jacobson, L. (1968) Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Sherrington, T. (2017) The Learning Rainforest: Great Teaching in Real Classrooms. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Limited.

Sherrinton, T. (2020) Rosenshine masterclasses captured: Free CPD. Available at https://teacherhead.com/2020/03/16/rosenshine-masterclass-captured-free-cpd/ (Date accessed 03Aug20).

Warwick, I. (2015) ‘What do we really mean by differentiation?’ London Gifted & Talented, 27 July. Available at: http://londongt.org/what-do-we-really-mean-by-differentiation/ (Accessed: 01 November 2018).

Weale, S. (2019) ‘Controversial Michaela free school delights in GCSE success’, Guardian (22 Aug). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/aug/22/controversial-michaela-free-school-delights-in-gcse-success (Date accessed 03Aug20).

Wiliam, D. (2010)  Teacher quality: how to get more of it. Available at https://www.dylanwiliam.org/Dylan_Wiliams_website/Papers.html (Date accessed 03Aug20).

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