Hello there! My name is Haider Abbas and I have just passed my NQT year. I am a secondary Science teacher in an academy just outside of Birmingham. I am writing this letter for the soon-to-be NQTs who might be nervous about the year ahead and would like some pointers about how a passed NQT got through theirs. Before you read on, I’d like to mention this letter is not research-backed or the product of compared literature. It is simply my reflections on some of the challenges I faced in the form of a retrospective letter to my NQT-self as opposed to a ‘do it this way’ manual. Hopefully it will make yours a little easier and give you the head start you need.
One thing that will take the majority of your time during this vital year is planning. My advice is to learn whatever works for you and go with that. For you, planning two weeks in advance of any lessons taught worked, this is also probably because you’re a science teacher and have to request practical equipment beforehand. It always helps to be ahead. This also worked to your advantage as there were times when you needed to change your planned lesson sequence or spend more time on a particular topic with your students. By being ahead you were able to anticipate these changes and not allow them to have a major impact on your teaching.
You will be constantly told to ‘magpie’ other people’s resources or use lessons already taught by other teachers to save time and energy. Although this will be useful at times, remember the resources and lessons you plan are a result of how you would teach them. To directly lift someone else’s lesson without an understanding of the key principles governing its direction is like performing a scene from a play without having read it. Utilise the resources and curriculum planning of those with expertise, but invest time in planning your own lessons; this will often act as a mental rehearsal of teaching the lesson itself and will better position you to anticipate what students might find challenging.
Remember – It does get easier! A) You will become a lot more efficient with your planning B) Once you have planned for a lesson the first time you teach it, if you’re lucky enough to teach to a second class, you will already have insights you can draw on the second time round and can edit it to cater to your new class’s needs.
Firstly, no two teachers are alike in their practice so the last thing you should do is make comparisons between effectiveness. Every effective teacher would describe their teaching as evolutionary. So remember, whether it’s your first year or 21st year of teaching, you’re always a learner. One of the fantastic things about teaching is you are always improving and refining your pedagogy; be ready to take in new ideas and learn new ways of teaching. Use lesson observations to your advantage – in my opinion, there is nothing more valuable than gaining feedback and opinions from colleagues. Remember that, and you’ll always be confident that lesson observation feedback isn’t a personal attack but rather an opportunity for self-development.
As an NQT you will be observed regularly throughout your first year. Like many teachers, you will at first find lesson observations daunting and somewhat intimidating, it can be off putting to know your whole term’s progress is going to be judged on this one lesson. Not to mention, one would argue a lesson observation does not reflect the positive impact you are having on a child’s life but rather, how you perform in that one hour.
My advice is to, yes, prepare for a lesson observation knowing you are being observed (you’re only human) but do not let this affect how you teach. There can be a strong temptation to teach what you perceive to be desirable because you’ve seen it executed successfully elsewhere, perhaps even by your mentor! But you know how your pupils learn better than anyone; use this in your planning rather than attempting something shiny and new. The risk of trying to do something with the intention of impressing, is it may lose its sense of direction, because it is not a lesson planned with the students in mind. Remember you would not have passed your PGCE, gained QTS and gained a job at the school, if you weren’t a good teacher.
When it comes to teaching, remember there are so many things that warrant an ‘outstanding’ lesson; I’d be doing teachers with far more experience and knowledge a disservice if I was to write what is an outstanding lesson and what isn’t. In my opinion, in terms of how to have a successful lesson, which in turn will lead to a successful observation, is ensuring your students are learning in a safe environment and they are all making progress. This should be your main aim. They should know and be able to apply their knowledge and this should be evident in the lesson and in the future. Keep this firm focus front and centre when planning a lesson; this will work well for you.
Forging positive relationships with students
In your first year of teaching you will often find yourself in positions only the ‘new teacher’ would face. This isn’t because YOU are new; it’s because the experience is new to YOU. For instance, don’t be disheartened, when there is that one student it seems only you are having difficulties with. It is normal to feel this way but also important to know this is rarely the case. You may observe a colleague teacher that challenging student with ease. This will often be the by product of many failed attempts and reflects on trialled and tested methods built up over many years.
Irrespective of how long you’ve been teaching, there will always be times when you will have to work harder with some students than others. My advice to you is to form relationships as quickly as possible. Motivate yourself to know about the students you teach and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. Having said that, remember you are their teacher and not their friend, you are responsible for their safety and progress, if rules and boundaries need to be set, then do not be afraid to make them very clear and consistent. Students, regardless of what they might tell you, want a supportive and consistent environment where they feel safe to take risks and sometimes fail. This is an environment that is within your scope of influence. Do not underestimate the power of the culture in your classroom.
Forging positive relationships with colleagues
Teaching can be one of the loneliest professions. Surprising right? When you are first told this, you’ll find it funny and wonder how this can even be possible. After all, you’ve joined a people-centred profession! But you quickly come to realise that there is some truth to it. Your whole day is catered around groups of students. As such, you can go through a whole day and only have a ten-minute conversation with one of your colleagues. There will be some days when you have a jam-packed teaching day and have to rush home to your family meaning there was absolutely no time to catch up with colleagues. This time matters; it’s important catharsis. But this time won’t organically worm its way into your day; you must plan to spend time with others. These interactions will sometimes contribute to the best days you’ll have in your first year: the departmental breakfast, the Monday lunchtime when you shared the muffins you baked with the family the day before. These little acts of kindness and regular interactions with colleagues will pay dividends. The happier you are amongst your colleagues, the more productive you’ll be with them in meetings and training days.
I must also emphasise ALL colleagues. There are many support staff members who will be there for you in times of need. You will have the privilege of working with technicians within your department, and your job just wouldn’t be the same without them. They will provide you with ongoing support; utilise their vast experience; there is nothing better than a cup of coffee with them at break times.
Your NQT mentor is an invaluable resource in your first year of teaching. It can be easy to fall into the trap of seeing them as judge ready to hammer their gavel. Just remember they are there to support and guide you; they have been given time capacity to help you; to contribute to your professional learning. Contextualising the mentor and mentee relationship in this way helps to ease the pressure of the aforementioned lesson observation. They will have been given the privilege of mentorship because they have a wealth of experience. Having a mentor is equally a privilege. Use the time you have with them wisely by asking lots of questions that will help uncover the rich insights that underpin their wisdom.
The mentor meetings you will gain most from are the ones where you ask questions, discuss and evaluate different approaches to situations. There were be times when you mentor will guide you to do things differently; trust in their advice, but don’t do so blindly. Do not commit to action until you have explored the theory behind the approach, considered its implementation and explored intended impact. Theoretical coversations about teaching are not the same as putting it into action; it’s important you devote the necessary time to practical application.
There will also be times when you want to experiment with your teaching and deviate slightly from the proposed ‘plan’ you’d discussed. I would say it is okay to trust your instinct, as doing things differently and trying new tasks is the only way you’ll learn and that’s what this year is about. However, you should always be able to confidently justify why you chose to do something in a particular way, this will allow you and your mentor to reflect more easily on your teaching and plan effectively for the future. Remember, the most effective teachers are responsive and reflective.
Your health and wellbeing:
During the first half of the first year, you may feel overwhelmed with the work and constantly trying to keep up with all your basic human needs; sleep, relationships with family and friends etc. It doesn’t help when the days start shortening and you drive to work when it is dark and leave when it is dark. Don’t be afraid to talk to others about how you’re feeling. Seek support from whomever you feel comfortable with, whether it’s a discussion with your mentor or someone senior within your school. Every school has staff who are willing to help you and most likely have been though some of the problems you may face. Be open and honest with them. You are not alone.
It’s also important you make the most of your reduced timetable. In your first term of my NQT, you will use your extra PPA time to catch up on marking and recover from whatever had tired you that day. This will be your initial coping strategy. However, in your second term you will learn to take full advantage of this time. As tempting as it may be to make yourself a cup of coffee and scribble red through that pile of books, use this extra time effectively. What this means is, do something different that will allow you to improve your practice. You will find observing teachers from other departments very useful, especially with particular children/ classes you find challenging. It will also be helpful to see the approaches different members of staff took with students. When you see these different approaches, remember to probe and ask why? Make it your mission to gather their teaching insights so that you can shape yours.
A final note, the most important thing to consider in all of this is to remember that you are still in the early stages of your career. You will absolutely love teaching and will thoroughly enjoy your first year. There will be highs and lows but that is life. Have a positive mindset, and prioritise your health over everything. It can be easy to feel like you are not doing enough as an NQT, at time you will fall into this trap. So long as you are constantly learning and growing – you’ll be fine.
Haider Abbas @mrhabbas
Science teacher, Bristnall Hall Academy