Early Career Teachers: Surviving and thriving – part one

This article was written for SecEd magazine.

I’ve received lots of messages from NQTs recently who, having crawled to October half term feeling exhausted, have returned to school this month contemplating quitting the classroom.

Many told me they’re disillusioned with teaching and are finding it harder than they’d expected.

Cold days and long nights don’t help, of course, and its usual to struggle at first. Even seasoned teachers find this half term the most difficult of the year.

But this year is different, of course: many NQTs have expressed particular concern about their preparedness for teaching because their ITT year was cut short by the coronavirus lockdown and, what’s more, continued disruption caused by Covid-19 this term has left them feeling unsupported by their mentor and other colleagues who, understandably, are themselves struggling to cope due to staff shortages and the added pressures of providing online learning.

If you feel shaky because your training was cut short, I have one thing to say: Don’t worry, you are ready for this!

In many ways, you are even more prepared than your predecessors because the lockdown last term and the tumultuous start to this term have given you a baptism of fire.

Of course, teaching is not for everyone and I would not want you to stay in the classroom if you’re having a wholly dreadful time of it and are absolutely convinced you’ve made a big mistake. Nor would I try to twist your arm if your job is having a profound and damaging effect on your health and wellbeing. But I would caution against making a hasty decision before Christmas because, believe me, it does get easier.

As I say, the run-up to Christmas is always the hardest, in part due to the weather and because the autumn term is usually the longest, but this year the difficulty has been heightened by Covid-19. So, what you’re feeling is normal and natural in the circumstances.

Although, when I started teaching, I did not have a global pandemic to contend with, I did consider quitting just before Christmas. So I speak from experience when I say, ‘Hang in there, life gets better’.

I went into teaching a little later than most. I started out as a cubby reporter on a local newspaper. Then, with undergraduate debts to repay, and unable to afford the postgraduate qualification that was then a prerequisite of becoming a staff reporter, I had to quit the paper and quickly fell into a job in telecoms. After a few years, I had risen to a senior management position: the pay was good, as was the lifestyle; I was in my mid-twenties, working hard and playing harder.

All seemed right with the world. But it wasn’t. Cue existential crisis…

One day, at the dawn of this millennium, I woke up and realised I needed purpose; I needed to rebrand! And so, it was a brand-new millennium and a new brand me – I was going to be a teacher.

But then I started my PGCE and my dreams of ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ fell apart at the seams…

It didn’t help that I went from earning a decent salary to paying for the privilege of teaching. I’d saved enough money in the months prior to scrape through the course, but it was tough living like a student again. Nor did it help that I was several years older than most of my fellow trainees.

But the worst of it was my first school placement and thus my first foray into the classroom.

To be fair, I was warned. My course tutor told me the university had considered taking the school off its books because it was in special measures and they’d been complaints. But, because I was older and had leadership experience, they thought I’d be able to cope.

The school had been in special measures for a while by the time I arrived and staff turnover was high. As a result, many post-16 classes were cancelled and other classes were combined, with students often left to watch television in the canteen.

Hence, at the end of my first week, my school-based mentor and head of department (who also quit before the end of my placement), said she thought I was ready to fly solo rather than waste my time observing her and team-teaching with more seasoned colleagues.

And thus, I found myself, two weeks into my ‘training’ and after just one week in a school, teaching almost a full timetable without any help or support. Of course, I should not have been left alone in the room, but a flagrant flouting of ITT rules was the least of my worries…

Student behaviour was ‘challenging’, to employ an old euphemism. The canteen was like a scene from Fight Club. Staff cars were routinely damaged. And the fire alarm sounded fifteen times a day. Not because some cheeky young scamp had smashed the glass to get out of class but because some cheeky young arsonist had actually set fire to the building.

You might say my early teaching experience was literally a baptism of fire.

It didn’t help my mood when winter started to draw in, and the nights grew long and dark. Plus, it was nearly always raining (or at least that’s how I remember it now) and snow fell early and deep meaning weeks of indoor breaks and lunches.

All of which made me think of quitting teaching every single day.

I remember struggling out of bed at the claxon call of my bedside alarm feeling sick to my stomach, and the lonely commutes home, feeling lost and alone, out of my depth, utterly exhausted.

Though I told no one, I deeply regretted my risky change of career and yearned for a return to my cushy corner office and a generous expenses account. But I was scared to admit to anyone else that I’d got it wrong.

This might be you now, half a term into your NQT year. But don’t despair because, against all odds, I persevered and survived to the end of that placement. And you will too. Trust me.

My university tutor wrote a glowing report based not, I suspect, on my teaching abilities but on the simple fact I was not dead. The school even offered me a job. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I turned them down.

And life kept on getting better. My second placement was a different world entirely. I was well-supported and actually got to do some teaching rather than simple crowd-control. It was still tough learning the ropes and frequently feeling unprepared or unskilled, barely staying one step ahead of my students. But I was learning and that’s what counted.

I passed my ITT year and I got a job in a school I stayed at for eight happy years, rising from NQT to Assistant Headteacher. I only left in order to become a Deputy Headteacher otherwise I think I’d still be there to this day.

That’s not to say my NQT year was any easier than my ITT one, however. It too was hard as you are now discovering. There was so much to learn, and I made countless mistakes… each and every day.

Being an NQT is exhausting – emotionally, mentally and physically – because you are performing most tasks for the first time and that takes a lot of mental effort. Nothing is familiar and you can’t rely on ingrained habits and routines. But the more you do something, the easier it becomes simply because you develop automaticity and free up mental capacity. You become more able to anticipate students’ misunderstandings and misconceptions, to pre-empt their questions and difficulties. And the more you explain something, the easier it gets and the clearer those explanations become. What’s more, the more familiar you become with your school’s systems and structures, and policies and procedures, the easier you find it working with them.

What’s more, you get to know the staff and know who to go to for help, and as your ‘newbie’ status slowly fades, students become less inclined to test the boundaries and so behaviour improves. In fact, if there’s one nugget I’d like to have known back then, it is simply this: the reason students seemed to behave much better for my head of department and members of SLT was not because of something I was not doing, nor because of something they did. It was simply because of who they were. When I became a headteacher, students behaved because of who I was not what I did. There is no secret strategy so don’t punish yourself.

My NQT year got easier with time, as will yours. Because with time comes familiarity; with time comes routine; and with time comes knowledge and skills and confidence.

So, yes, I understand why you may be thinking of quitting. Sitting here, twenty years later, you may assume I found it all so easy. But don’t be fooled. We all found it tough because teaching is tough, but it is tough because it matters; it is tough because you are doing something important, you are improving the world around you one person at a time.

Never forget, especially on your hardest days, the impact you have on young people’s lives. Teaching is a superpower. And you are a superhero.

Furthermore, never forget you’re not alone. Teaching is a profession, after all. You’re one of us now. And we look after our own. So, above all, if you’re finding it tough, do not suffer in silence. Talk to your mentor or a trusted colleague. Talk to your family and friends.

With help, you will get through this and you won’t regret it. I promise.

Good luck. Now go forth and change the world.

In my second article for this NQT supplement, for the benefit of colleagues who feel unsupported by their mentor, I’m going to talk you through what’s expected of you this year and how to prepare your portfolio for the award of QTS. In particular, we will look at what the Teachers’ Standards mean in practice and what you have to do to meet them.

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