In this blog, Kathy Roe (Primary English Adviser) explores some of the challenges facing a Newly Qualified Teacher at the start of their first year and offers some guidance and supportive advice.
I still remember my first year as a teacher so vividly. That mixture of nervousness and excitement, coupled with a feeling of bewilderment – did they really mean to give me this job? What if I’m terrible? That bewilderment was soon replaced with a plethora of other emotions and rich experiences, some of which I still experience regularly: trying not to cry in assembly when the children sing; realising half way through a lesson that no-one has a clue and having to start again; that moment when you see the penny drop on that child’s face… It is a hard year, but one you’ll never forget. It really is the perfect opportunity to learn as much as possible, try new things, take risks and make mistakes whilst safely cushioned by the supportive measures put in place for Newly Qualified Teachers.
The teacher training is behind you, you have secured a job and made it through the first few days so what next? There will be a huge and daunting list of tasks and skills ahead of you that you’ll want to start tackling straight away. Teaching never ceases to be a magic act of plate spinning; you have the behaviour management plate spinning beautifully this week but the marking and feedback plate is teetering dangerously close to the brink. The guided reading plate is shimmering away as it spins around today but the science plate has smashed to the ground. It definitely helps to try and organise priorities and timescales early on, and to plan out the year. You won’t be able to have all those plates spinning perfectly all the time so – with another metaphor – pick your battles! Decide what you need to work on and be realistic about how and when you will get there. Year on year you will be adding plates to that growing repertoire. Give yourself some time to reflect on these top tips for a successful first year.
1. Plan to make the most of your year
Meet with your induction tutor/mentor as soon as possible and diarise a mutually convenient time and place to hold your regular meetings. Discuss what the agenda of these regular meetings will be like, and how long they are expected to take. You need to feel well prepared, with expectations of both roles nice and clear.
Your mentor and the headteacher will set your formal targets by half term, which you will be working towards over the course of the year. You will want to have an input into these targets so ensure you have thought about an area or two of teaching and learning that you would like to develop this year. This might be something that is outside your current comfort zone, so that you can challenge yourself with accomplishing a new skill. In the meantime you will probably have short term targets to help you develop day to day. Diarise your weekly meetings so you are ready to discuss your progress and help shape your development moving forward.
Make the best use of your NQT release time. You might be in a position where your mentor or headteacher has organised some of your release time already. If this isn’t the case, be pro-active and seek out opportunities to learn as much as possible during that time. Ask your mentor if you can watch more experienced practitioners teaching in school. Ask to be signposted to individuals who have particular skills that you’d like to see in action. For instance, you might want to develop your knowledge of phonics. Find out who leads on phonics in school and ask to observe them during your release time. Likewise, there will likely be experts on maths, behaviour management, outdoor learning, guided reading etc etc. Generally, people really want to help; they’re just too busy to offer, so don’t be afraid to ask! This is your gold-mine of teaching treasure. Every time I see someone else teach, I always steal a little something to use myself in class. It’s also a great idea to try and get out to other settings and observe teaching in other schools. Again, this is something that your headteacher or mentor can organise for you.
Attend some central training if you can. HfL have a highly regarded NQT induction conference training programme as well as an extensive suite of subject specific courses, especially designed to support NQTs in their first year. These will provide you with the practical and theoretical knowledge needed to tackle the non-negotiables for that important first year. Details can be found here and here
The courses are also a lovely opportunity to escape the commotion of school for a day, and to network with other colleagues in a similar situation to you. Often a day of training can leave you feeling inspired and fired up for the next chapter.
2. Be tenacious with timekeeping!
This is one of those organisational aspects of teaching that will just make life so much easier. It took me a while to work this one out and I must admit that it is often easy to let admin jobs slip; it is tempting to think ‘I’ll get to that later’. The problem is, we are so busy as teachers that it will get overwhelming very quickly. Once you have a few tight systems in place to stop that, it is easy to keep on top of it all.
I have already mentioned that it is a good idea to diarise your weekly mentor meetings, your end of term meetings and your chosen training in Stevenage. In addition to that, I would also spend a few minutes at some point towards the end of each week looking over the teaching timetable for the following week. I used to scribble on a paper timetable each week with any resources I needed to organise in advance, any texts I would need to find and any changes to the norm. There will often be extra assemblies, workshops etc that you don’t want to forget about.
There will also be school expectations for completion of summative assessment data to be finalised and recorded. It is a good idea to get these dates from your mentor in advance so you can work backwards and start thinking about when you will need to carry out your assessment activities. When you have an assessment week, you might want to think about carefully planning in some activities that will make your marking workload a little lighter as your assessments will take some time, especially to start with. It is also wise to ask either your mentor or another experienced practitioner in school to go through some of these with you, to check you are on the right track.
As an NQT, I found lesson planning to be creative and enjoyable, yet very time consuming. Again, I would advise setting a realistic goal for yourself in terms of getting it all complete each week and try to stick with it – to avoid the Sunday afternoon overload! Use PPA time effectively and try to get everything ready for the week ahead, by the end of the week. It is lovely to arrive at school each morning, knowing that planning is done so that you can focus on preparing yourself for the day without rushing unnecessarily. HfL have created some planning for English and mathematics from year 1 to year 6 which is available on our subscription site, PA plus. Adapting these to meet the needs of your class will be a useful starting point. Here is a taster from the year 5 English planning:
3. Cultivate your subject knowledge
Depending on the route into teaching that you took, your subject knowledge of the primary curriculum will be varied, but whatever your starting point, you will doubtless want to ensure your subject-specific and year-group specific knowledge and understanding is developing this year. Some of this development will happen naturally: through trial and error as you teach; through observing more experienced practitioners; through attending HfL training; through staff meetings and INSET at school and from your mentor. However, if you find the time to do some reading in your release time, you will feel ahead of the game and better prepared to add challenge and scaffold to your pupils’ learning. I mentioned our subscription site – PA plus – in the previous paragraph. If you teach in a maintained Hertfordshire primary school, you are highly likely to have a subscription. Ask your mentor or the English / mathematics leader for the login details. If your school is out of Hertfordshire, you might also be a subscriber as the site is available nationally – ask and find out. It is an absolute treasure-chest of useful documents – literally something for every occasion. It can be quite daunting at first though, so here are a few that I would suggest beginning with. In the mathematics area, the year group on a page documents are a great way of viewing all the statutory and non-statutory elements of the programme of study, organised according to strand. Here is an example from year 3:
In the English section, the planning menus are a brilliant starting point when planning around a specific genre. For instance, you are teaching in year 2 and need to plan a unit around explanations. Which grammar elements from the curriculum do you cover? Which writing objectives should you teach for this genre? The options are all laid out there.
There are two guided reading toolkits – one for key stage one and another for key stage 2 that map out the progression in reading providing precision guidance on the joureny to proficient reading. I would also consider reading some of the English and maths past newsletters as these are fabulous for developing subject knowledge and a great source of practical tips and ideas to be used in class. You have obviously discovered the HfL blog! Again, the blog’s back catalogue makes for such useful, and often inspiring, reading. Last but not least, re-read the National Curriculum for your year group with your highlighter at the ready.
4. Look after yourself!
You will work hard this year. No doubt, there will be times when you feel physically or mentally exhausted. It is so important to seek out a work-life balance. If you manage to follow the advice I shared earlier about timekeeping and organisation, you will hopefully be feeling in control. In those moments when you feel that control slipping, remember to pick your battles! Which of those jobs is essential? Does everything need to be perfect all of the time? Remember those spinning plates and prioritise. For instance, You might find that your school’s marking and feedback policy allows for some pieces of work to be marked in less detail; you will be encouraged to offer immediate feedback to pupils where possible so allocate some lesson time to this as it will help bring that evening marking work-load down. When you are supporting a guided group in a lesson, offer written or verbal feedback at the end of the session to avoid repeating yourself when marking at the end of the day. Try to ensure you have some ‘me-time’ each day to give your brain a break!
If you are lucky enough to have support staff working with you in your classroom, consider investing plenty of time into that professional relationship as the support will be invaluable to you both. Consider allocating a specific time of day that works well for you both to talk about how you want to deploy them during your lessons to best bring the learning on for the pupils. You will find that a small investment of time here, on a daily basis, will do wonders for the teaching and learning, and for your relationship. Remember those kindnesses too, as you will need them in return! Consider making a cup of tea for him / her each time you make one for yourself and give each other support and breaks where you can. I have worked with some wonderful and talented support staff who have ended up making the day so much easier, more productive and more enjoyable.
5. Make mistakes!
You will do more growing and learning in this year than in any other. If you’re anything like I was, the lows will feel crushing but the highs will make it all worth it. Try to put things in perspective; your colleagues will expect you to make mistakes this year. You would be inhuman if that were not the case, so remember not to be too hard on yourself! Don’t be tempted to bury your head in the sand – ask for help and advice when things go wrong and seek support with putting them right.
The most powerful way to improve your practice will be to have a go, take risks with lessons and activities and learn from the outcomes. Take stock from time to time and remember how far you’ve come. Invest plenty of time in just talking to the children, listening to them read, playing alongside them so that you know, above all else, that you have a good relationship with your class and that you understand their set of complex, interesting and different needs.