NQTs – When a Pandemic Strikes

Securing an NQT post is an amazing but daunting feeling. The realisation that you’ll be moving from constant observations, hand-holding, daily advice, an ITT timetable, glorious uni-release days, into the reality of a 90% timetable with an essentially solo experience in the classroom is tough. I remember my old PGCE mentor, Kate, would just give a little cough to remind the Year 10 students that she was right there at the back of the room. That was enough to settle them. As an NQT, there’s nobody to give a tricky class that gentle nudge. There’s nobody to talk through a lesson that went wrong – not really – not in the same way as there is when it was actually seen by another teacher.

What a decent PGCE does bring, though, is a lot of experience – when it’s seen through to the end. We were on a 76% timetable for our long placements when I trained, and I remember that ‘click’ of suddenly feeling like I knew what I was doing. The beautiful orchestrated dance of the register, handing out the books, getting the starter going – everything suddenly works at some point around Easter.

Except, of course, when a global pandemic shuts down all schools from mid-March until the summer.

Next year’s NQTs need to have a thoughtful induction. Standard ‘induction’ isn’t really going to cut it. I should make clear that I am not describing TeachFirst or Schools Direct training and so forth. This is about PGCE-style routes. We need to consider all these things before planning how we can support our newest teachers into the profession:

  • 2020/21 NQTs have only had classroom experience from September to March. Some will have only taught for a few weeks. None will have worked a sustained fuller timetable. Even with a front-loaded ITT course, this means that many will have only taught for a third of the original planned course.
  • The process of medium-term planning, whether with the training provider or a school mentor, is unlikely to have been carried through to fruition. Of course, some courses will have managed to do this in lockdown, but even then it’s unlikely that the planned learning has been taught. And if all of that has been covered, then great! But I would imagine that we will find gaps elsewhere.
  • The daily grind hasn’t really been experienced. I don’t mean to sound negative about teaching – I’m sure most professions experience the same burn in the feet at the end of every busy day. That probably hadn’t happened by March for most trainees this year. Although teacher training is exhausting, trainees won’t have yet had the reality of a 7-week term stretching before them.
  • The school itself may be unknown, especially if the interview took place on a virtual platform. Unless they have secured a job at their placement school, they may not have much knowledge of the context. Maybe they’ve had a video tour, and a film of the kids – possibly local knowledge or friends who work with you. They haven’t really had a feel for the school. They haven’t felt the reality of your lesson changeover (for better or worse!) or understood the nuances of the building. It’s tough. We wouldn’t usually undergo an interview process like this, apart from with international jobs. We’re told, often, that interviews are a two-way process – but this year’s cohort haven’t had the chance to experience the gut instincts that tell us I can see myself working here or withdraw now!
  • Lastly – and I think this one is huge and possibly one which will be overlooked – our NQTs will not have had much chance to develop an understanding of school culture. Naturally, this is nuanced to each school, but we all know that there are little unspoken rules which we live by. Understanding these is something perhaps developed in the longer placement. I wrote Eleven Tips for NQTs a few years ago and there is loads of other advice out there like this which may help. Think about the etiquette that we all know but learn through experience – put the faculty staple-gun back, there’s only one that works. If you’re photocopying a set of something that everybody will need, copy enough for the team. Click the lids back onto the glue-sticks; they need to last a year. Click save on SIMS after doing the register. They’ll be learning almost all of this on the job.

Support for September

It may be useful to consider these actions for September:

  • If you’re reading this at SLT level, then any additional time capacity for your NQTs will go a long way this year. If you can find any slack in the timetable to give more than the 10% allocation, then please do. Many will be going from a 30% timetable, with a 6 month pandemic gap, to 90% timetable.
  • Induction could start with an audit of what they have covered in order to establish the gaps.
  • Be patient with NQTs as they get used to IT systems. SIMs does not come naturally; it’s not like picking up another Microsoft Office programme and knowing all the commands.
  • Remind NQTs of their duty day. It’s not patronising; it’s helpful. ITT students don’t often have to do a break duty; it’s another new thing to have to remember.
  • Be kind when they make those errors like taking the staple-gun, or drying out half the glue-sticks, or losing their board-markers. Professional organisational habits are not yet formed.
  • Talk to them about the school. If they are worried by a policy or procedure, take the time to explain the history, other models that didn’t work (or worked better!), and why it’s done that way. We do this anyway with NQTs but I think we need to stop and remind ourselves of the months they missed on placement to acclimatise to school culture.

Our 2020 NQTs will be fine – I don’t want to catastrophise or bring a sense of doom to new starters for September. But it’s an exceptional year with consequences that we can’t possibly envisage, and an awareness of the struggles our NQTs will face could go a long way.