Five things every newly qualified teacher should hear

I’d go as far as to say it’s a sign of strength to have the confidence to reach out if you need it.

Victoria Hewett, teacher, education blogger and author of 'Making it as a a Teacher,' shares her tips for NQTs and RQTs.

Being a newly qualified teacher, or even a recently qualified one, isn’t easy, simply because there is so much to consider.

Being new to the profession means you’re constantly considering lesson planning, behaviour, assessment, marking, differentiation, rules, routines, subject knowledge and so on - all whilst continuing to learn and develop your practice as a teacher. As a result, being a new teacher can be tough, exhausting and mentally draining, even when you’re having the best of times.

When I reflect upon my NQT year, there are a few things I wish I’d been told before having to learn them the slightly harder way. Here are my top five things every new teacher should be told:

1. Don't fret about progress in your first term as an NQT

Rather than worrying about the progress your students are making in the first term, get to know them! Take time each lesson to build professional relationships with your students, talk to them and ask them questions that help you to understand them as learners and as individuals.

Find out how they learn best, what support they have had before and what has helped them in the past. Ask them about the contributions they make to school life, what they do outside school, and what their home life is like. Understanding these elements can make all the difference in how students respond in your lessons.

During my first term as an NQT, I spent far too much time worrying about progress and how behaviour was potentially impacting on it. Now I like to spend the first term finding out where my students are with regard to their subject knowledge, a bit about them as individuals and making my classroom expectations explicit. Doing so has helped me build relationships and understand where my students are coming from.

2. Differentiation isn't an individual lesson for each individual student

Differentiation is a teacher’s response to a learner’s needs and therefore can be planned or unplanned, long-term or short-term, explicit or subtle.

This means that in order to differentiate and meet students’ needs:

  • you do not need to create individual worksheets for each student;
  • you do not need to make students complete different tasks based upon their prior attainment;
  • you do not need to group students into high, middle or low ability and set work accordingly.

I’m sure there are many other examples of such requests that could be added to the list from new and experienced teachers alike. What such approaches do is create excessive levels of work for teachers and limit a student’s potential achievement. That’s simply unfair.

Instead, strive to teach to the top level and scaffold up. This means teaching to the abilities of your highest-attaining students and providing all students with the support they need to enable them to achieve the highest possible outcomes. This support may come in the form of pre-planned structures, templates and the like, or be ‘in the moment’ responses to needs that arise. Such an approach, however, requires careful consideration to ensure students are not cognitively overloaded and instead, are encouraged to think hard in a supportive environment.

In addition, it’s impossible to differentiate for every student and every need all of the time. We need to remember that differentiation is more than just the tasks we give students or the adjustments and provisions we make for specific needs; we have to develop our ability to adapt and respond in the moment just as much as planning support in advance.

So, when you're observed, consider all the ways in which you responded in the moment and discuss how those reactions met students’ individual needs in a timely fashion. After all, meeting individual needs doesn’t always need to be pre-planned, what you do in response is just as important as what you do in advance.

3. Marking is feedback, but not all feedback is marking

Marking, for many teachers both new and experienced, is one of the biggest contributing factors to workload. Too often, huge emphasis is placed on the value of written marking, when in fact there is little evidence to support it.

Instead, we ought to see feedback as a bigger picture and consider how we model expectations to students, how we clarify goals and expectations, how we provide feedback on formative and summative work, how we assess progress, and ultimately, how what we take away from assessment for learning feeds forward into our future planning.

Therefore, instead of spending hours marking books, assess learning through a quick book-look to identify examples of misconceptions and common mistakes. Use these examples to plan the next lesson or future learning. How can you combat that misconception? How can you help a student to improve their description? What support might be needed to enable development of a specific skill?

Changing the way that I looked at marking revolutionised the way I plan and teach my lessons. Feedback is embedded across my lessons, assessment for learning is evident throughout and students self- and peer-assess with confidence (after a bit of modelling and a few scaffolds at the start of the year).

However, it’s more than just changing the way you mark. Take time to consider what you’re assessing and why. Plot out how each formatively-assessed piece of work feeds into the next or into the summative piece. Consider how what you are teaching students now develops through the topic, year and key stage.

For your own sanity and wellbeing, be brave and refuse to mark for the sake of marking! Explore and consider its purpose and impact.

4. Reaching out is not a sign of weakness

There is so much to learn as a teacher, even more so when you’re an early-career teacher. Some days you can feel like an impostor and out of your depth. Ask any teacher with a few years' experience and they’ll agree - and that’s okay. Just don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for ideas, support or guidance if and when you need it. Honestly, it’s not a sign of weakness or failure - I’d go as far as to say it’s a sign of strength to have the confidence to reach out if you need it.

There is plenty of support available for new teachers, whether it’s for ideas about how to teach a difficult concept, a resource for a lesson you forgot to plan, suggestions for dealing with a difficult class or even emotional support for a student.

Start with your school’s staff room or within your department; take the time to take a break and speak to your colleagues. As tempting as it can be to lock yourself away and work through breaks, get out and about! It will make it easier when you need to reach out.

If you can’t find the support you need in school, try online. There’s an extraordinary world of online teachers - you don’t even have to dive in to get plenty out of it, you can merely dip your toes in as and when necessary. I’d recommend Twitter. Speaking from experience, it’s a fantastic source of inspiration and support. Additionally, there are numerous Facebook groups for different subjects and key stages.

5. You don't have to say yes to every request

I must admit that it took going through a breakdown as a result of burnout in my fourth year, to get me to realise that you don't have to say yes to every request. I simply don’t want that to happen other early-career teachers. Generally, new teachers are keen to get involved, eager to please and happy to get stuck in; however that can put them in a position where they feel they have to do everything and anything. You do not have to!

Be selective in what you agree to do and take part in. For some it may be preferable to consider their career aspirations, whilst others may prefer to think about what extracurricular activities they enjoy. Basically, avoid spreading yourself too thinly. Involve yourself in school life, but ensure you are able to continue to have a work-life balance. Say yes to what suits you and not this time if it doesn’t.

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