Around this time last year I wrote about how beginning teachers could make the most of their final weeks as PGCE students in the classroom. This year, they do not have classrooms, they only have the virtual PGCE programme to prepare them for NQT in the absence of critical practical experience. I asserted previously that ‘This cohort will be uniquely trained beginning teachers, but they will deserve their qualified teacher status.’ Indeed, as the course draws to a close, my observation is that these UoN beginning history teachers have an acutely focused understanding of history specific pedagogy, and the theory of the ways children learn and understand and can therefore be successfully taught, than those that have come before them. Their subject knowledge has been honed and their appreciation of scholarship which might seep its influence in their teaching, thus closing the gap between school history and the history of historians, is more sophisticated. They understand the challenges, demands and opportunities of virtual learning like no cohort ever before; they have experienced being learners in this space, as well as having to engage in developing teaching activities, and so understand what makes online learning so tiring and tricky without flexible approaches.
And yet there are obvious limitations to their preparation for the realities of NQT.
In many respects they will need exactly the same as every NQT before them, a safe and nurturing environment in which their need to hone their craft further, taking risks and potentially making mistakes as they grow, is respected and supported (a blog from last year outlines these principles). However, these NQTs are unlike any that have come before and, through no fault of their own, there have been aspects of the ITT/ ITE experience they have missed out on. Hence my thoughts turn, as the academic year draws to a close, to what these beginning teachers will require next; where are their vulnerabilities and development needs as they progress into their NQT years? What will they need from their schools, departments and mentors as they begin their careers?
When I asked my students about their concerns regarding returning to the classroom as NQTs after this enforced break, there were a number of recurring themes about their practice experience:
- Managing behaviour -the eternal spectre of all beginning teachers;
- Marking, making accurate assessment of attainment and giving appropriate written feedback – most were only just starting to get to grips with this aspect when lockdown occurred;
- Teaching of exam classes (especially A Level) and, for those gaining ‘late’ appointments in this final half term of the academic year, having enough time to get on top of unfamiliar GCSE and A Level specifications;
- Understanding expectations of their new schools around virtual/ blended learning and how to approach this – experience of ‘home learning’ has revealed the variety and range of approaches;
- Managing ‘full’ timetables – some were not yet teaching their full PGCE training timetable allocation when schools closed.
And there were also concerns about joining the school environment under these strange circumstances:
- How will beginning teachers in entirely new contexts (schools they may not even have been able to visit for interview) get to know their colleagues and school traditions, ethos and culture when social distancing and strict rules around ‘bubbles’ may still be in place?
- How will they get sufficient space, time and support from colleagues to be inducted into processes and systems that are completely new to them and usually involve someone sitting beside you as you learn (for example using school database systems)?
- How can they feel part of school life and the wider school community if opportunities to take part in school events, clubs and even spending lunchtimes with colleagues are limited?
How NQTs can be supported to THRIVE
Teachers have been working incredibly hard during this lockdown period. Schools will continue to be challenging environments in September. Supporting inexperienced colleagues may feel like a task too far for teachers managing their pupils returning fully or partially after significant gaps in their education and socialisation. However, investing in these beginning teachers is going to be crucial for the medium and long term health of our education system. They also offer an injection of energy and enthusiasm at a time when many school colleagues are feeling beleaguered. The opportunity to support them effectively, thus maximising the potential and experience they do have, should not be lost. NQT mentors and departments might seek to support by doing the following:
- Alongside the usual induction programme, explicitly helping NQTs to contextualise the school and department – understanding the culture and ethos is going to be much harder to acquire through usual school interactions, and inadequate support for effective induction and support is a key factor in NQT attrition (Struyven and Vanthournout (2014), p.41);
- Providing clear guidance and support around NQT induction requirements in this atypical environment – helping them to recognise acceptable workloads and reasonable professional expectations;
- Building structured opportunities into their NQT induction time where they observe experienced colleagues teaching areas of particular anxiety e.g. KS5;
- Regularising opportunities to plan jointly with colleagues teaching parallel classes, and have guidance around interpreting schemes of work in the department;
- Supporting their early forays into marking through shadow marking and moderation discussions;
- Establishing really clear expectations around the kind of work they should be setting for classes in a virtual space and the level of interaction they should be having with their students via platforms like show my homework;
- Ensuring explicit support in using mechanisms for referring students who are not completing home learning work and use of school data platforms;
- Inviting them to become involved in the life of the school – giving a heads up on how to get involved in the Talent show/ staff choir/ house competitions/ regular clubs;
- Making opportunities for them to get to know departmental and wider school colleagues socially, even that is virtually, to allow them to build the breadth of a support network successful NQTs draw on in their induction year (Heilbronn (2004), p.7);
- Carefully monitoring and support for their wellbeing and ability to manage workload. Having an awareness of their anxiety and fragility having returned to the classroom after this unprecedent disruption to their ITE year. Establishing an open door policy which welcomes their questions and makes it ok to seek the support of the team.
Uncertainty is an enormous barrier in making preparations for the new 2020/21 academic year. The work schools are doing right now to prepare for September is incredibly challenging and pupils are rightly their priority. It is possible that, in the midst of this, NQT colleagues might be expected to hit the ground running. But, considered mentoring in the short term will ensure that their contribution to the team is maximised both in this tricky period, and also once we are out of crisis mode and into our new normal.
References/ Further Reading