“Don’t worry, it’ll be easier once you get through training, once you’re an NQT”
- advice offered to trainees during my PGCE in 2018/19.
If you’ve started your NQT year this September, you might be wondering if the quote above is normally the case and if you’re only finding harder because of our current epidemic. First off, the changes due to the need to social distance, create bubbles, teach online and all the related things is definitely making things a lot more difficult. No two ways about it. I have huge admiration for people starting their NQT year with less time in the classroom during training than expected and also for people doing their initial training this year, hats off to you.
In comparison I was lucky. My experience of being an NQT during 2019/20 was free of disruption right up until March when we started teaching from home during lockdown. I still wouldn’t say that things got easier overall. Sure, I had more of an idea of what I was going to do and I was definitely better (and quicker) at planning and I had learned a thing or two about classroom management, but I also had more classes, more responsibility and suddenly covers and duties became a thing. So, while I think the virus has made things more difficult, I believe that it is only adding to your already hectic NQT year. I had more moments when I questioned what I was doing and more teary “what do I do now” conversations during my NQT year than in training.
There were some amazing pluses to not being a trainee anymore - all of a sudden these are my classes, not classes borrowed off another teacher and I’m not being chaperoned while simultaneously trying to develop my identity as a teacher. I get to chart the course of the class (as long as I’m sticking to the scheme of work, of course) and if I want to take a detour into interesting waters then I can decide to do that. We’ve had a big push on technology with some year groups and I’ve had my Year 11 class using Desmos on their laptops to check answers to inequality questions and simultaneous equations. Do they need to know how to do that? No, but they buy into things a bit more when they are creating a visualisation of the question themselves. Colleagues also listen to you a bit more - you’re the class teacher after all, and you’re now in the best position to comment on that class.
I was asked to do a “How to Survive Training” session for new PGCE students at my school last year. If I was going to do the same for NQTs then my tips would be:
1. Learn to use Geogebra and Desmos. As a maths teacher if you can use these two packages then you can access the thousands of examples available online. If you spend a bit more time to learn how to create things in them then you can put together illustrations that show exactly the points you want. In the last couple of weeks I’ve used Geogebra to teach circle theorems to Year 10, Desmos with Year 11 for inequalities and solving simultaneous equation and also graphs of trig functions with Year 13. When the Year 10 class were working on questions and wanted help I could pose questions using a laptop with constructions on the screen - if I move this point here, then what does that do to the shape, is it like the one in the question now - does the rule still hold? If you’re fluent in how these packages work you’re more likely to use them and more likely to realise you can use them for a particular topic. If you teach statistics (and who wouldn’t want to, Stats=Life) then a touch of Excel wouldn’t go amiss as well as how to use this with Desmos with the Large Data Set.
2. Be selfish with your time. Seriously. You get less time when you’re not teaching now. You have more to do in that time than before. I make a list of things that I need to achieve each day and I plan when I’m going to do them. If I say I’m going to do something during my one free period or at the end of lunch, then I will make sure I do that before I stop to chat. Social contact is important, perhaps more than ever at the moment, so maybe you need to plan when you are going to make time for that, but you also need to not drown in work. If you don’t stick to this point, then you won’t manage the next one.
3. Set ground rules for when you’ll work outside of school. When I started my NQT year I was working every night, at least a couple of hours and every weekend at least one full day and usually more. It wasn’t healthy and I was constantly tired. I set myself a rule that I could work an hour at school if I needed then go home and no more work in the evening and aimed to keep to half a day at the weekend (though sometimes a bit more). If something comes along like marking exams then by all means break your rules, but the important thing is that you recognise these occasions are out of the ordinary. Even when I was working all the hours of the day I still didn’t get everything done, I don’t think it’s the sort of job where you’re ever done.
4. Do maths, figure out what you like. I love geometry and I also love statistics. I’ve used Ed Southall’s “Geometry Snacks” as extension questions with my Year 7 and 8 classes because they’re beautiful and make the kids think in deeper ways. With my Year 12 class last year we talked about stats in real life - how they’re used in the news and politics - who could have known I was preparing them to navigate through endless daily briefings and dodgy graphs on the news?
5. Remember you’re still learning. You probably feel like you should now be acting like a “real” teacher. You’ve just been let loose at the start of your career, you can walk but it will take time until you can run. Things will go wrong, you’ll think you’ve had a great idea and it will turn out to be rubbish. You’ll try things you suspect will fall flat and sometimes they’re be spectacularly well-received (my Year 12 class spent a whole lesson cleaning data - they really loved it - I still have no idea why).
6. Enthuse. I had to train myself to do this. If you like something, if you think a topic is amazing, if you think a question is beautiful then tell the class. If I give them a question that shows something interesting then I’ll say, “this is a beautiful question, I love this question - I’m really interested to hear what you think about it”. If you enthuse about a topic then you’re modelling that it’s OK to think that maths is interesting - enough people will tell your kids that maths is difficult and useless, you have to fight against that tide. Enthuse, enthuse and enthuse some more.
7. Find someone you can confide in. I’m going to suggest that’s not your NQT Mentor, as they’re conflicted because they’re looking out for your professional development so that should be a professional relationship. You’re going to have days when you feel entirely adrift and need a shoulder to cry on or some honest advice. There are maybe three people in my school I know I can say pretty much anything to. Look after those relationships, they’ll see you through.
8. Did I mention you can now raid the stationery cupboard?
With a bit of planning your NQT year can be an enjoyable sort of hectic. I really enjoyed the challenge of being responsible for my classes and finding ways to engage them. The good news is that things really do get easier when you get through your NQT year, honest!
By David Anderson