Minimising Pressure Points
In this article, Senior Lecturer Joanna Baynham, explores the different pressure points new teachers face over the year, how they can pre-empt some of these and how careful planning can minimise the impact.
Challenges and Pressure Points as an NQT - Planning for the year ahead
Starting your NQT year is an exciting but also daunting prospect. It most probably seems like no time at all since you were standing in front of a class taking your first lesson with a mentor alongside you guiding you through. Keep in mind how far you have come in that short amount of time and bear in mind that as a teacher you are always learning, reflecting and changing your practice. You can’t know everything all the time. However, take advantage and see the positives in not having someone watch your every move is a good start!
There are some aspects of being an NQT that are statutory and will be mentioned elsewhere in this course, but there are also many things NQTs would like to have known before they started, and hindsight is a useful thing! This article will try to identify some areas that are worth noting and planning for to support you as you go through your first year in teaching.
Getting to know your class(es)
Start by thinking about what is important in those first few weeks. If you are in a primary school setting you will most likely have your own class and you have lots of time to get to know your students. In a secondary classroom the number of classes you have will depend on your subject specialism. I am a geographer so I might have 10 different groups to get to know. I cannot stress how important setting the tone and building positive relationships is with your classes. A lot of this will depend on the age of the children but where possible, try and find something out about them. What are their interests and hobbies? Simple things like knowing which football team they support can really help. I am not a football fan but I always checked the football scores so I could have a conversation students the following day. It really does help.
You also need to know what their abilities are, how they learn, what makes them tick? If their previous teacher is still in the school, a conversation with them can help establish the makeup of the class, but be aware not to be prejudiced towards students who have had a problematic relationship with their previous teacher. If you have a teaching assistant attached to the class, or to a student, get to know them quickly: ask for their help in checking whether tasks you have set are appropriate. They often see the children in a variety of settings and may have known them for a long time, so they can really help you to build these relationships. It’s also important to start building relationships with the parents of students in your class. Can you send home a positive postcard in those first weeks or a quick positive email to start off on an encouraging note?
Consider how you will build a motivated classroom. What are your expectations? How will you share these with the students? How will you make sure the language remains positive. Don’t just write a list of things not to do to in your classroom.
Setting out your year
One thing that a lot of new teachers struggle with is managing their time effectively. That’s not to say NQTs aren’t working hard but you need to work smartly! You need to know what is coming up and when, and how you are going to prepare for it.
At the start of term you will focus on planning and teaching but try to think beyond the day to day and really plan ahead. It might take you time to do it but it is worth know what is coming up. Scrutinise the school calendar carefully. Map out where these pressure points might be.
The first thing you will notice is that you have more contact time on your timetable. You need to make the most of any planning, preparation and assessment (non-contact) time you are given. Even with a reduced timetable as an NQT it is a big jump from your final teaching practice whilst training. This will be particularly pertinent for those of you who trained in 2019- 2020 as your placements were cut short. It means that planning your time will be crucial to both your physical and mental wellbeing. I asked a range of NQTs and more experienced teachers what they thought was most important when preparing for the new academic year and they all came up with the same things.
Before terms starts you can make sure your classroom is set and organised. For example having exercise books ready to go, lessons planned and resources created for the first few weeks because once term starts it’s all systems go. You can familiarise yourself with the school’s curriculum and examination specifications. You can work out seating plans for your groups so you can easily learn their names and start building those important relationships. (This may be more challenging this summer with the uncertainty of situation but think about what are the certainties and concentrate on those!)
Make sure you have looked at the assessment schedule and quality assurance schedule. Most schools will have this mapped out. Putting it onto a year planner can really help you look for pinch points. This will differ in different schools but mid-way through the Autumn term, after the half term holiday, can be quite challenging. In primary this is around the time leading up to Christmas plays and for secondary it can be leading up to mock exams. In all settings you need to know when everything is happening. Here’s a list of some of the things to look out for: assessments points, work scrutinies, lesson observations, parents evening, report deadlines, school productions, exams both internal and external.
Mapping these things out can help you to plan backwards in the same way you might plan a lesson. For example, when there is a whole school assessment or data capture then consider:
*When you will need to have input the data?
*When will you have to mark it by?
*When will the students do the test or piece of work?
*What will they need to know to be able to complete the assessment etc? (Start at this point)
If whole school assessments or data captures are happening, then make it easy on yourself by careful planning of other things. For example, can you stagger when each class, or subject in primary, does the assessed piece of work so you are not marking everything at the same time?
Buddying up with a more experienced teacher can really help to identify those pinch points. If they have been in teaching for at least a year they will have invaluable knowledge of what to look out for and forewarn you of any challenging times in the school calendar.
Don’t forget to also plan out time for you. Make sure you spend time doing something that you find relaxing, whether that is attending a weekly class or group or going to the gym. Time out to take your mind elsewhere is really key to keeping on top of the workload. Try to stick to it as much as you can. I’ve always played in a concert band so Wednesday nights is always band night and I never work on a Saturday. I try and stick to that, and if I find I’m not doing it, I know I need stop, take a breath and plan that time in for me. Keeping a check on your own physical and mental wellbeing is crucial otherwise you will collapse in a heap in the first week of the holidays and then not be able to enjoy some time off. Ask most teachers and they will recall tales of the summer cold inflicting them about the 3rd or 4th week in July!
Having a teacher planner to put all of this information in is crucial. You need to plan your year, then each month, then each week and then each day. Make sure you write down when you will mark sets of books and plan each lesson.
Non-contact time - If you are a primary teacher then you are likely to be with the same class each week and have your non-contact time in a block. In secondary your non-contact time may or may not be spread out over the week, but either way, you need to plan exactly what you will want to do in that time. Do you need to meet with your mentor? Teaching assistants? Planning? Marking? Use this time wisely. I found there were certain jobs I could do more easily in my non-contact time in school, and for other jobs I was much more productive working at home or before or after school. For me I would get my planning done in school and take my marking home but you need to decide what works for you.
Getting to know your class or classes is really important. Make an effort to do this in the first few weeks of term so you can build relationships with the students. This will be different in different phases and contexts but it can also be useful to start building positive relationships with parents. This is especially important when considering the pastoral role a teacher has.