The start of a new academic year is an exciting time but it can also be nerve-racking. It’s the final day of my summer break and, despite entering my eighth year of teaching, I fully expect a restless night. If you’re a newly-qualified teacher, about to welcome your own students into your own classroom for the first time, it can be particularly unsettling. Put your worries aside and focus on the excitement. All of your successful training has led to you this. I wish you all the best!
Below are my ten suggestions to help you thrive in your NQT year (the advice also applies to experienced teachers):
Adopt the right mindset
Many books/articles for NQTs are about ‘surviving’ your first year or ‘getting through’ it. Forget that! You’re about to officially enter the best profession in the world and you will be making a difference to countless kids for the rest of your career. You are privileged to have such a meaningful role. Is it hard work? Of course! But you never wanted a 9-5. Keep your purpose in mind and embrace the challenge wholeheartedly. Children can tell the difference between teachers who love being with them and teachers who watch the clock.
Always prioritise relationships
In Culturize, author Jimmy Casas encourages teachers to focus on the Three Rs: Relationships, Relationships, Relationships. Whatever the question in teaching, relationships is probably the answer. With colleagues, parents and especially students, prioritise building relationships from the first day and keep building them throughout the year. For me, this starts with learning names. I make this a priority in the first hour (make sure you pronounce them correctly as well). Using names shows students that they are valued as individuals. Also, smile! Ignore anyone who tells you not to smile until Christmas. This advice, I strongly believe, is outdated nonsense. Smile from the start and show that you are a friendly, approachable teacher who cares. This does not compromise classroom management (on the contrary). Among the many benefits, positive relationships will help you to manage behaviour and meet the students’ needs. For more on relationships, watch Rita Pierson’s TED Talk. It’s relatively short with some important takeaways.
“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
Find your marigolds
I have borrowed this phrase from Jennifer Gonzalez and her fantastic blog post. I urge you to take a look when you have finished here. In a nutshell, marigolds are one of the best plants for companion planting; many other plants grow stronger and healthier if they are alongside one. Jennifer uses this fitting metaphor to emphasise the importance of surrounding yourself with positive and inspiring colleagues. Make sure that you are being influenced by the right people. NQTs are generally enthusiastic and positive. You bring these special and important qualities to the table that others might have lost along the way. Whatever you do, hang onto them. Avoid the walnut trees…
“Marigolds exist in our schools as well – encouraging, supporting and nurturing growing teachers on their way to maturity. If you can find at least one marigold in your school and stay close to them, you will grow. Find more than one and you will positively thrive.”
I should have joined Twitter the day that I started training. I regret that I was already seven years in (including training years) before I tapped into this invaluable resource. Teachers don’t realise the power and potential of Twitter until they give it a try. Of course, there are other social media platforms as well, so use whichever one works for you. But, in my opinion, Twitter is by far the best for interacting with a Professional Learning Network (PLN). Whichever platform you choose, get connected! If you want to take it further, consider sharing your teaching journey through a blog. This is wonderfully beneficial to yourself and others. Again, I wish I had started as a trainee or NQT. You have direct access to millions of inspiring and supportive educators at your fingertips. Take advantage! We’re better together.
“If social media isn’t your thing, make it your thing!”
Go the extra mile
As I mentioned previously, relationships are at the heart of what we do. Do whatever you can to build them and nurture them with your entire school community. Nothing shows students and parents that you care more than giving up your own time. You’ll also appreciate and learn more about the families that you serve if you see them in different contexts. Go to the play, attend the dance show, visit them in hospital, be an active member of PTA, and so on. These small investments of time go a long way.
Don’t ignore the ‘whole child’
Not everyone loves this term, but I think it’s one that needs to be kept in mind. With the pressure of tests, grades and quantifiable progress, it’s easy to lose sight of other important elements of education. Our duty as teachers extends beyond academics and, more specifically, beyond maths and literacy. Teachers sometimes neglect other subjects because there is less pressure and accountability. Even with a broad and balanced curriculum, it’s easy to forget about those explicit and implicit lessons that build character. Your students should be increasingly better and more rounded people, not just more intelligent. Also remember that you are a key role model in your students’ lives. A lot of what makes you a fantastic teacher will never be graded and might not be recognised. That doesn’t matter.
“Not everything important is measurable and not everything measurable is important.”
Don’t stop learning
This might not be true in all cases, but in the three years that I taught in England as a qualified teacher, I don’t recall reading a single professional book or journal. To my recollection, nobody ever encouraged me to (while we’re on this topic, click here to possibly win some new books). Professional reading is something that I associated only with teacher training. Back then, professional development took the form of sporadic events. As beneficial as PD events are (hopefully), we should continue self-learning on an ongoing basis. There are countless resources and avenues available for this (many of them online and available for free). There’s no excuse (I wrote more about this in a recent blog post). Our profession is complex and constantly evolving, so keep learning and keep an open mind. Most (if not all) ideas in education have critics. What might be considered good practice today could be outdated or proved ineffective tomorrow.
“In a world that is constantly moving forward, if you are standing still, you are falling behind.”
Take risks and own your mistakes
You will occasionally get things wrong in your first year. Guess what? You should occasionally get things wrong throughout your career. Get used to it! Just like we tell our students, failure is proof that we are pushing ourselves and growing. By definition, risks won’t always work out the way that you want them to, but that’s all part of being a risk-taking, innovative teacher who strives to be better. Own your mistakes, learn from them and model resilience. It’s tempting to repeat “safe” lessons (especially if they seem to work well), but we should always aim for better learning and sometimes that means trying new things and being uncomfortable.
“Safe teaching, in many ways, is actually risky teaching.”
Maintain a work-life balance
Your children need a relaxed, enthusiastic and balanced teacher. Learn to say no and stop working whenever you need to. Maintain your hobbies and social life outside of work and get plenty of sleep. I realise that this is easier said than done but working into the night and across weekends is unsustainable. You will burn out. There are many articles online that offer strategies for reducing workload (including this one from me). Whatever strategies work for you, apply them from the start. Seek support if you’re not coping.
Seek whatever you need
Asking for help or support doesn’t mean that you’re weak; it means that you are proactive and keen to grow. If you want to develop a particular area of your craft, find someone who can help you. Most colleagues will be happy to help whether they are in a leadership role or not. We’re all in this together. Also (especially as an NQT), there’s no such thing as a stupid question! Finally, seek support if you are struggling. Supporting your practice and wellbeing are responsibilities of school leadership, so don’t be embarrassed to reach out. You’re not alone.
I hope that this advice is helpful. If so, please share it with others who might benefit. If you have any additional advice, please contribute to the comments section below. As always, your comments extend my blog posts and add value. Consider these ten as a starting point and then look below to see what others suggest. I wish you the very best in your first year and warmly welcome you to the profession. Please get in touch if I can help you in any way.
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Great suggestions, Adam. I agree with them all, especially the importance of relationships. The other ‘R’ word that goes with this is respect. Respect the children, their backgrounds, their cultures. Respect where they are and where they need to go. Show parents and colleagues respect as well. Value their input. The children know themselves and the parents know their children better than you do. Listen to them. Learn from them.
Don’t always feel that you have to know or explain the answers. Be prepared to learn from and with others. Share the joy of learning. Remember the wonder of discovering something for the first time.
Another important thing is to not be afraid to add fun and laughter to the day. Make the classroom a joyous place. Sing. Act out. Connect.
Maybe I should stop there. I could go on and on. Most of all, enjoy the privilege it is to share the learning journey of young people who will remain in your heart, and you in theirs, long after they exit your classroom doors.
Thank you for your wonderful comment. What a great example of adding value to my blog post! You have shared some fantastic advice here that I totally agree with. I love the fourth ‘R’! Your suggestion about fun and laughter reminded me of this quote from Shelley Burgess/Beth Houf in their book (although I can’t remember the exact words): “We must take our job seriously but never ourselves.”
Love that “quote”, Adam. Thanks for sharing. 🙂