Teacher workload and retention are ongoing concerns in many schools at the moment. Despite the government’s reluctance to recognise the problem (https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/government-has-no-plan-tackle-worsening-teacher-shortages) many schools, teachers and experts report difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers. The impact on teaching, learning and student progress is immediate and apparent to all who have been affected by staff shortages. Certain areas are hit harder than others and Oxfordshire presents some particular challenges; prices are similar to London and the property market is extremely difficult to get onto, but there is no equivalent living allowance. Schools are increasingly finding creative ways to recruit NQTs but retention remains an issue: just as they really start to excel, they also desire affordable housing and somewhere to settle down. They quickly discover how much of a challenge this is in Oxfordshire.
However there is good news for schools. Teachers value a supportive school in which they are able to develop as professionals in their early years. Burn et al’s 2016 research showed that (as well as economic factors) there were some key retention factors which are, at least to some degree, within the control of schools, if managed well. These include:
- The demands of the job
- Characteristics of the school (factors leading to departure included “imposition of a very particular teaching style or expectations of a commitment to continued professional learning that were thought to be excessive”.
Supporting our NQTs through their first years is a key challenge at the moment, but things have changed a lot since I was an NQT and so I wonder whether I am always the best person to give advice. As part of our NQT programme this year, we have planned in some sessions for our second- and third-year teachers to meet with our NQTs and give them the benefit of their experience and wisdom. (This idea was stolen from another school at a meeting or conference. I wish I could credit them here … but can’t remember which. Apologies if it was you … and many, many thanks!) The sessions are informal, we have given them a budget to go out for coffee or to buy in stocks of cake and treats. The idea was that they could share (and moan) with people who had recently been through a similar experience and who could show them the light at the end of the tunnel, as well as offering some practical advice. No managers or SLT or others who might be involved in their assessment, just a chance to ask questions and have a chat.
After the meeting Harriet and Dominic sent me a summary of some of their key advice to the NQTs and it represents some of the best practical advice for new teachers I have seen. So I am sharing it here:
- For disruptive students to stay on task: create a to-do list of the lesson for them (inc. Write the L.O, write the title etc.) to speed it up, laminate the tasks that need to be done every lesson and then add to it in board pen to be wiped off for the next lesson. Add a task or practice they can do when complete.
- Organise seating plans so that weak pupils are easily accessible. If possible, seat with students that are capable (more than one preferably) so that they can teach (challenging themselves) and aid the less able pupil.
- For form time: put notices on a ppt to save time and as an aide memoire. Perhaps add a puzzle or ‘thunk’ on there too to give them something to think about.
- Get the tutor group to do more – give them jobs and duties to make them more responsible and relieve the pressure and help keep the tutor’s focus on the really important things.
- See if parents can be emailed to save time with phone calls. This also allows a photo of the pupil’s work to show what they have done that lesson.
- Use the ‘tutor report’ system if the tutor group is presenting challenges in several subject. This will also help prioritise who to ring in your phone call hour.
- Organise your PPAs so that they are protected time and plan what they are for. Not only does this provide protection from the school (who won’t take them, but just in case…) but also from over-generous “yessing” to every request. Set aside one hour to call parents, one to mark a specific set of books etc. Only take that hour for phone calls- if there are more, they will have to wait for the next specified hour (prioritise!)
- When ringing home, intersperse negative calls with positive ones. It can be draining being negative. Similarly, after a tough day do some positive calls home. They can really help lift the spirits.
- Make a blank powerpoint pre-formatted for slides you use all the time. This will half planning time. An automatic date alone can be a great time saver.
- Extend your screen (from laptop to board) rather than mirroring it and use presenter mode. It makes things a lot easier and allows access to ‘notes view’ and ‘next slide’ to support lesson delivery.
- Marking- get students to mark as much as possible. Make the success criteria/ mark scheme very clear and they should be able to do it themselves. This will also make them understand what the markers are looking for too.
- Make a success criteria and only mark for those things. If the list has 10 things, just give them 3 targets each (write the numbers in their books) and then in DIRT time they can work on those three things rather than writing the same thing in 30 different books.
Finally, using their budget for the session, they have created a comfort stash of treats and pick-me-ups for the NQTs to access when they need. This is a simple but brilliant idea I very much want to continue.
As a Head of Department, mentor and now Professional Tutor one thing that has changed since I joined the profession is the universal set of teaching standards. I am very concerned that many new teachers feel held to a set of standards that I could not have achieved in my first few years and experience pressure to perform in line with teachers of greatly more experience. The structured approach to my first year of teaching, the feeling that there were key things to achieve and that the journey was one of development was both a support and comfort. I wonder whether expectations of teachers in their first few years are entirely realistic under the current model. The next step is to ensure that some of their observations are with younger teachers; it is intimidating to always watch experienced teachers at play, especially if they seem to ‘get it right’ with ease. Of course, we don’t, but when someone is new it can seem a lot smoother than it really is!
Another thing that developed with time is the sense of resilience and ‘big picture’ thinking. Only after my first year was I able to review the progress of my class towards the end goal and plan improvements. I still need to do this every year … but do so with a greater sense of perspective of the impact of mistakes and excitement at the scope to improve. I can remember when a single bad lesson could ruin your whole week … then the whole day… then learning the resilience to put it in greater perspective. Learn and move on, balance it against the successes. However I wonder whether we sometimes put too much pressure on newer teachers to achieve that level of reflection and resilience earlier than they are ready to. I now know how November feels, how exhausted everyone is by Christmas (students and teachers) and the impact that it can have on behaviour. I am prepared for it and can take action within school and by planning my work-life balance to support myself and my team through this. I know what exam season will be like and what support is available during this period when everyone is working so hard. But this perspective came with time. Regular contact with younger teachers can help both sides. The NQTs can see where they are aiming in the next couple of years, and the second- and third-year teachers reflect on how far they’ve come. However teaching is busy, prioritising is difficult and it can be hardest of all for newer teachers. Therefore we plan to continue to carve out time for them to do this and support each other and I expect more sound, practical advice to come out of this as the year goes on.
Questions that helped me reflect on supporting NQTs:
- Who is best equipped to understand what they are experiencing and how to navigate the challenges?
- To whom are they most likely to open up and get quality support and ideas?
- How much of our programme is driven by their own perception of the support they need as opposed to being pre-designed?
- Bearing in mind workload, how can we facilitate them getting this support without adding to the pressure or it being an additional ‘expectation’?
Burn et al (2016), Recruitment and Retention of Newly Qualified Teachers in Oxfordshire Schools can be found here: http://www.educationdeanery.ox.ac.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/RR-Full-Report.pdf