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Early career teachers, frameworks and support – “New teachers can feel overwhelmed”

Pete Foster welcomes the arrival of the Early Career Framework, but cautions that schools owe their ECTs more than the bare minimum of support and assistance…

  • Early career teachers, frameworks and support – “New teachers can feel overwhelmed”

During the first placement of my PGCE, I observed a class so terrifying that I did all I could to avoid ever having to teach them.

I watched as the nervous teacher got through what she could between fights and thrown chairs. One boy had previously escaped through an open window. Every time he stood up, my neck jerked away from the door towards the windows at the back of the room.

After one particularly tough lesson, I chatted with the teacher, offering no consolation – I had none to give. She stood up, paused, and said, “People say it gets easier, but it doesn’t.” When it comes to unhelpful things I heard throughout my PGCE, that statement is without parallel. It also isn’t true.

Inconsistent improvement

The admission that beginning to teach can be hard is too often confused with the sense that it must be hard, or that every aspect of it has to be a near-insurmountable challenge.

Long-serving teachers will sometimes cling to the strange belief that new teachers should have to suffer as they once did: ‘I had to mark all my books every day in three different colours – so should they! I taught six groups across 14 rooms – it’s only fair that they do the same. I had to manage behaviour through the dwindling force of my personality – why should they be any different?

Given time, the vast majority of teachers will get better. And as they get better, the job gets easier. That teaching quality improves with experience is well known, well observed and, well, rather obvious. But new teachers aren’t a homogenous group. Improvement doesn’t happen at the same rate or to the same degree within all schools, or even to all teachers.

Teachers will tend to improve faster, and for longer, in supportive environments where leaders manage behaviour well, and focus on development.

Much-needed knowledge

Until recently, new teachers would effectively enter a kind of lottery when joining the
profession. Some schools would be unfailingly supportive, while others were known to throw NQTs to the lions (AKA Y9) and simply expect them to cope.

This year, however, the DfE has taken concrete steps to make the transition from trainee teacher to new teacher that little bit easier. The Early Career Framework offers both the knowledge and support new teachers need. A resourced curriculum will guide early career teachers (ECTs) through how to build routines, deal with low-level disruption and lead effective pair and group work.

Instructional coaching – a process of regular observations and precise, actionable feedback – is no widely available to ECTs. However, the Early Career Framework won’t automatically make life easier for new teachers – effective implementation remains vital.

It’s dangerous to lean too heavily on the fact that a framework now exists, without investigating whether your school is a genuinely supportive environment. Schools, leaders and mentors all need to recognise the spectrum of options at our disposal when it comes to supporting ECTs.

Teachers’ cognitive lead

The research is clear – new teachers can feel overwhelmed by things that rarely trouble experienced staff. An experienced teacher can get students into the room, take in homework and usher a bee out of the window, barely conscious of each step in the process.

In stark contrast, a new teacher will struggle to get all that done without major incident. The children don’t settle. Arguments over the homework – with blame thrown at unreliable printers and home internet connections – delay the start of the lesson. The class’ reaction to the bee’s presence is, frankly, a little over the top. The new teacher knows they need to get these things right, but doesn’t know where to start.

Learning student names. Understanding the curriculum. Setting and checking homework. Applying the behaviour policy. The enthusiasm new teachers might feel for all this can be significantly dampened if it’s not channelled into a manageable sequence.

Experienced teachers might find it easy to diagnose the problems with a given lesson, but offering a blow-by-blow account of what you would have done is incredibly unhelpful. New teachers need actionable next steps. That’s true of lesson observations, but it’s also applicable to how ECTs will use their PPA time, how they interact with parents, how they give feedback and lots more besides.

The importance of planning

Before the pandemic, I was at a meeting of mentors for a local training provider. This was a chance for those lacking in self- awareness to share bad ideas whilst the rest of us had to sit there, nodding silently. The moronic peak was the suggestion that we should ‘Withhold resources from new teachers so they had to make their own.’ Yeah, that’d teach them!

Teaching is such an isolating job that we can forget how we spent our own formative years. You know – all that time spent sifting through folders on the shared area, wondering how you were meant to spin an hour out of a PowerPoint presentation consisting of just one slide with the word ‘Democracy?’ on it. Before long, you were online, downloading whatever you could find to fill the time.

When we provide resources, we minimise the wheels new teachers have to reinvent. No new teacher should have to learn how to teach while simultaneously planning and resourcing an entire curriculum.

Beyond having resources available, shared and co-planning will give ECTs valuable insight into the minds of experts. When new and experienced teachers plan together, we bridge the gap between the content and the classroom.

A common approach

Debates continue to rage over how much freedom teachers should have over what happens in their classroom. In recent years the pendulum seems to have thankfully swung more towards autonomy, but it’s worth bearing in mind that consistent practices can help everyone – particularly those new to the profession.

If every teacher makes and uses a seating plan, then the ECT who needs one to manage their class won’t have to push back against the complaints of students. At our school, every teacher starts their lesson with a short, silent activity. In the same way, every teacher has a set routine for ending the lesson. When it comes to behaviour, we use a shared language for giving consequences, highlighting student choice and a centralised system of detentions.

In the drive for teacher autonomy, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that teachers working in separate classrooms are still working as a team. When we all work together – say, on classroom routines and expectations – we all reap the benefits. New teachers even more so.

The recruitment and retention figures for new teachers should give us pause for thought. The Early Career Framework forms part of an answer to this problem. Finding a solution to the other part will require schools to focus and reflect on the level of support they provide to new teachers, as they start out in this difficult, yet rewarding profession.

Pete Foster is an English teacher and senior leader at an all-through school in Somerset; he blogs at curriculumteamleader.wordpress.com and can be followed at @pnjfoster

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