What a year! I’m sure there are other people out there who’ve had a terrible NQT year, but this one has got to be up there with one of the worst.
It started to go downhill from the beginning. September was a blur. There were no lesson plans, no medium term plans, no effective behaviour management system and very low expectations from staff and children alike. Within three days my parallel teacher had literally fled the country, deciding to return to her home country, and I was left to face the music alone.
I worked every waking hour to prepare lessons and resources from scratch, briefing supply teachers daily. I had somehow slipped under management’s radar. Unaware that I was an NQT, support and observations were virtually non-existent. I could have been teaching science and literacy or snakes and ladders for all anyone knew. There were no subject leaders or Key Stage heads that I could recognise. I was a rabbit caught in the headlights, with nowhere to turn.
Thankfully, one of the supply teachers agreed to stay on. This was my saving grace. We became each other’s support network, encouraging each other to keep going, taking it one day at a time. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry, and so we did both. Eventually, the latter began to happen far too often.
In October, quite unexpectedly, the head resigned and had left by Christmas. A week later, the school’s deputy head had followed suit. I felt utterly at sea, crushed and hopeless, watching idly as staff abandoned the sinking ship in droves – a combination of redundancies, retirements and escapees fleeing to greener pastures.
So desperate was our situation that two ‘super heads’ were deployed and a seismic shift in stress levels began. The academy regime had arrived.
Perhaps naively, I was momentarily motivated by the fresh faces, corporate blue trouser suits and no-nonsense attitudes. They signalled hope, an era of change. Sadly, this was the biggest let-down of all. During one of the new regime’s very first speeches, the word ‘HELL’ was actually emblazoned on a fiery 5m x 3m projection wall in the school hall. An unsustainable work-life balance was regarded as normal and accepted as part of the job. We were run ragged, whilst the running commentary from senior leadership left us feeling worthless and undervalued. Morale in the school had hit an all-time low and I was desperately unhappy. I was constantly stressed, tired and emotionally drained. It was as if we’d made a pact with the devil. Yes, we’ll work from home. Yes, we’ll do so until the job’s done – even if that means working into the early hours. Yes, we’ll work on weekends. Yes, we’ll read your emails and respond to them on Sundays. When I did eventually climb into bed my head was fuzzy, fraught with frantic deadlines and data, scrutinies and stress.
By Christmas, I’d decided that enough was enough. I had been working 14-16 hour days and felt under unbelievable pressure to reach unachievable results. In my PGCE year I was graded ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. I have an incredible passion for teaching and working with children. I am creative, positive and excited to be part of an invaluable education system. But when I looked in the mirror at the end of autumn term, I saw a panic-stricken shadow of my former NQT self. I applied for a job in the holidays and gave my notice in the new year.
But the pupils aren’t responsible for those two traumatic terms. They (along with my team) were the only reason I stayed as long as I did. It broke my heart to leave them. They made me smile, filled me with pride and, on occasion, flashes of brilliance filled the classroom. They achieved against all odds. They were a pleasure to teach, in spite of the surrounding nonsense. In such a short space of time they had come so far, but they were fragile. A fraying rope that I couldn’t let go, for fear it would unravel completely. All the good work with their behaviour and attitudes, undone in a single moment. Another teacher is leaving us. I couldn’t hold back the tears when I bid my farewells, but I’m glad to say I’ve not shed a single tear since.
By Summer term, Ofsted had put the school into special measures, but I didn’t need that result to know I’d made the right choice. Once I moved to another school, my life improved ten-fold. I’m no longer taking work home in the evenings and I’ve gained my precious weekends back. The biggest highlight has to be the positive working environment, the inspirational leadership and constant support from colleagues. There has been plenty of encouraging feedback throughout the term – from peers, pupils and parents alike – always unexpected, but it’s made me realise that I might actually be good at my job after all. My confidence is slowly returning.
I’ve finally struck a balance that I feared I’d never see again. I used to wonder how teachers managed to get all of their work done by 5pm and spend every weekend and holiday blissfully divorced from school life. I couldn’t quite comprehend how they managed it, assuming it involved some form of time travelling Tardis!
Every now and then, I still feel a pang of guilt about the class I left behind. I will always wonder how my class (the brightest, the keenest and the most apathetic) is getting on. I will always look back fondly on the enthusiasm of that first class and I will always be proud of my most creative lessons but I can’t pretend that those magical moments weren’t outweighed by everything else that we were contending with. The environment had become toxic and we shouldn’t feel like that about a job that is so vitally important for the future of our society. I don’t think I realised the full impact on my mental health at the time, but I can understand now why so many NQTs decide to leave the profession. If only they’d found the right school, I wonder.
As I mentioned in my previous post, sometimes it’s easy to forget what’s important and to become railroaded by politics. Thankfully, the CPRT aims are there to remind us what’s really important – over and above government priorities. My NQT year has been a baptism of fire, but somehow I survived. I’ve learnt more over the past year than I have in any other. I’m certainly not the same teacher I was at the start of the year and I hope I can continue to grow and say the same again next year.
I’ve gained so much from this experience and despite such a challenging and chaotic NQT year, I’m sticking with it.
Is Sadie’s experience of becoming a primary teacher in these difficult times unusual, or is it more common than it should be? What of the extremes of chaos and ruthless corporatism, and of stress and damaged self-esteem, that she suffered before at last encountering the positive and supportive working environment that as an NQT she needed and deserved? We would like to hear from other recently qualified primary teachers, and from school leaders who can reassure those following Sadie into the classroom that she was just exceptionally unlucky in where she landed.