How to Destroy NQTsAugust 2, 2012
A lot of NQTs don’t qualify. A lot of NQTs who do manage to qualify do so only after changing schools. The supply teacher circuit is full of people still trapped in their NQT year who, having left their first position, are hoping to get a long-term supply contract or a permanent job where they can qualify. Behaviour is the usual reason. The first year of teaching is tough, and some schools make it impossible. Too often those running schools would prefer to see a teacher go under than admit there is a problem with behaviour in the school, or that there are too many challenging classes on that teacher’s timetable.
However, some go under because they’ve taken bad advice. Advice that means they will not be able to cope for as long as they believe it. I thought of this recently when I read this blogpost. If you are an NQT have a good look. If you believe this is true, and you are going anywhere that is remotely challenging, and you plan to actually teach your classes rather than just entertain them, then this will probably destroy you.
If you haven’t worked out what’s wrong, then I will begin by referring to the key error. A description is given of a class who go from lesson to lesson sometimes behaving and sometimes misbehaving. In the ones where they misbehave the teacher is in a bad mood. He’s the one who shouts most often. This is not the case in the lessons where the children behave. There the teachers calmly ensure that the class know the rules. In one, where the class are greeted with a smile, they are given lots of freedom to work independently, and yet are still able to behave well. There you go, evidence if any were needed, that if you are nice your classes will behave and if you are nasty then they won’t. Bad behaviour is the result of the poor temperament of their teachers. Smile and it will all go well.
A common logical error has been made. If you can’t spot it, have a listen to this:
Got it now? If not, let’s rewind a bit and consider the evidence. Where the class behaves well, the teachers don’t shout. Where the class behaves well, their teacher is happy to see them. Where the class behaves well, they are trusted to work independently. Where they behave badly, the teacher dreads seeing them. Where they behave badly, the teacher is angry. Where they behave badly, the teacher is known to shout at them.
Is it clear now? There is a strong possibility – one might even think a staggering obvious inevitability – that behaving badly for a teacher has an effect on that teacher’s mood and disposition. To believe that causation is acting the other way (a mistake I have previously discussed here) is fatal. When you believe that behaviour results from your negative disposition you can create a cycle of personal destruction. A class will be unpleasant to you. You will become upset. You will blame yourself for becoming upset. You will focus on changing your behaviour not the class’s. They will see that you will not stand up for yourself, and your attempts to but a brave face on being mistreated will be seen as weakness. They will behave worse. Lesson by lesson it will get worse, and no matter how positive you are they will behave worse and hate you more. You will end up seeing how punishment you can endure and blaming yourself when it gets to you. They will see how far they can take it, i.e. see how much harm they can do to you without you fighting back. And psychologically there is an equally destructive cycle going on. If you are unhappy and you blame yourself for being unhappy, rather than doing anything about the cause of the unhappiness, it will simply get worse.
Don’t believe me? Have a read through this thread on the TES forum from an NQT on the death spiral. Started by someone in the February of her NQT year, she begins by talking about the approach she’s been told to take:
I make my lessons as interesting and interactive as I can – they take ages to plan – but nothing seems to work. My marking is always up to date, I always praise good behaviour and try to make them feel positive about themselves. I make sure I don’t do whole class explanations talking for more than 2 minutes as advised.
She describes how she’s not surviving. Despite objections from the management and consultant class, she is advised by a lot of the TES behaviour regulars to concentrate on their behaviour, not her attitude (while members of the SMT/consultant class posting on the thread throw abuse at anyone who tells her this) and begins to improve but is still at the point where she is taking punishment and blaming herself for her feelings when it happens. In particular:
I had a weak moment when I saw a note a student had left in my bag. I thought we had a good lesson, the students were starting to appreciate me but it said they wished I got raped and killed! No idea who it’s from and I know it’s not personal but it hurt my feelings.
When your reaction to extreme abuse becomes a matter of blaming yourself for being upset by it, you are doomed as a teacher, as this NQT was, because trying to put on a brave face will not stop it; it will encourage it. Teachers who get upset about little things will struggle, but in the long term most effective teachers do care about the little things. Teachers who try not to get upset by the big things, and that example is a very big thing, give a clear signal that it will be a fascinating experiment to see how much it takes to upset them in front of the class. The story in that TES thread is the story of 100s, maybe 1000s of NQTs each year.
Now, returning to that original blogpost, apart from encouraging a teacher-destroying mindset, not all the advice in that blogpost is bad. Some certainly has the wrong focus. While it is true that planning and organisation is key to survival, it is not because they will behave if you have ensure “they will enjoy what you have planned or that they have been shown the purpose of their learning beyond the classroom”. It is because you will teach better, and be less stressed, if you already know exactly what you are going to be doing, particularly what you are going to do about behaviour. Consistency and using the behaviour system are very important (but watch out for the two discipline systems and make sure your record-keeping is very good so that when you use sanctions that you can justify every decision). The “reprimand in private” advice would be perfect if you were teaching a class of 5, or if misbehaviour was virtually unknown in your school, but virtually impossible to implement in most schools and should be considered an ideal rather than a practical suggestion. “Praise in public” should be okay, but can backfire with some children in some classes.
I did write a blogpost aimed at NQTs previously which includes advice on where to seek further help and advice. Remember that it does usually get better after Christmas and the ones who put on a brave face and claim to be coping are often the ones who drop out, and those who find it challenging at first are often the ones with the high standards who will persevere in the long term. Most of all, work out early on who are the liars and the charlatans in the behaviour field, and what level of mistreatment by mentors and SMT you are prepared to tolerate, so that in a worst case scenario you will know when to say “enough” and stand up for yourself.