As the new school year approaches, many newly qualified teachers will be eagerly preparing for their first proper teaching post – with nerves and lesson planning aplenty. But despite those first day butterflies and the new-term excitement, my research has found that many teachers actually find their first teaching job to be much more difficult than they expected.
Government statistics show that in 2015, more than 10% of teachers left the state sector. At a time when the routes into teaching are changing, more than 107,000 teachers who completed their training last year never actually taught in a school. This is worrying considering that many teacher vacancies remain unfilled.
As part of my research, I’ve identified some of the things that cause stress for new teachers and looked into the support that is available to help them cope. I’ve discovered that the greatest challenges were caused by a high workload, disruptive pupils, teaching pupils with different abilities in the same class and the worry of having their lessons observed.
When it comes to difficult experiences in school, my research showed that for some teachers the workload of their first job is simply too great, with marking a particular problem. One new secondary teacher told me: “You’ve taught another class … and you have 30 books to mark, do I mark effectively or do I teach my lessons effectively? … every weekend I have to mark, every evening I mark.”
Other teachers felt that the job was tough but manageable. One teacher told me that helping pupils learn, and the “buzz” when children understand, is incredibly rewarding: “Teaching is the best part, just actually getting up and teaching.”
It is clear that while some teachers can adjust to the new job and learn the role quickly, others struggle – until they eventually leave the profession. And I found that this is often down to the support offered by the school – along with how teachers make use of this support. New teachers told me that they valued having the help of mentors and found it useful to observe colleagues teaching, try out new ideas and receive feedback on their performance. Other research suggests that the best new teachers are keen to ask for help and collaborate with other teachers, but that unfortunately many are reluctant to do this.
New teachers therefore need to be proactive and their actions during the first term are crucial in helping them to adjust. By talking to a number of teachers, I have identified the following five tips to help new teachers survive their first term:
1. Watch your colleagues
When you are busy, it is easy to work in isolation and not have enough time to talk to colleagues about your work. Yet, the most successful new teachers observe lessons and watch how other teachers engage pupils, keep control and promote learning.
Make time every week to observe part of an excellent lesson and reflect on how you can bring some of the skills used in this lesson to your teaching.
2. Don’t be afraid to try out new ideas
The reason you have been taught new methods of teaching at university is because the research says they are effective. Incorporate them into your lessons and show that you can be innovative. Not everything will work but you will get credit for trying.
One teacher told me: “I’m not very confident trying new things but as my mentor says, if you don’t try you will never know and if you make a mistake you won’t make it again.”
3. Ask questions
You’ve learnt how to teach but being successful in a job is also about understanding how an organisation works – and schools are no different. You need to know what the school’s formal policies are and also the informal ones – the norms of behaviour that aren’t written down but everyone follows.
Use your mentor or identify helpful colleagues and ask them how they would act in specific situations. It is much easier to ask questions when you are new and it will show that you are interested.
4. Develop your networks
Schools can be quite insular organisations and sometimes you need to know what is happening elsewhere. Keep in contact with friends and lecturers from university and make a point of talking to teachers at meetings and training sessions so you can exchange ideas.
It is often helpful to know that everyone is in the same boat and you are not the only one with difficulties.
5. Accept feedback
You will be observed many times so view all feedback positively. Nobody expects new teachers to be perfect so ask for advice and act on it. If you are having difficulty with a class, ask to be observed and be open to suggestions and try them out. You might not always think an idea will work, but it’s worth having a go. Feed back your progress to your observer and together find further solutions. This is how excellent teachers develop.
Ultimately, it’s worth remembering that the first year of teaching is always going to be tough. The workload will be high and you will have to learn strategies to cope with behaviour issues and different abilities in the same class. But it does get easier.
One teacher summed it up when she said: “I’ve had a brilliant time, being in the classroom, planning lessons; the workload is phenomenal, a very big adjustment but I’ve enjoyed everything.”
Rachel Williams is Lecturer and part of the Employment Research Unit at Cardiff University