Shortly before the outbreak of COVID-19, I was privileged to speak at two events specifically for Early Career Teachers, generally defined by the government as teachers in the first two years of their career.
My brief was to make the delegates laugh – and stories of my early career did that. However, I did include the ‘throw-away’ fact (or that was how I thought about it at the time) that I was often petrified, in a panic and feeling abandoned and unsupported. I closed by talking about how everything gradually fell into place over the weeks and terms, and how I was now (Spring 2020) in the fifty-sixth year of a rich and joyous career in education.
At the end of the session a young woman approached me in tears and told me that she was in her second year and experiencing all the stresses I had described. She advised me that she was intending to leave the profession at the end of that term and already had her resignation written, although not yet submitted. She hadn’t felt she could talk to anyone in school about her true feelings. Now she had listened to me, she was reassured and intending to stay in the profession. So many other young teachers have shared similar feelings with us since that day.
The current drop-out rate for teachers in the first few years of their career is frightening and an expensive waste that the profession cannot afford. Although the overall proportion of teachers who leave the teaching profession before retirement age has fallen slightly from 9.6 per cent in 2018 to 9.2 per cent in 2019, the five-year retention rate for teachers at the start of their careers dropped to 67.4 per cent, compared with 68 per cent in the previous year. A distressing and somewhat puzzling fact.
In July 2020, I was reminiscing with a friend about our time together ‘on the road’ when she was my front-of-house. As we chatted over our stir-fry Kirstie remarked that she had just completed her fifth year as a qualified teacher, and added: “Do you remember that you used to tell colleagues that it takes five years to become a teacher? Well, now I know what you mean. After three years I thought I was there, but now – at five years – everything just comes so naturally. Nothing surprises me or throws me off balance – I love every day in the classroom!”
“So, imagine how young teachers will be feeling in the Autumn Term,” I replied. We speculated about how stressful it must be for those who have had their year of qualifying as a teacher so disrupted and for those in the first years of qualified teaching thrown into the professional confusion and sometimes chaos of the pandemic. That was when the idea of writing ‘It Takes Five Years to Become a Teacher’ was suddenly born and the writing began.
This book was conceived 11 weeks before the day it first went on sale. We were so lucky to be supported by a team of seven highly regarded co-authors, and more latterly by a further 17 contributors from all stages and spheres of the world of education. And the words of all these generous and talented people blew me away, because over and over again I was reading about similar experiences from the start of their careers – the stresses, the fears, the doubts and the disasters! This book made clear that rigorous academic education may give you the theory for teaching, but it does not give you the competency to run a classroom single handed, to expect the unexpected, to deal with irate parents, invading dogs, fracas on stairways, leeches on the back of the neck or just feeling you belong and you know what you are doing!
Times have changed. The mentor system for NQTs is well established; most NQTs report having felt well supported and advised. In their second year, however, many say they suddenly felt adrift – the abandonment had only been delayed a year. Now there is hope! We have the Early Career Framework to support the NQT onwards through their second year as a qualified professional.
The Framework is currently on trial in selected areas across the country and initial feedback is good. Next academic year (from September 2021) it will be rolled out to all state schools everywhere in England. Every Early Career Teacher will have their own mentor for two years, plus they will attend half a day every week for relevant and thorough further learning and support. The modules for the Framework are available on the DfE site, they are well worth a look. There are currently four providers, and the modules cover the five aspects of teaching deemed to be most relevant for inexperienced teachers:
- behaviour management
- professional behaviours
The government’s offer for early career teachers includes:
- two years of new, funded, high-quality training
- freely available high-quality development materials based on the early career framework
- additional funding for five per cent time away from the classroom for teachers in their second year
- a dedicated mentor and support for these mentors
- funding to cover mentors’ time with the mentee in the second year of teaching
This is an amazing investment in our profession, and one that will, I am sure, enrich and reinforce the pedagogy and practice of so many teachers new to the profession, however – I don’t think it will replace the need for a hug!
Now, I don’t want the rapid expulsion of many of our talented headteachers for inappropriate behaviour initiated by me. I do not mean real hugs. I mean virtual hugs, words of encouragement, praise and support. I fully realise that this is the role of the mentor, and also a role many of you and your Leadership Teams fulfil on the side, but what the writing of the book showed us is that so many young teachers assume that they are the only ones who are struggling. They conceal their struggles, they answer your queries with a smile and the assurance that all is fine, and they go home and shed a tear – and spend another five hours on preparation before a sleepless night.
Why did no lecturer ever tell us about their struggles at the start of their careers? Why did no head or experienced teacher share their horror stories from the start? Why do young teachers feel so alone, insecure and – sometimes – inadequate.
In chatting with Professor Sam Twistleton OBE, Director SHU School of Education, I was delighted to hear she is currently working with the DfE on revision of Initial Teacher Training. I suggested that the content of the Early Career Framework would be better placed in an academic setting with more pastoral and wellbeing support in schools. Sam and I agreed that ITT is too short and too far from the reality that is to hit these young and inexperienced teachers and that five years of thorough academic study and practical experience would far better prepare them to cope with the future to come.
How to Support Early Career Teachers
- Don’t assume they are alright because they smile at you and say they are.
- Do provide model lesson plans written by teachers who taught the same planning in previous years, to be used as a framework if required.
- Do drop into their classrooms informally, wander round and chat with children if appropriate, rather than formally observing. Follow up with informal chats to celebrate the good things seen and give friendly advice when appropriate.
- Do share with them stories of your own early experiences in the classroom, and those of other experienced teachers.
- Do encourage your existing staff to share in the staffroom when something has proved hard or gone wrong – we all have bad days!
- Do forbid all staff to do paperwork for more than two hours a day. Ask what is taking up their time and sort it!
- Do ensure the novice teacher feels confident to share feelings and emotions.
- Do celebrate the golden moments you see for your early career teachers.
- Do build ‘two golden moments and a worry’ sections into staff meetings but people only contribute if happy to. Less experienced teachers will be reassured by the worries of others.
Ros Wilson has been fully active in education for 56 years and has worked in all phases within schools. She has held posts as Head of Primary overseas, LA Advisor, Ofsted Inspector, AST Assessor, Primary Strategy Manager, Curriculum Designer and published writer, and has worked as an independent consultant for the last 21 years.