Friday, 10 May 2013

'Work-life balance' and surviving your NQT year.

About a week ago, one of my colleagues asked me to help out with a PGCE training session she was running for all the student teachers in our school. My inner show-off immediately jumped at the chance - that is, until I realised that the topic was 'Work-life balance'. 'What a fine joke,' I thought. 'Work-life balance... what's that?' I thought. My over-riding thought was that I should just stand in front of these bright, keen people at the start of their careers and say, well, here I am... here's what not to do!

Obviously I didn't actually want people to run, screaming, from their placements. So I spent a weekend agonising over how, exactly, to phrase the facts and realities of being an NQT: the highs and lows, the expectations and realities, the exhaustion and the exhilaration.

Here's what I came up with, and links.

The change from trainee to teacher.

Starting my NQT year as an English teacher was daunting. On one hand I was pleased, and excited, to be joining a large and well-established team, and to have control of my own classroom, tutor group, and classes. On the other I was concerned that planning, data, marking and report-writing was now my sole responsibility! I wasn’t entirely sure how I would cope without the support of my university tutor, which leads me on to...

Expectations you should have of your school.

Regardless of how you came into teaching, as an NQT you’re entitled to training, development, encouragement, and support. I saw this year as very much part of my on-going training, and still feel very lucky to have had excellent opportunities, with access to the ITP, a team-and-skills-building weekend away, weekly mentor sessions, after-school training, and opportunities to observe and be observed teaching. This is essential and I feel that I am a totally different teacher in terms of my professional development than I was at the start of my career. Take every opportunity you get to go and look at different people teaching, in as many subjects as you can, that’s what the NQT extra time is for – and if you’re not given it, ask for it. It’s not cheeky; it’s a requirement schools have. I was incredibly lucky to have the most supportive Subject Mentor who has become a wonderful colleague and friend, too.
As a minimum, your school should provide:
  • A suitably experienced Induction Tutor and Subject Mentor
  • Discussions based around your Career Entry and Development Profile (CEDP)
  •  An individualised induction programme, which provides support, monitoring and assessment
  • Observations of your teaching, with timely and constructive feedback, each half term
  • 10% reduction in timetable in addition to normal PPA time allocated

The highs and lows of being an NQT

I sometimes still stop to think ‘Wow.. I am a real teacher!’ This sounds really cheesy – it isn’t; it’s the culmination of all the work you put in during your training year, and the rounds of interviews you prepared for. I’m sure you’ll all feel the same as I do that this is the best job in the world – that ‘lightbulb’ moment is one that just can’t be replicated in any other job. I for one absolutely love planning sessions that I know are going to interest and inspire my students, and that can only lead to great progress. Some of the best times can also be when you get involved as a tutor; as a year 7 tutor it felt that we were all on a journey together. Things like Sports Day and Inter-Tutor activities really do make you feel part of a team and the kids absolutely appreciate the time you put in building up those relationships.  

With that in mind, there are times when things can feel overwhelming. My HOD has a great term – ‘pinch points’. Whatever subject you teach, there are times within the year where the pressure’s on – whether that’s controlled assessment deadlines, data or OMR entry, upcoming parents’ evenings or just a build up of marking. Although I am possibly the worst person in the world at maintaining perspective, you need to be strict with yourself. Some things are never going to get done... and that’s OK! The key is to prioritise your work. Although I would rather plan a creative writing lesson than mark a pile of scripts any day, I have learned the hard way that marking is, actually planning in itself. Having said that, there is no way you should revolve your entire life around work. Each and every teacher has fallen into this trap!

Here are some of my ‘top tips’.

I try to have ‘working hours’ during the week; during the day I get in early and leave late so that come 6pm, that’s my time, to go swimming, cook a different tea, or see some friends. This is, obviously not possible all the time – think of your own pinch points – but it should be an aim. It is unsustainable to work 16 hours a day and all weekend. You will burn out! Do you want to be outstanding for a term and a half and then off sick for a month?!

It’s important to recognise, as well, the people who have supported you this far – your family, partners, and friends. I find it’s easy to get sucked into the ‘school bubble’ but you need to remember that it is not your whole life – it’s a job!

If you end up in a big school, or a training school, you might be part of a big cohort of NQTs, as I was, and that’s reassuring in itself, just because there will be a lot of you going through the same things. However some schools don’t end up having a lot of NQTs in a particular academic year, and if you find yourself one of a small group, there are lots of places you can find support. Unfortunately, there are cases of people burning out or feeling unable to cope – an interesting report from 5Live last week highlighted the case of a HT in Worcestershire who committed suicide due to the stress of teaching.

Support I have found invaluable:

TES forums – it’s free to sign up and it’s also where you can find resources and job adverts

Guardian Education – lots of inspiring articles. In particular, one specifically about work-life balance this week by Marie Hazel which makes for excellent reading. Last week there was also a live blog chat on the subject.

Twitter – follow @TeacherToolkit, @innovatemyschl and @ThatsEarth – the last not teaching-related , but SO inspiring! NB as an English specialist there are so many more awesome people to follow - search #engchat or #ukedchat.

And now let's all take a moment to appreciate this fallacy. Don't worry, the feeling that your head is being slowly filled with boiling water is quite common....

Are you a teacher? Whether student teacher, aspiring teacher or veteran, we all need support; what's helped you cope?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Really great article. I also love the humor. I takes lessons at and at the same time so it's really hard to find balance. Thank you for the tips.

  3. I tried to asses that for many years. I actually succeeded not a long time ago - it happened when I made the decision to get the axapta software for my business.


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