The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

How to protect NQT wellbeing

John Dabell explains how teacher retention can be improved by focusing on the wellbeing of new teachers to help them feel supported, valued and motivated to stay.

Newly qualified teachers (NQTs) are the lifeblood of the system. They are vibrant, dynamic and a breath of fresh air to any school. But NQTs are also some of the most vulnerable teachers and like all precious resources they need protecting and safeguarding.

Many struggle with the enormous demands and challenges of the job and some are keen to exit because the stress can be too much, support is in short supply and it all feels like ‘sink or swim’. The Education Support Partnership found two in five NQTs have experienced mental health problems.

With retention rates of early career teachers lower now than they were a few years ago, the experiences of new teachers in their first year are critical for the future of the profession and we need to listen and act to ensure that we protect their wellbeing and retain their talents.

NQTs need plenty of support but they also need plenty of room and headspace to be themselves

It would be nice to think that high-quality mentoring, the provision of statutory induction entitlements and support from colleagues is a given but not everyone is so lucky. Schools are a pick ‘n’ mix lottery and if you don’t get the best fit, a bad experience in a first job can put NQTs off the profession completely.

Some NQTs are incredibly well-supported, nurtured and developed but in some contexts others are left flailing with little chance to build their professional capital and agency.  

Some of the most difficult challenges that new teachers face relate to workload, long hours and astronomical expectations of what can be achieved in a day.   

Despite DfE commitments to reduce workload, what happens in schools can be quite the opposite. Many NQTs are expected to hit the ground running and fend for themselves. It’s almost as if, once trained and in frontline teaching, keeping them there isn’t a priority.

Mental health issues

Professor Jonathan Glazzard, from Leeds Beckett University, conducted a poll of 275 teachers in their first year of teaching, and found that only 43% have definite plans to stay in the profession long-term. The survey reported half of NQTs saying their job had caused panic attacks or anxiety, while more than a third had been left feeling depressed.

Professor Glazzard has called for NQTs and trainees to be given more support on how to combat mental health issues and how to manage stress, anxiety and depression as well as how to develop resilience.

He also says that they must be given the time and trust to grow into their roles by senior leadership and, although workload and accountability are key issues, we mustn’t ignore the repercussions that a negative school culture can have on teacher wellbeing.

Healthy school, healthy staff

A toxic school environment where the senior leadership team fail to understand the needs of NQTs means new teachers can be under constant pressure. Excessive surveillance and unrealistic expectations makes school life a hellish experience and NQTs can soon feel undervalued and out of place.  

A healthy school is one where mentors and senior leaders understand that NQTs are not the finished product; learning how to be a teacher takes time and it isn’t linear. A school with a wellbeing strategy will value NQTs as professionals with a lot to offer who deserve intelligent and strategic support.     

Many NQTs can quickly fall victim to the curse of impostor syndrome by seeking perfection, comparing themselves to others, over-preparing and constantly trying to impress. They beat themselves up for making mistakes and they can make themselves ill with crippling self-doubts and by imagining they are frauds.

The Education Support Partnership found two in five NQTs have experienced mental health problems 

But this is where astute leadership teams can step in and stop the rot of exit attrition by providing NQTs with the permission to make mistakes and the space to learn. In a school where collaboration is key and vulnerability is welcome, NQTs can develop their identities because they know that it is a psychologically safe environment where mistakes aren’t penalised but seen as stepping stones and necessary learning curves.

Supervision, in-depth induction programmes, assessments, observations, training and continuing professional development need to be experienced within a safe space of growth where asking for help is the norm regardless of experience and ‘flying hours’.

In a school that fosters a commitment to its entire staff, emphasises collaboration and celebrates both success and failure, NQTs can expect their wellbeing to be enabled, supported and sustained.

Support system

Being at school should never be about surviving or quitting but thriving (NQT: Never Quit, Thrive) and engaging in research, developing professional networks and observing colleagues across a range of schools.

It should be about having frank and non-judgemental conversations and holding regular one-to-one conversations with effective mentors in order to build skill sets.

 Excessive surveillance and unrealistic expectations makes school life a hellish experience and NQTs can soon feel undervalued

Recent research into teacher retention has found that early career teachers would welcome a support system to be put in place in the first five years of teaching including having access to tried and tested materials, provision of lesson plans to help NQTs when they first start, and feedback on lessons provided more often than once a week.

NQTs need plenty of support but they also need plenty of room and headspace to be themselves and to explore what it is to be a teacher. They also need to guard their wellbeing first to support students’ mental health.

Schools have a huge responsibility to get things right and build on new teachers’ enthusiasm and foster their development appropriately. If NQTs are to remain in the profession and become high calibre pedagogues then they have a right to be supported and fairly treated by their colleagues and employers.

Closing words

Provision of quality induction support should equip new teachers with skills and practices to provide a firm foundation for career-long professional success.

Schools owe it to NQTs to provide them with the necessary support so they can become highly effective practitioners. That means determining their needs early and promoting teacher retention by identifying potential early-career leavers and doing something about it.

Our Supporting Staff Wellbeing conference takes place on Wednesday 25 March 2020 in London.

This event will equip you with invaluable guidance and easy-to-implement strategies to create a whole-school culture that priorities staff wellbeing.

Secure your place.

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