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NQT experiences in the pandemic and what it might tell us about leadership

20.05.21

Message from the Editor:

This is a very timely and insightful blog which offers us an insight into an ongoing research study. The authors offer some hope from their initial findings – hope that the humanity of education is being rediscovered; hope which arises from collaborating with and caring about the colleagues around us. It is encouraging to see how the NQTs in this study – soon to be known as Early Career Teachers (ECTs) – are reporting feeling well-prepared as teachers; they are feeling supported. The role of leaders in providing that support and caring for these NQTs has been crucial throughout lockdown. That support and care will continue to be vital as we move beyond the current restrictions. And all of us in education would do well to reflect on the two questions posed towards the end of this blog.

Thanks PhilAimee and Emma for sharing this blog – we look forward to hearing more about this research later in the year.

If you’d like to comment on this blog, then please do so on Twitter using #BelmasBlog

 - Suzanne


 Authors: Phil Wood, Aimee Quickfall and Emma Clarke

In the summer of 2020, we were lucky enough to be successful in bidding for some funding from the British Academy to explore how the newly qualified teachers (NQTs) starting in September 2020 are experiencing their first year of teaching given that their training had been so badly disrupted during the first COVID-19 lockdown. This is ongoing research which will continue to collect data until later this summer (2021). However, the results from our mixed methods research are already beginning to give us useful insights, and not merely in looking at NQT experiences, but in the apparent changes in schools more generally because of these exceptional circumstances.

School leaders have had huge challenges to overcome since March 2020, and they have been operating in a constantly shifting context. Much of the normal performative landscape has shifted or disappeared altogether, with the cancelling of external examinations, and a diminished focus on the measurement of both children and teachers in many cases. As Netolicky (2020: 392), an Australian leader, reflects,

‘The current disruption to education has schools and education systems considering the humanity of education rather than its measurable outcomes.’

As a result, perhaps teachers and leaders have experienced a greater level of autonomy and professional space. Campbell (2020) likewise argues that there has been a refocus towards issues of well-being, learning and equality. Thus, it appears that the NQTs who have taken part in our research in the first part of their first year of teaching have done so at a time when schools are more focused on collaboration, well-being and professional support and experimentation than they might be in a typical year.

The results we have from the period before Christmas 2020 suggest a cohort of NQTs who are aware of their missed experience in their training year but who nevertheless feel well prepared. Their reflections on the period of the first lockdown, when they would normally have been building their classroom experience, is variable, but overall, they felt confident, if apprehensive, coming into their first year of teaching.

Since arriving, they feel well supported by the schools they are working in. NQT mentors are identified as crucial in helping them, as are senior leaders. Several interviewees had mentioned changes to school policies, particularly relating to marking and workload expectations. Many senior leadership teams were seen as driving approaches to ensure that teachers are not overloaded. It may be that, at the same time, the usual stresses felt by NQTs and which might seem unusual are actually lost in the wider reaction schools have had to take to function during the pandemic. As Suzie (secondary NQT) reflected,

‘My stress about teaching is like here [indicates with hands], but everyone else is stressed here because of coronavirus. So it just seems much more normal.’

What has emerged from our initial results from the Autumn term is a view of schools which have suspended many of the performative structures which are the hallmark of the English system and have replaced it with greater care for the school community, greater opportunity to try out approaches to teaching due to greater autonomy, and greater support between teachers, and importantly with senior leaders; there appears to be a much closer working relationship between all levels of professionals than perhaps has been the case previously when many senior leadership teams were focused on data, management and performance. It appears that the NQTs of autumn 2020 have found this a space into which they can grow, feeling supported and having chance to find their feet and establish themselves in a positive professional environment. A question we can ask, but can never answer, is whether this transition would have been anywhere as successful and positive had they entered into the more normal performative and data-driven climate of a typical school year.

Netolicky (2020:394) suggest that as we exit from the immediate stresses of the pandemic, we need to ask ourselves two questions:

  • What is it that we’ve missed that we want to bring back to schooling and education?
  • What is it that has been removed that we do not want to return to?

It might well be the case that the unexpectedly positive perceptions of the NQTs in our research are the result of a positive professional climate in schools, focused on support, well-being and collaboration. If, as we get back to normal, we revert to performative structures, they may have merely delayed a negative, stressful initiation into the profession. Then again, do leaders want to return to that?

References

Campbell, P. (2020) ‘Rethinking professional collaboration and agency in a post-pandemic era.’ Journal of Professional Capital and Community. 5 (3/4), 337-341.

Netolicky, D.M. (2020) ‘School leadership during a pandemic: navigating tensions.’ Journal of Professional Capital and Community. 5 (3/4), 391-395.

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