Do you remember your first year as a teacher? For me, it was 30 years ago. Despite the hours I put in I sometimes experienced the cold sweat of being underprepared, but I was lucky in having a supportive line manager and headteacher. With less support around me, I might have felt isolated. I might have even questioned if teaching was for me.
How you design the learning journey for NQTs is vital. A poorly designed first year in teaching might take someone to breaking point, rather than giving them a firm foundation – but what’s the criteria for excellent design? I’d like to offer a few ideas which might help in relation to something called cognitive overload.
In our latest book, The Learning Imperative, Mark Burns and I define cognitive overload as “An umbrella term for the inability of individuals or teams to absorb new information because their processing powers have been overwhelmed.” It’s something common in many workplaces today, as information can flow through numerous channels. For teachers, it can be school and government policies, books, blogs, Twitter. What do I read? What should I prioritise? Over time, teachers will learn how to navigate through this fog, but when you first join the profession it’s a real ‘pea souper’.
The antidote to cognitive overload is clarity and good organisation. Ensure that you or another school leader help NQTs to be clear about their key priorities and how to plan learning for children. Who could they co-plan lessons, topics and units of work with? Hopefully, that person – you or their mentor/phase leader – will help them plan backwards: to develop a clear vision of what they’d like the children’s work to look like before beginning to teach that topic. Planning backwards means we can carefully plan the steps towards that destination and identify what tools and strategies will be required.
Another good strategy is to help NQTs improve their organisation and time management. Kanban is great for this – it only requires a bundle of Post-it notes, a writing surface and four columns: ‘TO DO’, ‘ACTION’, ‘WAITING’ and ‘DONE’. Every task awaiting completion gets written on individual Post-its and is placed in the ‘TO DO’ column. Only tasks that can be tackled within 24 hours then get moved to ‘ACTION’.
Many NQTs underestimate how long various tasks will take, so using this system alongside an experienced teacher can help them get a better grasp on what’s achievable. Any ‘TO DO’ items requiring permission or further information go into the ‘WAITING’ column. Finally, there’s the satisfaction of moving items to the ‘DONE’ column once completed – something that sets it apart from the traditional to-do list.
Addressing cognitive overload issues with collaborative backward planning and efficient time management will improve NQTs’ teaching and wellbeing, and may ultimately boost both your own NQT retention and their career progression.
Andy Griffith is an author, co-director of Malit and co-creator of the Outstanding Teaching Intervention with Osiris Educational; The Learning Imperative – Raising Performance in Organisations by Improving Learning is available now, published by Crown House. Follow Andy and Mark at @OTeaching.