What I’ve learnt being an NQT during the COVID pandemic…

Stephanie Atkin, a teacher at St Hugh’s, a school for learners with moderate, severe, and complex learning needs in Scunthorpe, and participant in SSAT’s NQT Inspirations programme, is approaching the final weeks of her NQT year. Stephanie spoke to SSAT’s Angelina Idun about the year and shares learning, challenges, and other experiences from her time as an NQT.

Tell me a bit about yourself and why you decided to pursue a career in teaching?

I arrived at St Hugh’s having started out doing voluntary work with children with special educational needs at the age of 15. My brother is autistic, and I am involved in his care. Looking after someone in this way, every time you think you have cracked it, you pick up something new. You learn every day. It is the same with teaching, for me it is very rewarding. Teaching children with special needs requires special people and families want a person who is going to do all they can to meet their child’s needs, take risks and persevere when challenged.

I did my first NQT term in the primary sector with a year 2 class in which eight different languages were spoken. This was the first time I had worked with EAL learners and two days EAL training on the SCITT course did not really prepare me sufficiently to meet the needs of these children. It was a challenging class, and I was having a challenging time personally which included losing my home. I was anxious and burnt out and eventually made the decision to suspend my NQT year. I ended up having a gap of two years between the first and second term as an NQT having found myself expecting my second child.

I am proud I took the break because I would not be where I am now. I got my passion for the classroom back by doing some work in a college in Doncaster for young people with disabilities. They set up the Bev-Ridge café allowing students to do a qualification and learn life skills to support them going out into society. That is when the job at St Hugh’s came up.

The best thing I did was coming back to finish my NQT year. Now, I work with seven boys aged 11-13, though the reality is they are operating at primary school age. My students have a range of severe and complex needs severe including epilepsy, Tourette’s, Dravets syndrome, autism, ADHD, and muscular dystrophy. Some are non-verbal and some are verbal. They are currently working at phase 1 and most struggle to write. We do lots of sensory activities and as much as we can to support their emotional, physical and communication needs. It is a challenging group, or as we call it, “team”, especially for an NQT. It takes hard work, commitment, and sacrifice and though it is pressured, it is an amazing job. I think of the students in my class as my own and the bond with parents is rewarding. I would encourage anyone starting out to persevere.

You have joined the profession in an extraordinary year – how has that been for you?

With Covid, most of the class were at home during lockdown and clinically vulnerable children were in school. I was on a rota one in every three weeks then working at home. I think I speak for everyone when I say that having to adapt my teaching, use Teams… remote learning was tough. On a personal note, I missed the social side, not being able to see practice and see the children face to face was difficult for me and for them.

After lockdown, when the class started coming back, we had to balance some of them coming back part-time and some full-time. Some children who are not usually anxious were showing signs of anxiety and you have to re-establish habits and expectations. Some had IT and tech issues so could not access online learning while for others the paper-based learning we provided was not, for different reasons, attempted either. I also have children at home and have had to isolate and make sure my child is doing her own work, so I’ve had to juggle, adapt and think on my feet. I have learnt, dealt with and experienced a lot.

How well prepared were you for your NQT year?

I was told to be firm. I cracked a smile on my first day. I think all the things you’re told about setting up and revisiting your high expectations, really getting to know your students and building trust and relationships with parents are important. Being able to fall back on a good set of behaviour strategies and seeing other teachers teach are also valuable, as is making good use of other adults in the classroom who are there to support and not being afraid to ask for help. My mentor Hazel has been amazing. She has always been there in good times and bad, she listens and has given great advice. NQT Inspirations has been amazing too and it’s become part of my network of support. All the support has given me the confidence to keep going and the reassurance that this is a journey and I’m not expected to know everything now. I can keep learning.

What have been the highlight and key learning points?

  • A student who I have not seen since September coming into school and surprising me with the speed at which he started to settle and communicate. This says something about the trust and support you build up.
  • Making it through the NQT year.
  • My class. Some lessons can be really difficult, but I can see how far teamwork, consistency and all the other things in place have brought us.
  • Working with an amazing group of people.I have also learnt that as teachers we can be our own worst critics and beat ourselves up. Now, if I don’t know the answer to a question, I ask someone. I have understood that it takes time to build things up and become the great teacher you want to be. Behaviour strategies and classroom resources all take time to develop and not everything works for everyone in the group in front of you.

What has helped? What support have you been able to draw on?

I have already mentioned my mentor Hazel who is a rock. I work with an amazing group of people and drawing on their different strengths and the amount of knowledge and experience they have between them is very helpful. The support staff are invaluable and children and adults working so well together really make the class the solid team it is. The school builds on everyone’s strengths and supports us with the areas we need to develop in. I have been given a chance to support a member of staff in art and this in turn helps me develop as a teacher, leader, and subject expert.

What has challenged you?

Juggling all the different needs in the class and adapting to Covid, to the learning. I am still working on it, making sure that a child has work that they can do at home without the support they would have in class is tough. It can be frustrating to put in time and effort to create work and it doesn’t get done. Sometimes I have asked myself why I am doing it and it helps to come back to my original “why” – the children deserve a great education.

We are pleased you’re participating in NQT inspirations – what’s inspired you so far?

I’ve been inspired to believe in myself, the programme has reassured me that I know what I’m doing and it’s OK to still be learning and be supported by others. Having opportunities to share practice and learn from and talk to others during the pandemic has been valuable.

How do you look after your own wellbeing and how does school support you to manage it?

This is probably one of the reasons why in my first term as an NQT I had a bit of a burnout. I always think I can and should do better. Being organised, planning ahead for the week and having a good overview of the term ahead, focusing on priorities, not beating yourself up for not being able to do everything are all musts. Especially with a busy family and home life and trying to make sure I am a good mum and a good teacher too. I have to make sure I am still looking after me and making time for date nights, nights with the kids and simple things like taking a hot bath, reading a book, or going for a walk. I try keep the weekends for myself and the kids.

Looking ahead, what is next for you?

I want to stay in the classroom and on the ground and I am keen to have chances to share practice and experience much more. Particularly my experiences of the last few years. No two days are ever the same and whether a day brings unexpected challenge or is full of positive achievements, each day is a step in the right direction.

What advice would you give to a school leader wanting to ensure a successful year for an NQT?

I would ask them to remember their time as an NQT and that an NQT who has suddenly been given responsibility for classes of their own might need extra support on some of the things that seem easy or obvious to others. Making sure someone can set aside dedicated time to give to their NQTs is important and just making sure that people in school are encouraged to check in with one another.

The conversation with Stephanie is an important reminder of the unique experience every teacher brings to the classroom to enrich the lives of our young people and our ongoing responsibility for developing and nurturing both new and experienced teachers. We will be continuing to follow the journeys of SSAT NQT Inspirations participants and wish Stephanie and NQTs across the network every success.

Learn more about the programme which addresses the issues and challenges NQTs are likely to face during this important year.

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