If we want to retain newly qualified teachers we need to reduce their stress

I’m three months into a Service Design project at the Royal College of Art, working in partnership with the Department for Education and focussing on retaining physics and math newly qualified teachers (NQTs) in secondary school Academies in England. So far I’ve spoken with over thirty teachers at all levels from PGCE students to CEO’s of Multi Academy Trusts. I’ve found that stress is a key driver for NQTs leaving the profession. This blog post is about how we can retain NQTs by reducing stress.

Lots of Pressure + Heavy Workload = Unbearable Stress

Reputations of mainstream state schools in England are based on two key factors, Ofsted results and exam results.

This creates much pressure on classroom teachers to consistently be seen as ‘outstanding’, and for their pupils to achieve good grades.

This pressure shocks Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) who are are not yet competent, and often lack confidence. NQTs face a steep learning curve in order to pass their NQT induction year, while managing pressures and workloads.

“An NQT has only one chance to complete statutory induction”. Department for Education

Pressure on NQTs becomes stressful when mixed with their daily workload of planning, teaching and marking. An NQT working in an Academy secondary school might be expected to teach on average for four hours a day. They will usually spend an hour planning each of their lessons and three hours marking each class set of books. These three jobs alone take up a minimum 9.5 hours a day, mainly because NQTs are in the process of learning efficient and effective practices for planning and marking.

“As someone who does take a long time to make sure lesson planning is done right, it does mean there’s not enough time to do marking properly”. Science NQT

Pressure on learning how to plan, teach and mark effectively leads to stress. Stress leads to exhaustion, burning out, and often leaving classroom teaching. In order to retain NQTs, pressure needs to be reduced, workload needs to be managed and we need early interventions for stress.

Ofsted’s reputation is a key driver for NQTs stress

Mention Ofsted to any full time classroom teacher and they’ll tell you multiple stories about the stress of inspections. However, it’s not the inspection that causes NQTs most stress, it’s Ofsted’s reputation. This reputation shapes their school policy and expectation for teaching and learning, which impacts their planning and marking workload.

When it comes to marking, Ofsted “does not expect to see any written record of oral feedback provided to pupils by teachers.” However, Academies often feel like written marking is one of the only things they can control during an inspection, so they create unique policies based on past Ofsted inspection experiences and personal beliefs. This might mean providing written marking to each class of pupils every two weeks, showing marking on the front of books or using green and red pens to mark books. This puts pressure on NQTs to mark for policy, not necessarily pupil learning needs.

NQT Marking on front of science book in an Academy School

It’s a similar story with planning. Ofsted “does not specify how planning should be set out, the length of time it should take or the amount of detail it should contain”. But they do want to see examples of “teaching and learning”, and planning is also one of the only things schools think they can control to show this. So academies and their trusts create their own policies they think will show Ofsted effective teaching and learning through planning policy. This puts pressure on NQTs to design lesson plans around school policy and expectations.

“I’m expected to clearly display learning objectives at the start of the lesson. I also have to have a certain activity at the start of each lesson, which I wasn’t aware of when I first started”. Science NQT

In order to reduce stress, Newly Qualified Teachers need time and support to learn efficient and effective practises for planning and marking that are school specific.

NQTs don’t feel they have enough time or support to learn

The Department for Education knows NQTs need time and support to learn, so there is a statutory requirement for NQTs to have a reduced timetable of no more than 90% of the timetable of the school’s existing teachers. NQTs also have an induction tutor who is meant to coach and mentor them.

However, teaching for what is usually an hour or two less a week does not provide NQTs enough time to keep on top of workload, let alone learn more effective practises.

“You’re given a 10% reduced timetable as an NQT but you have to spend longer planning lessons because it’s likely you’ve never taught most topics before”. Science NQT

Meetings with induction tutors are often more about improving practice than learning to be efficient. In order to reduce stress, NQTs also need to learn to be efficient.

“It’s (meeting with induction tutor) more about helping my practice… it’s good to go over lesson plans with her to get her perspective but I wouldn’t say it reduces my workload” Science NQT

In order to understand how to efficiently and effectively manage workload and reduce pressure we need to understand what workload pressures create the most stress.

Pressure on workload is both internal and external

Many classroom teachers feel internal pressure from consistently being behind on their marking, and they feel as though they’re not planning lessons well enough.

“I have them (pupils) on my mind for 12–15 hours a day. If I’m out on the weekend, there is always a tinge of guilt — like I should be marking or planning lessons for the upcoming week. I never feel like I’m doing enough for their education” Academy Teacher

This becomes even more stressful when a lesson is formally observed, or written marking is scrutinised, because NQTs will be critically assessed and graded by their senior leadership team.

We need to use data to understand specific causes of stress for NQTs

We can understand the causes of NQT stress by approaching pressure and workload on teachers in the same way we approach pupils learning needs and behaviour. By focussing on multiple data sets, we can mitigate stress happening and plan for interventions if it does.

Data on pupil learning needs

NQTs will usually be their most stressed in the first term teaching because this is when they first need to learn how to plan and mark in their school. We can design a better way to induct new teachers into the profession by knowing what specifically creates stress during this term and then make decisions about teaching timetables, and decisions for learning effective planning practises, which measures impacts on NQT stress.

Timetabling needs to consider impacts on teacher’s stress

School leaders can mitigate stress on NQTs by understanding what planning, teaching and marking work causes the most pressure, and then making decisions about teaching timetabling that takes this into account. They can also pre-plan for interventions should a NQT become stressed.

For example, teaching different year groups in one day puts pressure on teachers planning workload because they can’t use the same lesson plan for two lessons, and they have to think about different key stage systems. Secondary school science teachers this year have to plan for the new and old national curriculum for key stage four and for changes with key stage three after the removal of the old system of levels. A NQT might only teach for four hours on a Wednesday compared to five hours on a Thursday, but if they teach a wider variety of year groups on a Wednesday, this can often be more stressful.

“Wednesday is often the most stressful because I teach four classes all from different year groups” Science NQT

It’s not enough to just take stress into account with teaching timetabling, we also need to teach NQTs more efficient and effective working practices while thinking about their stress. Because planning takes up more than twice the hours marking does, it’s logical to start there.

NQTs need to be more efficient and effective with their planning and preparation in order to reduce stress

NQTs will often over plan lessons, using a lot of resources in order to make sure they cover content. This is because within their school, they’re not yet competent teachers and often lack confidence.

Science NQT using seven prepared resources in a one hour lesson

As a NQTs year progresses, they learn practices through teaching themselves, observing other teachers lessons, attending teacher training / sharing events (such as NQT training), and through their own online research and reflection.

We can reduce the amount of hours new teachers spend planning through teaching class specific efficient and effective tools and techniques for teaching and learning. This can potentially be done through critically observing other teachers using tools and techniques, and utilising meetings with induction tutors and staff meetings to reflect on these practises.

Existing notes taken by a NQT while observing another teacher with highlighted critical aspects
Next steps

The next step of this project is to map out specific pressures teachers face with planning in each term. These pressures will be used to design a service, which can guide those making decisions about timetabling to take stress into account. It will also support NQTs and their tutors to make informed decisions about learning efficient and effective practices for planning, which meet school policy, pupil learning needs and mitigate stress.

Here is a link to a survey to understand teachers planning pressures and practises. If you know of any secondary school teachers (Science or Math NQTs would be ideal), please do forward them this blog post and ask them to complete the survey.

If you’d like to find out more, or are a math or science NQT, please do drop me a line at c.boland-shanahan@network.rca.ac.uk as I’d love to find out your thoughts about the project.