How to achieve an NQT work-life balance
You’re an NQT. You’re fired up and ready to knock this teaching thing out of the park. You’re loving the job (mostly) and keen to learn everything you can. Yet in your enthusiasm, your NQT work-life balance has become well and truly unbalanced, and you find your evenings and weekends filled with work and very little life. It might well be that you don’t mind...for now. But you will. And unless you takes steps to create ‘you’ time early on in your career, you risk burning out, as so many NQTs have done before you.
No one wants that to happen so here are some snippets of advice from people who have been through it themselves.
Keep yourself healthy
It sounds like an obvious place to start but classrooms are breeding grounds for coughs, colds and other unpleasant ailments. Feeling under the weather when you have so much to get through in a week can really negatively impact how you feel about your job. Taking time for a lunch break, making sure you get a healthy, balanced diet (supplementing with vitamins if you need to), having plenty of antibacterial gel on hand and making sure the children in your class know how to wash their hands and sneeze into a tissue will all help keep you on tip-top form, leaving you hale and hearty so you can work more efficiently.
Take sick days if you need them
Of course, you can’t always avoid the dreaded lurgi, however much hand sanitiser you use. Teachers are notoriously bad at taking time off when they are ill; it often feels more stressful to sort a day of cover than to stay in bed. But you’re doing no one any favours, least of all the children, if you come into work when you are sick. Don’t feel bad for taking time off - teachers are legally entitled to sick days, just like any other worker in the country. You’ll get better quicker, thus get yourself less behind, if you take time off to get well.
Make fun plans
It’s super important to make sure school doesn’t take over your life completely. Make plans to meet friends, do a sport, join a book club, learn a new skill – anything that will give your brain a break from teaching. Plan to have two nights a week off from working, as well as at least one whole day at the weekend. This isn’t optional - it’s crucial for your health and wellbeing. Without sufficient ‘you’ time, you will get ill or burn out or both. I know this might sound unachievable but if you know that you can’t work on certain nights, it will give you more focus for the evenings you do work. Knowing that you can have tomorrow evening on the sofa is a big motivation to get everything done and out of the way.
Your NQT year is full on, there’s no doubt about that. Applying an organised approach to the 23,000 jobs you have to keep on top of becomes a lot easier if you develop a coherent system. Using a cloud-based storage system for your planning documents, CEPD evidence files, CPD notes, assessment data, etc., etc. will allow you to access anything you need wherever you are. Take photos of work as evidence and ping them across to your cloud. Scan answer books and keep them in your cloud so you’re not stuck if you’re marking at home. Make everything you have searchable in one place. It will save you so much time and hassle.
Having a cloud-based system also negates that gut-churning moment when you realise you’ve left your memory stick with your planning on at home when you have a lesson to deliver in five minutes. Some of us were NQTs in the days before cloud storage and, believe me, that moment is definitely best avoided if you can help it. Using Google Drive, Evernote (personal fave), Dropbox or iCloud will help you centralise all your work and ensure that you’re never without the documents you need, whether you’re at school or home.
Plan each day
Along a similar vein, organising your day-to-day jobs is crucial in making sure you stay on top of your tasks. Make sure you allocate specific tasks to your non-contact time so you are clear on what you want to achieve. Having so much to do can be overwhelming at times but if you can block out times for certain jobs, you’ll be more efficient and less likely to waste time flitting from job to job. The aim of the game is efficiently – plan it, get it done, put it away, go home.
Here at PlanBee HQ, we use Trello to organise ourselves and it’s a total god-send. You could set up daily to-do lists for yourself, boards with your phase teachers so you all know what’s going on during any given day, or allocate jobs between you and your job-share. It’s a really good way to keep organised.
Recognise the important jobs
When I was an NQT, I spent three whole evenings making a scale model of a borrower’s house out of a cardboard box to go in my reading area (we were reading The Borrowers as our class book) because a) I love The Borrowers, and b) I was convinced that it would totally engage the children in the book and provide excellent, immersive opportunities for learning. Of course, the children loved it for all of 30 seconds before it became just another part of the furniture.
I see many similar things happening (mainly on Pinterest) with teachers spending hours and hours making elaborate reading areas and door decorations and display boards. Yes, they look great. But do they really have a positive impact on learning? Will your class really enjoy reading that much more if they’re reading in a glistening cave with dragon eyes peering at them than if they were just sitting on a comfy cushion? In fact, there is some debate over whether highly-decorated classroom actually hinder learning. [^1]
So before embarking on a project to make your classroom door look like the entrance to an ancient Egyptian tomb, ask yourself whether it is really worth the effort or whether you might be better placed spending your precious time doing something that will positively impact the children, or even (gasp) taking some time for yourself.
Make marking work for you
As you will already know by now, marking can very quickly become the bane of a teacher’s life if it is not managed effectively. Check your school marking policy but you probably don’t have to wait until the children have left the classroom to mark books. As you walk around the room, or sit with a group, arm yourself and your TA with a green pen and mark as you go. Not only will it save you time but it is also more immediately useful for the children since you can give oral feedback there and then.
Using peer marking or self marking is also a great way to save yourself from marking every piece of work the children produce. There is no reason at all why you can’t provide children with the answers to a set of Maths problems so they can mark their own work, or that of a partner. In fact, it is often much more valuable for the children to assess their own learning in this way.
Finding alternative ways to mark books just a few times a week will help reduce the seemingly endless pile of marking and help you stay on top of it all.
Don’t compare yourself to other teachers
It can be all too easy to look at what other teachers are doing and feel like you haven’t got it nearly as together as they do, then panic and work even harder in an effort to ‘catch up’. Stop that right now. This is a futile exercise that will only end up in you putting more pressure on yourself than you need to. This is what Abby Harper, Resource Creator here at PlanBee, said about her NQT year:
The biggest piece of advice that I remember getting from my mentor was to stop comparing myself to other teachers: other NQTs in the school, my year group partner who was more experienced, other teachers I observed. Everyone teaches differently and what works for some, may not for others. I constantly worried about my behaviour management because I saw other teachers doing it so easily, almost as if it just came naturally to some people (not me!). Learning to reflect on these moments in a constructive way by applying ideas to my own style of teaching was not only good for my personal CPD but mental wellbeing too!”
(Abby Harper, PlanBee)
Know when to say no
We get it. You’re the newbie and you want to please everyone. Often, NQTs are asked to do lots of different things, from taking assemblies to leading an after-school club, that are outside of their classroom remit. It is OK to say no to these.
If you’re feeling like a job you have been asked to do is too much, say so. There are ways of doing this so that it doesn’t look as if you are just being uncooperative. Explain that if you do A then it will mean you don’t have time to do B; ask which they would prefer you to prioritise. Be firm – if you know it will overwhelm you, say so.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
Lastly, don’t think that you have to do everything from scratch. Take advantage of the resources you have available to you. Magpie everything you can. Don’t spend ages making things that you can download quickly and easily online, such as display materials, planning and assessments. Why spend time doing things that have already been done for you? Pinterest is great for ideas across a really wide range of teaching topics, not just activities for topics but behaviour management, assessments and pedagogy. Start some boards to see what is out there.
In fact, we’ve started an NQT Tips Pinterest board - have a look and see what helpful tips you can discover. Even better, message us any pins you think would be helpful to share and we’ll repin them for you.
Ditto Twitter. There are some great communities and threads on Twitter to give NQTs support, encouragement and ideas (like these ones: @MrTs_NQTs or @nqtcorner). Or just search #NQTchat and you’ll find a wealth of interesting conversations and advice.