NQT Special: How to protect your wellbeing

Well done! You've passed your PGCE year and are starting school as an NQT. Now the hard work begins!

Here are some tips to help you survive your first year as a fully-fledged teacher and protect your wellbeing and mental health. 

You are not alone

Teaching can simultaneously place you in the centre of a community and on a metaphorical island. Being one of the only adults in a room for much of your day and a figure of authority for so many people is a jaw-dropping responsibility at such an early stage in any career. So do try to remember that no-one can have all of the answers all of the time, and that even teachers need to ask for help.

We receive around 30,000 calls to our 24/7 helpline each year. About a quarter of these calls come from teachers in their first five years, many of whom are struggling because they are not sure who to talk to about their problems and are (wrongly) concerned that speaking out might represent a career-limiting move.

Generally, we start by normalising any negative feelings callers may be experiencing, explaining that many (if not all) new teachers go through exactly the same thing and that the best way forward is to talk. We discuss who in their school might be able to help. A mentor, a colleague? There is nearly always someone perfectly placed to give advice and support, or simply just to listen while the teacher lets those worries out – it sometimes just takes a fresh pair of eyes to see who.

Plan your work/life balance

You will be well used to planning your lessons now, but how often do you plan your own personal work/life balance? The pressures of our 24-hour society make this notoriously difficult and according to the Office of National Statistics, 48 per cent of UK adults report a relatively low satisfaction with their work/life balance.

Given that teachers commonly carry out 20 per cent of their working week (10 hours or more) before school, after 6pm or on weekends, they are at particular risk of having a poor balance – but before we can make changes to work/life balance, we need to be clear on how we currently work. It may be that by making small changes or by finding ways to become more efficient, you can free up time for other activities.

So try this: start a diary of your activities at school and at home, listing everything you do and how much time you spend on each thing. Include every activity, even those that you may not think of as big tasks: phone calls, photocopying, impromptu meetings with colleagues etc.

You may find it useful to break your work down by structured work time (teaching time and scheduled non-teaching activities, such as PPA time, meetings, parent consultations, training, leadership duties) and unstructured work time.

Once complete, look back at the diary and ask yourself what patterns you might be able to change. Using this, set yourself specific goals making sure to write your goals up in a positive way. Goals become easier to accomplish when you focus on the benefit and not the problem. For example:

  • Set a time to finish each term night: “I will finish no later than 6pm on weekdays, so that I can exercise and eat properly.”
  • Set free time on weekends/some weeknights: “I will take two nights off during the week and have one completely free day during the weekend, so that I can spend time with my family.”
  • Set personal goals: “I want to learn to play the piano.” “I want to go to the gym twice a week.”

Sleep

While you are planning, make sure you make time for a good sleep. According to the Great British Sleep Survey, long-term poor sleepers are seven times more likely to feel helpless than good sleepers and five times more likely to feel alone. Bad sleepers are also twice as likely to have relationship problems or suffer daytime fatigue and poor concentration.

So as tempting as it might be to try and get ahead by getting up early to do a couple of hours work before school, working all day then going home to work all evening before starting again the next day, don’t! This approach is not only unsustainable, it is also far from healthy. So what can you do to improve your sleep? Here are a few tips:

  • Don’t work in your bedroom. Use a separate room for school work, or if space is an issue, make sure you hide it out of sight during the night (ideally, do your school work at school and leave it there).
  • Make sure you have some quiet relaxing time before bed. Even half an hour can make a difference. Perhaps have a bath, listen to calm music or read a book. But whatever you do, try not to read late at night on a backlit device (such as a tablet, phone or laptop) as these have been proven to have a disruptive impact on the body’s natural sleep patterns.
  • Write a list: 82 per cent of respondents to the Great British Sleep Survey in 2012 said the top persistent thought that kept them awake was “what happened today and what have I got on tomorrow”. Write it down and let it go.

Say no

One of the key issues we hear from new teachers is that they feel obliged to say yes to everything asked of them and often volunteer for extra duties.

This is natural as you seek to impress and share your enthusiasm for the new job. Unfortunately, the additional workload this adds to an already packed schedule can cause problems, so to help you to say no, try being clear on what you are required to do and what is expected of you.

Check the staff handbooks and talk to your union. As strange as it sounds, practise holding messages. Stock phrases such as “can we talk about this later” can be very useful when you are put on the spot, and can ultimately help you to say “no” more comfortably.

How we can help

  • Help for individuals  
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, an Ofsted inspection, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That’s why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Help for organisations 
    Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone’s wellbeing.