Talk your way out of NQT exhaustion and into better long-term practice

| by Pete Dudley |

If you are an NQT and you are currently exhausted, or if you are a school leader who is responsible for NQTs, then you should read this…

Image: Pixabay

Before I trained to teach in my mid twenties I’d experienced several years of physically and mentally tiring jobs. I’d worked 11 hour days labouring in heavy construction building a road bridge high over the Menai Straits. I’d run an organic food warehouse ‘handballing’ 50kg sacks of produce on and off the prongs of my fork lift. I’d driven long distance three and four day runs sleeping in the back of the truck to save money, and been a daily delivery driver in central London traffic unloading my three tonner by hand with each drop. So I knew what feeling tired was.

Well I thought I did, until I started my first teaching job!

This blog will provide some explanation for why as an NQT in your first Autumn term you feel permanently exhausted, and some reassurance that it does get better. It will also suggest how, by engaging in some collaborative classroom enquiries with colleagues, you can minimise the time this fatigue endures and even begin to accelerate your development as a teacher.

I am not saying that as a teacher you will never feel tired again. Teaching is a demanding and tiring job. But I am suggesting it is possible to lessen this impact on the early stage of your career and I will go on to argue that the approach in question – engaging in collaborative, discursive improvement– will continue to benefit you and your pupils for as long as you continue to teach.

Early teaching fatigue

I vividly remember waking up on the Saturday of my first October half term as a qualified teacher (at midday – as I had every Saturday since term began) and seriously wondering whether I would survive until the end of the year, so deep was my exhaustion. I had fallen asleep on the bus home from school almost every evening, never yet managing to start the pile of marking I had put in my Sainsbury’s bag each day.

But what then happened – and I was not at all clear at the time why – was that the exhaustion perceptively reduced in the spring term. By the summer term I was even able to resume a (limited) social life! My second year of teaching (same school, same timetable) was, by contrast to the first, a breeze.

So what was going on?

The phenomenon of early teaching fatigue can be explained by studies showing that there are few other work environments more fast moving, complex and unpredictable than the classroom. Teachers make at least one third more decisions a day than most professionals (who would have to work nearly two more days a week to catch up.)

We know now (but didn’t when I was an NQT) that when humans regularly need to process information and make decisions quickly, particularly under stress, our tacit knowledge systems kick in, rapidly automating decision we have made that worked, so that we don’t have to think about them again consciously. We take them from then on without conscious thought.

So in the spring term this was what was happening to me. I had internalized habits of practice that seemed to have been successful and was using them again automatically whenever needed. This freed up my working memory to focus on my conscious conversations with pupils or on the best way to take the lesson forward next.

How long does it last?

For most, the initial intense exhaustion seems to ebb away before the end of the first year. We certainly know that the first three years of a teacher’s career are the years when they learn and develop their practice most dramatically. Sadly ‘teacher learning’ then typically begins to tail off.

What can be done?

There are ways. Engaging once or twice a term in collaborative, reflective, discursive practices with teaching colleagues – observing children learning in order to improve it – can equip those new to teaching with vital tools to manage the development and efficacy of their practice. This works best when the process for creating these tools is through collaborative, discursive ‘interthinking’ (Littleton and Mercer, 2014).

Image: Pixabay

Cajkler and Wood (2015) describe how the development rate of trainees accelerates when jointly planning, evaluating and improving learning together through lesson studies (prime opportunities for ‘interthinking’). The approach works especially well when the teachers with whom they collaborate and interthink, are more experienced.

For the benefits this brings to NQTs alone, it would seem a more than worthwhile investment. But the fact is that the more experienced teachers taking part also benefit.

The flip side of tacit knowledge

Once those first few years of intensive teacher development have past, we increasingly rely on our unconscious tacit knowledge beneath the surface to guide our classroom practice. And it guides us so well that, to an extent at least, we become ‘blinded by familiarity’ to our classrooms and to our pupils. This poses a development problem because it is hard to improve what you cannot see. It also explains why teacher learning falls away after the first five years – unless we engage in it deliberately.

Image: Pixabay

Experienced teachers who have opportunities for interthinking in collaborative, reflective enquiry groups, are able to sharpen their abilities to notice their pupils’ learning traits. There is even evidence that the close bonds these teacher learning communities form, enable them to access normally invisible tacit knowledge during the interthinking episodes and use it consciously to improve their pupils’ learning (Dudley, 2013).

So the kinds of activity that benefit and accelerate the development of the new teachers also help experienced teachers to see their classrooms and pupils afresh and to start to develop practice that meets their actual needs rather than those we had assumed they have. Through this we can become active teacher learners again, improving pupil learning even late in our careers.

What to do if you are an NQT

Try and find out whether there are opportunities to engage in lesson studies or other kinds of collaborative classroom enquiry that will immerse you in high quality interthinking about how to improve your pupils’ learning.

What to do if you are a school leader

Ask yourself what opportunities you provide your new and your experienced teachers to engage in these approaches. John Hattie stated this month that in his view school leaders only become truly transformational when they have the courage to abandon high stakes, low yield formal lesson observation (still the default mode of most current teacher performance management and NQT assessment) and to replace it with opportunities for the kinds of classroom based enquiries and lesson studies outlined above.


Cajkler, W. and Wood, P. (2015) Lesson Study in Initial Teacher Education in Lesson Study: Professional learning for our time, Dudley, P. (Ed.), London, Routledge, 2015, 85-103.

Dudley, P. (2013) Teacher learning in Lesson Study, Teaching and Teacher Education, 34, 107-121.

Littleton, K. and Mercer, N. (2014) Interthinking: putting talk to work. London, Routledge.

Leave a Reply