The NQT Project provides critical support to young educators who have entered the classroom for the first time

The Newly Qualified Teachers (NQT) Project, an initiative of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) School of Education, honoured its 2020 cohort during a special graduation ceremony. The celebration marked the “end of the beginning of a journey of teaching”, and the group was commended for displaying great fortitude during one of the most challenging years in recent history.

The celebration took place virtually on Monday, 30 November 2020.

“We started the NQT Project because we know how hard the first year of teaching is. But this year has taken it to another level,” said Judith Sacks, the NQT project manager.

Sponsored by the Hosken Consolidated Investments Foundation and The Saville Foundation, the year-long NQT programme provides critical support to young educators who have entered the classroom for the first time. The project focuses on developing their professional resilience and provides them with the academic and psychosocial support they need to successfully complete their first year in the field.

More than that, the NQT Project aims to reduce the significant attrition rates among first-year teachers, bolster teacher retention and improve teachers’ standing as mentors and change agents in schools.

Essential workers

For the first time, in 2020, and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sacks said that teachers were placed alongside healthcare workers as essential staff in the country. But for Sacks and her colleagues, teachers have always been essential workers.

“A teacher is essential to the academic development of a learner.”

“A teacher is essential to the academic development of a learner. And maybe more importantly, a teacher is essential to the mental, psychological, emotional and moral development of a learner,” she said.

She commended the group for displaying sheer resilience, determination and adaptability in the face of a crisis, and thanked them for their unwavering commitment to their learners’ well-being and academic performance during an uncertain time and under difficult circumstances.

Sacks said that during the first term, adjusting to a new environment is overwhelming for new educators. Understanding the school dynamic, preparing learning material, marking exercises and not having enough time to get through the day’s work are just some of the challenges they face in the first few weeks.

“And you thought that was bad,” she joked.

Changing course

As the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she said that learners and teachers were required to change course completely. At rapid pace, the ‘new normal’ that these newly qualified teachers were familiarising themselves with was now out of the door, and an even ‘newer normal’ was suddenly a reality.

“The challenges of trying to teach virtually when so many of your leaners didn’t have data or devices, and while so many of them were struggling, was a reality,” she said.

“Even through these unbelievably hard months, and even through the screens and masks, you all managed to reach out and be there for them.”

But while there were plenty of challenges, Sacks said that not one member of the cohort highlighted that connecting and forming relationships with their learners was a stumbling block. Instead, she said, building strong bonds with young foundation phase learners and “scary high school teenagers” became more important than ever before.

“Even while the proverbial goal posts were moved again and again, even through these unbelievably hard months, and even through the screens and masks, you all managed to reach out and be there for them,” Sacks said.

Teachers’ sentiments

For Siseko Jukuda, an intern teacher at Wynberg Girls’ High School and a 2020 NQT Project graduate, starting out as a newly qualified teacher felt like boarding a moving train. But in March, she said, that train came to a grinding halt, and was then completely derailed.

Jukuda said that the year provided teachers with a unique experience and an opportunity to reflect on their new roles and increased their capacity on how to deal with uncertain situations. And throughout the tumultuous time, the programme and support offered during sessions were invaluable.

“While I am not sure what the next year will look like, I hope that with our training and unconventional experience as first-year teachers, we have the ability to face any challenges that will come our way,” Jukuda said.

Shaping young minds

Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng was unable to attend the event but sent the newly qualified teachers a special video message. She told them that there’s a special place reserved in her heart for teachers.

Professor Phakeng explained that she kick-started her teaching career as a high school mathematics teacher and also served as acting principal of a school. Her mother also left her job as a domestic worker to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.

“I know first-hand what it’s like in a high school classroom and the kinds of challenges teachers face. [I am aware] of the extra care a good teacher must take to teach a subject to learners and to provide them with a role model to emulate,” she said.

“This is the most important aspect of teaching because we are not just filling minds with the curriculum, we are helping to shape new citizens who will go into the world and change it.”

Developing leaders

As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and a list of other drawbacks, such as climate change and sexual and gender-based violence, Phakeng reminded the cohort of teachers that their job is to nurture and develop learners who will be able to respond effectively to these challenges in the future.

“You will need to develop leaders who will respond to these kinds of problems.”

“We are dealing with what researchers refer to as ‘wicked problems’. They are wicked because they are not easily solved. And you will need to develop leaders who will respond to these kinds of problems. What a privilege, and what a challenge,” she said.

She encouraged the teachers to think long and hard about the qualities they would like to develop in themselves and assured them that if they work towards achieving that goal, their learners will too.

Phakeng also urged the cohort to adopt three core values during the early stages of their teaching journey – excellence, adaptability and not to fear being different – in the classroom and in life in general.

“Learning is the future for us all. What remains the same in this time of change is the core values that will help you build your own brand success in your life and in your work. It’s not just about covering the curriculum [in the classroom], it’s about shaping young people who will go into the world and change it.”

While the NQT Project welcomes education graduates from all universities, it has just entered a partnership with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology for 2021 and plans to offer the programme to graduates more formally there.