University of Cape Town: Newly qualified teachers press on to survive ‘rollercoaster’ first year

The 2021 cohort of the Newly Qualified Teachers (NQT) Project leaped into their first year of teaching amid great uncertainty. The perpetual COVID-19 pandemic (which brought forth two deadly waves of infection), the rotational school structure, stressed and disengaged learners and mounting workloads are just a handful of the challenges the young teachers had to contend with.

But despite this, they survived. And after a turbulent first year in the classroom, and many stops and starts along the way, this NQT cohort have emerged stronger and wiser. And they all agree that they’re ready for what lies ahead.

On Thursday, 11 November, academics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), who formally joined the NQT Project in 2021, gathered virtually to raise a glass to this group of teachers. The year-long project is an initiative of UCT’s School of Education and 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. This year marks the sixth year since the project’s inception.

“I’m sure everyone in this room knows that the first year of teaching is like being on a rollercoaster.”

“I’m sure everyone in this room knows that the first year of teaching is like being on a rollercoaster. We thought that 2020 was a tough year, but 2021 somehow topped that. It’s been particularly intense; a wild and bumpy ride,” said Associate Professor Rochelle Kapp, the outgoing chairperson of the NQT Project.

“What we’ve seen from you is that you’ve been nothing less than inspiring. You’ve been reflective, you’ve been resourceful, you’ve been resilient. You’ve adapted to this new and challenging time.”


Ganaan Kloppers, an NQT currently teaching at Modderdam High School in Bonteheuwel, has always wanted to be an educator. But her first year in the classroom was like a whirlwind, and poles apart from what she expected. Kloppers said she spent many late nights in tears and overwhelmed by the pressures associated with the role. But the NQT Project provided her with a safe space and the support she needed to assert herself in a room filled with intimidating teenagers. As Kloppers prepares for her career as a teacher, she said, she looks forward to making a difference in her learners’ lives, and to moulding them into the change-makers the world so desperately needs.

“I learned this year [with all the pressures], that it’s okay to be an okay teacher. But I want to be an amazing teacher,” she said.

For Lonwabo Pita, starting his career as a young teacher at Ikamvalethu Secondary School in Langa had many setbacks. He said challenges such as the ongoing taxi violence in Cape Town, which prevented teachers and learners from getting to school on time (or at all), negatively impacted him and the manner in which he conducted his lessons. But he stressed the importance of reflection and introspection, especially for NQTs. He said analysing where things went wrong and how best to improve on them going forward is a fundamental building block for growth and learning.

“I am so grateful to be part of the graduation ceremony. We need to celebrate this day. As teachers, we also need to remember that we need to put ourselves and our learners first. That combination, and that connection between yourself as a teacher and your learners, is important,” he said.

Pearls of wisdom

Dr Mariette Wheeler – the recipient of South Africa’s National Best Teacher Award for 2021, and a UCT and NQT project alumna – joined the event as the keynote speaker. She acknowledged that teaching is a tough task, filled with tough situations. But she encouraged the group to build good relationships with their learners, embrace the challenges and the opportunities, learn with and from learners, and find creative ways to keep their passion and enthusiasm for the job alive.

Dr Wheeler, who was one of the first cohort of NQTs in 2016, said the project helped to shape her as a young teacher.

“It does get easier. Not easy, but easier. Keep looking for the joy and fun in each day … and know that you’re making a difference.”

Towards the end of the event, it was UCT’s Judith Sacks’ turn to unmute her microphone and raise her glass in celebration of the cohort. Sacks, the NQT Project manager, said the group had weathered many storms in 2021; but they have learned from their mistakes, grown in the process, and survived.

As they take the next step in their journey as young teachers, she reminded them that it’s okay to ask for help, and that collaborating with their colleagues is necessary as they grow in their careers.

“It does get easier. Not easy, but easier. Keep looking for the joy and fun in each day … and know that you’re making a difference. [Also] remember the job is never done; so look after yourselves,” she said.

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