It's hard work but I love it

Not all newly qualified teachers walk into jobs. Laura Betts found work - and eventually her first position - through a supply agency. Steve McCormack visited her in Sheffield
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The Independent Online

It's mid morning and time for maths in the Year 1 class at Owler Brook Nursery and Infants School in Sheffield, and 30 five-to-six-year-olds are thinking about, and making, triangles. The bright green tops of their uniform are a constantly morphing splash of colour inside a classroom filled with evidence of their varied diet of learning. Bright posters cover the walls with simple messages on healthy eating, maths vocabulary and computer-generated pictures. A box of musical instruments sits mute in a corner, alongside paintbrushes and a book entitled Fun With Sums. Draped across the room, way above head height for these juniors, is a washing line pegged with impressionistic paintings of animals.

It's mid morning and time for maths in the Year 1 class at Owler Brook Nursery and Infants School in Sheffield, and 30 five-to-six-year-olds are thinking about, and making, triangles. The bright green tops of their uniform are a constantly morphing splash of colour inside a classroom filled with evidence of their varied diet of learning. Bright posters cover the walls with simple messages on healthy eating, maths vocabulary and computer-generated pictures. A box of musical instruments sits mute in a corner, alongside paintbrushes and a book entitled Fun With Sums. Draped across the room, way above head height for these juniors, is a washing line pegged with impressionistic paintings of animals.

While triangles are made from cardboard shapes, straws, rulers and elastic bands, Laura Betts, 22, moves calmly from table to table, administering encouragement, praise, and the occasional mild rebuke if she spots someone off-task. When the practical experimentation has gone on long enough, she raises her voice slightly and calls out: "Show me empty hands." The signal's recognised immediately and 60 tiny hands shoot skywards to show Miss they've stopped "doing" and are now "listening". The room is quiet and Betts can move the class on to the next phase of the lesson.

She's in the second term of her NQT year, having finished her three-year BA at Sheffield Hallam University the summer before last. She didn't get a job straight after graduation, so signed on with the supply agency, Capita Education Resourcing, who found her work in a number of different schools in the city. One of them was Owler Brook, and when a full-time job came up, she was offered the chance to become a "proper" member of staff. That was the formal beginning of her NQT year.

Agencies such as Capita are a useful stepping-stone for recently qualified primary (and some secondary) teachers in geographical areas where finding a job is not as easy as it might be for, say, graduates in a shortage subject looking for a secondary school in or around London.

Owler Brook seems an ideal place for any young teacher to start his or her career. Built only three years ago in a somewhat run-down part of the city, it provides an oasis of calm and stability for the 370 under-sevens who cross the threshold every day. Nearly 90 per cent of the pupils are from homes where English is not the first language, and almost half qualify for free school meals. Neither of those factors, though, prevented Ofsted from issuing a glowing report three years ago, which led to the award of Beacon School status in 2002.

Betts is the only NQT this year, which means there are plenty of experienced teachers around to help with her early professional development. "Just last week, I was asking the art co-ordinator for some help about teaching art to my class, and she said that, rather than give me theoretical help, she'd come in to my class and teach a lesson so I could see how she did things."

Her mentor, the deputy head, is also an ever-available source of support. "If I'm stuck with anything or need help with a lesson idea, we'll put our heads together and work something out."

Betts's class is one of three in Year 1, and the 90 children in the year are streamed for maths and English. Half way through her NQT year, Betts is coping with the pace and still enjoying the job, although it has eaten into her free time. "If you go into teaching, you know it's going to be hard work. I do take marking home and probably do an hour or an hour and a half's work most nights, but as long as you keep on top of what you're doing, it's OK.

"At weekends, I try to get all my planning done on Saturday, so that I have Sunday completely free for myself. You need to allow yourself that free time, or you'll go mad."

Primary teachers usually get even fewer free lessons than their secondary counterparts, but, as Betts is an NQT, she gets a whole half-day every week to concentrate on her professional development. The NQT year is definitely regarded as a period during which training continues. Betts uses this time to look round other classrooms, observe other teachers and then use what she's seen and learnt to make resources, plan lessons.

One of the most difficult things she found, when she took on responsibility for her own class, was assessing the ability of the children. "That was very hard, making sure what you're planning is work that won't be too easy or too hard for the class."

Although it's crystal clear that Betts is the boss in her own classroom, she's honest enough to admit that behaviour is a constant concern. "It still worries me in a sense, if there are going to be children I can't deal with. But I know that, if I'm in a supportive school, there'll always be a person to turn to. The worst thing is to be afraid to ask."

This is a point echoed by Betts's head, Sue Graville. "New teachers should not be afraid of saying 'I had a difficult lesson today'. The NQT year is like a continued teaching practice. If I saw someone sailing through and never asking for help, I might have my doubts."

Betts has no doubts that she made the right decision to teach. "I really love it. Just seeing that you are making a difference to the children's lives. And when they bring me stuff they've made at home, it shows they're thinking of you outside school."

Back in Betts's room, the numeracy hour is coming to an end, and her class are sitting on the floor in front of her like a flock of lambs. As individual pupils stand up and show their peers the triangles they have made, Betts teases out the vocabulary. "Three straight sides", comes quickly, but it takes a little longer to remember that the pointy things are actually called "corners".

Subtly, she brings things to a conclusion and lets the children out to the playground. Two boys who haven't been sitting properly have to wait till last.

Once the room is empty, the young newly qualified teacher, in a flash, starts discussing the content of the next lesson with her classroom assistant.

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