An Open Letter to NQT Mentors and School Leaders about Science Teacher retention

Dom Shibli is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire for Secondary Science (@ShibliDom)


This is usually an exciting time of year for me as the student teachers complete their training and start thinking about their ‘proper jobs’ in July or September. I derive a huge amount of satisfaction knowing that they are in work and look forward to seeing them again when I visit the new crop of student teachers. But this satisfaction is somewhat quelled by the sobering thought that, “The odds of science teachers leaving their school within five years are 26% higher than for otherwise similar non-science teachers.” (Allen & Sims 2017)

There is a recruitment and retention crisis for science teachers and you can read more about that in the December 2019 the House of Commons on Teacher Recruitment and Retention in England here. One statistic I will quote from the paper is that biology recruitment has a surplus of 781 teachers and physics has a shortfall of 718 teachers.

These eager Biologists who I interviewed about why they want to go into teaching talk about their passion for the subject they have studied to degree level. At interview it is rare for me to hear of a Biology graduate talking about their passion for Physics. The usual phrase I hear when I ask them about their subject knowledge gaps is they will have to brush up on Physics. These NQTs are lined up like lambs to the slaughter and allocated GCSE Physics classes because a school does not have enough Physicists and I believe this contributes to the awful retention rates in Science.

I want to outline the reasons why and suggest how a school might be able to support an NQT especially when they are teaching outside of specialism:

NQT Mentors and Senior Leaders need to be aware:

  1. It is much harder and more time consuming to teach outside of specialism. When you are coming at a subject from a knowledge deficit it is going to be harder to prepare for and teach.
  2. The most egregious myth that when you teach out of specialism your lessons are more effective because you have to be better prepared. If you explore that further you are saying that in a subject where you might have a very shallow working knowledge you will produce better lessons than in a subject where your knowledge is at degree level. How are your explanations as rich as a specialist? I doubt you will know if you have taught something incorrectly? (However, I do concede that I have observed effective lessons from non-specialists. But they often take much longer to prepare and at a cost to planning other lessons). Boghossian and Lindsey (2019) cite a paper called “The Shadows and Shallows of explanation’ which studied a well-known phenomenon of people who believe they understand things better than they actually do. I agree that you might be better prepared for the lesson from an operational perspective but I remain to be convinced that lessons are better.
  3. It is a mistake to try and give NQTs a timetable so that they can cover the whole curriculum. This practice is pervasive in schools based upon the ill-informed idea of ‘well I had to do so should they’ when allocating a timetable. It is a particularly cruel form of natural selection which really shouldn’t happen. The objective should be to teach lessons well and not just try and enable the NQTs to experience teaching the whole curriculum.

If you are now starting to plan the timetable for September here are some suggestions for what you can do to support your NQTs:

  1. Allocate as many GCSE classes in specialism as possible so that they can spend less time planning subject knowledge and can therefore concentrate on all the other variables in the classroom.
  2. Allocate a subject specific mentor if they have to teach outside of specialism at Key Stage 4. If there is no subject specialist engage with professional bodies like the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry or the grassroots CogSciSci community.
  3. Give them 2 classes in a year group and arrange it so they can teach the same topic twice so they can reflect on what they have taught and improve.
  4. Be realistic about expectations of your NQTs and use lesson observations as developmental tools.
  5. Provide your NQT mentors with the training to support their NQTs effectively and focus on the development of subject specific support and not generic strategies.

There is a recruitment and retention crisis in science. Schools will not have a huge amount of influence on the recruitment of teachers to the profession but perhaps by considering the suggestions above can influence the dire state of teacher retention.

Further reading can be found here:

The Gatsby Foundation: Increasing the quality and quantity of science teachers in schools: 8 evidence-based principles: https://www.gatsby.org.uk/uploads/education/increasingscienceteachers-web.pdf

References

Allen, R. & Sims, S. (2017) Improving Science Teacher Retention:do National STEM Learning Network professional development courses keep science teachers in the classroom? Education Datalab [date accessed 18.6.2020]

Boghossian, P. & Lindsey J. (2019) How to have Impossible Conversations. A very practical guide. New York. Lifelong Books

House of Commons Library (2019) Teacher recruitment and retention in England [date accessed 18.6.2020]

2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to NQT Mentors and School Leaders about Science Teacher retention

  1. From experience of working in several ITE routes we need to look at what happens to physicists while training as well. Retention during training an issue. Some courses too generic to support development of science/physics teaching. Some schools and trainers potentially discriminatory towards physicists, whose rational and logical thought processes are sometimes deemed to be ‘autism’, by those unqualified to diagnose.

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  2. Lots of variables at play of course. A good article to read before I deliver some training next week. All very good points! Although I am a Biologist but have become a far more effective Chemistry teacher as I had to learn it from the book again. Also, my degree in Physiology, a solid Biology based degree rarely comes up in my teaching.

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