A cup of tea and a listening ear
Standing outside my son’s primary classroom this week, I observed his teacher deep in conversation over a cup of tea with a new member of staff. When the door to the classroom opened just a few minutes later, this young woman stood (with the class teacher hovering behind her shoulder) welcoming the children with a slightly furrowed brow and an air of inexperience. It struck me that this was in fact the new trainee teacher, just arrived on placement, and what I had witnessed moments before was actually an excellent example of a significant moment in the mentoring of a beginning teacher – the importance of helping them to start well.
In my role as a University Initial Teacher Educator, year on year I observe many students experience anxiety at this point as they start their new and most substantial placement. I also see the ramifications of new beginnings which have not gone well and how this can impact, not only the student teacher, but the departments who are supporting them.
My history PGCE students are, this week, beginning their first forays into teaching in their main teaching practice placement for their training year. Following the steep learning curve of the first teaching practice, many of my students arrived at December having conquered their fears of standing up in the classroom in front of 30 young people and had become successful and proficient (in the context of beginning history teachers) in their school context. In the last couple of weeks many of them have expressed real anxiety around starting anew; the fear of freezing in front of a class, failing to manage workload and making a bad impression with their new mentor and work colleagues is real. The ways in which their new departments and mentors seek to support them in these first few weeks can be crucial in setting the right tone for the rest of the placement.
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“At best students reported teachers offering help with day‐to‐day teaching and lesson planning and providing solid feedback. At worst, students literally received no support whatsoever, being given a timetable and expected to get on and teach it.” (Christie & Conlon et al. (2004), 115) [i]
School based colleagues are generous in the time and energy they give to growing the next generation of history teachers. For most it is an incredibly rewarding job; student teachers typically bring an engagement with recent historical scholarship, enthusiasm and optimism into their training departments, and sometimes (if you are lucky) a much needed packet of custard creams. Occasionally they require a great deal of time, support and care and it can feel that you are giving an awful lot to help them develop into effective history teachers. In all circumstances, I have observed that they can encourage a department to take a more reflective perspective, as everyone involved in observing and supporting and being observed by the student engages in thinking critically and inventively about pedagogy and how to help pupils understand history.
Without doubt the main thing that these beginning teachers need from their school-based teacher educators at this point is welcome and understanding; a positivity and keenness to engage with the process of teacher education, and a recognition of the benefits supporting a PGCE student might bring. Where students thrive, they are eased into their new teaching load, given clear expectations around what they should be teaching and are provided with opportunities to jointly plan and create overviews of sequences of lessons. Importantly, they are helped to understand and accept the new culture of the department and school in which they are to work, and school colleagues accept that they will take time to adjust to this new approach; they may have been successful in their first placement, but the new placement is in many ways like beginning all over again. They need this ‘fresh start’ accompanied by the kind of support where they trust that making mistakes is part of the learning process and an opportunity to review and rethink and get better. Above all there is a watchful concern for their well-being and resilience, as they ride the wave of observation feedback.
As mentors and tutors, we work together as teacher educators to build long term foundations upon which a successful teaching career can be built. The scene observed through my son’s classroom window seemed to encapsulate this approach – a cup of tea, a listening ear, reassurance and the supported opportunity to gain experiences with pupils and their parents.
[i] Fiona Christie, Tom Conlon, Tony Gemmell & Allison Long (2004) Effective partnership? Perceptions of PGCE student teacher supervision, European Journal of Teacher Education, 27:2, 109-123, DOI: 10.1080/0261976042000222999, 115.