Keeping Toby flying: How to avoid clipping your new mentee’s wings

The Outwardly Confident, Inwardly Anxious Beginning Teacher

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In my last blog I talked about how, as teacher educators, we can help PGCE students to start their main teaching practice placement well.  As the University Teacher Educator, I benefit from observing whole cohorts (sometimes multiple cohorts) of PGCE/ITE students take the teacher training journey each year, and this experience has led me to consider a few of the ‘types’ of student a mentor may encounter at this early stage of the placement.   And so, I would like to introduce you to Toby.

Toby – The outwardly confident and competent student

Toby ‘flew’ during his first placement.  He grasped the fundamentals of planning lessons around historical enquiry and has a good foundational understanding of the ways in which lessons can be structured to develop pupil understanding of the substantive historical subject knowledge and second order concepts.  Additionally, he had great classroom presence and was able to connect with the pupils in his lessons.  He looks like the real deal and his next placement department has been really looking forward to integrating him into their team.

Outwardly therefore, Toby seems more than capable to ‘hit the ground running’.  He can be pushed to plan most of his lessons from scratch, encouraged to think in sequences not just individual episodes and consider how to build progression through his schemes of work.  Perhaps you, as the mentor, will hold off on handing over Year 12 to him at the moment, but there’s no reason why he can’t pick them up after half term is there?

Toby is aware he ‘aced’ his first placement, aware that his rate of progress was exceptional (everyone keeps telling him this after all), aware that the expectation for him to continue this trajectory is huge.  Inwardly Toby is concerned that he will not be able to maintain the high standards of thinking and planning and preparation that have gone into his lessons thus far.  Inwardly Toby knows that spending 4-6 hours on each lesson plan is just not sustainable, but he has no idea how to explain this to you or to ‘work smarter’.  Inwardly Toby is a knot of anxiety. 

How can we support Toby in these early days of the main teaching practice?

So, what does Toby need to ‘start well’?  First and foremost, he needs reassurance that you understand that the rate of progression in his own teaching practice may not be maintained.  He needs to know that he will find things difficult and challenging, as he seeks to learn about the new context in which he is to work and get to grips with the culture and approach of the department, and that this is ok and expected.  He needs patience, a listening ear and a cup of tea.

Time spent with Toby explaining and helping him to understand the culture and ways of working within the school and department will not be wasted.  Toby has the potential to be an outstanding beginning teacher, but his success in the first placements means handling this transition to the new way of working is all the more critical.  He is moving from a relatively secure position to an insecure one.  Time spent explicitly setting out the expectations and help which will be offered by all the teachers to whom he is ‘attached’ will be important for him to feel more secure.   

All colleagues involved in supporting Toby need to be reminded just how exhausting it is ‘learning to teach’; the decision making required behind each planning choice is time consuming and can be anxiety inducing as the student considers a myriad of possibilities arising from every subject knowledge/ conceptual or pedagogical selection they make. Toby therefore needs very clear support and guidance around planning – it shouldn’t be assumed that he can ‘hit the ground running’ in this respect.  Joint planning and parallel planning with members of the team will be critical for him building confidence in the new context.  He should be encouraged to take initiative and be inventive, but this needs to be slow and gentle.  Indeed, even going to far as to jointly plan (with the mentor driving that planning) so that he is really clear what the expectation is for what his planning should look like and can concentrate on his ‘in class’ targets (such as implementing the new sanctions policy he’s trying to get his head around).  Additionally supportive experienced teachers can scaffold planning by helping to ‘short cut’ the laboured decision making process, pointing him to effective resources and providing ‘options’ for the best ways to approach the activity so that it achieves the purpose and rationale of the lesson – preferably this should come well before he has spent the 4-6 hours planning the lesson in detail only for all that effort to be dismissed by a well-intentioned but fairly demotivating ‘I’ve marked the plan with the changes it needs before you teach it tomorrow’.  He may also benefit from being given key inquiry questions to plan lessons around, rather than being given complete freedom, to build his understanding of how we expand enquiries and link them together. 

As Toby grows in his understanding of the new way of working and confidence following a number of successes in his new environment, he will usually quickly be able to cope with greater independence and less scaffolding around lesson planning.  He will find that his anxiety around the hundreds of micro-decisions required to plan a lesson decreases as he realises that within the myriad of possibilities, if his overall rationale and Key Enquiry Question for the lesson is sound, most approaches result in effective pupil learning. 

We all want Toby to become the inwardly and outwardly confident and competent beginning teacher. Early patience and care will usually result in greater autonomy and purposeful contribution to the department in the context of the whole placement. More importantly, early patience and care will hopefully allow Toby to reach his true potential and become a welcome and valuable addition to the profession in the longer-term context of a school career.

Further Reading: Hazel, HaggerKatharine BurnDonald McIntyre (1995), The School Mentor Handbook: Essential Skills and Strategies for Working with Student Teachers, London, Psychology Press. Unit 1.

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