Bewildered Beryl: Helping your mentee find the end of the rope

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Beryl came to the PGCE feeling confident.  Due to various experiences working with children in her past, she felt she understood what she was getting herself into and how schools worked.  Surely teaching was just a matter of telling pupils the historical stories she herself had loved as a child?  All she had to do was know a lot about the past and her naturally outgoing nature would do the rest. 

Beryl has found the teacher training year thus far a bewildering experience; everything seems a bit tangled.  No matter how hard she tries, she just doesn’t seem to be able to get the pupils to learn anything; she tells them things they should know and they don’t seem to retain it, she gives them activities to do and they don’t really seem to do them (or at least not how she thought they would).  All the time her PGCE tutor and mentor keep banging on about lessons needing to have more rationale and purpose and being history led rather than activity led.  She thinks she understands what they mean, but also believes they are being a bit unfair.

If only she could find the end of the rope…

Beryl’s mentor is finding her exasperating.  Yes, she does relate well to the pupils, although she often seems more concerned about their general well-being than what they are learning.  Subject knowledge is often an issue – either she reads so extensively she cannot identify the most pertinent aspect, or she rushes subject knowledge acquisition relying on what she thinks she knows about the topic thus lacking specificity.  She often seems to ignore feedback, and resists writing more detailed lesson plans.  Her communication is poor, and she fails to submit lesson plans in time to receive and respond to her mentor’s guidance.  Her organisation is also questionable – she’s often missing a resource or just not ready when the lesson starts.

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

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Beryl has been engaged in a process of deconstructing her preconceptions about schools and the teaching of history.  Indeed, much of her first teaching practice would have involved this process of nibbling away at what she thought she knew about both herself and her new career.  As a result, she will probably not have made as much progress in that first placement as you may have seen in previous training teachers.  It is therefore important this context is considered as your frame the early weeks of her main teaching practice; she will need her targets to be kept simple and focused on the fundamentals of planning. She will also need to feel she can trust in you and the support you are offering. (1) 

Beryl will benefit from a slow progression into her teaching timetable; it is important that she has time to focus on refining her planning approaches.  Indeed, it is likely that planning for each lesson will be taking her several hours, as she wrestles with a series of decisions about the subject knowledge focus and the most appropriate activity to convey this information.  Closely supported planning will be vital to help her distinguish the historical rationale behind teaching these historical events – how they fit into the bigger picture of the curriculum and why certain aspects need to be emphasised for pupils’ historical conceptual development (e.g. the relationship between Henry I and Becket for understanding the role and power of the Church in medieval and Tudor England).  She will also need support to understand how a second order concept may be developed through this lesson focus, although expecting her to think in terms of developing and progressing second order conceptual understanding over several lessons will almost certainly be too ambitious at this stage. 

In terms of planning, it is likely that Beryl feels it is already taking so long that writing down her exposition or the questions she will ask is a planning task too far.  Making the planning of her teacher talk an explicit target can be beneficial, but she may need you to facilitate this by joint planning/ providing a main activity and resource for a lesson to give her the opportunity to really focus on the ‘talk’ aspect of her planning.  Asking her to team teach specific elements of your lesson (e.g. to do the exposition link between the starter and main task, explain the instructions for tasks or lead a specific questioning feedback session) can also really help her to focus on her target and understand why it is so important to plan and achieve clarity of thought and purpose in these elements. 

Giving Beryl parallel classes to teach can also be an effective tool for her development.  The opportunity to enact her plan, review the ‘learning’, and then immediately revise the lesson based on this reflection before re-teaching it to another group just a few days later, can have a significant impact upon Beryl’s ability to see how she could bring more purpose or coherence to her lesson.  Similarly, teaching her own lesson to a class and then watching an experienced teacher teaching the same lesson topic to their class can also be very illuminating, as she is forced to evaluate her own lesson with a comparable context.  At the heart of this evaluation should be the question: how did the activity help pupils understand the history?

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Communication may also be an issue.  Experience of ‘Beryls’ leads me to suggest that this is often tied up with their preconceptions around what it is to be a teacher or work in a school.; she may fear seeming too dependent (especially if her previous experience in ‘education’ was one where she was expected to just get on with it).  Additionally, if she is struggling, she may be avoiding her email for fear that it will add more to her workload as lesson plans are returned with revisions every time. She may also tend to compare herself with other PGCE colleagues who seem so sorted.  Understanding this and asking the question ‘is there something which makes it difficult for you to communicate?’ can really help to open a discussion around professionalism and the importance of asking for support.

Beryl will get there – in her own time

Beryl can be frustrating. Beryl may be bewildered. But Beryl is not failing; her ‘journey’ to being a really effective beginning teacher is just a little more convoluted!  Rushing her to take on more responsibilities or a fuller timetable will not help her progress.   Calm and considered mentoring which seeks to really embed the basics around lesson planning and understanding how to make the pupils’ learning of history the centre of her thinking is the key to her success.  Our job is to slowly enlighten through careful and genuine support.

  1. Adey, Ken. “First Impressions Do Count: Mentoring Student Teachers.” Teacher Development 1.1 (1997): 123-33. Web.


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