Pulling Priya through the plateau: supporting your mentee to continued progress

For Priya, whilst it didn’t feel like it at the time, Teaching Practice 1 was a time of steady progress and success.  Teaching Practice 2 started well; it’s been a long term and she’s tired, but she is also grateful that her classes are cooperative and seem to enjoy history.  She feels much more confident in her planning and has learnt ‘what works’ with these groups.  Recently though, there has been an increase in the dreaded ‘low level disruption’ and she is starting to panic that she’s losing ‘it’. She’s working so much harder to motivate pupils and is having to follow through on the sanctions system almost every lesson.  Why have her classes suddenly fallen out of love with history?  Why have they decided to push the boundaries? Why is she becoming a bit disillusioned just a few months into the main teaching practice? 

This is a feeling most teachers can relate to at points in their career, but it can be all the more acute for the PGCE student for whom things have gone fairly smoothly.  Understanding the ‘plateau’ can be key for helping to move students on at this critical moment in their development as a beginning teacher.

The typical challenges of the ‘plateau’ and how mentors can help move students on:

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Having emerged from the dark days of February, some students find that the heralding of spring is a real turning point for their understanding of their own practice and subject pedagogy. Timetables are challenging, marking seems to be mounting by the day, but overall they are beginning to recognise the real successes they are having the classroom, and are increasingly able to see that they have made progress. For some it just seems to ‘click’ at this point.

For others, however, March/ April heralds the plateau. Whilst they have clearly made progress from the start of TP, not much seems to have improved in the past couple of weeks. This is a critical time because despondency can kick in. Those who are striving to be outstanding begin to really doubt themselves and question whether they are good enough, and those who struggle with their workload begin asking whether it is all worth it. In the midst of all of this the pressure to secure a job begins to mount, and days out of school on interview can lead to disjointed weeks and increased stress as they also have to prepare for interview lessons and tasks.

So what can we do to support them at this time?

It is really important to point students back to the purpose of teaching history, so that all the activities that they plan have a clear historical rationale and lessons have a sense of coherence, direction and purpose. This can often be a good time to get them to begin thinking about sequences of lessons and how they can build progression of understanding in a substantive concept, second order concept and significant subject knowledge over a number of interconnected lessons, rather than just thinking about what they need to cover in the next lesson. This will help them to strengthen their thinking around the purpose of the tasks they are setting and how to get pupils to deepen their understanding to answer big historical questions.

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Beginning teachers can also begin to feel that their ideas for how to approach learning activities are drying up, so getting them to set up observations of different members of staff can really help to reinvigorate them with ideas and approaches. Encouraging them to read and explore the literature on how to teach history can really help, especially if they are encouraged to reflect on the impact of these articles for their own practice in their mentor meetings. However, joint planning is probably one of the most helpful things you can do with them at this stage; the students should now be in a good place to gain real insights in to subject pedagogy as you model to them how you would approach establishing the line of enquiry, designing tasks, considering differentiation and AfL etc. in a time efficient manner.(1) Similarly getting them to do a lesson without a powerpoint is a great skill for them to learn and can also show them making time consuming powerpoint is not the answer to good teaching nor a replacement for a coherent plan. Similarly helping them to see the value of the odd lesson based on a textbook or established resource could really help them manage their workload and show them that you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel to teach good lessons.

Many students also find it hard to ask for help, particularly around meeting deadlines for marking and their increasing teaching commitment. Failure to meet 24/48hour deadlines for submission of lesson plan, for example, can often be a sign that they are struggling to keep up with their work load but feel they ought to be coping by now and can’t say anything. Pressures around interview days can be particularly hard, especially when it seems to be increasingly common that only 2-3 days notice is given by the interviewing school. Additionally it is worth remembering that they are managing their university assignments alongside their teaching load, and the demands of this work are not insignificant. Asking ‘what are you finding hard at the moment?’ rather than ‘are you ok?’ can help give an insight into their struggles.

Priya will begin to make progress again. Positive mentoring which reassures but most importantly challenges will be the key to pulling her through that plateau.

  1. Tomlinson, P.D., Hobson, A.J. and Malderez, A., (2010) Mentoring in Teacher Education, International Encyclopedia of Education (Third Edition), Elsevier. p.754.

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