Flying the nest: Helping your student to end well

One afternoon in June, at the dawn of the National Curriculum, a Year 8 pupil opened her history exercise book to find a handwritten note from her teacher which said:

 ‘You are a gifted historian with a keen analytical mind and deep interest in the past.  You should ensure History is one of your GCSE options and pursue it into your future.  Don’t give up on it!’ 

Only the teacher leaving the note wasn’t her actual teacher, it was the PGCE student who had marked her book for the final time before finishing his main placement.  Nearly 30 years later, she can’t remember his face let alone his lessons, but the cursive script in HB pencil is clear in her mind’s eye.  Nearly 30 years later she wishes she could say thank you because something about those words stayed in her sub-conscious through every moment of self-doubt.  They led, in part, not just to a history GCSE, but an A Level, a degree, a PGCE, a career as a history teacher, and now a role as a History Teacher-Educator.  She really wishes she could find him and say thank you.

The challenge of ending well

In my last blog I considered how mentors can help their ITE students make the most of their potential in the final few weeks of placement; here we think about the challenge of supporting them to end well. Endings can be hard to negotiate, particularly when you’ve never really experienced them in the professional sphere before.  What this PGCE student showed me at an impressionable age, is how significant endings can be in school life.  Consequently, I try to support my beginning teachers to understand why thinking through their manner of flying the nest is important.  Experience of working with beginning teachers tells me that often need to be supported to leave well – it is yet another facet of their development as a professional.   

How can we support beginning teachers to end well?

Support them as a they finish teaching their classes:

Beginning teachers make lots of mistakes during their ITE year; their teaching can be inconsistent, punctuated by university-based days and the illness which typically floors students new to school life.   Some classes and pupils will be relieved to get their ‘proper’ teacher back.  Others will be sad and disappointed to be losing someone who exuded passion for their subject, took creative risks, didn’t seem tied to an assessment agenda or who simply had a bit more time for them in the busy-ness of school life.  Beginning teachers need to be prepared and briefed for this range of possible reactions: from the class who cheers at the news this is their last lesson, to the pupils sobbing in the corner.  They need to be supported to understand that this full range of reaction is normal and not a measure of their abilities as a teacher. 

They also need to be supported to ‘end well’ with their groups.  I tell my trainees the story of the note in the folder, not because I expect them to spend hours writing personal notes for all their pupils, but because I want them to grasp how significant they may have been for some of these young people.  I want them to reflect on how their short time at the school may leave ripples which resonate throughout these pupils’ lives.

Support them as a they leave the department and ‘hand over’ to class teachers:

Throughout the ITE year, beginning teachers struggle to negotiate the expectations of the departments and staff with whom they are placed.  Growing as a professional in a team needs to be learnt, but it is often an area of ‘practice’ which is assumed to just occur through osmosis.  They need their mentors/ attached teachers to be explicit about their, and the school’s, expectations.

  • For this handing over period: Are they expected to mark EVERYTHING before they leave?  How exactly should classes be handed back?  What paperwork needs to be completed?  Do they need to complete a ‘data drop’ before leaving?
  • In terms of resources: Does the department expect all electronic resources to be ‘returned’ as well as hard copies of textbooks?
  • Expressing gratitude: how and at what point should they say thank you to the department and the many other colleagues who have supported their placement (including teaching assistants/ reprographics staff/ site staff etc.).

Support them as they fly off into (hopefully) a long-term teaching career:

Beginning teachers need to be supported to reflect on the journey they have undertaken during their ITE year and helped to understand that they’ve not made it to their destination, rather they have made it to the first staging post and need to now look to the next phase of the journey.   Using the final weeks of placement to push the student to focus on deep evaluation of their lessons, considering what the pupils have really understood about history through the lesson, and how they might be supported to build even richer historical understanding, is vitally important.  Similarly they should be involved in the creation of their final profile targets ready for their Induction year, so as to prepare them to continue pushing on their own practice during their NQT, RQT years and beyond.  Leaving them with a sense of the importance of engaging with historical scholarship, for their continued professional development, is another gift you can send them off with as they leave your nest and ‘end well’. 

Gratitude

My hope would be that in ending well your mentee will also recognise and be grateful for the role that you, as their mentor, have played throughout their ITE year.  Whilst the nature of the relationship between mentors and their mentees varies greatly, you will have been their key supporter and influence in school during their teaching practice.   The amount of time and energy you will have expended on their teaching journey should not go unremarked; I urge all my students to recognise this.    

Whilst I may not be able to thank that PGCE student from 30 years ago, I can say thank you to you for joining me in the endeavour that is teacher education this academic year.  You have been significant; the fledging has all its feathers, and you should look on with pride as they fly the nest.  

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