Worrying about Wanda: Supporting your mentee’s well-being and workload

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Wanda had started to struggle.  It was small things at first, a partially completed lesson plan with the promise that the full version would follow and a set of books she’d taken home for marking accidently left in her kitchen on the day they were due to be returned.  Finally, it was an email sent to her mentor at 10pm at night saying that there was absolutely no way she could teach Year 8 period 1 tomorrow, she didn’t have a lesson plan, hadn’t prepared, and didn’t know where to begin.  She was very sorry, but she was just going to have to let the mentor teach the lesson instead.   

To those experienced in supporting training teachers this will be familiar story.  The real question is what do you do to address this situation when an ITE student has not fulfilled their teaching commitment or met a deadline of some kind?  Do you let it go, let it fester or simply lay it on the line?

Supporting ITE students to manage their workloads can be both challenging and frustrating.  One of the main complaints I hear from mentors with students in this predicament is genuine puzzlement at why the student teacher is struggling so much when they seemingly have so little to do. Doesn’t the trainee know it’s only going to get harder as the year progresses?  Are they really struggling or are they simply lazy and disorganised? Mentors can feel a bit resentful as they continue to wrestle with their 23/25 periods a week workload, whilst also responding to the needs of their student teacher.  When the student misses an agreed deadline or backs out of teaching a class at the last minute, it can be even more difficult to be sympathetic and supportive, particularly if the mentor has significant personal commitments – a young family for example. 

Yet, it is common for training teachers to struggle to manage their well-being and workload as they gradually adopt the role of teacher (Worth & Brande, 2019, p.5).  Taking an approach which will lead them to greater autonomy and an understanding of professional obligation requires patience and understanding on the part of the mentor.  It always involves tricky conversations, and often these conversations require a mentor to do an awful lot more listening than sharing of their own experience or strategies. 

How can Wanda’s mentor help her to get back on track?

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  • First it is important to dispel this notion that they have ‘so little to do’.  Training teachers have an enormous range of new ideas and challenges to get their heads around, let alone manage the demands of their university based academic assignments, tasks intended to help them induct and orientate into the ways of school life, their subject knowledge enhancement, and their teaching load.  It is not uncommon, even several months into being in the classroom, for a training teacher to take between 3 and 6 hours to plan a 1-hour lesson (sometimes this can be the case even if they are adapting established resources) – the hundreds of tiny decisions about timings, structure and approach are time-consuming when you are learning. Beginning teachers do have a lot of competing priorities to contend with, in the same way that school colleagues have an incredible number of competing priorities to contend with, but it is worth remembering that  ‘new teachers have to put in more time to adapt to their new roles’ (Kutsyuruba et. al. 2019, p.290).   Recognising this and seeking to help the trainee to identify and develop strategies to manage this is an important step in getting them back on track.
  • Secondly, experiences of supporting a range of trainees suggests that rising anxiety and lack of confidence is more commonly the cause of failure to meet their teaching responsibilities, as opposed to chronic idleness.  Anxiety and subsequent inaction are born either from a perfectionism which demands immediate and tangible success, or a paralysis emanating from a lack of self-belief.  If we get to the point of identifying this root cause, our tendency as mentors and tutors in these situations is to jump in with advice sharing how we have overcome similar anxiety.  In fact, experience suggests resisting our desire to speak and instead asking questions such as ‘What are you finding particularly hard at the moment?’ can really help in diagnosing the situation.  Really listening to the mentee can be the most effective treatment, providing a way to encourage them into self-reflection and action. 
  • Thirdly, supporting the mentee to short term success is key to helping them move on.  Resilience is a quality we expect new teachers to demonstrate, but we often don’t help them to develop it successfully with our sink or swim approach.     Sharing the anxiety load – for example by co-planning and even co-teaching lessons – can really help beginning teachers in entering the lesson with confidence that basic issues such as timing won’t get in the way.  Similarly, limiting their feedback to one development point can provide clarity in target setting, as opposed to leaving the trainee feeling like they are drowning in their self-perceived inadequacy.  In time, it will be possible to remove these scaffolded approaches as you support the trainee to greater independence. 

Will this advice magically turn Wanda into a resilient and effective beginning teacher?  Will it help her workload worries disappear?  Of course not.  What this approach provides is an opportunity for a mentor to better understand their mentee, and to create some space in which a more personalised action plan can be generated to help move the student on.  Wanda can overcome her struggle.

References/ Further Reading

Building Resilience in Teacher Education (2014-18), https://www.brite.edu.au/

Kutsyuruba, B., Walker, K.D., Stroud Stasel, R., and Al Makhamreh, M. (2019) Developing Resilience and Promoting Well-Being in Early Career Teaching: Advice from the Canadian Beginning Teachers Resilience and Well-Being in Early Career Teaching, Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadienne de l’éducation 42:1.

Worth, J. and Van den Brande, J. (2019) Teacher Labour  Market in England Annual Report 2019, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/media/3344/teacher_labour_market_in_england_2019.pdf.

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