A shape-sorter understanding: Why mentees find changing teaching placements so hard

We’re approaching that time in the ITE year when our students prepare to move to a new school setting for their second teaching practice. Having just settled into their placement school, having just found their feet as beginning teachers, we uproot them and transplant them into a brand new context, with different children, staff team, curriculum, culture and ethos. For some this change can’t come too soon; it provides the opportunity for a fresh start in light of the mistakes they have made both inside and outside the classroom.  These students long for a better ‘fit’. For others, this move is tinged with sadness. These students teachers settled well in their first placement, felt supported by their mentor, came to feel comfortable in their surroundings and the expectations of their role.  For all this move is an important aspect of a training year in which they need to experience and understand that there is more than one way of doing education.

Colleagues who have worked in more than one school know how hard it is to re-establish yourself in a new context – all the more challenging if this transition occurs half way through an academic year.  Is it any wonder that the move to the second placement can bring significant challenges to training teachers?

It is really important that all teachers begin a placement or job in a new context with an open mind. Even if it doesn’t meet your expectations, of the kind of environment in which you want to work, there are still things you can learn from that experience which will make your understanding of the work of education deeper and richer.  

How can we help training students make the most of their second placement?

A shape-sorter understanding

When speaking with my training teachers I often compare the relationship between a teacher and their school as a shape sorter – the kind you might give to a toddler.  In this analogy, each of my training students is a different ‘shape’. Each of our partnership schools is a different ‘space’. Each of them is unique. Each of them has value. Each of them is good in their own way in their own context.

Clearly what most training teachers would desire is for their shape to instantly fit into the correct space. And yet that rarely happens. Often the best reality is a circle which just about fits into a hexagon, with some gapping and some pinch points. There is a great deal of overlap between the ethos and philosophy of the ‘circle’ training teacher as they come into contact with the ‘hexagon’ school, but not everything matches up. It is enough, however, to mostly make for an enjoyable and stimulating working environment.

Occasionally training teachers, and even established teachers, may find themselves a square in a triangle school. This can come about because of differences in philosophy, culture, ethos or personalities within a team. It can be uncomfortable but it can also be a real opportunity for growth – even the triangle overlaps the square to some degree.  The areas of ‘departure’ from each other’s vision for education are, in this scenario, ripe with opportunity to understand an alternative perspective and consequently strengthen or adapt your own point of view. However, in order to experience this growth it is important that both the teacher and the school recognise each others strengths and see how, with a different ‘match’, both can, and do, make a significant contribution to pupils’ lives

So as your new ITT student arrives in your department, what can you do to help them make a successful transition?

  • Recognise that moving school part way through an academic year is tough for teachers at any level. Take the time to induct them properly. Check out a previous blog on ‘Helping a new PGCE mentee to start well’ for some ideas on how to do this.
  • Appreciate and value the experience they have just had. They bring to your school the experience of another context. Understanding the diamond they’ve come from might help you see your star in a new light and understand why they are finding the transition tricky at first.
  • Accept their formative profile from the first placement at face value. If it says they were demonstrating incredible potential in their classroom practice at the end of that placement, but what you’ve seen so far is decidedly underwhelming, that doesn’t mean the profile is wrong. They are in a new context and need to learn how to adapt to that new context.  If they have been flying up until this point, they will find their perceived regression in practice even harder. Check out a previous blog ‘Keeping Toby Flying: How to avoid clipping your new mentee’s wings’ for more discussion about this.

Equally, if their profile document is underwhelming, that doesn’t mean they won’t show greater progression during this next phase of the training year. Be encouraging, give them a fresh start. Give them hope.

  • Be honest about your own struggles and model professional acceptance of school policy and approach – learning how to critically engage with the ethos and culture of your school in a professional manner is crucial for a beginning teacher learning how to cope as a circle in an octogon.
  • Listen to them and don’t take it personally.  As discussed in ‘Creation not Emulation: Developing teacher persona’, if they are struggling ask them what kind of teacher they want to be. Consider carefully how their emerging teaching philosophy might be being called into conflict in light of the approach of your department or school.  Support them in finding ways to work within the boundaries of their new setting without compromising their own values, as you no doubt have to do yourself on some issues. 

A process of refinement

Looking back at a number of trainees I have been fortunate enough to work with, I can see how, when shapes do fit or nearly fit in their spaces, they are released.  Trainees who thrive in the first placement, sometimes struggle in their second, but return to ‘flying’ once they are in their NQT position at a school and with a team that fits them. Trainees who took more time to settle into their teacher persona on the first teaching practice often go on to surpass all expectations in the second, partly due to their new context, but often because their first placement allowed them to understand what kind of teacher they want to be. In both situations, what these beginning teachers are often not able to appreciate until many years later is how the ‘uncomfortable’ fit of their shape in the space, has actually changed them; their edges are rubbed off, often imperceptibly at the time, to prepare them for new challenges. With each experience the training teacher understands better the shifting sands of their own philosophy of teaching and learning, their own view of the culture and ethos of the school in which they’d like to settle, their own sense of who they are as a teaching professional.

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