During the SHP Virtual Conference in July, I got into a Twitter conversation with a beginning teacher who, following Christine Counsell’s presentation on ‘The what, why and how of broadening historical content at KS3’, commented that he felt like a teaching toddler:
This feeling of not having done enough or learnt enough or not having done it the ‘right way’ is common in beginning teachers. Sometimes it is the case that training has been partial or that the school context hasn’t enabled the student to explore curricular thinking or pedagogy outside of a particular approach. However often, this progression to realising a world of possibility beyond building towers with simple stacking blocks, is simply part of the natural development of being an early career teacher.
Understanding the possibilities
Our PGCE course at the University of Nottingham aims to expose our students to the richness of the complexity behind planning for disciplinary and substantive understanding in history, whilst taking into account cognitive science and an understanding of theories of the ways children learn. We think a lot about how teachers can carefully construct and sequence learning to make it more accessible and understandable by pupils, whilst not shying away from the complexity. We spend a lot of time focusing upon the thinking that needs to take place for history teachers to select and develop their curriculum. We also provide structured opportunities for our students to put this into action in the classroom context supported by the practice-orientated support of their school-based mentors, with whom we work in close partnership.
However, spending all this time learning about curriculum theory (or any other aspect of teaching practice for that matter), and even being given opportunities to practise this in a school context, does not mean our training teachers automatically implement it perfectly and comprehensively in their own practice. Even in cases where the beginning teacher was exposed to these ideas and knows that Lego exists, the ability to become a ‘master builder’ themselves is accrued over many years of reflection upon theory and their own practice.
The seeds that are sown
Occasionally I observe conversations where people proclaim that they can’t believe they weren’t taught x or y during their ITT year. On these occasions I find myself wondering how far their experience is a secular version of the seed and the soil in the Parable of the Sower in the New Testament (Matthew 13:1-23). Of course, it is entirely possible that they were on a training route that did not even bother sowing that particular ‘seed’. However, is it more likely that the seed was sown but snatched away by birds, scorched by the sun, or choked by the weeds of other legitimate concerns and priorities which were so much more pressing at that time? Experience as a teacher, and now teacher educator suggests that, whilst the same ‘seed’ may have been sown to all, not all accept, understand, remember and then implement it in the same way (even if scaffolding is provided). Perhaps the real legacy of an effective ITT course in these situations is that a beginning teacher has been equipped and encouraged to continue growing, exploring, developing and thinking beyond the end of the course:
‘Teachers must have a firm grasp of key educational concepts and, where these are contested, engage with the theoretical debates about them. They must know, understand and be able to apply the findings of high quality educational research as these become available. And they must explore and reflect on the values that underpin the practice of education and the school curriculum.’ (Orchard & Winch, 2015, p.32).
Early Career teachers and the pressure to be everything at once
My message to Early Career teachers, who are feeling a bit overwhelmed and lacking in confidence ahead of starting new NQT posts or RQT years in a few weeks’ time, is that you don’t need to feel this way. You’re highly unlikely to have been planning or teaching ‘wrongly’ or ‘inadequately’ if you’re not doing it in the same way as the seasoned, experienced teachers around you. You’ve almost certainly been doing it in a stage appropriate way. Learning how to teach and engage in curriculum construction and design is a lifelong/ career long endeavour, and you must go through certain stages of understanding and practice before you can move onto the next. Wooden building blocks are fine and completely appropriate right now, as long as you continually look for what might make building your tower more effective. When you see the Lego run to it and seize the opportunity to explore it and build with it. Seeing yourself as being as much of a continual learner as the pupils you teach is key, so that your own practice continues to grow and develop.
And, of course, when you see Lego technics allow it to blow your mind.
Orchard, J. & Winch C (2015) What training do teachers need? Why theory is necessary to good teaching, IMPACTNo.22 Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy. Online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/2048-416X.2015.12002.x [accessed 09/08/2020] , p.32.