It is a tricky job writing a reference for a beginning teacher who may then be compared with more experienced colleagues, but where to begin in the middle of a Pandemic when their initial teacher education year has been so disrupted and unusual? I first wrote a blog about writing references for trainee teachers in March 2019. As the job season gets into full flow it seems appropriate to revisit Rahul and think about how Covid-19 might impact the reference we might write for him.
Let me introduce you to Rahul…
Rahul is keen to secure a job, any job it seems – well at least that’s how it feels every time a reference request pings into your inbox. Alongside your slight frustration that all Rahul’s energies are currently being expended upon the application process rather than his lesson planning, targets or marking, there is the small matter of what to say in his reference.
- How do you convey his progress as a beginning teacher?
- How do you complete the many different pro-formas asking you to rank him from ‘needing development’ to ‘outstanding’ against the various attributes and skills of a teacher?
- How, now that Covid-19 and National Lockdown has significantly impacted his school placements, do you reflect his true capacity as a beginning teacher?
- How can you help prospective employers look beyond these factors outside the candidate’s control and give Rahul a fair chance against more established colleagues?
Just how ‘good’ is Rahul?
Most experienced teachers have a fairly clear image of a good beginning teacher, of what we mean when we say an ITT student has gone from complete teaching novice to competent practitioner during the PGCE year. When advertising jobs in our departments we look for NQTs who have forged solid foundations upon which to continue their development into their careers, knowing that most are on the precipice of fulfilling their potential as a fledgling early career teacher just as the PGCE year comes to end. And yet this year (and last year to some degree) these preconceptions of a ‘good’ NQT will be challenged by the pandemic conditions in which they trained.
The Teacher Standards’ guidance (2011, p.6) states that ‘the standards need to be applied as appropriate to the role and context within which a trainee or teacher is practising.’ The pandemic has impacted communities across the UK unevenly, meaning greater variability in the training experiences and contexts of beginning teachers than is usually expected. This has been unavoidable, and it is critical that these beginning teachers have their progress against the teacher standards ‘measured’ considering those different contexts. It is therefore also important that our references recognise the ways in which they have developed despite these challenges, and that we place sufficient focus on their potential. We need to have this future perspective in mind as we seek to write a reference which truly represents Rahul.
The challenge of writing the reference
It is now common for schools to send pro-forma reference forms when requesting references ahead of interview. These often prove very difficult to complete in relation to student teachers. How can we possibly comment on their abilities as a ‘proven creative leader’, as one such form asked me? For example, most beginning teachers this year simply have not had the opportunity to ‘prove their metal’ in behaviour management whilst teaching in a Covid-19 regulation classroom or online – are they outstanding in this aspect of their practice because they are swift at hitting the mute button on TEAMS? Even in usual conditions, to comment upon their teaching ability, lesson planning or marking can only really be done in the context of their potential as a beginning teacher.
What should your recommendation look like?
Commenting on what Rahul can do, rather than what he cannot do yet, and hasn’t had the opportunity to do, seems to be a much more suitable way of approaching this dilemma. I would so often find myself responding with N/A in many of these tick boxes that we choose to provide a long hand free-form reference which does describes the student’s potential, the trajectory (to use the DfE’s words from last summer) they were on in relation to meeting the Teacher Standards. We explain what we have seen so far of their burgeoning abilities as a beginning teacher in the classroom and online, outline the experience they have gained and comment on their professionalism and understanding of the discipline and subject knowledge required to do the job. We try to ensure that their necessary and valuable experimentation and learning mistakes of the PGCE year do not come back to ‘bite’ them through the reference. We also try to reflect their potential from the whole training year, reflecting that not all contexts suit all teachers and that Rahul’s full potential might be realised in a context different to that of his current placement environment. For mentors writing references this means recognising that, whilst Rahul might not be the right fit for your school, he could be a valuable colleague in a different team or a different school or area. Throughout the reference we emphasise the fact this is a beginning teacher, who needs to continue their development through the induction years with the support of a mentor.
As we begin to write references this year, we will, where appropriate, be confidently saying they should be ready to contribute fully to the department as an NQT with the experience of training in a pandemic. The nature of their training year means that in many ways they are much more advanced in some aspects of their practice than you might usually expect for an NQT (for example in terms of their curricular thinking, understanding of pupil learning, focus on formative feedback). However, the pandemic also means they will need the Early Career Framework to support them in gaining experience of the ‘practice’ elements of their craft that they have not been able to fully explore over the past year. Feedback from colleagues working with NQTs trained in 2019/20 suggest these can be learnt quickly once they are in post in a more consistent school environment with that support.
The mentor’s reference is usually considered the ‘most important, credible source for providing… information about applicants who have just completed student teaching’ (Halitin and Royce, 1995, 373). Consequently, the mentor factually framing Rahul’s potential is key. Supporting Rahul to find the right position, where he can achieve that potential and make a positive contribution to the lives of pupils, is clearly our goal. Getting these matches ‘right’ is all the more important in a post pandemic situation where children will need creative, enthusiastic, energised teachers.
Halitin, T., & Abrahamson, R. (1995). Written or Oral Job References for New Teachers? Perceptions of Superintendents. The Clearing House,68(6), 372-373. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30189111