Teflon Tina: How to support a beginning teacher struggling to act on advice

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During her first placement Tina proved to be a good teacher in the making. She has sound ideas about what she wants to achieve in the classroom, is organised and a great team player. She was quick out of the blocks at the start of the course and really impressed. However, now she’s got a reasonable amount of teaching under her belt she’s starting to plateau.  At a time when she should be moving more to considering pupil learning, she is still concerned about her teaching and enacting plans which don’t work in the real world with pupils in her specific context.

The problem? Tina struggles with reflecting upon and self-evaluating her lessons (planning and enaction). Her mentor has noticed that she is keen to have feedback, but (as if coated in Teflon) usually responds in one of two ways:

  1. Dutifully recording her development points from mentor meetings but not seeming to take them on board or act upon them so she continues to make the same mistakes the very next lesson

Or

2. Arguing why her targets aren’t really issues at all and trying to justify away why the lesson didn’t go according to plan.

Both ‘the quality of the feedback provided by the mentor and the ability of the mentee to receive and act upon the feedback has been demonstrated to be essential for a successful mentoring experience’ (Keiler et. al., 2020).  So, is it the quality of the advice or is Tina just unwilling to change, or is it that she just can’t see it? Either way, the upshot is that her progress is being stymied and her mentor is feeling frustrated. What could they do to help breakthrough this barrier?

Fostering reflective objectivity

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So how can a mentor support Tina to move through this barrier?

Tina needs to be supported to step outside her own practice and gain some perspective; she needs to ‘observe’ her own practice.  Self-reflection is hard and evaluating lessons you were so excited to teach, and poured hours into creating and refining, is even harder.  It is unlikely that Tina is being obstinate, rather that she just can’t take that step back to objectively assess what has happened when her nice neat theoretical plan was translated into practice. 

  • Filming the student teaching a lesson is an extremely helpful action in this situation as they often benefit from SEEING for themselves what their mentor is getting at before they can move forward with their practice. Allowing a short period of time to elapse (c.1 week) between the filming and ‘observing’ can also help to create a degree of distance.  Allowing the student to ‘take themselves out of the equation’ and view their own practice with this greater objectivity can be transformative.  However, it is important to support them in structuring that observation, so they don’t become obsessed simply with their tone of voice or mannerisms.  They need to look beyond these superficial issues to the actual impact of the lesson on pupil understanding (I’ve talked about the sorts of ‘observations’ you can get your mentee to undertake of their own practice when viewing a filmed lesson here.)  
  • Another approach is to undertake some joint planning and teaching, and this can be done in two ways:
    • The student plans a lesson and watches the mentor enact the plan in its fullness (the mentor must resist the temptation to ‘fix’ the obvious planning pitfalls and teach it as given).  Again, this approach can create some necessary objectivity – they can see that the misconceptions arise because of the plan not because of the teacher, logistics or relationship with pupils etc.
    • The student teaches the same content twice but with different approaches. This can be instructive but really only works when the student can teach two very similar parallel classes the same lesson content, first using their own plan and then again using the approach recommended by their mentor.  This can help them to see more clearly how they are failing to build in sufficient challenge or overcomplicating matters or missing the point in their own planning.
  • The mentor co-observes with another trusted colleague who watches them give feedback to their mentee and, afterwards, provides a supportive but candid opportunity for the mentor to reflect on the quality of that advice.  Is the feedback appropriate and focused, or as Keiler et. al. (2020) show, does it overwhelm the beginning teacher meaning they are ‘less likely than their more experienced peers to implement suggestions from mentors, resulting in frustration for everyone at the need for similar repeated feedback’?  It is an important question and one that, as observers, we often don’t ask ourselves. 

Tina has lots of potential, and with a bit of help to navigate the plateau she has reached there is no reason why she won’t continue to progress.  The feedback advice she is being given can and will stick, but she needs to be given the time and opportunity to develop her own understanding to become a more critically self-reflective practitioner.

References and Further Reading

Keiler, L.S., Diotti, R., Hudon, K. & Ransom, J.C. (2020) The role of feedback in teacher mentoring: how coaches, peers, and students affect teacher change, Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 28.2, 126-155.
Strong, M. and Baron, W. (2004) An analysis of mentoring conversations with beginning teachers: suggestions and responses, Teaching and Teacher Education, Vol.20, Issue 1, Pages 47-57

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