Feeling despondent? Why beginning teachers need to keep on climbing

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I am not a hill walker.  I love visiting the Lake District, but I would much rather a nice walk on the flat around a lake (perhaps with a quick stop at a tea shop) than battle up a hill which quickly turns into a mountain.  Why?  Because I find it dispiriting.  You climb upwards, knees aching, heart pounding with your destination clearly in sight, only to realise that to get there will involve a convoluted path which winds up and down before it reaches the top.  Equally dispiriting is the feeling of making it to the summit only to realise you have been climbing to a false peak and it wasn’t the top of the mountain at all. 

I strayed into this analogy a few weeks ago when trying to support a beginning teacher who was feeling like their practice was going backwards and that everything was a little bit hopeless.  It struck me that beginning teachers often suffer the same discouragement as they reach the top of a ‘false summit’ and realise that their initial goals upon starting their training are now not the end but merely the beginning. 

Indeed, this time of year (starting for some in the dark days of February, but almost certainly hitting the majority during melancholy March) is notorious for beginning teachers feeling discouraged and overwhelmed.  Having scaled the mountain of teaching enaction, they usually spend January and February feeling chuffed with how things are going: they can stand in front of most classes and get through a lesson; they’ve established good routines and behaviour is mostly ‘ok’; they can give instructions and children generally give their lesson activities a reasonable go; and they’ve managed to mark some GCSE assessments in line with their mentor’s expectations.  However, by March many start to realise this isn’t quite enough.  They might be planning coherently in the main and their pupils might be able to retain enough knowledge to be retrieved in subsequent lessons, but are they actually USING their knowledge to make sense of the subject?  They realise the mountain they’ve been scaling was only the first step on their journey to becoming a teacher and, from their new position, they survey a vista of peaks stretching out before them, suddenly realising that there is quite a lot more to this teaching malarky than they first assumed. 

This is a very hard moment in the ITT year but it can equally be a turning point opportunity, if only they and their mentors can make the most of it.

Seize the opportunity to scale the next mountain

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As Hagger et. al. suggest, students who avoid seeing their teaching practice as a process of getting ‘so ‘many miles on the clock’’ and instead view ‘the teaching of lessons to try out or put to the test their developing thinking and practices’ are in the best place to grow as beginning teachers (2008, p.175).  Beginning teachers who find themselves discouraged at this moment in the year need to reorientate their thinking and seize the opportunity to scale the next summit. 

First, they need to start looking beyond what they are doing towards what the pupils are doing in lessons.  From the planning to the enaction, the focus must now shift towards WHAT pupils will take away from the lesson (the retention of factual information, building conceptual understanding and problematising of the discipline), and HOW this will be achieved (through the lesson structure and checking to ensure this has happened).  Of course, this has been the aim all along but it is only now that most beginning teachers are sufficiently competent in ‘running a room’ that they can properly focus upon it – ideas of mentoring activities and questions to ask to support this can be found in a previous blog: Moving Beyond Delivery

Beginning teachers who’ve reach the first summit also need to be encouraged to try something new, to snap themselves out of their tried and tested ‘formula’ and to actively ‘notice’ how different groups of pupils respond when this happens.  This might be as simple as teaching a lesson without the crutch of a powerpoint – focusing hard on the adaptive teaching approaches pupils require when the only resource is a whiteboard and pen.  If lessons have become formulaic, with pupil talk reduced to call and response questions or 30 seconds of ‘turn and talk’, it could involve introducing a longer period of paired work, where pupils apply their knowledge to a problem and have space to engage in meaningful ‘reasoning’ (for example in history this might look like Counsell’s ‘Great Fire of London’ Causation activity).   Depending on the subject, it could also be the time to try out a more ‘creative’ approach focused upon making the abstract more concrete (for example in history this might involve a thinkinghistory.co.uk role play or simulation). This is not to say that these things become the new ‘formula’, more that they provide a focus point for rethinking practice.  In all these experiments it is vital that reflection and evaluation of lessons centres around pupils’ learning and evolving understanding of the subject, not the logistics or the teacher’s ‘performance’.  

Never climb alone

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Effective, mentoring at this turning point moment is vital and requires compassion for the insecurity the beginning teacher is feeling.  They desperately need authentic encouragement around their successes in the classroom and an objective appraisal of how far they’ve come – at the beginning of the year did they know how to plan a lesson let alone enact it?  In so many ways they have made progress.  Beginning teachers in this moment need a mentor who can help them recognise their development and reflect accurately upon where they now need to focus their efforts; to ‘[boost] the confidence of beginner teachers, enabling them to put difficult experiences into perspective’ (Hobson et. al.,2009, p.209).

A great mentor won’t endlessly give the same targets around behaviour or giving clearer instructions, they won’t leap in with ‘solutions’ to the problems they diagnose in their mentee’s practice (Hobson & Malderez, 2013) but will instead ask probing questions which force them to ‘unpack’ or drill down into the decisions they are making in the planning as well as the enaction of the lesson (Mena et. al., 2017, p.50).  They will ask subject and phase specific questions, which force the beginning teacher to evaluate the learning taking place in their classroom and the role of the students in the process, rather than simply focusing on the teaching and the role of the teacher.  

Put one foot in front of the other

Unless there are other good reasons that suggest things are not going ‘well’, then the best advice for beginning teachers who reach this point is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other and push on through the fug.  Knowing they are not alone, that this is a common experience of an ITT year and almost a ‘natural part’ of the process – a necessary realisation – should be comforting.  In most cases, they will be able to shift their perspective and start scaling the next summit. 

References/ Further Reading

Hagger, H., Burn, K., Mutton, T. & Brindley, S. (2008) Practice Makes Perfect? Learning to Learn as a Teacher, Review of Education, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Apr., 2008), 159-178.

Hobson, A.J., Ashby, P., Malderez, A. & Tomlinson, P.D. (2009), Mentoring beginning teachers: What we know and what we don’t, Teaching and Teacher Education, Vol. 25, Issue 1, 207-216.

Hobson, A.J. & Malderez, A. (2013). Judgementoring and other threats to realizing the potential of school-based mentoring in teacher education, International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 2 (2), 89-108.

Mena, J., Hennissen, P. & Loughran, J. (2017) Developing pre-service teachers’ professional knowledge of teaching: The influence of mentoring, Teaching and teacher education, Vol.66, 47-59.

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