Every year, around this time, a PGCE trainee is preparing to meet their PGCE mentor or vice versa. And this year, more than ever, I’ve seen on Twitter ‘Anyone got some advice? I’m about to become a mentor/start teacher education.’
You’ll be pleased to know the whole world has been training teachers and using mentoring to do this for some time so you won’t have to reinvent the wheel. That said, get that starting point wrong and you’ll all be playing catch up until the time comes for the mentor and trainee to part – in some cases with the trainee leaving the profession forever. Attrition (losing trainees from the course) is a real problem in our profession. When trainees across the country start their training, we lose them, nationally, immediately – they are put off by what they find and how they are treated. This loss continues throughout the year. They find child care too hard to arrange around a placement school. They don’t have the finances or time to travel to some placements (they don’t all have cars). There’s also a very wrong set of ideas that the trainee timetable is light – our work on directed time budgets show trainee teachers have more directed tasks than early career teachers. Finally, there’s a wholly unevidenced thought amongst some that giving a trainee ‘intensity’ helps prepare them for the sheer horror of overwork later on in their career. It doesn’t (they leave the profession) and I’d rather we reduce the workload of teachers than think: how can we burn off those who won’t behave like workaholics? If someone comes up with an idea about teaching, ask them where the evidence is. The research even says block placement with twilight sessions leads to lower numbers (isolation, lack of community and support) whereas a day release course (off site once a week to get input, support and reflection) is shown to lead to better retention. All of this is why we’ve extended the NQT year to the two year ECT approach. We need to stop ‘stress testing’ trainees out of the profession and instead support them to stay in the profession. And that leads us to our two year long research project.
When looking at trainees, you’ve got to think about that very first meeting. We have undertaken a two year action research project into this ‘first meeting’, finding out just what mentors and trainees think are important questions for that first meeting. The distilled wisdom of hundreds of mentors and trainees can now be shown in the end set of questions which we recommend be explored for this first meeting. Some of them are quite obvious
|What boundaries do we need to set for communicating with each other? Are you okay with phone/email/text? When? When not? How quick does my response need to be?|
|Do you want the opportunity to speak to me briefly every day about what you’re doing or are you happy to keep it to the weekly mentor meeting?|
Some mentors are quite laissez-faire – a trainee can text them on a Sunday evening whereas others would be appalled. Best establish these things quite quickly. And really? I think as a profession we would rather that weekend communications were kept to a minimum these days.
You know how organised we have to be in teaching right? Well, best get it out there quickly if organisation isn’t someone’s forte. And whilst we don’t just mean the trainees, do ask them what their time management is like. But don’t ask them to plan lessons from scratch at the start of their placement. Give them the plans and ask them to learn with you how to adapt them to their class. When it comes to planning from scratch, co-plan with them before letting them progress to full solo planning.
|How are you at managing your time – is this something you feel you need to develop?|
Some of the questions are about getting straight to the point so people aren’t trying to engineer conversations around to crucial topics so they can finally ask the question that they really need to ask.
|What information do you think you need from me to start this placement off as well as you can? What do you expect of me throughout the placement?|
|What would you describe as your strengths and weaknesses and how do you think they might help or hinder you on placement?|
Some of the questions our mentors came up with were quite clever. This one for example:
|If you truly had no idea what to do for a lesson, but had to send something in, would you send in something which was in your opinion not very good or would you write in and say you could not do the task?|
And what the mentors said was – I can’t give you feedback on empty air. Just because you don’t think an idea is of a good quality, doesn’t mean others will. Send it in.
There was also a tacit acceptance that trainees sometimes arrive to a second placement having had quite a specific first placement experience or previous school experience.
|How were you mentored/inducted on your previous placement/employment? Tell me about what went well and what could have been better.|
I haven’t got time to go through all the questions from the research here, but I think I’ll finish with an awareness that there are different pedagogical models that are present in other schools. The DfE says that teacher education should prepare someone to teach in any and all schools in England. All approaches come with limitations and recognising that a trainee is a teacher in development not a teacher being inducted into a school as an employee is a good thing to do. E.g. just because a mentor doesn’t agree with group work or direct instruction doesn’t mean a trainee has to follow suit. Indeed, if your department or school eschews a particular pedagogy then you should ensure your trainee gets an opportunity to develop this area. What happens if they go to another school that is opposite? E.g. some schools have projectors in every classroom and expect the trainees to be comfortable with using well designed and dual coded materials. Other schools have gone the opposite way and stopped using projected materials. Both schools would need to work with their trainee to practice both approaches.
|What kind of pedagogical approaches and techniques have you had the opportunity to experiment with previously? Is there a particular pedagogical approach that you would like to develop in this placement?|
That first meeting then – it crucial to getting everything out and ensuring that lines of enquiry, boundaries, fixed ideas, prior knowledge, expectations and so forth are all explored so that you can move forward from that point as a team.