Monday, October 02, 2006

On the shoulders of the past

I was asked the other day what I would suggest to prevent the situation where probationers and less experienced teachers seem to have to re-invent the wheel in order to arrive at an equilibrium between creativity and the demands of the curriculum. Having been in an unpromoted post throughout my career in English teaching, there is a sense in which I’ve never had to think about this, but I shall try to do so now.

Rather than publish a massive entry which rambles through all the areas of English teaching and administration, I’m going to break this problem up a bit. This post will look at how I would structure the administrative set-up to assist the development of new teachers.

In the case of the PGCSE student, with a subject degree, doing a one-year post-grad course in teaching, I would suggest that a straightforward approach should be made to ensuring that they know exactly what they will be expected to do when they find themselves in their own classroom the following year. (Remember – I still don’t know exactly how this is taught, merely the outcome). Such entrants into the profession already have the academic qualifications in their subject – it’s vocational training they need at college.

When the newly-qualified probationer arrives in his first school, there seems to me to be the tension between the teacher as authority figure as far as the pupils are concerned (teacher knows best – otherwise why is he teaching me/my wean?) and the teacher as absolute beginner who needs considerable support and encouragement. The new teacher hopes the pupils can’t spot the rawness, but it’s there. It’s like the newly-qualified driver taking to the M8 in the rush-hour – perfectly legal, often done, but not a particularly good idea.

Two things might need changing here. The first is the mentoring available in school. Is the PT necessarily the best person to do this? Is there a Senior Teacher (ie promoted post) from another subject area looking after our English teacher? (Because they might not always be able to address all the problems of departmental know-how and keepy-uppy). Is there in fact someone else in the department who could, if given the time specifically to do this, be a more effective “soul friend” for the new teacher? And is the school smart enough to recognise this? Is everyone in the department aware of the need to support their new (and perhaps temporary) colleague – and are they willing to do this?

The second is the attitude of the new teacher. It is difficult to mentor someone who puts up barriers. It is not out of the question that a new teacher – especially one who had been in, say, business, and has not come straight from his own education – may well behave as if he knows it all already and resents any implication that he doesn’t. This may well be a hangover from the “super-teacher” mentality, when you shut your door and triumphed over any adversity which might assail you. However, this was always a convenient fiction. Colleges of Education, in my opinion, need to remind students of how much they will still have to learn – and about how to ask for assistance.

Disclaimer: remember that I was never in a position to implement any of this, and know little of what is done in colleges now. All I have said here comes from the other end of the process, and is based on observation in one school.

More to follow…..


  1. Anonymous10:53 AM

    This comment once again refelcts a very different sort of school upbringing -- but I wonder if there isn't something to be said for a new teacher being honest about the steep learning curve they are on rather than trying to pretent that they know everything.

    I have fond memories of a '7th grade' (12 year olds) French teacher who was just out of teacher training. At the start of the year, she was not very good, but she cared about us. By the end of the year, we had learned quite a lot about French and she had learned quite a lot about teaching.

  2. Sorry, I have just read a collection of your posts at once.

    "There seems to me to be tension between the teacher as authority figure as ar as the pupils are concerned" You are absolutely right, but that is only because the children know that he/she is a new teacher and therefore strilke an attitude that they have lack of knowledge or ability. I always make a point, when out in schools, that I am NEVER introduced as a 'student' or as a trainee teacher, but as a new member of staff. I was introduced to one class as a 'student' in my first visit and it was nothing short of a nightmare. So, the school should treat new teachers as teachers not 'probationers.'

    Although I do agree with you on the whole experience thing, there are some parts of the education course that are a bit different from even a year ago. And therefore, I would say, new teachers are more clued up on how to handle children with special needs, for example, and know how to approach discipline problems in the most up-to-date methods. Personally I think they are all rubbish, but unfortunately, it's what HMI want and look for...

    Teacher training, I feel, focuses on policies rather than practice. I have been given a rough idea on how to approach classes and how to deliver my subject in the best possible way. But, we are left to discover what teaching style works best for us, which I rather, because I know what works for me and have done for a long while.

    But there is always room for learning, I say!

  3. So, the school should treat new teachers as teachers not 'probationers.'
    Duffy, they do - insofar as they are given a timetable and told to get on with it. However, I am suggesting that this is not entirely beneficial.
    Remember - I'm talking about graduates on a one-year post-graduate course; not people doing a vocational degree specifically for intending teachers.

  4. Anonymous7:26 PM

    Interesting. Tonight I had a conversation on probation with my HOD. We were discussing how daunting teaching is, to a new teacher. I reminded her of a conversation we had -which was a bit of a breakthrough for me -when I told her just how ‘out of my depth’ I felt. Thankfully she had responded then with sympathy and guidance. She wasn’t afraid to share her own moments of self –doubt, despite being one of the best teachers I know. (Perhaps there is a link between these two things?)

    Chris mentioned the tension between being the ‘authority figure’ and being a ‘beginner learner’. Being both learner and teacher involves a regular change between two modes of working.

    The switch is difficult. One minute I am ‘holding on by my fingernails’, trying to convince 3D I am a force to be reckoned with, the next I am trying to know what sort of face to put on for the departmental meeting. Everyone there is talking in four letter acronyms, ‘nabs’ and ‘cats’ and such…
    Pupils, we are told, have several learning styles. Teachers have only one: listen, write it down, get it.

    There are people who train teachers and there are mentors who support them in schools. What sort of interface is there between the two of these groups?

    (Sorry about all the metaphors. Trying to teach them to S1 today and not quite 'back to earth'.)

  5. Liz, does it help at all if I say that eventually the two personas of the teacher become one and that you no longer havfe to put on different faces for pupils and colleagues? I think Duffy may be able to bear me out in this, having had experience of me in both modes, as it were!

  6. Oh right - I can't really speak for post-grads.

    I can absolutly 'bear with you' about the modes, Chris. I always think it's better to not have to put on a different 'face' for learning and teaching, because it's all part of the same process. Teaching is learning. We learn how Johnny copes with Shakespeare, or we learn that shouting at Ashley gets us nowhere. And, there may be an occassion where Victor spots something in a poem that you have been studying for 20 years and suddenly it changes your entire views.

    In the case of Pupil/Collegue, I completely disagree that we should have to 'become someone else' or 'put on a different face'. That is us being untrue to ourselves and to the 28 (Or 33) children in front of us. Why can't we admit that we don't know what a CAT test is, for example? Or, if a child asks us a question we cannot answer, why can't we say "I don't know"? Do teachers have to know absolutely everything about their subject? Well my answer is No, because no matter how old we are or experienced, a day will not go by where we don't realise something about ourselves as teachers, collegues learners.

    Wow - didn't mean for that to become a rant!

  7. Anonymous10:07 AM

    That sheds a little more light on it. It's comforting to hear that it becomes easier to 'be yourself' as you go on. Confidence grows slowly with me.

    I suppose what we are talking about isn't actually peculiar to teaching, but happens in the pursuit of any new skill.

    Duffy - I thought what you said about teachers not having to know everything really useful. It's easy to see that humility is required in order to learn -but it seems that being able to teach well requires it too!

    Sorry I took so long to reply. Put it down to the vagaries of satellite broadband.