Mentoring Trainee Teachers: A Practical Guide

Mentoring

Six strategies for getting the best out of trainee teachers and their mentors

This article first appeared in HWRK Magazine in December 2020.

I love mentoring trainee teachers. It’s one of the greatest joys and privileges in education, as it’s my greatest opportunity to influence the future of our profession. But this isn’t the only upside. Mentoring trainee teachers makes me a better teacher too.

If you’ve mentored trainees before, you’ll know that the demands of the role can push us to the limits of our patience, workload and resilience. So it’s vital that, as a mentor, I have an effective strategy in place to head off problems before they occur and to make the training process as efficient as possible.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve developed over the years, to help me to mentor trainee teachers more effectively.

1. Build their subject knowledge

Imagine completing a degree in English, only to find that none of the books you studied are used by your placement school. Or that having covered particular time periods in your History degree, it still doesn’t help you with your Year 9 lesson planning. You might not be familiar with the latest way to teach phonics or long division. And your understanding of different sports might not help at all when teaching quidditch for the first time (I’m joking about that last one).

Setting aside time to help your student teacher learn new subject knowledge is therefore vital. Your role is to help to move them from novice towards expert, not only because it will help them teach to a higher standard, but it also instils confidence in them, a quality they will rely on when things invariably go wrong, somewhere down the line.

Also, savvy students can see through a teacher who doesn’t really know their stuff. This can bring with it a whole host of problems, both behavioural and academic. Prevention is better than the cure on this one. Let’s equip our trainees with knowledge.

2. Teach effective classroom routines

Effective classroom routines can make all the difference to the nature of the lesson. Students do appear to prefer routines, as they know where they stand with them and once embedded, they will pretty much stick to them (with the odd exception).

One particularly powerful routine that I find especially useful is used at the end of lessons.

Students have a sixth sense for when the bell is about to go, or the lesson change-over is about to begin. Despite you being the teacher, your instructions are often ignored, or at best forgotten by a large proportion of well-meaning students. They’re far too busy thinking about and doing the “next thing”. You then get annoyed, stressed and end up calling out the bad behaviour of the students, who then feel unfairly treated, as they thought they were doing what they were supposed to do.

We can avoid this, however, by starting our instructions with the behavioural cues we want to see. For example, instead of giving out your instructions, then adding in your command for good behaviour at the end, you should begin with a clear behavioural cue first:

“Nobody pack away. Before you do anything else, you need to write down your answer to this question from the board, on your paper and then place it on my desk. Only once you have completed all of that, may you pack away quietly. Now, write your answer.”

By setting out your expectations, or parameters for the conduct of students, before they begin the task, you ensure a higher level of compliance with the behaviours you want to see. You will encounter fewer behavioural issues, have to answer fewer logistical questions about what Doug Lemov calls the “means of participation” and your focus can remain on the learning, rather than on the behaviour management of the class.

3. Be specific about what you expect trainees to demonstrate

Trainees need to demonstrate a lot of skills and attributes, as evidence that they are meeting the Teachers’ Standards. This isn’t necessarily a problem, after all, we’ve all been through that training ourselves and the Teachers’ Standards are vital in upholding the professionalism of teachers. However, it can be difficult for trainees to know what they should prioritise at various points in their training year.

I recommend setting a focus on specific points for the trainee to work on, each week. This can be as a pre-planned schedule, or in a more responsive way, depending on how the training is going. After all, some trainees may need to focus more in a particular term, on their lesson planning, the quality of their questioning, or their behaviour management. This should also be reflected in the focus of their lesson observations and in the feedback they receive.

Setting a focus for questioning in an observed lesson, for example, allows the observer to devote much more time analysing and reflecting on that one thing, so they can give much more deep and useful feedback, than someone who spreads themselves too thinly and tries to respond to twenty different pedagogical aspects.

4. Plan for “professional conversations”

Trainee teachers will make mistakes and they will fall below the standard you would expect of a qualified teacher from time to time. It is a natural part of the learning process and it is why they have you, their mentor. So you need to anticipate where these mistakes could occur, so that you can prevent, mitigate or address them in the right way and at the right time.

To hold these “professional conversations” (I hate calling them “difficult conversations”), it can be helpful to frame the issues you want to discuss in the right way.

This requires two things: clear evidence to support your claim regarding any perceived underperformance and also a separation of the trainee as a person and their actions.

By focusing on the “issue”, e.g. “there was no SEND provision in that lesson”, or “the level of challenge was too low for Year 7”, you can remain largely objective in your assessment. Furthermore, it becomes about a feature of the lesson, rather than the quality of the teacher.

By doing this, you remove an incentive for the trainee to react defensively, as you aren’t calling their character or effort into question. Just remember, to follow up with a practical solution, otherwise they may not know what to do to improve next time.

5. Keeping an eye on wellbeing

Teacher training can be a gruelling slog at times and we sometimes forget that as we gain experience. We need to remember to check in with our trainees regarding their general mental and physical wellbeing. We take a lot of our skills for granted, but our trainees struggle (as we did) to gain those skills and it can leave trainees feeling drained. We wouldn’t want our own children to be taught by someone who couldn’t provide a high-quality education because they themselves weren’t coping. Check in on them.

Building a good relationship with them so that you can ask them whether they are getting enough sleep, or to see if they are finding time to unwind at the weekend can be invaluable. After all, if the answers to these sorts of questions flag any issues, it’s likely that  performance in the classroom will suffer at some point.

The recruitment and retention issue in education is well-known and we do have at least some ability to prevent it from worsening.

Just because our trainees are independent adults, it doesn’t mean they don’t need us to look after them from time to time.

6. Show them their journey

Finally, it helps for our trainees to see not just where they are going, but also where they have been. It’s too easy for them to be uber-busy, planning lessons, dealing with behaviour incidents, giving feedback and learning new subject knowledge for tomorrow’s lesson. Sometimes,  they simply can’t see the progress that they’re making. Set aside some time to step back with them and with a smile on your face, show them how they have grown since the beginning of the course.

They’ll appreciate it and it might just be the one thing that helps them through that next tricky practical lesson, period 5 on a windy Friday afternoon in January.

New Year, New You?

New Year, New You

Forget setting goals. Cultivate good habits instead.

This article was first published in HWRK Magazine in December 2020 and contains affiliate links.

I’m a huge fan of New Year. Not because of the celebrations (as if we’ll be doing much of that this year), but because they give us an opportunity to sit back and take stock. I like to use this time to think about how I can improve my teaching, so that the following year I can look back and see how I’ve developed. The key to this though seems counterintuitive.

I don’t set goals.

For me, goals are an unwelcome pressure and distraction. Worst case scenario, I don’t meet them and I feel like a failure. Best case scenario, I achieve them, feel great for a split second and then I worry about the next goal, as if the previous one doesn’t matter anymore.

For me, goals are a lose-lose situation and nobody needs that in their life.

So, instead of setting goals, I cultivate habits. In doing so, I don’t need to worry about hitting a certain target, or even measuring anything at all. It’s easy(ish). Last year I decided I would use more retrieval tasks during my lessons, after reading Kate Jones’ fantastic book, Retrieval Practice. I didn’t decide to put a retrieval task in every one of my lessons, or use it in a particular way, or to standardise the ways I would use them. I just decided to do it more often. No pressure, no worries.

It worked. Not only that, but I naturally began to do it more often as time went on. It became part of how I operated as a teacher, as I slowly found my own way of doing it. Now, I can look back on how my teaching has developed and I can confidently say that it’s in a much better place now than it was a year ago.

As far as departmental curriculum planning goes, there are ways you can encourage similar habits in your colleagues. Each teacher in your department could work on a particular strategy, tactic, use of resource, or whatever. Keep it simple though. For example, you could agree to try out some sort of questioning technique or behaviour management method more often. Or, you could ask students to complete a particular type of task more often, that appears to have made a positive impact in the past.

Your new habit doesn’t have to be tracked and it certainly doesn’t have to be observed or even checked at all by anyone else. The whole point is that by trying out a new habit, the teacher is free to take their time with it and do it in their own way and at their own pace. In doing so, any “data” (and I use this term VERY loosely) gained will be useful.

If you want, then any feedback on your and your colleagues’ new habits can then be discussed in a much more open and less formal setting than your typical Appraisal meeting, where there might be incentives to give a more “polished” version of reality than you otherwise would do. Avoiding untruthful versions of how it went can then lead to much more helpful conversations about how to implement any positives discovered across the whole department. You might also come to the conclusion that it doesn’t work, which brings me to my next point.

One thing to bear in mind, is the impact that any additional habit has on your existing ones. Every time I hear about teachers being asked to do extra things in their lessons, without dropping other things they’re already doing, I despair. You only have a finite amount of time and energy. We can’t afford to waste either one of them.

So, to help make space for any new habits, I’d like to offer you one piece of advice. You can take it or leave it, but for the last couple of years, it’s worked brilliantly for me.

Conduct a brief past year review. It’s simple and doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes.

Think back over the types of activities, resources, procedures, etc that you have worked with over the past year and ask yourself these five questions:

1. Which ones caused you the most stress?

2. Which ones didn’t seem like they were worth the effort?

3. Which ones did students do badly?

4. Which ones did you do badly?

5. Which ones could easily be replaced, improved or completely dropped?

If you can think of anything you’ve done in the past year that answers at least two of these questions then think about dropping it. If you can think of anything that fits three or more, then (if you can) you should probably drop it now.

Pro Tip: Getting your whole department to conduct the past year review might be a useful exercise to make your departmental operating procedures run a little smoother. But approach this with caution and try not to take it too personally if it’s your own pet project that everyone else wants to scrap. Nobody gets it right 100% of the time. Be ok with that.

So remember: Your time is precious. You have better things to do than to waste your time on things that cause more problems than they solve. You should do those instead. Setting goals might motivate some people, but we teachers have plenty of those in our lives already. Let’s just cultivate some better habits. They matter more.

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