Let’s start by saying, learning to teach is bloody hard! I mean, has anyone fully mastered the art yet? Or are we all just (hopefully) getting progressively better, but, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, achieving complete mastery is ever elusive?
Isn’t it great trying though? The techniques, the relationships , the conversations, the models, the resources; attempting to ‘perfect’ these is such an enjoyable, if not tricky pursuit. So, providing a solid foundation for our in-school ITT students is of fundamental importance (especially in the current landscape).
The positives of having trainees in school
Working with trainees is really fulfilling part of the job. You can learn lots, develop your own practice, see a teacher flourish and most importantly, have a hand in shaping the future landscape of the profession.
That being said, it doesn’t mean it is an easy task. It can be immensely rewarding, but that reward often comes at the cost of time, difficult conversations and really having to think deeply about practice and its inevitable nuances. Most school based mentors are not paid for this role and rarely given any extra time to do it.
The success of a placement can all depend on the quality of your trainee, the university with whom you are working and the university based mentor. All variables which are often out of your control, but play a role in the impact a trainee can have on classes, departments and the mentor.
And getting this right can weigh heavy on a mentor’s conscience. Especially in the knowledge that trainees are under lots of pressure, have assignments to complete, as well as their placement, and are yet to master some of the time saving hacks nor do they have their bank of ‘stuff’, your teacher toolbox,to rely upon. Yet. Therefore, being as efficient with their time in school is vital to get right. This really applies specifically to meetings and observations, which are integral to their programme, but take up hours and hours. So, let’s get that right for them. Make them as fruitful as possible, with the maximum learning.
Observing an experienced teacher
Observing an experienced teacher is some of the best CPD you can have, regardless of whether you are new to the profession, an NQT, RQT or have years of experience.
I love visiting lessons to see how other colleagues work a classroom, how they organise their lesson, use questioning, or just to see how pupils interact in lessons other than my own. There is always something to learn. It forms a key part of ITT, often used at the beginning of their school experience, and used to support their progress throughout a placement.
When I was a PGCE student an experienced teacher asked me what I was doing next period, I happened to be observing someone. Her reply, at the time, threw me a little, but it chimes a chord with what I see now. She said:
“I really don’t see the point in you doing that because trainees just don’t know what they are looking for”.
My hurt aside, I brushed it off, picked up my faithful notepad and off I went down the corridor. And that notepad was full, let me tell you. Every last thing the teacher did was written down.
- “Starter, started at 10.30, finished at 10.35”
- “Asks questions”
- “Powerpoint”…. must use Comic Sans,
- “Worksheet, A5”
- “No glue sticks thrown”
These are actual things that I wrote down in that book. Despite being the owner of it, I have as much clue about what it all means as you. (Except for the Comic Sans, I soon loaded up the laptop to sort that out!)
Throughout my career I have had the privilege of being a host teacher to a whole range of ITT students, as well as a mentor a few times along the way. But that quote always stuck in my mind. I had no real answer about how to deal with it (which probably highlights my own lack of pedagogical awareness.) There was an element of trainees almost learning by discovery, which sat uncomfortably with me. As novice learners in this game, it just wasn’t fair.
Taxonomy of Teaching
I spent a while trying to look at what happens in the classroom and categorise it: I’m a biologist and love taxonomy, it’s so organised and appeals to my sense of order.
I think, if a trainee could nail these things, or at least develop their skills to independence then, they’re starting off on the right foot:
- Start of the lesson
- Behaviour management
- Explanations & modelling
- Questioning of pupils
- Activities used
Utilising this framework along with a series of observation and reflection questions can support their progress (based on what they have seen an experienced teacher do, in a range of scenarios).
We don’t all get it right all of the time, so there is always the danger that a trainee or early career teacher may see ‘bad practice’, but I even find that valuable. What went wrong? Why? How did the teacher deal with it?
It’s all a part of that metacognitive toolbox we, as experienced teachers, use innately. A really good teacher can make it look so easy. The effort, the thought processes, the selection or rejection of strategies, the complex understanding of the class in front of you. All add up to great teaching and learning, but are not always visible to the naked eye. Thus, the observations make the implicit explicit for those who are learning the art and science of teaching.
Start of the lesson
This is crucial for setting the tone for the lesson. A positive, solid start to the lesson can take many forms, but it should be well structured, calm and provide an opportunity for students to engage in thinking, whether that is about prior learning in a retrieval task, about the upcoming learning follow a stimulus or about how the two link together. This should be explicit and minimise, nay, exclude misconceptions.
- What happened at the start of the lesson?
- What were students doing?
- What was the teacher doing?
- Atmosphere in the room:
How could you plan for an effective start to you lesson?
This underpins anything that happens in a classroom and school. If the climate for behaviour is not right, students will not have the freedom to learn. Following school policy is the only strategy here. Except for how that looks in your classroom. How do those ‘warning’ conversations take place. What are the signals for expected behaviour. How is the climate set?
I particularity like trainees observing behaviour management, so that they can see ‘it’s not just them’ if there is off task behaviour, that its not personal and it can be resolved.
This from @tombennett71 is significantly better than anything I can muster in a blog : https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/844181/_Tom_Bennett_summary.pdf
- Were there any off-task behaviours (if yes, give examples)?
- How did the teacher address these behaviours?
How could you use this in your own practice?
Explanations & modelling
Getting these right for your class is paramount. What works for one cohort, may completely miss the mark with another. Therefore, having your explanations planned is key, with room for flexibility and a plan B if that doesn’t work. Sort out your analogies, hinterland, core knowledge, diagrams and whatever else you may choose to use for that concept. Have a script, it’s not a bad crutch to lean on when you’re a novice.
- Which topic / lesson was being taught?
- How was the material presented?
- How did the teacher explain the concept? (eg, did they draw on any analogies, use diagrams, etc)
- How will your explanations look in your next lesson?
- How will you plan for this?
Questioning of pupils
Questions can make or break your lesson. Is there a hinge point that can gauge learning, check misconceptions, and include the whole class? Take it, but plan for it.
- Did the teacher verbally ask questions in the lesson?
- What format did this take? (Eg, directed questions, hands up, whiteboards, etc)
- How did the teacher know that students understood the concept?
How could you use this in your own practice?
Including activities as the last in the taxonomic series is intentional. In my experience, many novice teachers often use the activities as their start point when planning, the point of their lessons, rather than the vehicle to deliver, practise, rehearse or recall information.
- List the different activities the students completed in the lesson.
- How did the teacher check on work the students were completing?
- How did the teacher support students who were struggling?
Which activities would be most suitable in the next lesson you will teach?
Pulling all of this together, to focus their observations, minimise workload, direct conversations and support their progress I find a lesson observation feedback sheet is often far more useful than a hefty notebook.
They can choose to focus on one strand of teaching, or multiple, in discussion with their mentor and / or host teacher, in advance.
I find that this provides a wealth of rich discussion with trainees and is really good to develop your own practice, focus on areas you might want to develop. Win win.
This should hopefully feed into their lesson planing which I will blog about later.
A long but useful / essential read when working with trainees: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/843676/Initial_teacher_training_core_content_framework.pdf
*This is by no means meant to teach anyone to suck eggs or supersede the instructions of an ITT provider, but is a reflection on what I have found useful when working with trainees and early career teachers.