Reflecting on … the high value of trainee teachers.

My shock and dismay at reading in SchoolsWeek that schools half of schools surveyed had already or were considering pulling out of initial teacher training next year (https://schoolsweek.co.uk/recruitment-fears-as-schools-withdraw-training-placements/)  has inspired me to lay out a counterview.  In my opinion it is now more important than ever that schools actively engage with teacher training: for the wider education community, for the schools themselves and, yes, for the pupils whom the trainees will be working with in their training year.

It is entirely understandable that schools are worried about the implications of having unnecessary people on site.  ITE providers are well aware of this and will work with schools to ensure that government guidelines are followed.  Long placements rather than short visits obviously pose fewer challenges in this regard, and also bring other advantages to a teacher training programme, including the opportunity to build secure relationships.  Of course it would not be sensible to compromise the safety of pupils and staff to allow trainee teachers into school.

However, the concerns seem to go deeper than that with the article referring to the “amount of school time pupils have missed”.  It is my concern that such schools may be missing out on a potentially valuable asset to their school community, as well as an important contribution to the wider profession.

 

Benefits to the profession

The benefits to the wider profession of supporting with the provision of initial teacher training are well established.  Instead of new teachers having a purely theoretical education and little practical experience they enter the classroom with a solid grounding of experience.  They have had the opportunity to experiment with their classroom practice under the watchful eye of a mentor, normally in classes to which their mentor or an experienced teacher is permanently attached.  Not only does this build their confidence, but it allows them to understand how theory can be applied to context and how students can react differently to different teaching approaches.

Teachers develop a lot in their first few years of teaching (and beyond).  But when recruiting new teachers we all benefit from the experience that they have been given in front of classes, including their students.  The guidance they receive at this point is vital in preparing them to take responsibility for their first classes.  Sometime the circumstances of particular schools mean that it is not appropriate for them to act as placement schools for a period of time.  This decision can be made in the interests of staff, students and the trainees themselves.  However if a significant number of schools fail to engage with teacher training the whole profession will suffer as scarce placements are divided between trainees for shorter periods and the enter the classroom in their NQT year lesson confident, less experienced and less equipped to support students.

Furthermore as a profession we have a major job to do in the next few years.  It is going to be a Herculean labour to pick up from shutdown, get education back to smooth functioning and work to close the achievement gap created since March 20th.  This is not going to be helped if we shut down our training programmes and create a self-generated recruitment crisis or force ITT schemes to compromise on quality and send out a generation of teachers less equipped to tackle that challenge than in previous years.

 

Benefits to the School and Department

Supporting initial teacher training is not a wholly selfless endeavour.  Any school that finds it so may not be making full use of the opportunities it presents.  In my experience, trainee teachers are generally keen and enthusiastic participants in the school community.  Especially when placements are long enough to allow them to build relationships with departments and the wider school community they bring energy, ideas and engagement.  As just one example, just before school shutdown our trainees really showed their value; they were flexible, helpful and keen to support students and classes that were suffering disruption and anxiety.  They helped set remote learning for those who could not make it in even before shutdown, supported making contact home and prepared resources ready for the inevitable further disruption.  There is no reason to assume that next year’s trainees will not be equally committed, flexible and willing to help as we navigate the return to some form of normal education.  They will certainly be a much valued extra pair of hands for all departments who are lucky enough to have them.

There can be a perception that working with trainee teachers is a lot of work; far more than the allocated mentoring time.  There is no doubt that mentoring is not an easy ride to extra “frees” and, if an trainee is struggling, it can take a lot of hours of extra support and reserves of extra patience to help guide them through their difficulties.  However anyone who has mentored for a number of years will tell you that this is not the end of the story.  As well as the core pleasure we get as educators of supporting another person’s development (whether student or student teacher), there are also the many ways that a trainee can contribute to enriching your own professional development.  From discussing lessons and unpicking lesson plans (your own and theirs) to analysing the successes and failures of learning, to jointly teaching or marking student work.  All of these activities can give a reflective practitioner an injection of new life into their own planning and practice to their own and their students’ benefits.

Finally one of the great advantages of teacher training arises when it comes to recruitment.  We recruit a lot of our NQTs either from our own pool of trainees or through our training partners.  We know where they have been and what training and development they have had so far and they have already shown their commitment to their own development and our school community.  During times of teacher shortages, having a strong pool of potential hires year-in, year-out helps to keep our teaching team strong and gives us the opportunity to continue to work with some very talented young teachers, long after their initial training is finished.

 

Benefits to the pupils

Which takes us to the final key advantage – the benefits to the students themselves.  There is sometimes an impression that students “lose out” by having a trainee teacher – that this comes at a cost to learning.  Obviously their learning experience will be different if they have a training teacher to one with more experience and consideration is needed when timetabling to ensure that classes don’t consistently have trainees throughout their course.  One justification for this is the wider community answer – if they have a strong practitioner who is handing over to a trainee that may come at a (small) cost.  But that is how the practitioner became strong in the first place, and how they will secure a better trained teacher next year, or in the subject they have next period where they have the NQT and not the experienced teacher.

 

But there is more immediate justification for teacher training here which is that it does not have to come at great cost to students.  Trainee teachers can enhance pupils’ learning experiences in any number of ways:

  • They can work with small groups and individuals to support catch up or allow the classroom teacher to do this whilst they teach the class.
  • They can support with planned interventions for students who are struggling with the material, have been absent or have a gap in prior learning.
  • They are often eager to create new resources and update old ones, leaving in their wake a legacy of new lesson ideas that the remaining teachers in the department can then build on in future years.
  • They can help me to better understand the impact and limitations of my own teaching by focusing on a particular student or group during a lesson observation, helping gather student voice or reviewing aspects of my practice that I am trying to develop (e.g. distribution of hands down questions around the classroom).

It may be that we have to be creative in the deployment of trainees, and that we need to consider carefully whether this is the right time to have them lead as many classes as they normally might or to be left alone with classes recovering from the trauma of shutdown.  However when I look through this utterly non-exhaustive list of ways that trainee teachers can make a powerful contribution to students’ learning, I can’t help but think that we are going to need these sort of supportive interventions and relationships more than ever in 2020-21

 

 

Questions I use to reflect on whether I am getting the best value from trainee teachers:

  1. Am I using the trainee in a variety of ways based on their needs and the needs of the students in the classes to which they are attached: team-teaching, small group work, individual support as well as whole-class delivery?
  2. When the trainee is leading a lesson and doesn’t need my observation how can I use my time to enhance students’ learning: who can I work with, talk to or support?
  3. Which resources and lesson ideas are in need of development and how can the trainees help me to work on these?

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