If you are studying via a post or undergraduate route, you will have a college/university tutor; when you enter a placement school of any sort you will be assigned a liaison or subject co-tutor, essentially, someone who will take you under their teacher cloak and be the Ben Kenobi to your Luke Skywalker.
These people are key players in your development as a teacher. If they are good at their jobs, take an interest in you, and work hard with you – and make you work hard – then you can have an experience that takes you from rough stone to a polished gem. The converse is true: if they are too busy to look after you properly, don’t care enough about you or don’t know how to get the best from you, then you can have a dismal time, and learn little. In fact you can even pick up bad habits. So it stands to reason that getting this relationship right can be one of the most important, early-career projects you can work on.
Make sure that you have regular meetings with them. The frequency of these might vary – in a placement school you should be having a scheduled meeting at least once a week. In an academic context, you will meet with your tutor several times a week en masse in the college section of your training, and perhaps once a week during your placements. In addition to that, depending on the provider, you may get discrete, individual time with your college mentor outside these sessions. You should also get a visit in your placement school from your college mentor, who will at some point liaise with your in-school mentor.
That’s a lot of mentoring. And so it should be: you are in a delicate stage, even if you don’t feel it (you probably do). At this stage you need an enormous amount of watching and support.
If you’re not getting the meetings, ask for them. If you still don’t get them, demand them. Hard, I know, but sometimes you have to step up. This is your future we’re talking about.
Ask the mentor to observe you teaching as much as possible. This sounds unpleasant, as most people don’t like being observed, but teaching is a doing activity; you only learn by doing it, and it’s much easier to reflect on that activity if someone more experienced than you tells you what they think is good about your teaching and what needs to be improved. It’s hard to be criticized; but this is the stage where you need it most.
Observe them as much as possible. Again, it can seem onerous, but this is one of the best ways to learn as a teacher. Once you’re out of your training year you will hardly ever see another person teach. You may already realize how isolated teachers can be in many ways – just you in a room of twenty five kids; you’ll only ever see teachers in the staffroom, dunking their digestives bitterly in cups of tea.
Ask them tough questions: what am I doing wrong? What would you have done? Why am I supposed to teach this/this way?
Write as much down as possible. I know it’s tempting to have the meeting and then knock off and get on with something else, but write as much advice down as you can from your mentors in a folder. Then, instead of packing it away forever, take a look at it that night, or the next week; consolidate your learning. If you revisit work periodically, it takes root in your memory. It also gives you the opportunity to reflect on what you’ve learned and try to tie it to your experiences since then.
This is an excerpt from Tom Bennett’s excellent book Not Quite a Teacher, published by Continuum. The book is a practical teacher training manual, interspersed with funny stories from Tom's own teacher training experiences
More advice on mentors and observations
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