Helping new teachers through the labyrinth

March 2010

 

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Good mentoring and induction are a whole-school responsibility

Learning to become a teacher is not a linear process where the beginning teacher progresses from one step to the next, says Dr Frances Langdon. Rather it is a labyrinth of experiences that connect to one another and become clear over time.

The labyrinth is a good metaphor for the sometimes overwhelming first two years of a teacher’s career and a strong reminder of the need for a sound mentoring and induction programme for new teachers.

Langdon is head of the School of Teaching, Learning and Development at The University of Auckland and is leading the primary school section of a trial of an approach to mentoring and induction based on the draft Teachers Council guidelines.

She says New Zealand has a good track record in helping new teachers into the profession, but a Teachers Council survey found variability in the support provided.

A common approach is to support and encourage beginning teachers in their efforts to simply come to grips with the demands of the job. “That’s a very humane approach because starting out as a beginning teacher is very stressful,” Langdon says, noting that no teacher training programme in the world can fully prepare a teacher to run their own classroom.

But mentoring and induction programmes for beginning teachers should do more than simply support them, Langdon says.

“Whilst tutor teachers are working with the very best intentions, they may not be giving the type of feedback that helps beginning teachers to reach their potential.”

What they should do is help the new teacher reflect on their work so they can become more effective teachers, rather than simply managing the demands of their job and keeping their classroom on task.

This is something of a break with previous theories about teacher development, which held that teachers must first learn how to manage their students and simply survive as a teacher before they could move on to learning how to teach more effectively. While they certainly need to think about classroom management, they also need to go a step further and consider how their approach to that aspect of the job affects student learning.

“Basically they are learning on the job, especially in their first two years and the research shows that really shapes the type of teacher they are going to become.”

But it is not just the beginning teacher who needs to question their practice and develop – the mentor or tutor teacher also needs to have an open mind. They should not lay down the law about how to teach and they also need time to develop their skills and practices as a mentor.

“They need to provide planned and opportunistic learning that is really responsive to the beginning teacher’s work with students in the classroom.”

Langdon says it is good for the beginning teacher and mentor to work near one another so the beginning teacher can seek advice quickly and easily. But they also need to set aside time when the beginning teacher can clearly identify what they plan to do to improve their practice and what evidence they will collect to determine if they have improved.

Effective mentoring and induction of new teachers is a whole-school responsibility, with particular emphasis on senior managers, Langdon says. “Unless the school is modelling good practice, they cannot expect the beginning teacher to model it. Beginning teachers will not function in a dysfunctional school.”

The principal and other senior staff set the tone for the school and they need to give mentoring high status and support those who take on the role. Often tutor teachers are selected on the basis of who is prepared to volunteer for the role, rather than who would do the job best. Instead, schools need to take time to consider how they select their mentors.

Langdon notes that schools do not always have beginning teachers so it is easy for them to lose track of their mentoring and induction process during the periods when they have no new teachers in the school.

Beginning teacher issues

Workload is a key obstacle for beginning teachers, says Frances Langdon. “All teachers talk about managing the high expectations, the busy-ness, the overwhelming paperwork – for a beginning teacher that’s exaggerated.”

In addition, they have to come to grips with the expectations of teachers that exist outside the classroom, something that can be quite difficult.

Adding to the pressure is the expectation that children in a beginning teacher’s classroom will learn and achieve at the same rate as in an experienced teacher’s classroom.

School culture and systems can also be an obstacle, particularly if a teacher has not had a chance to familiarise him or herself with the school beforehand. With all the new demands on them, even trivial issues, such as whether children can wear their PE gear during lunchtime, simply add to the pressure.

For some new teachers, simply accessing an induction and mentoring programme can be an issue. Most schools do this well, Langdon says, with surveys showing 75 per cent of beginning teachers were satisfied with the programme they received. However, that leaves 25 per cent who say they were not satisfied and some of those are not receiving any induction programme at all. Beginning teachers should know what they are entitled to and they need to ask for it if it is not forthcoming.

Langdon says they also need to know what to do to meet the criteria for full registration. “It’s the beginning teacher’s responsibility to produce the evidence they have met the criteria for full registration as a teacher and schools are required to provide induction and mentoring support,” she says.

Langdon says it’s important to remember that learning to become a teacher is not a linear process. Rather, it is a labyrinth of intersecting and sometimes conflicting experiences that are made meaningful by educative mentoring and collaborative school cultures.

She notes that beginning teachers are typically isolated in their classrooms and it is important to find ways to alleviate that isolation. As one first-year teacher said: “I get too locked into my own world. If I go out and observe I get fresh ideas; it’s useful to come back and consolidate these ideas and think ‘can I use them in my class, in this context… to affect children’s learning?’.”

A guided approach to mentoring

The New Zealand Teachers Council national induction and mentoring pilot to trial the Draft Guidelines for Induction and Mentoring Programmes and Mentor Teacher Support is now in its second year.

For Langdon’s group of six primary schools the work has involved principals analysing their school’s induction process and identifying areas for improvement. This is informed by research about effective induction and mentoring and by the Teachers Council guidelines. The schools developed their own mentoring and induction model and released their tutor teachers for training.

The trial continues this year, but the schools and teachers involved have already reported gains from the approach. Langdon says there are also trials of the approach in secondary schools, early childhood services and Ma-ori-medium settings.

At the end of this year there will be a national evaluation with the aim of informing the guidelines, which will impact on induction and mentoring practices across the education sector.

* Visit the Teachers Council website for more information on the guidelines: www.teacherscouncil.org.nz/policy/projects1.stm