Supporting your trainees: best practice advice for schools

Trainees bring enthusiasm, ideas and a breath of fresh air. But, like anyone new to a role, they need support. Here’s how schools and mentors can take care of them.

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The first term in school can be similar for teachers and pupils: you keep getting lost, all the classrooms look the same and you can’t help feeling slightly lonely, even though you’re surrounded by people.

And just as it is our job to support the children, we need to make sure our trainee teachers get what they need in that tricky training year.

But what is the best way to go about it? How can you make sure you are supporting, but not smothering, your trainees?

We spoke to some experienced mentors and recently qualified teachers about what worked for them.
 

Encourage questions but enable the trainee to answer them 

The feeling of “new kid” helplessness can seem quite alien, but the only thing worse than asking a stupid question is not to ask a question for fear of looking stupid.

Amy Forrester, an experienced mentor from Cockermouth School in Cumbria, says that just giving answers without showing trainees where to find them will lead only to a learned helplessness.

“At first, any school’s systems will confuse a trainee, but if I just supplied the answers without first explaining where to find the information for themselves, we’d end up with a situation where they’d be constantly badgering me for things that they could find out independently,” she says.

“If I know they’re asking me about something that they’ll need to check again, I tell them to flag the email so they can find the instructions quickly when they need to use it again. This is particularly important for things like data entry or using the booking system for parent-teacher meetings.”
 

Keep talk positive

Teaching is tough – no question. But for a new trainee, hearing negativity from experienced colleagues who they respect can feel overwhelming.

Sana Master, a mentor and head of English at a grammar school, says teachers should be mindful about what they say.

“Department support is critical for giving trainees the right atmosphere to thrive in. Encourage everybody to be positive and try not to let their own frustrations about the profession become a source of negativity.”

Equally, it’s important to model the professional behaviour you want to see in your trainee.

“Department time needs to be full of professional discussion so trainees can see that they’re not the only ones still developing their skills. Improving teaching skills is an ongoing process, not something that is just one day magically done,” Masters recommends.
 

Harness enthusiasm, forgive naivety 

Just as a keen student can sometimes grate, an enthusiastic trainee can become irritating in the staffroom. It’s important that you don’t leave your trainee unsupported if this starts to happen.

One trainee teacher we spoke to found that other staff responded to her keenness with coldness and cynicism, which left her feeling embarrassed and self-conscious about sharing.

“At first it was just a bit of a joke between the older members of department. If I said I was enjoying teaching a topic, they would roll their eyes and say ‘Wait until you’ve done it for 20 years’.

“Or if I spoke about how I had loved reading through my first set of mock papers, they would sigh and say ‘That’ll soon change’.”

The trainee’s mentor offered to intervene. But, because she knew the support was there, the trainee felt confident enough to tackle the problem herself.

So the next time the topic arose, she asked the other teachers when they felt things changed. What followed was a helpful discussion about expectation, workload and teacher wellbeing.
 

Celebrate imperfection

After a few weeks in the classroom, many trainees are surprised at what they are good at and what they aren’t. There are so many aspects of teaching that it’s virtually impossible to be excellent in all areas.

“A mentor needs to be open about their own strengths and weaknesses, and be willing to demonstrate and put into practice what they want the trainee to be able to do,” Masters advises.

The natural place to start is with lesson observations, but there are also opportunities here when team teaching and joint planning.

However, if you know you can’t help, you need to send your trainee to someone who can.

“As a mentor, you need to be a good triage point so that if you think a certain skill needs developing but it isn’t a strength of your own, you are able to direct the trainee to someone with greater strengths in that area.”