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An eye on the experts

When you're casting around for extraadvice, look out for the staff with skills you admire, says Mike Fielding

For the first few months, newly qualified teachers concentrate on survival. The pace and demands of school life and the constant pressure of energetic young people prevent their paying much attention to the more mature skills of teaching. But when the fog has begun to clear, conscientious teachers will start to reflect on how well they are doing and where they can get help to improve.

One answer, of course, is from those responsible for induction and assessment. The school should offer a detailed package of support and development including a mentor to meet regularly with the new teacher and assist with any problems.

In many schools, though, that's where it stops. The mentor will sort out practical difficulties and school procedures and, maybe, advise on how to deal with specific issues - usually discipline. But only in schools which take their responsibilities seriously is the mentor likely to enable the new teacher to benefit from the wealth of experience the school contains.

The barriers that isolate teachers in their classrooms are still high, although the growing role of schools in initial teacher education is beginning to break them down and give experienced teachers confidence that they have something worthwhile to offer their newer colleagues.

Often, though, new teachers must make the first move - even to the head of department or year leader who is nominally responsible for them. And that's not always easy. Asking for help can seem a sign of weakness, especially in schools where a "sink or swim" culture prevails.

Teachers who are genuinely keen to learn will overcome their reluctance and make it clear that they welcome advice and guidance. But there is a catch. Some of those most free with their words of wisdom can be the diehards for whom every development is a problem and every challenge a burden. These are to be avoided.

Instead, the new teacher should seek out enthusiasts who still get a kick out of being in the classroom and, just as importantly, are able to reflect on and understand their own success.

What "works" for one teacher may not for another. And "tips" too slavishly followed can restrict a teacher's capacity to understand the art and craft of the job. So it is important that the old hand can both empathise with the new teacher's insecurities and facilitate some genuine reflection on how to be successful in the classroom.

The new teacher should be specific about areas of interest or concern. There are problems, however. The first is that many excellent teachers really don't know what it is that they are doing so well. It's often not just modesty but more reluctance to analyse how they teach in case the "magic" disappears. Getting them to talk about it is not always easy.

The second danger is of opening inter-departmental or inter-colleague rivalries. "Why are you listening to him?" was the response from one head of department to a young teacher of her subject who had sought out a highly successful teacher from another curriculum area. She dismissed his high exam results and continuing popularity with students and parents as: "He only does so well because he has the best kids."

Fortunately, the young teacher persevered and made the important discovery that key teaching skills are not subject-specific. Through observing her senior colleague's lessons she also experienced the joy that arises when a creative and committed teacher is enabling young people to stretch their minds.

And that's what all teachers need - particularly in the early days, when the problems often seem to outweigh the successes. By looking around, recognising where good practice can be found and being determined to learn from it, the new teacher can be lifted to a new level of skill and understanding.

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