Alex, a foundation classroom teacher in her fifth year of teaching, pops open another energy drink and squints at the time on her phone: 12:32am.
Piled at her feet are stacks of her children’s work, and Alex photographs each piece, and then uploads to her computer, before documenting her comments next to it.
This is something she’s been doing for every art project since she trained on her PGCE years ago. Her mentors had praised her thoroughness along with her folders that had included this evidence, and she had been graded outstanding.
Since then, this is the standard she has tried to hit.
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Alex isn’t alone. Every ITE programme follows a similar format: three terms, gather evidence, assessment in term three. You have lesson observations, subject studies, general teaching studies, and a mentor to guide you through.
Then at the end, you’re ready to go for your NQT year.
Teaching training workload
How far does that training period influence a teacher’s later workload – and how they deal with that workload? Is there a way to inoculate trainee teachers against workload burnout later on?
Some training providers have started to make changes to their courses, and are questioning the appropriateness, and the ‘proving not improving’ nature of the workload in initial teacher education. We know that teachers are dropping out of teaching in year five because of workload - so maybe the solution is to look at ITE in order to inoculate teachers against burnout?
You might think it would be a preparation issue: are we really being upfront about the level of workload teaching involves during ITE? But Dr Jane Perryman, senior lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education, discovered that teachers were leaving not because the workload was a surprise, but because of the performative nature of the workload.
“We found that trainee teachers love their subject and are so excited by the idea of being a teacher, and they think they’ll be able to tolerate the workload,” she says. “They believe they’ll be working hard at making a difference to the students. However, once they’re in the classroom, they find that actually the workload is made up of performative tasks.”
Perryman likens the performativity in the classroom to learner drivers trying to pass their test.
“Performativity is about doing tasks not to benefit the students, but for the show of doing it. It’s like when you’re learning to drive and you have to pointedly look in the mirror for the driving examiner. And rather than making your driving safer, all you’ve done is show the driving instructor that you can look in the mirror. Obviously, you need to look at the mirror, but not in such an exaggerated way. These tasks are being done in the classroom only to demonstrate to someone else that they’re being done.”
In her research, she discovered a long list of performative tasks that the teachers who had left had found intolerable.
“Mocksteads, learning walks, marking not because the student needs feedback but marking to a timetable for the sake of it,” she explains. “So much of good teaching and good relationships happen verbally and through interactions, but our performative culture means you have to have proof of that. So you have to have ridiculous things like the purple pen of progress, or verbal feedback stamps.”
If it is the nature of the workload imposed by SLT that causes teachers to leave, then you may think there is not much ITE can do about it. Not so, believes Jan Rowe, Head of Initial Teacher Education at Liverpool John Moores University.
For decades, initial teacher training has required trainees to produce a folder of evidence – usually a physical folder, but also more recently digital online folders have been accepted where the same evidence that would have been found in a folder has been photographed, scanned or uploaded instead.
When Rowe first took on her role as course director, she recalls hearing about a student who was struggling with the workload of the teacher training course, and in particular the completion of her evidence folder. This student was on the brink of dropping out: not because she struggled in the classroom, but because she was struggling to keep on top of the paperwork.
Too much admin
Rowe says she felt strongly that there has to be something wrong with a system that was making a trainee teacher feel like that.
“Teacher training programmes have to use evidence – it’s an evidence-based assessment, so there has to be evidence. But what we’ve resisted is scanning, uploading, and putting things into folders just for the sake of demonstrating the standards,” she explains. “It’s about streamlining a process that had become unnecessarily onerous.”
Rowe set about restructuring the course’s assessments so that the focus was shifted firmly onto the actual job of being a teacher. Instead of a folder, Liverpool ITE introduced a new system that relied upon a discussion of how the student teacher has met the standards.
“We have replaced the folders with triangulations, where the trainee, the liaison tutor, and the mentoring school, get together and have a viva style meeting where you go through the standards,” explains Andrea Pratt, senior lecturer in initial teacher education. “The triangulation is a really positive experience, and instead of looking at an impersonal file, we look at the student’s journey.”
And by holding this meeting, suddenly, the requirement for reams of paper vanishes. The time spent documenting and collecting evidence is gifted back to the trainee.
Focus on the teaching
“Before, to meet the standard of communicating effectively with parents, a trainee teacher would attend a parents’ evening, and then their mentor would sign an affidavit to say that they had attended, and then this would go in their file alongside a piece of paper explaining why they met the standard,” recalls Rowe. “Now, in the triangulation meeting the student just says ‘yes, I attended a parents evening’, and their mentor would confirm this. It’s so much simpler.”
“It’s about stripping out anything that doesn’t have a positive effect on the classroom. We are conscious that there is a huge amount of work for student teachers during the training period. We wanted to make sure all the work they did was focussed on becoming better teachers. There was this notion of proving not improving: trainees were spending so much time proving things that it meant there wasn’t enough time to spend on improving.”
You could argue that the performativity that teachers are complaining about when they leave, has been encouraged right from the start of ITE. Trainees were required to evidence each standard, in some cases being asked to provide six pieces of evidence per standard. If ITEs reject this system and instead ask students to focus on improving, then they are embedding good habits in the training year. In addition, they are in essence training teachers to say no to anything that is performative and instead spend their time on the demonstrative.
Lack of trust
But how did we arrive at this over-complication of a simple process in the first place? Rowe says it was symptomatic of a greater problem in education: the deterioration of trust in teachers as professionals.
“There has been a systematic under-appreciation of teachers – teachers are intellectually curious and relationship building people," she argues. "But we’ve got to a stage in education where a checklist is more respected than the professional judgement of teachers. Using our triangulation method empowers our teachers, because the mentor’s opinion is the most important."
“The folder of evidence is absolutely a performative task,” she says. “The trainee teacher’s mentor and school know the student – there isn’t any need to have that folder. If you’re a successful student teacher, then your mentor will see that your lessons are well planned, you don’t need a typed up plan in a prescribed format in a folder. By asking students to create this folder, we’re telling them that this is good practice: this is what teaching should be. And it isn’t.”
One thing that could be argued in favour of the old folder of evidence method of assessment would be that a sloppy folder was a sure indicator of when a teacher wasn’t coping well with the course. If the folder was empty, then you could be sure that they were struggling. If you could easily see that they needed help, then you could put assistance in place.
And yet, Rowe would argue that the folders never actually revealed that.
“I would say ‘Prove to me, that this student is better than that one based on their portfolios’. You couldn’t. One might have more paper or neater notes, but that doesn’t tell you what kind of teacher they are.”
Instead, Rowe says that they trust the mentor to be able to flag up any potential problem, and instead have a very detailed support system to assist with students who are struggling with the course.
Of course, it would be easier if trainees simply asked for help - and likewise when they become fully fledged teachers, asking for help or highlighting issues could arrest a decline into workload hell and them eventually leaving the profession.
So another focus of ITE should perhaps be getting teachers used to accept that asking for help is not only OK but something they should be doing.
Many of the courses are doing just that, Paul Killen, Primary Programme Leader for Liverpool John Moores University, found students were more willing to accept and ask for help if they changed the language around the support to one of ‘early intervention’.
“We have a two-week additional support framework,” he says. “For two weeks, that trainee has extra help – things to read, more guidance, more observations. And then at the end of those two weeks, we review things and then make a decision as to whether there is a cause of concern.”
Rowe also made the decision to change the way they worded their intervention in a bid to encourage more mentors to speak up if their trainee was struggling.
“We found switching from calling the intervention ‘poor progress and at risk’ to ‘additional support network’ – that mentors were much more happy to refer students they were worried about. And this meant that the students were getting the support they needed. Language really matters.”
Will all this inoculate teachers from workload pressure? ITE can only do so much – changing the way schools are run is, after all, not their responsibility.
But what they can do is educate trainees in good habits, and ensure their view of workload is more informed. By getting them into good practice early on, they can carry that into schools. Whereas before, the ITE folder of evidence was a push to accept the status quo in some schools, what they are starting to do now is prepare students to challenge burdensome workload.
“Rigour isn’t about paperwork,” says Killen. “What matters is the quality of their classroom practice. Paperwork has become a marker of rigour across the education – and actually, it doesn’t mark rigour at all.”