A partner in the shadows

27th October 1995 at 00:00
James Williams, Mentor. Those who can do, those who can't, teach and those who can't teach, teach teachers." It's an old, worn and largely untrue phrase, but I couldn't help bringing it to mind when I contemplated the task ahead, of appointing and guiding two newly qualified teachers to the science faculty at The Beacon School last year.

The process began in March 1994, with a gruelling round of application-sifting and interviewing. Decisions were made and the two newly appointed staff, Kerry McAdam and Sally Morgan, were ready to join 13 others in what was to be a mammoth task; integrating NQTs in virtually every subject area of the school.

Leonie Lockhart, senior teacher in charge of all the NQTs at the school, believes that we must offer the best. As she says: "The school has a responsibility to provide, and the NQTs have a right to expect, as good an induction into the profession as possible." She goes on to say that "the high quality of new entrants to the profession these days means that they can take full advantage of a well structured, informative, developmental programme".

Those of us who led faculties or departments in the school were more than a little apprehensive. We were given the grand title of mentors, giving support to our new colleagues. I acted as a mentor for Kerry McAdam in science and my second-in-charge, Dave Phillips, was mentor to Sally Morgan.

As a first exercise I tried to think back to the time when I was an NQT (then called a probationer) and how I felt. Who was my mentor then? Certainly there was no real programme of induction with organised observation, feedback and target setting. I was lucky to get one visit from an adviser who, after observing 20 minutes of a 60-minute lesson, just said "you've passed your probationary year, congratulations". A bit of a let down really.

My mentor then was my head of science, though neither he nor I knew that is what he was. To me he was the person to whom I ran at the first sign of trouble with the utmost faith that he would get me out of it, which he invariably did.

I looked at the programme of events set out now: observations, feedback looking at different aspects of teaching and discussions at various stages of the year about hopes and fears. All well and good, but, with a full timetable and all the other things to be done in the normal run of things, how on earth was I going to implement this programme?

It is at this point that I must inject some realism into these proceedings. I did not complete the whole process by the book. There was simply not enough time and, with the best will in the world, some things got pushed to the side. This does not mean, however, that the process failed. The nice thing about a planned programme is that it is amazing how it can focus your mind on the job and how, in the end, you do actually achieve an awful lot. In fact, I must say that I probably learned as much from the programme as the NQTs did.

It helped me to refine my classroom observation skills, it forced me to look at different aspects of teaching and learning and, more importantly, it brought me into contact with fresh, new, enthusiastic teachers who had not got into a rut with their planning and execution of lessons. It also made me look at my own teaching and assess just what my own strengths and weaknesses were. Yes, even after 10 years, weaknesses still exist.

Both Kerry and Sally seem to have come through their first year remarkably unscathed, certainly with less stress than I had after my first year in an inner city social priority school. I think that if I had been on a planned scheme of NQT induction, I might just have come out a little better prepared than I actually was for my second year of learning. Ten years on, I am looking forward to my 11th year of learning to be a teacher.

Kerry McAdam, biology teacher

When I started teaching I was anxious. It's every teacher's nightmare to have discipline problems. I was no exception. The only way of learning how to deal with indiscipline is experience, "be firm but fair" is the advice commonly given. I intended to start as I meant to go on and, first impressions do last! Know exactly what standards you expect from a class right from the start and make sure they know too.

My first year in teaching was very hard work. I would regularly be working into the early hours of the morning. Nothing can prepare you for the time that you spend working through piles of marking and the extensive lesson preparation which, if you are too much of a perfectionist, takes forever.

One of the most useful things that I was taught during my PGCE course was the importance of good organisation and preparation, and to make lessons interesting. I found, however, that trying to make every lesson exciting, enjoyable and educational was a huge task. You certainly need more than 24 hours in a day to achieve this.

Towards the end of the first term my head of faculty noticed that I was looking worn out. He told me that he was extremely pleased with the start I had made, but, that I had to take my foot off the pedal, otherwise I would quickly burn myself out. His words were encouraging and I took his advice.

At my school the staff are very encouraging and are quick to give praise. When one of the deputy heads congratulated me on an excellent start at the school I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

My voice has really changed during the year. It has become much stronger. It would be a good idea to incorporate some form of professional voice training into PGCE courses, which could strengthen and protect the voice. Beware! It is a common thing for an NQT to lose the voice early into the term, so, stock up on throat sweets.

If I designed a survival package for a first appointment it would include: * whisky, honey, lemonade and sugar - a "hot toddy" to see off the cocktail of germs that inevitably strike.

* a huge jar of coffee to keep you going after burning the midnight oil.

* the "Bluffers Guide to Teaching" an excellent tonic for those days when nothing seems to go right.

* a detention reminder - having pupils turn up to your room for a detention when you can't remember why they are there can be rather embarrassing!

Teaching practice is a far cry from the real thing, you will make mistakes, but, you will also learn from them. There is no denying that it is a very demanding job, but, it is rewarding. As teachers we have a very important role to play in the educational and social development of our pupils. We are, after all, responsible for the adults of tomorrow.

Sally Morgan, physics teacher

At the start of my second year of teaching I said: "If only I'd started my teaching like that last year I would have found it an awful lot easier. " So what made the difference this year?

Well sadly it was the application of things I'd been told on teaching practice, like starting with classes with clear rules and expectations of the pupils. The difference was that I knew which rules I wanted and, more importantly, how I'd apply them.

It doesn't actually matter what rules you set, as long as you give the impression that dire consequences will befall anyone who disobeys them. In the first few lessons the pupils are sizing their teachers up, looking for the chance of an easy time and, as an NQT, you are the most likely candidate. If you are strict with them in your first lessons they'll look for a softer target. The sooner they get the idea that you are an unreasonable, strict disciplinarian who is dying to hold week-long after-school detentions, the better.

I would love to claim that, as a working mother I had to be practically superhuman to cope. However it really just encouraged me to be more realistic about work. For example, I learned on my first teaching practice that it is possible to reduce your marking workload, while still being a conscientious teacher. I was told by a respected deputy head: "Just look for the important idea in the homework - don't read every word."

Don't feel guilty about any time-savers you develop. As long as you rotate these among your classes a little variety won't hurt. The big mistake to avoid is spending so much time marking and preparing lessons, trying to get every lesson perfect, that you are too tired to teach effectively in the classroom. I survived (which is the most anyone can expect) my first year of teaching because of: an excellent mentor (don't feel afraid to adopt one if necessary), good organisational skills (developed through necessity) and a sheer bloody-mindedness (a sense of humour will do!).

James Williams, Kerry McAdam and Sally Morgan all teach in the science faculty at The Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey

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