Badly squeezed mentors

30th March 2001 at 01:00
As a student union rep Flora Wilson sees a lot of anxious trainee teachers. At the root of many of their problems is the pressure on other teachers in the school

I was heavily involved in the students' union as an undergraduate. So I was keen to join in the action once I got to the Institute of Education in London. Of course I hadn't realised what a PGCE course was like. There's hardly time to turn around, let alone be a radical student activist. Yet somehow I managed to stand for election last year. Now here I am, delaying my induction year to represent students.

It's an odd job, a strange hybrid role. There is the mind-blowing, boring bureaucracy, and trying to get across a message to people who aren't always interested. You have to comfort people when things go wrong, and then try to sort out the mess they're upset about. There are other similarities with teaching, too. One is the slightly baffled look when you tell people what you do. You know the look - pity, admiration and sheer bewilderment.

My time can be neatly divided into three areas: committees, campaigns and casework. The first two are alternately immensely dull and deeply rewarding. When you get somebody to listen to your message, be it the chair of the meeting or an MP, the drudgery of preparation seems all worthwhile.

Casework is the most difficult, because it is so emotionally draining. Most people who come to see me are PGCE students having problems with their placements. This is not really surprising. Placements are the most pressurised part of the most pressurised course in the college.

They usually come to me because the relationships between their tutors, in school or in college, have broken down. Or they may be simply unable to cope with the pressures of teaching. And sometimes their tutors can't cope with the combined pressures of teaching and mentoring.

There have been major changes in the course since last year, not least the introduction of a training salary. The research I have done among a small group of NQTs shows that the situation has certainly improved. When asked what one single thing would have made their PGCE year more bearable, an overwhelming majority said "money".

Nevertheless, the PGCE year is a funny time. You're only a student, yet you have vast amounts of responsibility. You're meant to be learning how to teach, and everyone tells you that you have to figure it out for yourself.

Your status in school is peculiar too. Sometimes it's difficult for your colleagues to work out if you're a member of staff or a student. You are heralded as a saviour for over-burdened teachers by taking over their classes for a while. Yet actually you represent more work for them than their dreaded Year 9s.

Unfortunately, this can leave some student teachers in a pickle, unsure of their status when they get into trouble and need advice. They are all too often forgotten by their student unions, mostly because they're too busy to take part in our democratic structures. They can also have difficulty contacting the teaching unions.

NUS and NASUWT have responded to this problem by establishing a dedicated student caseworker. But often the larger bodies lose track of the issues important to student teachers. It's easier for me. All my constituents are postgraduate and most are involved in teaching in schools, so I have no choice but to address these issues every day.

One of the hardest parts of my casework load is trying to sort out the situations that arise when mentors themselves are not given sufficient suppot. I meet students who have been dropped into the deep end from the first day of teaching, with no armbands or rubber rings to stop them drowning. Invariably this is no fault of the mentor. It's always part of a chain of events and attitudes that have led to teachers being squeezed to their full capacity - and beyond.

Take Joe, for example. He had been at his placement school for less than a week when he took over the classes on his timetable. Joe would have liked more time observing other teachers, but did not want to say anything. For a start, he didn't want to cause trouble with the person who would eventually assess him. He was also very aware how near breaking point his mentor was. So Joe did as he was asked, and took over all his allotted training timetable.

At first he was happy and felt confident in the classroom. But then another student told Joe that he should have had at least two formal observations by Christmas. There had been none, formal or informal. Joe came to me for advice. He said he'd been shocked to hear that, as well as observations once a week, he should have been attending weekly mentoring meetings with his head of department. The requirements so clearly laid down by the Institute were simply not being honoured.

Joe was able to talk to his mentor and come to a satisfactory arrangement about weekly meetings. But Joe is a confident person with a good relationship with his mentor. What worries me is the stream of people I see who aren't able to put things right so easily. Sometimes this is because the student is less articulate and assertive. Even when the necessary supportive arrangements are in place, they feel unable to voice their needs. Sometimes it's because the school is a challenging one, where even experienced teachers feel they can't reach out to their pupils.

At other times it's because the mentor seems not interested enough in the student to make a difference, though the reality in the vast majority of the cases I hear about is that they are too busy.

We all know what it's like in school. There is simply not enough time, so decisions have to be made about priorities, almost invariably it's the beginner who suffers. In most schools, there's no time built into a curriculum mentor's timetable to allow them to do the job properly.

There's also the issue of remuneration. Schools receive money to train each beginner, but where this goes isn't always easy to work out. Some schools give a proportion to the department involved, and part goes into the training budget. But it's very rare for the people actually involved in the training to receive any cash for this important role.

The teacher shortage means that fewer people are working longer hours. This leads to difficulties in allotting certain members of staff protected time to prepare for a trainee, or time off to attend the training courses run by the institute.

The basic problem is that teacher training courses have changed dramatically to become school-based. This is an extremely positive move - people learn best by practising the skills they're being taught. But the commitment to training student teachers has not always been followed by a commitment to those responsible for training. Until this support is properly provided at every level schools will fail to capitalise on the experience they have. And trainees will still need the help of union caseworkers like me.

Flora Wilson is one of two full-time officers of the Institute of Education Students' Union. She writes here in a personal capacity

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