Confidence under scrutiny

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Kathryn Edwards suggests steps to making teaching practice rewarding and enjoyable for both intern and mentor

Teaching practice can be a psychologically gruelling experience. Not only is there the daunting pros-pect of standing alone and ill-equipped in front of a class for the first time, but also the knowledge that many aspects of your performance and character are under scrutiny from other teachers.

Your teaching practice can affect the rest of your career and you have a limited time to get it right. This should be a time of personal and professional development and growth, yet without proper support it is easy to feel pressurised, isolated and stressed.

The best buffer is an understanding school-based tutor - a source of help, advice and reassurance. Yet relationships between intern teacher and school mentor are fraught with ambiguities and misconceptions, the student being both pupil and teacher, the mentor both adviser and assessor.

How this complex relationship is approached has a big impact on the quality of training. There are steps that student and mentor can take to make teaching practice more rewarding and enjoyable for all concerned - many can also be applied to the on-going mentoring of newly qualified teachers.

Forming a professional relationship Try to meet in an informal environment before the teaching experience starts. This breaks the ice and is a chance to define expectations and to develop some rapport.

Discuss the intern's academic background and interests, their strengths and weaknesses, and the structure of the in-school training programme. Both parties should be clear about the support, guidance and assessment involved in mentoring, based on university guidelines.

Ongoing support Specific tutorial times should be set aside when the intern and mentor can discuss issues without interruption or distraction.

The intern should be continuously supported and encouraged to reflect on their practice, and to develop and expand their skills and experience. Tutorial time should be used to cover topics such as effective lesson planning, use of resources, different teaching strategies, as well as specific problems. The theory covered in lectures should be discussed in the context of the intern's experience.

Attitude and approach The mentor's primary role is to provide help and support - assessment is a secondary aspect of the relationship. It is vital that intern and mentor treat each other as professionals, with mutual honesty and respect. An intern should never be made to feel belittled.

The intern should feel secure in asking for help and revealing weaknesses and worries. This is easier if the mentor is sympathetic and approachable, and takes the concerns seriously. The mentor may have dealt with many interns before, but should avoid being cynical and blase as initial training is an intense and unique experience. At the same time, the intern must be aware of the demands and stresses of the mentor's own teaching role.

Both parties should realise that teaching skills need to be developed and nurtured - it is unrealistic to expect instant perfection. Criticism should be offered constructively and sensitively; any problems dealt with swiftly.

If mentor and intern prove to be incompatible, neither should hesitate to seek outside help - for example, from senior management or university tutors. This should be done assertively and with appropriate confidentiality, and all parties should be involved. If the situation cannot be resolved, other options should be considered - the intern could be placed with another mentor or in another school. Facing professional differences in this way is a sign of maturity, not failure.

As a student or newly qualified teacher, the relationship with your mentor is a critical factor in your professional development. It's worth nurturing.

Kathryn Edwards is a supply teacher in west Wales

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