Help! I'm drowning

14th January 2000 at 00:00
Don't just swim with the tide. If you feel neglected during induction, take care to plan your next step, says Mike Fielding.

You're in your first job, you need all the help you can get and your head of department is ignoring you. What can you do? That's the problem a number of new teachers face and often feel powerless to do anything about.

It happens for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the head of department is under considerable pressure and is only just managing to cope. He or she might believe in the "sink or swim" model of teacher induction, or perhaps just doesn't like to interfere. It could be that the new teacher appears to be coping well and not to need help. On the darker side, it may be a vindictive or petulant response to an unwanted appointment.

Whatever the reason, a teacher who is not being monitored, guided, provided with learning materials, teaching schemes, departmental policies and other required support has a legitimate cause for complaint and must confront the situation.

So what should you do? The best thing is to approach the head of department and let him know you are unhappy and why. He or she may be unaware of your feelings and this gives the opportunity to remedy the situation.

This, however, may not be easy. Despite more openness now, some schools retain a strong sense of hierarchy. This may inhibit an inexperienced teacher from admitting difficulty to their line manager for fear of seeming inadequate. Some middle managers also adopt a management style which discourages openness.

Another approach might be to share your feelings with a more experienced member of the department. The temptation, though, is for that member of staff to supply what you need and keep the head of department in ignorance of your concerns.

A third route is your induction mentor. An effective mentor will tackle the head of department, arrange for the support you need and monitor progress. Unfortunately, the experience of mentoring around the country is patchy and many mentors, while happy to advise and guide, are relutant to tackle colleagues about their responsibilities.

A final resort is to talk to a member of the senior management team. Again, delicacy is required. By approaching the head or a deputy, you may be seen to be going over the head of your departmental leader and attempting to bring pressure on him. This could have adverse long-term effects, even if it satisfies your immediate needs.

If you take that step, you will need to prepare carefully. Be specific. If, as is likely, the senior team member tackles the head of department, generalisations will be of no use. For example, if it's something he doesn't do, like watching you teach, don't say "He never seems to come into my room," if you really mean "He hasn't seen me since September." Don't make the issue personal. Colleagues don't have to like each other, though it helps, and criticism of what a person is rather than what they do is harder to deal with positively.

And look to your own failings. Did you reject advice early on? Have you accepted any opportunities of help that have been offered? Have you asked for support? Can you take advice and criticism?

Most importantly, make clear that you are not seeking blame but just the help to which you are entitled to do the best job you can.

Good senior managers will handle the situation sensitively and in the interests of both yourself and your head of department. They will seek to establish a dialogue and ensure that an action plan is agreed. And they will want to monitor the outcomes.

It takes courage for a new teacher to complain, but the alternative is diminishing effectiveness, greater stress and an unhappy atmosphere.

No sensible manager wants that and, in the end, your head of department may well be pleased that you are sufficiently committed to the job and to improving your skills that you went through the painful process of pointing out failure. It's a lesson you'll remember when you become a department head.

Mike Fielding was formerly principal of The Community College in Chulmleigh, north Devon.

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