What started as low-key assistance for new teachers in Dumfries and Galloway two years ago, has now become a fully-fledged probationer `buddy' scheme.
A pale circle in the morning sky casts a wintry light on bare trees clothed in mist and fields sprinkled with snow. But Dumfries and Galloway is much warmer and more welcoming to probationer teachers than it looks at this time of year.
Every new teacher who wanted one was allocated a "buddy" by the authority at the start of the session, described by Douglas Creighton, one of last year's probationers, as "a year of firsts".
There is the first day of teaching. Probationers often feel unprepared for this, says the young teacher, now on permanent contract at Loreburn Primary in Dumfries. "What exactly do you do on that first day? How do you set up your classroom? They don't tell you that at university. You have all this curricular knowledge and classroom practical experience. But there are important bits missing. How do you get from where you are, with all your training and knowledge, to where you need to be?"
There is the first parents' night, he continues. "That was terrifying - still is to some extent every time you get a new class. What do you say exactly to a parent whose child isn't making progress?"
There is the first report card, suggests probationer teacher Emma Redpath, whom Mr Creighton is buddying this year. "Is it acceptable to write this? Should I reword that?"
For a teacher in an infant class, as Mr Creighton was last year, there is even the first lost tooth - a subject on which education experts are strangely silent. "So you are not prepared. You tell the kids it's normal. You hope the tooth fairy comes and you use it as a writing exercise next day. But it would be nice to have someone tell you how to handle the lost tooth before it happens."
There are many more firsts, more events new teachers are unprepared for and questions which puzzle them. So where should they seek answers? There is of course their official supporter in a school. But these are usually experienced teachers, sometimes even members of management, for whom their own year of firsts was many years ago.
"Douglas has been through it recently, so it's fresh in his memory," says Ms Redpath. "I can ask him about paperwork, like the interim profiles and the mini research project we have to complete to achieve the standard for full registration. These are new, so teachers who have been qualified for years won't be familiar with it.
"Also, we are the same age, fresh out of university with similar interests, which helps. Our classrooms are next door to each other, which is great and means you get more time together. I ask him about simple things, like how you log on to this or book a course for that. If I had a problem with another teacher - which I don't - I'd be happy to ask his advice on how to handle it."
This points to another drawback to seeking answers through official channels, she says. "My supporter is really good, but meetings with her are formal; at a set time every week and everything discussed is written down. That means I'm more careful about what I say. With Douglas, I can say whatever is in my head, ask him anything. I don't have to worry that he might think it's a stupid question - or that asking it might affect me professionally."
Dumfries and Galloway's probationer buddy scheme began in a small way in 2006, says Elspeth Penny, staff tutor for recruitment and induction - with a few probationers and a recently qualified teacher who had a keen interest in mentoring. "One or two probationers came to me as they were having problems with their supporters or were reluctant to go to them with what they deemed silly questions.
"I gave them answers, but I wouldn't always be available. I put them in touch with Sarah Brough (see panel), who was happy to answer any further questions by email or mobile phone.
"After a while, they told me how valuable they were finding it. So I decided to see if we could run with it and, last April, asked recent probationers if they would become buddies to the following years' interns. Twenty-eight of them said yes."
Of this session's 90 probationers, 43 opted into the scheme and were assigned a buddy for the year. Probationers and buddies include a spread of primary and secondary teachers, and though the larger size and departmental boundaries in secondaries make buddies less readily approached, the scheme still works well, says Catriona Forrest, a probationer English teacher at Annan Academy. "My buddy Winifred Coombes is in the maths department, so we're not in the same part of the building. But we drive in about the same time and often walk up the stairs together. We can meet in the staffroom and have a chat. It's friendly."
The buddy is a sounding-board, says Mrs Coombes, who was a probationer last year. "I'm here to push my probationers in the right direction. I'm somebody to meet over a coffee. The supporter is in a very different position. Whether you pass or fail is essentially up to them."
"When I really don't know what I'm doing, I go to Winifred," says Mrs Forrest. "We're of a generation who didn't grow up with computers, so there are a few related questions. Using the online profile can be stressful because it doesn't always do what it's supposed to, and Winifred can reassure me from her own experience when it's not my fault - or help me out if it is."
The contrast with the preceding two years is striking, she says. "I qualified through the home-grown scheme, which is part-time over two years with online teaching. There was little personal contact with tutors - it was mostly email. I've been away from the workplace for years, bringing up children. I was dazed during those first few days in school, and it was great to have a friendly face to talk to about anything."
The single most important message to get across is "don't panic", says Mrs Coombes. "There will be problems, but you can solve them. Beyond the satisfaction of helping a fellow teacher, I like it when they come to me with the same worries I had. It's reassuring. It makes me realise I wasn't being stupid last year, that we all have the same questions and concerns."
But relaxed, informal, unmonitored by management and mutually beneficial as the buddy-probationer relationship is, it remains not quite a friendship - even though this is how participants describe it. Nor is it designed to be, says Elspeth Penny. "We brought the buddies into the centre and gave them two days' training on mentoring and coaching skills. What we didn't want was taking them by the hand and doing everything for them: `I remember what it was like. Here's what I did. Just copy that.'"
The training helps Mr Creighton differentiate between friendship and buddying, he says. "I find myself thinking sometimes, `this is more a buddying conversation than two pals chatting over coffee'. So I think about my response. It's about not taking the probationer's side all the time. It's about helping them to see the whole-school picture."
Dumfries and Galloway's teaching buddies exist to support and guide probationer teachers through that first challenging, perplexing, but ultimately satisfying year, says Ms Penny. "A buddy is a professional friend. They're not there to do things for their probationers. Their job is to help them stand on their own two feet."
MENTOR AND COACH
The probationer is not the only person who benefits from the professional friendships Dumfries and Galloway has created, say the buddies. Sarah Brough, five years out of university and a P1 teacher at Hecklegirth Primary, was the first - and is still buddying.
"I'm very interested in mentoring and coaching," she says. "So I did an online module through the University of the West of Scotland, which meant working with a probationer on her research project. Elspeth saw how useful that was and developed buddying for everyone who wants it.
"Most probationers have similar concerns - their interim profiles, whether they're doing enough CPD, if they're following all the right policies, and just all that planning they have to do for the first year's teaching. They need guidance early on in these, then later there are interviews, application forms, final reports on the class.
"They like having someone they can phone up on a Friday night and say: `Oh, am I doing this right?' It's about reassurance, about the personal touch."
Three probationers this year look to Sarah Brough as their buddy, she says. "It doesn't take a huge amount of my time and I'm happy to do it. I had a great relationship with my supporter and headteacher - who told me there was no such thing as a silly question. But not everyone is as lucky. So there's an element of wanting to give something back."
Beyond this, there can also be tangible professional benefits to being a buddy - and again Ms Brough has trodden a path that others will follow. "Last year I gained professional recognition from GTC Scotland. It's not that well known yet, but you can apply if you have two years' experience and expertise in any number of areas. You have to show that you have specific skills and that these have impacted on yourself, your class and the wider community."
In practice all this training, reflection and thinking about how to support a probationer's professional development means they don't always get the simple answers they seek. "One teacher I was buddying was also a relative and got a bit impatient," says Ms Brough. "`Stop mentoring me,' she said. `And just tell me the answer.'"
Professional recognition from GTC Scotland: www.gtcs.org.ukProfessionalDevelopmentProfessionalRecognitionProfession alRecognition.aspx.