Roped together in trust

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Maureen McTaggart joins a group of new teachers and their mentors on an induction weekend with a difference. If Llywellyn, the 13th-century prince of north Wales, had trusted his faithful hound Gelert, he would not have driven his sword through the bloodstained dog's side in the mistaken belief it had killed his missing infant heir while he was out hunting.

Trust is one of the qualities that newly-qualified teachers and their mentors from Leicestershire sought to develop during an in-service training weekend at the site of this legend at Beddgelert, near Porthmadog in north Wales.

Last month, 22 staff from King Edward VII upper school in Coalville went to Aberglaslyn Hall, a beautiful mansion nestled among the craggy folds of Snowdonia, to "bond".

The training weekend, which forms part of the school's induction programme for newly-qualified teachers, is the brainchild of Peter Woodhead, deputy head and science teacher.

"In the first few weeks new teachers don't have the time to speak to each other," he says. "For five weeks they are so busy getting to know the job and pupils that some only manage brief introductions in the staffroom." Hardly surprising in a school of 1,450 students and 90 staff.

He believes this trip qualifies as an efficient and cost-effective way to kick-start those important new staff relationships. It costs Pounds 53 a head, paid for by Grants for Education Support and Training funds.

The staff arrived on a Friday evening. Once they had unpacked, table tennis and board games stimulated the old team spirit.

The induction course followed the recipe used last year by new teachers and their mentors to develop successful working relationships and friendships, which were maintained and developed into fruitful collaborations back at school.

Heather Wharman, veteran mentor, regrets the opportunity did not exist when she started teaching five years ago. "Then it was difficult to get everyone involved with each other. But last year we found that the course broke down so many barriers that new staff were able to fit in at the school really well, quickly and naturally."

On the Saturday morning the group voluntarily split into two parties; one for mountain walking, the other rock climbing and abseiling. I joined the 10 abseilers, who included six newly-qualified teachers led by Mary France, a freelance outdoor education instructor. A long hike, uphill all the way, to find the site for our climbing lessons gave us a bitter taste of what was to come. Finally, spurred on by "not much further now" stalling tactics from Mary, we arrived at an area strewn with giant boulders.

After a safety check on our helmets and climbing shoes, we were introduced to the tactile art of rock climbing, starting with "squeezes" - unwilling bodies forced through narrow stone cavities.

Phobics are often frightened off outward-bound activities. What person in their right mind, who is afraid of heights, would sign on for a course that includes abseiling? But Kath Lee, an IT teacher, says: "The nice thing about the Beddgelert activities is that no one is pressured. They don't feel they have to do everything."

What is good about this attitude is that people often do things they never thought themselves capable of - even conquering phobias. Take Oliver Saunders, an active sportsman. You would never have thought he could be afraid of enclosed spaces. But he is - or perhaps was. Encouraged by his colleagues, he found the confidence to squirm through spaces that he would never have attempted before. Wriggling through one daunting gap, his new-found confidence propelled him through a much narrower one.

Oliver's achievement was by no means a one-off. It seemed that support from friends could form a "safe" environment for people to try things they would otherwise not consider. The glow of the confidence gained radiates through into other areas of personal and professional life.

Dangling on a rope 60ft down a rocky crag is a good way to discover the personal qualities of your new colleagues. Especially if one of them is holding the other end.

"You quickly learn to trust the person who could possibly prevent you falling from a great height," says Angela Absom. She credited the weekend for making her feel she was "now a member of the team," although she admitted the thought of spending two days with senior managers was nerve-racking.

Tom Burford, novice science teacher, thought the weekend was a great ice-breaker. "It's hard to get to know people while you are in school, especially if you are new. This was a chance to see colleagues, not in their usual role of authority, but on a much more friendly basis. Without doubt it has speeded up the settling-in process by weeks and made me feel I am not alone," he says.

Sarah Curran, special needs teacher, found it was not possible to meet her colleagues socially, so the weekend enabled her to quickly get to know many of them.

"Everyone was on the same pegging so we were able to know senior members of staff as people rather than just colleagues, and you begin to trust people as you begin to know them," she says.

Perhaps that's the moral of Llywellyn's dilemna. For when he realised the blood on his faithful hound had come from a wolf that the dog had killed to protect the hidden child, he was so filled with remorse he refused to smile again.

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