Swap the difference

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Mike Fielding discusses how inter-school visits enhance the induction process.

Everyone knows that teachers learn most from each other. For new teachers, that means getting out to other schools as well as observing and talking to more experienced teachers in their own establishment. But a school visit can only be really valuable if it has been carefully planned.

Too often visits are arranged by a quick phone call between heads of department, with the receiving school being anxious to help but having little idea of what the NQT wants or needs. Equally, the teacher, diffident and pleased to be welcomed, just goes along with whatever has been arranged.

Although this kind of visit can be useful it frequently wastes the real benefit and concentrates too much on what the school wants to show and not enough on what the teacher needs to learn. To be really worthwhile, the visit must be part of a detailed induction programme which has been agreed between NQT and mentor and which aims to build on the strengths and work on the weaknesses identified during the teacher's training.

For instance, a teacher interested in students undertaking independent learning might go to a school where this is more developed than in their own school and, as well as learning personally, be able to report back to their own department. Someone whose resource production leaves something to be desired might go to a school that provides students with high-quality worksheets and other materials in all subjects.

But whatever the interest, it needs to be set in context. How long has the school been operating its good initiatives ? How did it achieve this? Why was it thought necessary? It's also important to have general background details about the school. Without some knowledge about its catchment, size, aims and difficulties, it's easy for a visitor to come to snap judgments which, whether in favour of the school or not, might be equally misleading.

Before the visit, the teacher should discuss with the mentor exactly what they want to gain from their time in the school and the mentor should make this clear to the receiving school when arranging the visit.

This need to be clear about purpose also applies to the other key chance for new teachers to meet colleagues from outside their own school: the induction programme run by the local authority or other body. These are good opportunities for new teachers in a locality to swap experiences. The drawback is that unless well planned they can remain just that: a session for hair being let down - usually about the problems facing the teacher and the shortcomings of the school. The comfort of knowing somebody else has your problems can be overtaken by a sense of depression, particularly late in the first term when the novelty has worn off and everybody is tired.

To be effective these sessions need a sharp focus. They should be led by someone experienced enough to let discussion flow but wise enough to know when it's venturing into potentially unprofitable areas. The leader should also be able to deal with the member who wants to hog the meeting, whether to moan or boast.

Again the in-school mentor's involvement in session planning is vital. His or her job is to ensure the new teacher's status is confirmed at the end of the first year. That means providing a range of experiences and support to enable the teacher to continue the journey towards competence begun during training.

For the mentor this can be a stimulating but, sometimes, frustrating process. The teacher who ignores advice, insists all is well when it plainly isn't, and views training sessions as "a good day out" is even more demanding than the one who requires support at every turn. But when it works well (and it mostly does), the mentorNQT relationship can be enriching for both. A new teacher gains the benefit of someone else's attention and experience and the mentor is encouraged to view the practice of teaching from somebody else's perspective.

Mentoring students and new teachers requires different skills and approaches from teaching children but is generally rewarding and provides a challenging professional experience.

However, "sitting by Nelly" is only any good as a training method if you're quite clear about what can be learned from it and have worked out both the programme of development and the boundaries of each other's role.

This brings us back to visiting other schools. Mentor and teacher should devise a list of appropriate questions - and a method of recording the answers - and, on the teacher's return, sit down to analyse what has been learned and how it can be applied.

Where new ways of working have been discovered the mentor must ensure the department or team gives the teacher the chance to implement it and that there is opportunity to reflect.

This kind of structured approach to early professional development contrasts sharply with the "throw 'em in at the deep end" old-style probationary year, from which so many teachers emerged hardened or scarred. The new way should help teachers emerge confident, skilled, and equipped with the attitudes to their own learning and development that will fit them for a lifetime's challenging work.

Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, Devon

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