Tales of the unexpected

18th February 2005 at 00:00
PRE-THRESHOLD: Tutors need to be prepared for all eventualities

When you first start a new job in a secondary school, you not only take up the main subject role as advertised, but also the demanding, but deeply interesting, one of form tutor. Few job adverts still include "and form tutor", because this is so taken for granted it is often omitted. Some schools don't even include it in the job that you are applying for.

Of course, all the staff help the child to become a student and their knowledge as a subject specialist is essential. But it is the form tutor who has the central role of enabling pupils to learn how to learn, to think analytically about themselves, to consider their own strengths and weaknesses, and to plan how to make the best of themselves as a person in their own right.

The latest research study of teachers moving from training into school found that only 9 per cent said that preparation for teaching their subject was inadequate, but 545 - the highest figure for any aspect of training - said that their preparation to be a tutor was inadequate. What's more, your head of department was probably part of the interview panel and took responsibility for your position in the subject team once you were appointed. But as a tutor, your team leader may not know that you are in his or her team until the start of the year, and will find it very hard to make you feel part of the group, to brief you, and to support you.

Compared with your subject lessons, you will probably find that very few tutorial sessions are observed by your team leader, as he or she has such a burden of individual casework. While the form tutor's role is at the heart of the school, it is the least trained for and often the least well catered for in induction and continuing professional development.

Certainly, getting to know those you tutor is more difficult than it sounds. You need to know much more about them than you do when you teach your subject courses. In our new book, Rick Rogers and I stress that "a tutor is a teacher whose subject is the pupil", and if as a form tutor you don't get to know them well, then who will?

The comparatively few pupils who are referred upwards for special analysis and support will be well known, indeed, probably better known by your year or house head than by you. It is the middle-of-the-road child with no striking difficulties who is not well enough known in sufficient or sensitive detail.

Tutors often find that the pressures of the week, especially the requests from subject teachers and the chasing up of difficult pupils in your group, push them into being reactive rather than proactive. For instance, the boy who has been in trouble with a subject teacher obviously needs your help, and so you take him to one side after school for a talk. You probe his background and interests, and you try to understand and thereby enable him to consider what he's doing and encourage him to change his ways. That's excellent, but do everything you can not to leave that exploring and finding out until trouble calls you.

So, as soon as you can, ask your team leader if you can look through all your pupils' files. For instance, with a new Year 7 group, a quick glance through their primary school reports, home and other papers will give you snapshots of their past that often helps you to get to know the pupils now, their needs, and aspects of their potential. You don't need to read every word, skim-read and pick up on descriptions of earlier years, letters from home, formal assessments, and examples of behaviour, achievements and awards. This will help you have an understanding and feel for each child.

As form tutor you will also be the pupils' key figure for most aspects of home-school relationships. Middle-management pastoral care leaders will carry the major burden for pupils with difficulties and those causing trouble. But you will be seeing the pupils twice a day, collect bits - and sometimes mountains - of information about all aspects of their school life, and learn about them in your life teaching tutorial sessions.

Your relationship with their parents or carers is usually the most frequent and, except for serious problem cases, the most important. The notes you pop in these pupils diaries, the letters and messages you send home, and your phone calls, whether praise or worry, pictures of reliability or difficulties, interests or achievements, will involve most parents and increase their interest and support.

All those pupils you tutor will benefit from a rounded, well-planned, detailed, and sensitively vigorous programme. Pastoral care in schools and the form tutor's work are often seen only as "meeting difficulties", rather like the aims of therapy with adults being to break down a poor behaviour pattern. Yet the central aim of the form tutor is the very opposite, to build up in each of your tutees an adequate self-understanding and behaviour pattern for all aspects of studentship and later life.

Michael Marland, former London headteacher, is co-author, with Rick Rogers, of How to be a Successful Form Tutor, which was published last week by Continuum Books, price pound;12

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