Working effectively with a mentor on Early Career Teachers

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Date published 01 October 2021

The Early Career Teachers programme is our response to Early Careers Framework. This year it has launched across the country with a community of thousands of teachers and mentors working together to keep getting better together.

In 2020, there was an early roll out of the Early Career Teachers programme in some regions of the country. One of the early career teachers on this early roll out was Alicia Webster, an English teacher at Bedford Free School. We spoke with Alicia at the end of her first year in teaching to find out about her experience of the programme, the impact it had on her practice, and her advice for future participants…

What got you into teaching?

When I was about five I wanted to be a vet - and then realised I don’t like blood or animals that bite, so that was a non-starter!

Since then, I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. My aunt has been a primary teacher and then a headteacher, so that plays a part. I loved learning myself and I had a great experience at school, and I always wanted to recreate that.

What do you like about teaching?

I like that you have a very different workday every day and there’s always something new.

It’s a nice combination – you’re working in a team, with your colleagues and your students, but also getting the opportunity to work individually and to better yourself.

What was your experience like on the early roll out of Early Career Teachers?

The school got in touch and told me we were taking part in an early pilot of the ECF program. I thought that was interesting - if everyone was going to do next year, it was quite nice to get an early premier.

I like having the structure of Early Career Teachers. It’s nice to have it as a touchstone throughout the year, to make sure I’m still progressing - not just in classroom practice but also in the research and theory.

Was there anything that surprised you about the programme?

Initially I thought it was going to be a lot of work, which some training can feel like. But I was surprised by how much I got from the self-study sessions without them taking a long time.

I also really liked how research-based the self-study is. It is all based on previous research, pulling all the best bits together so you can sit and read it in ten minutes. Having that condensed and not in any way wish-washy was really helpful.

How have you found that process of working with a mentor?

I have a great relationship with my mentor, as I can tap into her expertise. if there’s something that comes up in the self-study that I’m not sure about and she can translate it into our school or classroom context.

How does your mentoring cycle work?

We have weekly meetings, so we can discuss something, plan it, and I trial it the following week in my action step. Then we meet again at the end of that week and discuss how the thing I was implementing went - do we need to keep working on that or is there a new thing that we can start incorporating as well?.

What kind of things do you focus on in your mentoring meetings?

It depends on the area of self-study that week. Sometimes we go to the extent of writing lines together that I’m going to say in the classroom. In English, especially at GCSE, questions set up long periods of independent work, so we often script the phrasing I will use to scaffold that, or the questions I’ll ask to check students are ready to embark on that independent practice.

Other times it’s much more general, particularly in some of the behaviour modules. We’ll talk through issues I’ve had that week in my classroom, we’ll refer to the self-study covered and discuss how I can try those strategies.

That’s something nice about the program - it enables you, if you want, to get into writing a script, or if you want a more general discussion around the practice, based in research, it gives you that too.

"I’m thinking a lot more about the process and the why, rather than just doing things. I’m weighing up the strategies that will best help me, and pupils, achieve the outcome I want."

Looking back on your own progression, how do you feel about how your practice has changed?

I’m thinking through why I’m doing what I’m doing a lot more critically.

For example, rather than just thinking, ‘I’ll just put some examples on the board, we’ll read through them and then they’ll get on with it’ I’m thinking, ‘if I put the example on the board, is that helpful or should they have it printed in front of them? Do I need line numbers? Yes, probably, so when I’m referring to something they can point at it. Should I make them highlight it? Do I make them do that before I’ve told them what I want them to look for…

I’m thinking a lot more about the process and the why, rather than just doing things. I’m weighing up the strategies that will best help me, and pupils, achieve the outcome I want.

How does the evidence base in Early Career Teachers help?

Now I have the confidence that strategies I’m trying out work - I need to make them work in my classroom but I’m not having to reinvent the wheel. It’s given me a bank of things that I can draw on are effective.

It’s good to know now why some things that I used to do didn’t work, that some strategies didn’t have the research behind them. That makes improving a lot safer - it’s easier to understand you weren’t using the most effective strategy.

Does the structure of Early Career Teachers support this process?

Certainly, because each week you’re focusing on something really specific. If you feel your whole practice needs improving, that’s quite overwhelming and you might pull away from that.

But by taking it in chunks – for example, just looking at instruction for a period of time and working individually on worked models, examples, and using questioning to check - means that you can think ‘okay, I’m not great at this thing’ without damaging your whole confidence.

The fact that the early career framework is based so much on what the evidence says about different strategies replaces that feeling of ‘I’m rubbish’ with ‘I don’t yet know the right ways to go about this and I’m actively seeking those out so I can get better’.

How are you feeling about your career in teaching after taking part in the first year of the early roll out?

I will certainly be staying in teaching, I don’t see myself leaving. Having had the support of the programme, I’m feeling like I’ve made a lot more supported progress in comparison to friends at other schools who haven’t been doing the pilot.

They have had mentor meetings but their discussions are more specific to their context - ‘how can I help Jimmy in class five’, not, ‘how can I improve my explanation of tasks?’ Obviously, you want to support Jimmy, but down the line there’s going to be lots of Jimmy’s - so aren’t you better off fixing how you explain things, rather than with that one student?

Having Early Career Teachers to guide me through such an odd year, when things like observations have been difficult, has given me a path to keep stepping along even when other things have felt strange. I’ve had something that I’m working on at frequent intervals, something concrete to discuss with my mentor, and have been building up my knowledge of those teaching skills and practices.

If you were to give a piece of advice to a new teacher starting the program in September what would it be?

Try to come to the programme with an open mind and make the time for the self-study. Don’t view it as a chore – see it as a piece of learning. To me it was investing in my practice for the next week.

My flatmate and I were both on the program, and we carved out thirty minutes each week to do the self-study. The new content didn’t always take half hour, so sometimes we would do the self-study together and then have a discussion about the videos of classroom practice.

Do you have any advice for mentors on the programme?

What I found most useful from my mentor is her translation of the generalised practices to our subject. The programme can’t always do that, because it’s nationwide across all phases and subjects. I think as a mentor that is one of the most valuable roles – translating the content as subject specialists into something that will apply in their English, French, or Geography classroom.

Thanks to Alicia for taking the time to share her experience. Meet more participants in the Early Career Teachers community in our quickfire Q&A. Find out more about the programme here.

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