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Help Me to Help You

How mentoring has helped me develop as a teacher.

Regular Nexus blogger, Hannah Frances looks at how being a mentor has made her a better teacher too.

The blogging itch has hit me, so when, I asked @NexusEdUK and @UoNSoEHistory what I should blog about the conversation got interesting. I have been a mentor with the University of Nottingham for two years, and prior to that helped mentor ITE students in South West London through various partnerships. The conversation below led to me reflecting on what I have learnt from this experience and how actually, it helped me become a better teacher. 

If you haven’t seen the blog by the fantastic @UoNSoEHistory, please do take a look! There are some excellent tips for mentors about moving your trainee’s forwards, has influenced this blog today, and I how by helping my trainees, I am moving my own teaching forwards.

This blog, should allow you to reflect on what you do as a mentor, and how actually, it has influenced you in the classroom. It might not, either way some discussion would be great!
Question – What you do as a teacher is often subconscious, you are not aware you are doing it. So is your trainee?  Can being more conscious of it yourself help your own teaching?

This is something that I have had to focus on a lot as an ITT mentor. One of my mentees went from strength to strength this year and yet, he also had moments of ‘plateauing’ as we all did. I found myself giving him the same feedback. ‘Use your tone to engage students’, ‘Have you moved around the room?’, ‘How can you use questioning to challenge students?’

My experience has taught me that, whilst this is all valid feedback that would push a student teacher to, ‘outstanding’. I can’t expect them to do something that they do not necessarily understand. They need to be supported to identify teachers enacting these things in the classroom. 

With this in mind, I tried two things.

  1. Enrichment – I gave my trainee a list of things to look for, go out of department and come back. A very talented colleague of mine, generously offered his time and my trainee did benefit from this, embracing the ‘teacher persona’ that Mr C demonstrated so wonderfully. However, there was still something that wasn’t connecting when my trainee was in the classroom. My mentee could not apply what he had seen in Drama, to History. It struck me; did he know what he was meant to be applying?
  1. Joint observation. Initially, I invited Mr C into my classroom; however, a meeting got in the way. Therefore, I asked a colleague, to come and observe me in a joint observation with the trainee. Doing this, put me on the spot. I now had to demonstrate to him whilst being observed by a senior, more experienced teacher what I expected him to do. The focus of this observation; was how I used voice and body language to control a, lower attaining, very excitable,  Key Stage 3 class. I very consciously, used my tone, facial expression and movement to show the trainee how it could be applied and be used as a tool within, the History classroom. Having the colleague verbalise their observation as the lesson progressed helped him, in his, ‘noticing’ and understanding. It also helped me. 

When you are teaching 5 lessons a day, 3 out of 5 days you forget how powerful consciously enacting the, ‘teacher persona’ can be, it made me reflect: 

Was a class a lot better behaved, when I use these things? Of course. Does my behaviour management suffer when I get tired and take a seat? When I am (shocker) a human being and not a robot? Sometimes. Have I, since this series of observations made more of an effort to be active in the classroom? I have, and my lessons improved because of it. Has it also made me reflect on how I should manage a class when I am tired? It has. 

My student benefited from this observation, and so have I. By doing these observations, I learnt this year that giving the mentee a sharp focus also improves my focus; I am a lot more aware of what I do in the classroom and therefore, the impact that this has on the students in the classroom. I ended the academic year actively working on my practice in these areas as well. 

Next time you say to a trainee, ‘You should think about…’ Have you done it? Consider if they see you do it too? Do you make an effort to practise what you preach?

Question – Are you honest with yourself about your weaknesses? Do you show them?

We are our own worst enemies as teachers. We are taught to be self-critical, reflective and to strive for improvement. If you are honest, as a mentor, do you hide your trainee from your challenging classes? In the first placement, I too can be guilty. 

However, this year, I picked classes for the mentee to observe, that I would lovingly describe as a challenge, the Everest to my Hillary, the Great Depression to my Weimar Government (I’m still in exam mode) one of my Key Stage 4 classes was, challenging, chatty, sometimes unmotivated and middle to low attaining. We were was also cursed with being timetabled Friday period 5. To improve myself and, in some ways challenge myself with them, I put this group down as an observation for both my mentees this year. This is what I learnt;

  1. My management changes, depending on the time of day, something, again we do subconsciously. Nevertheless, my mentee, learnt loads from exposing my vulnerability. It was another way to demonstrate some of the more intuitive aspects of teaching which come through experience. Getting them to write a 16 mark question on a Friday period 5 would have felt impossible two years ago, but was something I felt I was able to contemplate with a bit more experience. It gave me a way to show my mentee it could be done. I learnt that constantly circling and freaking them out with my enthusiasm was key to that Friday period 5. Again, it made me apply what I was encouraging my mentee to do. 
  1. Pace. This is something else my mentee, as all trainees struggle with. This class were so easily distracted. By checking in with my trainee, ‘did you see what I did there?’ or ‘how did I just keep them engaged with the transition?’ I actively had to consider my pace and planning of the lesson. We achieved a lot more this year because of it. 
  1. Valuing the mentees growing experience – my training teacher observed this group regularly and grew to really understand them.  Asking my trainee to give me feedback allowed me to develop a critical working relationship, which valued his growing experience.  It also gave me an alternative perspective on the group from which to develop my practice with them. 

KS4 is so daunting to an ITT student or NQT; it is still daunting as someone, five years in but teaching three topics. Through mentoring. I, like my trainees attacked it head on with an increased awareness of what I was doing to support my students, fingers crossed – there will be some smiles on the 22nd August. 

Question – How engaged with the latest academic research are you?

The University of Nottingham provides a brilliant programme for their mentors. It is an opportunity to catch up, compare mentoring styles and to engage in the latest readings around the subject. I do engage with these readings, I talk them through with my trainee; we try them out in the classroom. How much, can you say you still engage with research? If you do, have you found it has added something to the classroom? 

Recently, I was at a conference that was run by the School of Education, where we discussed diversity within the History curriculum, this included LGBTQ+, women and BAME. I went away from this and designed a lesson, ‘Is Alan Turing Forgotten?’ This included; LGBTQ+, women and STEM. I was challenged to produce something outside of the box. I loved it; the students were so engaged as well, as they walked out with the realisation that Turing may have inspired the Apple logo. It was amazing. 

Being a mentor makes me engage with academic research and forces me to engage with scholarship.  I am gaining so much from this, and so do my classes.
Conclusion – So what can I take away from mentoring experiences? How can I use this experience to help my trainees and develop my own teaching?

  1. The power of the observation – For both you and your trainee, try to do one joint observation every half term, perhaps after a formal observation, or before a University visit. If your trainee is struggling, ask a colleague to come and observe you and provide ‘commentary’ on the lesson to help the student, ‘notice’ targets in practice. Challenge yourself. 
  2. The power of an open door. My mentees see me at my most vulnerable and, knowing this I tried very hard to tackle my difficult classes using the techniques I was suggesting to them. This helped me keep perspective on the demands I was placing on my mentees. It helped me be a better teacher.
  3. The power of YOU – The mentor is the person the trainee is exposed to the most. You must give them reality, but you also must give them your best. Your own practice is always improving with experience. Keep learning with them, collaborate, don’t dictate. 

The power of ‘live’ feedback. What is noise level? What is too loud? I learnt this year that I can very easily read what a working noise level is and a, ‘Game of Thrones’ gossip is. However, trainees can’t without support. I kept checking in with mine, when they were teaching and when I was teaching, providing live observation commentary. In doing so, I rediscovered the importance, of reading the room, something trainees often, don’t get. You do. Use your knowledge to check in – your teaching will be sharper, and your trainee will finally get what you mean.

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The author

Hannah qualified as a History teacher in 2014 from the University of Roehampton. She has taught widely across the Humanities subjects and has held additional whole school responsibility. She worked in London for four years, before moving back to Nottingham at the start of September 2017. She has blogged for #WomenEd and is involved in various communities for her subject, aspiring Middle Leaders and the development of trainee teachers. She is involved in the Legacy 110 Project and is a mentor at the University of Nottingham where she started her Masters in Education in September. She is interested in development of the curriculum, training teachers and diversity in education.

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