Suggestions and recommendations for the tutoring and mentoring of student teachers and NQTs

by

Stuart Fernie

I have mentored a number of student teachers, but only recently did I realise that no guidance has been furnished by the appropriate authorities in just how to go about this process, nor in completing the report on their progress. The following is the result of reflections I have made on my own and others' experience of the student tuition process.

Let us start with the end result, the school-based report. The content of the report given at the end of the placement should not come as a surprise to the student. There have been instances where students were surprised by comments made in their report - if problems are identified or improvements can be made, they should be made clear and dealt with in the course of the placement, allowing the student to make appropriate changes.

The report should also be balanced. Teachers have a tendency to focus (understandably) on what they regard as negative aspects of people's work, so as to offer guidance on how to improve. It would be wrong, for instance, to generalise from a single instance of a mistake being made. However, as a result of our experience and "conditioning", we may forget to include positive aspects in our report. If we are to truly help our future colleagues, it is essential to build or maintain their confidence by emphasising their successes as well as pointing out ways in which they may make a more effective contribution. Hopefully, having participated in this process, they will go on to be able to take responsibility for their own continued development and reflection. You will undoubtedly have recognised reference to the four Capacities of Curriculum for Excellence. These Capacities apply equally to pupils and teachers. Mentors should be supportive and offer a way forward where problems are encountered, rather than be judgemental or critical. It would also be helpful if report criteria/areas were not jargonised to the point where it is difficult to know what the teacher is being asked to comment on!

It is easy for teachers to make assumptions about students' previous knowledge, or for teachers to feel that something is obvious because of familiarity with systems and structures, all of which is likely to be quite unfamiliar to the student. Clearly, there should be clarity in terms of background information, advice offered, and instructions given.

Students may find analysis difficult at first. Teachers could help their students by analysing their own lessons with the student, giving reasons for incorporating such and such an element, the breaking down into manageable "chunks", or for treating a pupil in a certain way. Students need to be made aware of the complexities of the class and its make-up - they do not have the teacher's profound knowledge of the pupils, the courses used, or pupils' previous knowledge. Tolerance and understanding should be shown as students cannot possibly take on board in a short time knowledge it has taken the teacher several years to accumulate.

Just as teachers have to adapt to pupils, so they will undoubtedly have to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of their students. A blanket application of rules of teaching will not necessarily apply - what works for one teacher/student may not work for another.

Lesson plans should be discussed in advance of a lesson, even if only in the broadest terms, with advice given on content and structure. Debriefing is equally important as teachers and students should share reflections on what went well or what could be improved and how to achieve that.

Questioning or seeking clarity of purpose and structure should not be confused with doubt or rejection of advice. If a student questions the teacher, this should be regarded as something positive and an opportunity for reflection. Students should be encouraged to try new approaches and learn from what works or doesn't work. Students may also tend to "catastrophise" if a lesson doesn't go as well as they had hoped. Teachers should point out that students should not generalise from a single event. They should analyse the lesson and identify what went wrong (often just one element of the lesson), and also how to rectify the situation. Teachers should emphasise the positive while discussing the negative, and offer a way forward. If areas for improvement have been identified and steps are taken to resolve the situation, this should be regarded as a positive aspect worthy of mention in the final report.

Academic requirements on students will vary considerably according to the college students attend, but for myself, I have always felt that the student's file is for college use, dealing as it does with theory of teaching. As a mentor I am far more interested in the application of these theories, and with fine-tuning the teaching itself. The maintenance of a detailed account of teaching practice, incorporating theory and discussing the relative merits of various approaches is without doubt a very useful, indeed essential tool. However, I have never fully understood the continued importance attached to the file (as insisted upon by some colleges) in the student's final placement. If a student has already proven him/herself through essays and other written work, showing reflection as a practitioner, why is there this insistence on repeating the process in the final placement which is far more onerous in terms of teaching time and practical preparation? I would suggest that the last placement should consist of the application of those principles learned in the previous part of the course. There should be a gradual move from theory to practical. Having said that, teachers should be mindful of the pressures on the student from outside the placement, and time spent on reflection and essay writing means less time to engage with colleagues.

Finally, I would suggest that in the interests of maintenance of standards and to allow for development and evolution in the process of mentoring and tuition, mentors and tutors should themselves engage in the same process of self-assessment as undertaken by students in order to identify areas of strength or relative weakness. Weaknesses identified in a student's performance may reflect a student's inherent problems, but they may also reflect a weakness in tuition and mentoring. Steps should be taken to ensure maintenance of professional standards for all concerned in the process of teacher training.