This year will be the third year that the school at which we work, will be hosting PGCE students within the maths department. Believe it or not, a few years ago, we had to contact the local university several times in order to be considered … despite the fact that myself and Seager both did our PGCEs at this specific uni! To be honest I understand the reticence: the department’s results historically put us very close to being bottom in the county for years! (and years!), and we had previously been a National Challenge school. Today however, the school is very different to the one, that many people remember.
Given that we initially had no joy, why was this important to us? Up until last September I was the newest member of the team, having joined 3 years previously (being only 1 of 2 applicants) – the day before my interview at the school I’d been at an interview for another school within the town and was one of about 7 applicants. Since then one teacher has left and been replaced by an NQT and even though we were achieving results that were well above our targets, and the school having been dramatically transformed we still had an “image” problem that needed to be addressed. As a department we all did our NQT year at the school and have a relatively stable team and don’t foresee any changes (fingers and toes crossed!!) but we’d like to become a department within which people want to work … to use a cliché .. we’d like to be an “employer of choice”.
In a moment of insanity (I seem to have a lot of those!) I agreed to act as the subject mentor – I’m not for one minute suggesting I am the perfect mentor (far from it) and I know that I have a lots to learn, so this post is to act as a reminder to myself of what I do as part of this role and now that I’m typing it, I’m also going to include some of the qualities that I think are important. Health warning!! this is just my opinion and not to be taken as gospel … I am sure there are teachers out there much more experienced than me who will have a different opinion:
1. Be Organised. Prior to the placement, I like to send the students an email introducing myself and the department, I include an information pack with all of the information they will need, including their timetable – our department handbook is on our VLE and I encourage them to familiarise themselves with it (before this I would’ve sent them a copy electronically). I remember feeling the weight of the information overload on my first placement, and also that slight panic of thinking I would never remember everything I was being told – by sending the information prior to them joining us, I’ve noticed that the better students have really hit the ground running when they arrive. The image shows the timetable section, from the documents that I send them and a copy of it is available here if you want to adapt for your own use.
2. Read the mentor handbook. The universities have been doing this kind of training for years, and basically everything you need to know, should be in the handbook, and if it isn’t, that’s the time to make the schools’ professional mentor your best buddy.
3. Know your stuff. Actually that’s a bit tongue in cheek and probably should be “know your stuff, or know how to find out stuff“. Many mentors will have “been there – done that” and no matter what the trainee is struggling with, they will have a vast experience of teaching to call on (and that is brilliant!,) but that doesn’t mean I think you can only be a subject mentor if you have been teaching a long time. I like to think that a good mentor can still be supportive by wanting to hear about things and work through problems, even if they don’t know the answers (again, your professional mentor will help!)
4. Plan the timetable carefully – don’t just allocate your own classes to be part of the timetable and when considering which classes the student should have try to make sure that there is a variety of year groups and/or abilities. It is also important that the teachers they are allocated to, welcome the idea of hosting a PGCE student – these other teachers are as important, as the subject mentor to the training being successful. Don’t just see it as an opportunity to offload your classes.
5. Be available. In addition to your timetabled weekly review, take the time to stop and chat – even if it’s for a once a week cup of coffee and a “how’s it going?” chat. Make sure that your trainee isn’t sat in the staff room like “billy no-mates” – invite them into your staff room clique (they do exist!!). I know, as teachers, there are times when we are super-busy, but making time for a trainee is so important. Remember – it might be the only time someone takes an interest in the whole week.
6. Be enthusiastic and interested. Remember that trainees can often feel that they are “in the way”, they are laden with paperwork and make demands on your time, but no matter how demanding or how many questions they ask, it is our job to “be bothered” about all the “stuff” they bring with them – we need to make them feel that it is OK to ask questions, and that we actually want to help. If we can’t be enthusiastic about teaching and helping others, should we really be a subject mentor? I must remember that when a trainee comes bounding in with laminated cards or lolly pop sticks with names on, they have probably spent hours either researching the idea, or preparing them, and even though I may have seen their latest “new thing” before I need to remind myself to share their enthusiasm, and in the same way I was given the freedom to work out what worked for me, I must give them that same freedom.
7. Be adaptable. Remember that the needs’ of the student will be different depending on the student, but also between their first and second placement. In the first placement, they may well be information gathering and very dependent, but during the second placement they should be wanting (pushing for?) more independence, so as the placements progress I need to consider where they are on their journey, and what support I need to give them. During the second placement your trainee might find the attached useful as a way of RAG rating the QTS standards – I’m going to use it as part of our weekly reviews (probably in every 3rd of 4th one, as I wouldn’t want the meetings to become too “tick-boxy”).
8. Be kind Most students will have read the forums on TES and several of the books on the “reading list” and are expecting a tough year. I was expecting to cry, but I am very stubborn and the year wasn’t as bad as I expected, but I have seen (and heard lots of stories about) colleagues reduced to tears at some point during one or both, of their placements and there is no doubt, a PGCE is all encompassing. Criticism is really hard to take (don’t I know it!!… this is my BIGGEST weakness), and I must remember that often, the student will have spent hours of their life planning and when it all goes “pear-shaped” they won’t necessarily understand why it went that way and at that point they don’t need someone stating the obvious, they need someone who can be encouraging and supporting whilst discussing ideas in a rational manner. I’d like to think I do that anyway, and so far I haven’t made anyone cry … Making someone cry is just mean!
So much of this sounds obvious, but I know that when I get back into the normal daily routine some of these things can get forgotten. So as the start of term looms closer and I get dragged into dealing with my other responsibilities I am going to need reminding that being a mentor really matters and can make a difference to someone’s year. OK, me? Remember that!!
Finally if you are a PGCE student who has just found out that you are coming to the school at which we work, for one of your placements … hello!! The above is what I would hope to do when you arrive … there are no guarantees so don’t come in waving a printed copy of this post in front of me!!