Katie Jump, Author and Lecturer, Fareham & Gosport SCITT, UK

The comprehensive review of initial teacher training and the introduction of the early career framework (DfE, 2020a) has the potential to have a significant positive impact on the confidence and capabilities of newly qualified teachers. A robust framework of expectations alongside clear guidance regarding what specifically should be learned by trainees will help trainees to select an institution in the knowledge that all ITT providers offer comparable experiences. But a major variable is, and will always be, the school-based mentor with whom a trainee works. Parker et al.’s (2021) research highlights the complexity and increasing demands of this role in the new ITT landscape, where mentors are taking on a role of significant importance to a trainee. They describe a project to upskill the school-based mentor to become an expert educator of trainees in the field. The exponential increase in workload and pressures can make it difficult for even the most dedicated of mentors to devote the time needed to nurture and develop their trainee optimally. Combine this with keeping up to date with developments in learning theory, educational research and ‘best practice’, and it would not be surprising for a mentor to politely decline the invitation. However, the altruistic benefits to supporting the continuation of the profession, combined with the development of a mentor’s own skillset, mean that many take up the opportunity, and they need to be supported in accessing the knowledge needed to give trainees the best start at this time of significant structural change.

Learning theory

Revisiting the key learning theorists and ensuring an understanding of more current developments (Kirschner and Hendrick, 2020) may seem like a task that is extraneous in the demanding role of a teacher today. To prepare for taking on a trainee, though, it may prove to be vital. After completing many years of teaching, a mentor will have developed preferred ways of working, routines and task design that suit their style. Reflecting on these methods and comparing them to the key educational theorists could help a mentor to understand more fully their own educational beliefs. For example, a teacher who prefers their lessons to involve extensive dialogue, questioning and discussion may see themselves as a social constructivist, while using the positive reinforcements of rewards is more akin to a behaviourist. Beyond these overarching ideologies, there is a plethora of more current educational thinkers who inform the educational landscape. Reading the work of Claxton and Carlzon (2019) or Yeager and Dweck (2020), rather than relying on the soundbites that teachers are often given at inset, will also ensure that mentors have a sound understanding of more recent theories surrounding metacognition and learner attitudes, for example, and their strengths and limitations. Aubrey and Riley (2019) have written a book that succinctly discusses key theories, which may be an excellent starting point for a busy teacher. While a mentor may not necessarily agree with a trainee’s approach, professional dialogue and learning can take place if a mentor is well-informed and able to articulate what their own stance is based upon.

Developments in our understanding of neuroscience mean that knowing the main ideas behind working memory (Baddeley and Hitch, 1974), cognitive load (Sweller, 1988), direct instruction (Rosenshine, 2012) and dual coding (Paivio, 1990) are also essential for a mentor to know and understand in order to effectively support a trainee who will be applying some of the concepts in their own planning and lesson delivery. Mentors need the time to read around these areas and be given the freedom to try out a range of techniques in their own classrooms to evaluate their impact and form personal opinions on how well they work in their classroom. Support and trust from leadership teams here is vital, even if some of these theories are not embedded in a school, as without this opportunity mentors (and subsequently their trainees) will be at a disadvantage in comparison to others able to use what we know about learning to maximise the learning in their classrooms.

Educational research

There is much debate as to the place of educational research in the classroom context. While governmental policymakers use research to make wide-sweeping policy (for example, the National Numeracy Strategy from the National Numeracy Project (DfEE, 1998); the 2014 National Curriculum from a review of PISA standings (DfE, 2014)), it would be ill-advised to think that the modern teacher does not need to engage with research in some form at a more local level. If mentors wish to apply research to their own practice, there needs to be a level of discernment in evaluating what constitutes well-constructed and generalisable research, and what is a poorly designed or limited-scope study. Even when a piece of research is identified as rigourous and sound, attention must be paid as to the context of the setting before assuming that results could be replicated. The skill of an experienced teacher is to react to the specific context of the students and school in which they work, and the downfall of using research as an instruction manual for effecting change is in assuming a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The myriad of personalities, policies and approaches in every different setting can make it a complex task to find examples of research that will be replicated to the same effect in a mentor’s own classroom. The work of Hattie (2009; Visible Learning, 2021) and the Education Endowment Foundation in collating meta-analyses on a range of educational techniques is also invaluable for a teacher tentatively engaging with classroom research. By looking at the effect size of a strategy (anything over 0.4 is considered in the zone of desired effects), a classroom teacher can quickly evaluate whether a course of action is worth pursuing.

The majority of experienced teachers will, in fact, have carried out informal action research countless times in their own classroom context. By altering a timetable based on student engagement, including concrete and pictorial representations or even simply refining seating plans, teachers are using the action research cycle of identifying a problem, planning, acting and reflecting. For those with a real interest (and the time) to engage with research at a deeper level, following teachers and educators on social media platforms such as Twitter and participating in the daily TeacherTapp survey can direct mentors to a wide variety of research and commentary. Reading recently published large-scale reviews, such as Bennett’s (2017) behaviour optimisation research, will also support mentors to be well informed on areas of interest to their trainee. Using the Chartered College’s research resources, the Education Endowment Foundation or Evidence Based Education websites can also inform areas of specific interest that a mentor may wish to investigate. Rather than attending more general professional development meetings or inset, mentors could be supported in their role, and challenged at a level more appropriate to their experience, by using the time to engage with these resources. By doing so, they could utilise the opportunity to participate in their own classroom-based research and engage with the research of others, in order to offer trainees informed opinions as to how research can inform their own classroom practice.

Best practice

Undoubtedly the most important aspect of a mentor’s role is to demonstrate the complexities of teaching in action. The difficulty in this is that when one has been teaching for a few years it can actually become harder to articulate the choices that you make and the reasons behind them. Schön (1994) highlights the importance of reflection in action for the practitioner, but mentors need this skill in order to train effectively. Practising delivering lessons while also stopping to explain to a trainee why you are choosing specific methods and not others takes some getting used to, but it breaks down the complexities of a whole lesson into something much more accessible. One of the most useful experiences for a trainee is to hear what is absent from what they can see in the lesson, why you decide not to group students in a certain way, or why one method of explanation has been discarded in favour of another. Combining this with demonstrating in real time the techniques such as retrieval practice, interleaving or scaffolding that trainees have studied theoretically provides opportunity for an interactive experience where trainees can be supported to observe and investigate through questioning their mentor in depth. Mentors do, however, need to feel confident themselves in these techniques, and currently initial teacher training seems to be keeping up with these techniques at a faster pace than some schools, as is evident in the new framework. The ‘Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence review’ (Coe et al., 2020) provides four dimensions within which expert practice lies and is a comprehensive starting point for professional development. Mentors need to be given the time to reflect on the learning theory and research, through chances to read texts aimed directly at their own professional development (for example Jump, 2020), as well as those aimed at trainees (Chartered College, 2020; Ambition Institute, 2020), and the opportunity to incorporate them into their own practice before being expected to model best practice for others.

Professional recognition

The introduction of a National Professional Qualification for Leading Teacher Development (NPQLTD), which, along with two other qualification pathways, has replaced the National Professional Qualification for Middle Leaders (NPQML), is surely a welcome evolution in career progression. While the senior leadership pathways have been signposted for many years (the National Primary Qualification for Headship ran for its first cohort in 1997), teachers who did not aspire to leadership have had to carve out their own pathways in relation to continuous professional development. Opportunities for furthering study by completing coaching qualifications, participating in action research or studying for Master’s degrees and PhDs have all been possibilities, but there has not, until now, been a clear path leading to recognition comparable to those working on an NPQ pathway. The framework for the NPQLTD released by the Department for Education (2020b) is laid out using the ‘learn that’ and ‘learn how to’ headings that can now be seen in the early career framework. This adds to a sense of cohesion and natural progression for those working within both of these frameworks, as a mentor and also as a student themselves, and provides a level of coherence that has been sorely lacking previously. Beyond the necessity of being a role model for excellent teaching, the focus of the qualification is on designing, delivering and implementing professional development for others. Having a formal qualification that reflects these three complex skills should give mentors the recognition that they deserve. Andreasen et al. (2019) recognised in their study into Norwegian ITT that the lack of clear identity as a mentor is significant, and something that the ITT community needs to develop together. An elevation in status through a recognised award, especially if it comes with the dedicated time needed to fulfil the role, may even reduce the attrition of teachers in this stage of their careers.

Conclusion

As with all initiatives, of course, the devil is in the detail. If studying for this qualification comes with a significant reduction in timetable or a commitment on the part of the school to allocate study days for those undertaking the course, then it has every chance of success. Once the qualification has been gained, and to capitalise on what has been learned, a graduate would also need regular time during the school day to work with others and action plan for school improvement. It will be interesting to see whether, in the next few years, job advertisements will start to appear looking for candidates to fit the role of ‘teacher development lead’, and we will have a shared understanding of this job role as much as we do of the terms ‘assessment lead’ or ‘inclusion manager’. When this happens, those who do not aspire to senior leadership can feel confident that there are career paths to follow that are equally professionally and financially rewarding and that recognise their expertise in the art of being a teacher.

References

Ambition Institute (2020) Mentor Handbook: Everything You Need to Help You Apply the Early Career Framework. Independently published.

Andreasen J, Bjørndal C and Kovač B (2019) Being a teacher and teacher educator: The antecedents of teacher educator identity among mentor teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education 85: 281–291.

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Yeager D and Dweck C (2020) What can be learned from growth mindset controversies? American Psychologist 75(9): 1269–1284.