Growing teachers

I have been fortunate this year to mentor a variety of pre-service teachers in my classroom. Yes, I genuinely mean ‘fortunate’ because the experience is one I’m grateful for, despite the undisputable extra work that it adds. As well as being an opportunity to support and influence the next generation of teachers, it also allows me to see my own teaching through their eyes. It has equally made me reflect on the experiences I had as a pre-service teacher and how they helped me grow into the teacher I am.

One of the most powerful things we can do for our pre-service teachers is give them room – to try things, to flounder a bit, to explore their interests and skills (as well as the things that make them uncomfortable), to make mistakes, to figure out how to fix them. I always hope my pre-service teachers will arrive full of ideas, enthusiasm and an eagerness to jump in and try things. If they don’t, I encourage them with gentle-ish nudges and reminders that this is a safe space with my support for them to work on honing their teaching craft. I reassure them that I don’t expect perfect lessons (not from them or myself) but I expect lessons where they try things and then reflect on their successes and next areas of learning. As much as I want to, I try not to help them out too soon when things go wrong, just give them space and ask the questions that might help them dig their way out of the hole themselves.

We also owe it to our pre-service teachers to give them useful, honest feedback that helps them recognise their strengths and be realistic about the areas they need to develop. Whenever I’m having conversations that involve feedback for my pre-service teachers, I think of how I’ll feel if they end up being a colleague in a couple of years and what support and guidance I’ll wish they’d been given at this crucial point in their career. Telling a pre-service teacher that their tone when speaking to a child contributed to the child’s reaction is the perfect teaching moment, especially when thinking how this may help them in the future and what strategies they can use to change their thinking and behaviours before they become entrenched.

I’m also a firm believer that we need to help our pre-service teachers see how their learning at university provides a solid foundation on which to build their teaching, rather than teaching rounds and university being two separate and distinct sets of learning. I get frustrated when I hear teachers comment that university wasn’t helpful and that they learnt everything they needed once they started teaching. Obviously I’ve only been through one teaching degree so I can’t comment on the preparation from every university but I can say I felt as prepared as I could be. Of course there were things that I didn’t know and my first few years of teaching were the most intense period of induction but I felt like the learning I’d done at university gave me a solid foundation and an understanding of the bigger picture of education into which my day to day teaching fitted. My teaching rounds had helped bridge the gap for me while also giving me access to some outstanding mentors from whom I soaked up every bit of knowledge, experience and guidance I could.

I can only hope that I am providing as successful and useful an experience for my pre-service teachers as I was lucky enough to receive on my teaching rounds and I look forward to continuing to strive to be an effective mentor to our growing teachers.

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What does it take to be the ‘best and brightest’?

There has been another stir in the media recently about who should be allowed to become a teacher with the arguments centred on the ATAR (Year 12) score of those applying to teacher education courses. And, on the face of it, I agree – people aspiring to be teachers should demonstrate an ability to digest and teach the subject content required of them and a certain level of intelligence is required to do this.

This isn’t, however, as simple as reaching a certain ATAR score. How well you score on the specific assessments required during one year of your academic life are not a great overall indication of your intelligence or ability to engage with the subject matter.

My other issue is that it takes so much more than the ability to comprehend subject matter to become a teacher. It takes a high level of patience that must be maintained in the frenetic pace of school life. It takes empathy and the ability to see the world through a child’s eyes, considering their feelings and reactions and changing your tack accordingly. It takes strong organisational skills to be able to juggle the competing demands, continually changing regulations and requirements and varied tasks that take up your day. It takes skills in negotiation and mediation, managing both interactions with children and their parents as well as skills in collaborating with colleagues.

Throughout my 13 years as a teacher, I’ve been fortunate enough to mentor a number of pre-service teachers on their journeys and have found it’s these latter attributes that are harder to foster.

There is also the added complication that, even though you might be an adult with a natural aptitude for, say, maths and science, it doesn’t automatically mean that you will be skilled at creating the conditions required to build a similar level of knowledge in your students.

I could give a number of examples of colleagues with low ATAR scores who are outstanding educators, able to build such effective relationships with students and present material in just the right way to have brain lightbulbs pinging all over their classrooms. I could also tell you about an equal number of colleagues who received high ATAR scores and clearly were subject matter experts but who just couldn’t seem to connect or get through to the students they worked with.

So when you see another media report or education ‘expert’ discussing how important it is that we recruit our ‘best and brightest’ to teaching, consider what attributes being the ‘best and brightest’ might entail. Look beyond their ATAR score to the combination of academic strengths and personal qualities that are both vital in developing teachers that inspire, motivate and educate students.


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