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Trainee Teachers Need to be Able to Learn Through Failure

As mentors, it’s vital that we maintain standards while also giving trainees the opportunity to learn through failure, says John Coxhead...

  • Trainee Teachers Need to be Able to Learn Through Failure

Sam, an experienced Y3 teacher and respected middle leader, finally has a free morning to update her subject leader file; it’s long overdue. Halfway through the morning, Sam decides she ought to check on her class. Peering through the glass of the classroom door, she’s pleased to see that things generally appear to be well. A few children are off-task, but the trainee teacher and teaching assistant seem happy enough. She makes a mental note to speak to the trainee after school about some strategies he might use to ensure every child is compliant and engaged.

This scenario is common. Indeed, we convince ourselves that aspiring teachers benefit from being left alone. After all, who likes being watched? There is definite merit in the idea that a trainee will fumble through and, through trial and error, find ways to improve and develop.

The occasional observations from their mentor will guide them and, eventually, their practice will be transformed. The problem, however, is the impact on the children. Can it be acceptable that the quality of teaching and learning takes an unnecessary nose-dive? 

Simply put, Sam has misunderstood her role as mentor. Mentoring a trainee is not an easy ride. If you’re doing it properly, it’s hard work, although also incredibly rewarding. After all, you have the privilege of moulding one of our future teachers.

Two-way process

As mentors, we have two main objectives. The first is to ensure that the quality of teaching (and learning) in the classroom doesn’t dip below the usual high standards.

The second is to support and guide trainee teachers in their professional development. Achieving these goals is difficult, but far from impossible. The experience may even transform your teaching; it is a two-way process of learning.

The easiest way to ensure your class continues to receive the highest possible standard of education is to refuse to relinquish control.

The skill of the mentor, however, lies in maintaining standards while also giving trainees the space they need to practise, learn and improve (often through failure).

This constant cycle of reflective practice is something we all engage with throughout our careers.

It would be foolish, though, to expect a trainee to start from scratch – share your expertise with them, tell them about your own mistakes, explain what the research has taught us. This means they can quickly acquire the skills they need to become a competent teacher.

Taking the wheel

I know an exceptional driving instructor who has taught me, my wife, my brothers and many of my friends. We all had the same experience – he was first-class.

He once explained to me that the key to being a good driving instructor is to do whatever is necessary to ensure that, from lesson one, your students drive well on the road. This meant he typically did the majority of the driving for his students in their first few lessons.

He began by modelling everything, many times over, while explaining what he was doing with exacting precision. When the learner took the wheel, he used his dual controls to make their job easier – indicating for them, engaging the handbrake.

Gradually, as their competence improved, he handed over more control. Eventually, and in a remarkably short amount of time, they were driving safely with 100% control of the vehicle.

From inside the car, the trainee’s progress and development is clear. However, if you had watched the vehicle from the outside, you would think the trainee was a natural; they appeared to be driving relatively well from lesson one.

Stepping back

This same model can be applied to mentors and trainee teachers. As mentors, we need to begin by modelling everything – establishing routines, managing behaviour, planning, teaching, reflecting, adapting, assessing, improving.

When the trainee first takes control of the class, you’ll be by their side, planning and teaching with them. Over time, you can step back more and more. Eventually, your trainee will have full control. You can then work with them to facilitate further growth and development.

Throughout your trainee’s time in class, the children will, hopefully, experience very little change in the quality of the education they receive. Indeed, it will likely have been enhanced by the presence of another skilled adult in the classroom.

At this stage your trainee still has much to learn. Initial teacher training is only the beginning of a long journey which involves a career-long commitment to inquiry and study, as well as practice.

However, by making the most of your time with them, you’ll be amazed by what you can achieve together.


How to be an outstanding mentor

  • Believe in them
    Your trainee needs to firmly believe that they will become a confident, high-quality teacher. They have a tough year ahead but show them, at all times, that you have no doubts whatsoever. If your belief in them waivers, they could crumble.
  • Facilitate self-reflection
    Rather than telling trainees what they need to do differently, ask them questions until they arrive at the solution.
  • Always model
    Avoid simply describing an abstract teaching strategy or method. Instead, invite your trainee to watch you teach. If this isn’t practical, model to the trainee as if they were a pupil.
  • Give immediate feedback
    Rather than waiting until after school, give feedback quickly and discreetly within lessons. The timing of feedback is crucial to its impact.
  • Don’t overload them
    When teaching alongside a trainee, you’ll find yourself bursting with advice, but try to narrow it down to just one or two pieces of feedback at a time. Ideally, these should both fall under the same teachers’ standard, giving purpose and focus to your trainee’s development. Be relentless in referring to these and use them to focus your trainee on specific goals.
  • Encourage playback
    Sometimes a trainee’s memory of what happened will differ from what you witnessed. Encourage them to record audio or video from their lessons. Let them watch it back alone – ask them to make notes on what they noticed. What will they do differently next time?
  • Be sensitive
    If you need to intervene directly in behaviour management, be sensitive and discrete – ensure it’s not done in a way that embarrasses or undermines your trainee in front of the children.

John Coxhead is deputy head of a primary school in Lancashire and leads Shining Lights Teaching School Alliance (@sl_tsa). He is also a member of the DfE’s Teacher Reference Group. Follow him on Twitter at @johncoxhead89.

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