This story by Emma Kell in the TES on 1st May 2018

Trainee teachers are being dissuaded from joining the profession because of poor mentoring and negativity, warns one teacher

I’ve been banging on about positivity for a few weeks now. This seems to upset people more than when I write about toxic schools and teacher struggles. No, I am not aiming to be a poster girl for the Department for Education, nor am I attempting to suppress the voices of those who struggle – as I myself have. I have explored the “negatives” in great deal.

But what gets me here is that, having finally got potential trainees through the door of schools and universities, there are a significant number of trainee teachers who decide not to bother going into the profession after all. Why? Well, it would seem many of them are being actively put off the profession by their experiences during their training year.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is shocking and unforgivable. I’m sorry, but it is.

There is so much that is outside our control in teaching – and this is sometimes really, really frustrating – but how we treat our trainees, how we mould and inspire them during one of the biggest learning curves they’ll ever go through, is something we can control.

Does this mean offering a Pollyanna view of the job? Of course not. Does it mean mollycoddling or accepting low standards from our trainees? Not at all. But it does mean not asking them exactly what possesses them to join the profession (yes, this is happening). It does mean actually living up to the commitments we have made to them – giving them their feedback promptly, giving them their weekly one-to-one time to reflect. A disillusioned mentor might think they’re doing the world a favour by offering the training advice to steer well clear – but who really wins? Many of us are parents ourselves. I’d really rather like my children to have competent and passionate teachers, thanks.

Trainee teachers being put off even applying for teaching jobs has become too common to be passed off as unfortunate exceptional incidents. Allow me to share three examples.

I met a young lady, sparky and full of energy and moral purpose, working in education but not in the classroom. She described how her experience of poor mentoring led her, at the end of her PGCE (an investment of £9,000 these days, by the way) to decide not even to bother applying to work in schools. Her mentor was permanently stressed, openly critical of her and downright unsupportive. Now I understand school is stressful. We all do. But it is some bitter achievement to so actively dissuade a young person from continuing with the profession that they had, not 12 months before, decided to invest themselves in. Where are the priorities? Where is the quality control?

‘Leave your life at the door’

I always advise trainees, as well as being reflective, to be open to learning and ready to work really hard – to be pushy – to know and assert their rights to support, feedback and, most crucially, time. After all, they or their families are investing half an annual salary, as well as a year plus of their lives.

I met another trainee through my research. She was quite competent, had good feedback on lessons so far, was clearly reflective while negotiating a tricky workload, but, overall, was coping. She contacted me out of the blue in March to say she wouldn’t be returning to the school the next day. I admit, I was shocked. I asked her why on earth and how on earth it had come to this. ‘I’ve fallen in love,’ she said. ‘My mentor told me that I wouldn’t have a life if I became a teacher – so to make this relationship work, I’m quitting.’ Several months on, this story infuriates me to the point of being lost for words. I’m not sure who or what to be most annoyed with.

And finally, a friend of the family is doing a PGCE. It will be her second career, and she’s thought about it carefully. She’s actually been working in schools for a couple of years, so she knows what to expect. I am hopeful – she appears way calmer, way more confident and way more savvy than I could have hoped to be when I started training. She is clear about why she wants to be in the profession and clearly likes spending time with young people (it amazes me how many teachers I’ve met who don’t).

Cut back to her first seminar of the year and a well-known and well-respected institution. “There should be a sign above the entrance saying, ‘Leave your lives at the door,‘” said one of the course leaders. When she told me this, I sputtered, I swore, I ranted. I ranted for quite a long time. She smiled wryly and wisely and I realised she had no intention of leaving her life at the door. The last I knew, she was booking a theatre trip for mid-week next week. And it’s not even half-term yet.

But why would anyone give new teachers this kind of message?

Maybe, my family friend speculated, it’s for people who aren’t used to the daily grind of getting up every day at 6am (I’m 44, and I’m still not used to it). Maybe it’s based on past experience of flakiness or lazy students. I have met lazy teachers. About two in 21 years. They’re quite rare. I have met flaky teachers. A handful. I have, with regret, refused to sign off with qualified teacher status (QTS) because I felt that, on balance, young people deserved better. None of this rant is an excuse for poor practice – nothing is.

Teachers are not – probably never have been – a homogenous group. They’re people. With lives, and friends, and families and children of their own. They’re people whose own passions and interests actively enrich their students’ experience. They’re people with a sense of humour, with weaknesses and eccentricities, all of which contribute to their classroom persona. They’re people with challenges in their personal lives, with their health, with histories of excellent or appalling school experiences.

Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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