Taking risks on your teaching placement

Author: Will Bailey-Watson
Published: 24/08/2020

Working closely with students to form effective relationships

One commonly occurring pattern when leading a teacher training course is that, no matter what we cover, a trainee will raise their hand and say a variation of: ‘…I won’t be able to do that in my school.’

This is a problem for several reasons:

  • It creates perceived barriers between theory and practice. For example, the vast catalogue of great practice espoused in Teaching History means nothing if seen as nice-in-theory, pie-in-the-sky hypothesising. Most things in teaching can be context-dependent but ideas taken from outside the placement school should be actively contributing to improving a trainee’s understanding of how to improve their classroom practice and students’ learning.

  • Trainee teachers need to be able to test the authority of claims made by others about ‘best practice’ in their particular context. As with all knowledge transferral, training teachers are exposed to piles of stuff but until you can apply, experiment, test and evaluate, the basis of these claims remains weak, unchallenged and may be susceptible to persuasive fads in the long run.

Every teacher training programme needs to ensure that trainees are supported to overcome these barriers and try new things while they are developing their practice. Dylan Wiliam, a professor of educational assessment, argues in Leadership for Teacher Learning (2016) that teachers must be allowed to take risks. He does not mean silly, ill thought through risks, but rather taking a chance on something where success is not guaranteed and might not work. Risks such as these are vital to professional development, and without them trainees will learn far more slowly.

Here are some scenarios when you, as a proactive, ambitious history trainee, might see a chance for taking a risk.

  • On a year 7 scheme of work, your department teach about the Medieval monarchs. A risk would be to look at a broader, more diverse range of perspectives; so you could plan three lessons on how daily life changed over the Middle Ages for different demographics.
  • On a year 8 scheme of work, your department spend three lessons on the causes of the English Civil War and finish the unit in 1649 with the execution of Charles I. A risk would be to cover the causes of the Civil War in the first five minutes of the sequence of lessons, and use those two lessons to focus on the consequences of the Civil War, taking the unit through to the 1660s.
  • No one in your placement department reads historians’ work to inform planning of key stage 3. A risk would be to start setting extracts of historians’ texts for students to read at home.

Wiliam recognises that teachers very quickly become risk-averse. I see this all the time, as history graduates interview for teacher training with a passion for bringing more women into the curriculum, for studying different peoples on their own merits and through their own eyes, and for asking questions that historians actually ask. And yet, within a few months I visit the same trainees teaching dull lessons about the Break with Rome and the Nazis which they pulled from the school hard-drive, often planned a decade or so ago by a teacher long since retired.

With this in mind, here are some simple suggestions for training teachers who want to introduce new ideas and experimentation into their schools.

1. Start by building trust with your department.

This starts on day one of the placement and requires an accumulation of ‘trust points’. Dress smartly and be punctual. Read round the subject even when observing. Show a willingness to take part in wider school opportunities. Plan lessons diligently. Smile and learn names. When push comes to shove, if your mentor and department trust you, they are far more likely to support your initiative.

2. Make sure you have a clear rationale for what you want to introduce.

There are all sorts of reasons why you as a trainee teacher might want to try something in the classroom. You might have read an article in a professional journal, or a blog on a trusted practitioner’s website. You might have attended a conference in your own time on a Saturday, or heard an inspirational guest speaker at a university. These are all valid sources of inspiration for wanting to try something new, but it isn’t enough to just say ‘I heard it at somewhere’.

In fact one teacher told me the worst thing a trainee can say is ‘Research says…’, with no actual understanding of the basis for the claims of the research – the longer that experienced teachers are in the profession, the more cynical they become about empty, baseless, partially understood claims about what research tells them.

It also can sound like you are instinctively preferring someone else’s ideas over your colleagues’, which suggests a lack of trust. Instead, you need to think carefully about exactly why you want to implement your initiatives.

3. Communicate with your mentor/department and involve them in the process.

With a robust rationale in place, it is vital that this is communicated effectively. Mentor meetings are the perfect opportunity to sit down and talk over things you want to try. Discussing your ideas shows you respect your mentor and the department, as you aren’t acting unilaterally, and allows them to suggest how you might need to tweak ideas to the current context. Furthermore, they can suggest how you might introduce new ideas (e.g. a new writing frame) without it undermining colleagues or confusing students.

It is hard to see how a mentor won't be supportive if they are approached by a trusted trainee several weeks before a sequence of lessons with this sort of preamble: ‘In my training, we were introduced to this idea by X who says Y, and she bases this on Z. I know you tend to avoid doing Y, and I completely understand why, but would it be alright if I had a go at doing it in two weeks’ time if I plan it carefully and share my plan with you at the next mentor meeting?’

4. Implement on a small scale.

If you want to make meaningful judgements about how effective your experimenting has been, it is important that you don’t spread yourself too thinly, or experiment in a high-stakes environment (for instance, it would be silly to introduce your own marking strategy in the final term of year 11). Target one class in one specifically chosen year group and try to really hone in on the impact your intervention has. As another teacher told me, she is open to experimentation but will always recommend: ‘Try it with a class for X period of time, show me the results and we’ll go from there’. You can’t really say fairer than that.

5. Respect the ethos of the longer-term vision/direction of the department.

It is hard to think of too many ideas rooted in evidence-based practice, that have been carefully thought out, planned with the help of a mentor for a specific context and implemented on a small scale, that would deviate from any good department’s ethos or longer-term plan, but it is important to operate within their boundaries. For instance, if you want to try a role-play activity that teachers in other schools swear by, and your current school is having a crackdown on behaviour, make sure this is planned for and expectations are maintained throughout.

6. See it through.

If you are going to try something that differs from the norm in a school, do it properly. A teacher told me recently that there is nothing more annoying than training teachers coming from their training with a new idea, half-heartedly trialling it for a lesson and never referring to it again. It shows a short-term view of how learning takes place and suggests they are superficially challenging the school’s tried and tested practice for the sake of it.

7. Recognise when something isn’t appropriate but use other avenues to explore these ideas.

Sometimes it just won’t work out, irrespective of how much you have appealed to a colleague’s intuition. This could be for all sorts of reasons, from not enough time remaining on a placement, to an impending internal assessment that can’t be moved, and it is important to recognise that sometimes the ideas you pick up from literature, research, Twitter or university will have to wait until you have your own classroom. However, teacher training must remain a year where ideas are challenged, tested and explored, and trainees need to use the appropriate channels for this. For instance, an easy way of engaging with the issue is to email your overall training tutor a weekly reflection that grapples with why you would like to try this new idea and how you would go about it in the future. Or you could go further and use the human resources available to you: there are hundreds of other training teachers, so why not plan a sequence of lessons using the idea you’re not able to implement with a peer at a different school?

Crucially, if you don’t find ways to make the curriculum and pedagogy your own, you aren’t really training to become a professional teacher. And while you are training this will require taking risks.

Will Bailey-Watson

Will Bailey-Watson is PGCE History Subject Lead at the University of Reading.