Prioritise the curriculum – ‘10 things every teacher educator should know’
Find out how to prioritise a trainee teacher's development in our sixth '10 things every teacher educator should know' blog.
It’s midway through period three on a Wednesday in the second week of September. A Teach First trainee is ploughing through simultaneous equations with her Year 9 class. As with all trainees at this stage, her brain is overloaded with the details of basic routines – what to say, when to say it, where to stand when saying it. She was up late the night before trying to write a lesson plan and is ignoring feelings of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ when her Head of Department drops in.
After the lesson, she waits for words of encouragement and tips for improvement. Instead, she’s told: “You need to sort your differentiation out.”
Aside from the unhelpful nature of this feedback (which is for another article) and a lack of advice on how to do this, differentiation is unlikely to be the trainee’s highest priority when she’s still struggling to embed key rules and routines. Instead of supporting her to improve, this feedback makes her feel like she’s failing, knocking her confidence and overwhelming her.
This is why knowing how to prioritise and sequence the curriculum for trainees is one of the most important things teacher educators should know.
Focus on 'gatekeeper skills'
Internal Teach First research shows the increasing importance of prioritising specific skills during ITT; teaching them through a spiralised curriculum and integrating concrete knowledge and skills with opportunities to practise. This is all with the aim that trainees are able to make a ‘profound and rapid impact on their students and exceed all previous expectations of what is possible for new teachers’.
This is why we initially focus trainees on key ‘gatekeeper skills’: behaviour management, planning and assessment (Teachers' Standards 7, 4 and 6 respectively). Evidence shows this is key for trainees to create the foundation they need to establish themselves in the classroom.
‘Fast Start’, a research paper written by TNTP, one of the largest teacher preparation programmes in the United States, found that “fluency in the same basic skills – often related to classroom culture – separated new teachers who grew rapidly into effective practitioners from those who struggled or regressed.” The Carter Review also recommends that “behaviour management should be prioritised within ITT programmes”, which has been further supported by Bennett’s paper on ‘Developing behaviour management content for ITT’.
Recognise the importance of behaviour management
As our own experience of training to teach likely tells us, establishing a solid foundation in routines and behaviour management is vital to trainees making a strong start in the classroom. This Sutton Trust report describes behaviour and classroom management as “necessary hygiene factors to allow learning” and Bennett highlights how “behaviour management affects every other aspect of a pupil’s education…and the teachers’ experience of teaching.” TNTP state how the impact of this can continue to be seen in the quality of their teaching, “even one or two years later.”
Making a poor start can be very difficult to recover from and has knock-on effects for overall ITT progress, job satisfaction, health and even retention. Without a good initial grounding in the highest-priority teaching skills, trainees may focus on ‘survival’ and will take on whatever techniques get them through, “whether or not these represent best practice.”
This is further supported by internal research (conducted in 2014) to see why some trainees struggle or withdraw from the Teach First programme. 17 out of 29 interviewees said they felt underprepared after their pre-service training, with behaviour management, routines and presence being the primary skills they felt they were lacking – planning and time management were the next.
Develop essential knowledge
The paper concludes that “the ability to establish a calm, safe learning environment, through a convincing teacher presence and effectively embedded routines, is the first skill any teacher needs.” As a result of this, since 2017 Teach First’s Summer Institute (five weeks of pre-service training) focuses on a smaller number of skills that trainees practise in low-stakes but real settings, which allows them to give their full attention to building confidence and proficiency in them. Drawing on a select number of ‘Teach Like a Champion’ (TLaC) techniques centred on the gatekeeper skills (like ‘Do Now’, ‘Threshold’ and ‘Exit Ticket’), trainees are repeatedly exposed to the success criteria, practise the techniques in different contexts and receive feedback to develop their use further.
This approach to teaching essential knowledge and skills has the added benefit of showing both trainees and teacher educators exactly what is expected of them during this short time and what they need to master before they can move onto more complex skills. This doesn’t mean other skills don’t matter – it just reflects what Feiman-Nemser explains as trainees needing this time “to begin developing a basic repertoire of teaching” before moving on. It also means that trainees can learn in a spiralised way, building complexity from this foundation. This is a key principle of cognitive science, “that we learn new ideas by referencing ideas we already know” (Deans for Impact, 2014).
Prioritise what's important
Once trainees have started employment, the first half term should establish and strengthen these skills with additional training from support roles tailored to the trainee’s individual progress. For the trainee who needed to “sort her differentiation out”, although this did indeed need to develop, she first had to build an authoritative, confident and credible persona.
The highest priority was for her to improve her use of voice; she tended to raise it to the point of nearly shouting for most of the lesson, even when explaining or modelling something to students. This was having a negative impact on the atmosphere in the classroom and on her ability to build positive relationships. Through revisiting the TLaC technique ‘Strong Voice’, she practised how to use her voice in a variety of more effective ways and received feedback from lessons with this specific focus.
After making progress in this area, we turned our attention towards the content of her instructions rather than the delivery of them. This trainee often used rhetorical questions with students, which created arguments and debate; she also used generalised and negative phrases such as: “don’t do that,” so students weren’t clear on what they should be doing. Through modelling, scripting and practising we focused on both ‘What to Do’ and ‘Positive Framing’ to adjust her approach to giving and reinforcing expectations. Over time, this improved compliance, created a more encouraging environment and reduced conflict significantly. This improved not only the students’ experience, but also the wellbeing and enjoyment of the trainee.
Find the key to classroom success
TNTP also found that teachers who mastered the three ‘Teach Like a Champion’ techniques mentioned above, along with another called ‘100%’, were “more likely to be successful in their classrooms right away.” In the case of this trainee, by making these techniques automatic – through precise, consistent and repetitive practice – she was able to establish herself in the classroom, build more positive relationships with students and gradually move on to more abstract and complex ideas. When we eventually started to work on ‘differentiation’, she was able to engage and respond more proactively, which accelerated her progress.
It’s clear how vital starting with key ‘Gatekeeper Skills’ is in ITT, and to only move trainees on when they are ready in a spiralised curriculum that revisits and extends what has already been mastered. Not only will this lead to more rapid progress for both the trainee and the students they teach, but it also impacts on the wellbeing, motivation and enjoyment of all.
About the author
Elanie is a teacher educator working for Teach First in the West Midlands. Find her on Twitter @TeachAdemokun.
About this series
We train thousands of new teachers each year, but this is only around 5% of all new teachers. So we wanted to share some of the thinking behind our teacher education in this series of blogs. We hope these blogs will be helpful for the thousands of schools that support new trainee teachers each year, and act as a starting point for conversations with other teacher educators – so we can all keep learning and improving.
This is our current thinking but we’re always reviewing and learning from research, other organisations and practice. We want your views and feedback: What do you agree with? Is there anything you disagree with? What have we missed? Let us know on twitter – you can chat to our teacher education leads @FayeCraster and @Reuben_Moore (and we’re on @TeachFirst)