Save Our Trainees!

There are some sad facts in education currently, listed below are two:

  1. The government has failed to reach its targets for teacher recruitment every year for the last seven years. (Guardian, 2019)
  2. More teachers are dropping out after their first year than at any time in the last 20 years, while one in three leave after five years. (Forbes, 2019)

This is all despite numerous advertising campaigns and financial incentives and, while some less scrupulous folk may just train for the bursary and then leave quite a bit richer, there is still tremendous loss within five years of training being completed.

Learning to teach

Is it just that teaching is so incredibly challenging that these bright, young graduates and experienced career changers are put off by it’s intensity?

I don’t think so.

I think that how we support our trainees in becoming well established and confident in the classroom plays a significant role and within this using what we know about learning to help them gain expertise.

And, I’m not alone.

Here’s a few quotes from a career changer, Jo Moore, who describes herself as “Ex-medical doctor, ex-army, ex-corporate.” Basically, the dream package for a move into teaching!

“I would take 2-3hrs per lesson before Christmas [first term of training]. If you counted also reading around the unit content, perhaps more like 4!”

“There were no prepared lessons given for me to use, just an outline of how much time”

“Now I realise what a raw deal that was but I don’t feel it’s uncommon. For every teacher that says don’t reinvent the wheel, there’s another saying you must do it from scratch to ‘prove’ yourself”

Another career changer, Mr Shawe, a former automotive engineer and IOP scholar tweeted:

“Had to plan every lesson from scratch, nothing was shared. No proper SoW just given the textbook. Other people had lessons made but “it’s part of training to make every lesson and work sheets from scratch.” Basically made to discovery learn how to teach.”

Discovery Learning how to teach!

Is this really what we’re doing to trainees across the country? I set up some surveys to find out!


What we see, from this quick sample (n=276 and 144 respectively), is that almost half of respondents were planning most lessons “from scratch” and this is likely to take more than one hour. I know from my own experience as a trainee that this can easily be two hours or more. They could be spending time (and possibly money) on resources which will unnecessarily add to their workload and stress: given that these are two key reasons why teachers leave the profession, it’s maybe not the finest idea to throw trainees into feeling this way from the get-go.

So, the trainee has built a lesson from the ground up. How do they know if it will be effective? Have they seen what a quality lesson looks like for that particularly aspect of the curriculum? Often, there is a requirement to send lessons to their host teacher or mentor before delivery but the quantity and quality of the feedback given at this stage will vary.

After delivering the lesson they probably receive a few minutes of feedback. In the first term this is almost certainly going to feature a lot about behaviour management and quality of explanation, rather than the structure and content of the lesson itself, because these are likely to be the biggest challenges which are being faced. However, if the lessons themselves aren’t conducive to learning taking place then it will be the pupils who lose out as well. Teacher-pupil relationships are essential for building positive and purposeful classrooms and if a trainee is struggling, this will be the first loss.

I absolutely agree that trainees must learn to plan effective lessons but this should be built up to over time.

Understanding how we learn

The trainee teacher’s brain is, for the most part, going to work in a similar way to a pupil’s brain when learning new things. Let’s not be precious about it. Lets make the most of it.

We know that providing models and numerous concrete examples helps pupils learn more effectively than discovering for themselves. It’s the same for trainees. (Clark, Kirschner and Sweller, 2012)

We know that pupils struggle to transfer new knowledge (especially “skills”, note the inverted commas) from one context to another without carefully designed instruction. It’s the same for trainees. (Learning Scientists blog, 2016)

We know that if too many new ideas are worked on simultaneously, requiring effortful thinking, that pupils become overloaded. It’s the same for trainees. (De Jong, 2010)

So, why don’t we make that bit easier? We can ease cognitive load and help trainees move from novice to expert more efficiently by making sure that they are given, to begin with, high quality, well resourced lessons to deliver. We should focus that initial mentoring time on discussing why a lesson has that particular structure, what the key facets of the main explanation are and why we are checking the performance of pupils at this or that stage.

Providing our trainees with lessons which have been created by experienced teachers means pupils will have more efficacious learning experiences and the process of learning how to teach will be scaffolded much more effectively! The precious relationships between the trainee and their pupils are much more likely to be rich and rewarding for all parties. For Teach First trainees, especially, this is essential as they will have their classes all year.  No fresh starts each term for them!

The surveys reveal the stark truth about the inequity of experience of trainees. I can’t imagine there are many schools, nowadays, which haven’t heard of Rosenshine’s principles and yet they are ignored and, instead, educators hang some of our trainees out to dry on inefficient discovery learning. The bitter irony of this is that many trainees will be walking into schools armed with more knowledge about the science of learning than some of the staff who are supporting them. They will know they are not getting a fair, or logical, deal!

But will the trainees actually learn how to plan a lesson?

From my experience this year, yes.

Within our science department this year we had two Teach First trainees begin their careers. They had spent some time in classrooms through their Summer Institute and had done a little teaching before joining us. They had had some instruction in planning lessons.

When they start their timetable of over 15 lessons per week, lets say they had to spend 1.5 hours (modest estimate) of planning from scratch per lesson that would equate to 22.5 hours. Add on the actual 15 hours of teaching time and they’re already at 37.5 hours… factor in tutor time, duties, CPD, mentoring, feeding back to pupils. They would be knocking on the door of a 50 hour week from the beginning.

Welcome to teaching! (Good luck making it through the year)

This isn’t what we did though. Almost all the lessons they would deliver were in existence, fully resourced on a shared area born out of a culture of collaborative planning. They could devote their time to improving their subject knowledge and asking questions to more experienced staff in our workroom about the lessons: learning about why they had a particular structure or how to explain a certain point effectively.

(The staff work room is absolutely key to this as it was very rare that the trainees were on their own in there. Support was pretty constant. On the rare occasions where a new lesson did need to be created, someone would always provide an old version which could be tweaked and improved.)

Mentoring time each week would consist of a good amount of time practising the delivery of explanations or aspects of classroom craft, discussing why certain methods of AfL would be more helpful than others. The weekly well-being check tended to suggest that stress levels were okay and everything was manageable.

When lockdown hit, our HoD saw the opportunity to develop new KS3 lessons and divided out the work. Everyone had a couple of lessons to make each week apart from a few more experienced members of staff who were responsible for quality assuring what was produced. This work was done collaboratively across two of the secondary schools within our MAT. After the first round, the lessons of one of our TF trainees were used by the HoD as exemplars! Six months of learning about effective lesson planning through seeing lots of models and gradually building up expertise certainly seemed to work. This level of quality continued, from both our trainees, throughout the lockdown period.

A chance to change things and save our trainees

Given the current surge in applications for teacher training (Guardian, July 2020) which have been stimulated by COVID-19’s effect on the job market we have a golden opportunity to make a dent in the retention crisis which still has a firm grip on the profession.

We can use the science of learning, as we do with pupils, with trainees and hopefully build new cohorts of confident, happy teachers who feel supported in our amazing profession.

Teaching is hard but it can be learned with the right support.


Thanks for reading! As always you can find and follow me on twitter @MrTSci409


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