Advice for my new mentees

In the run up to the new academic year, I’m on my way to meet my new group of RSC Scholars who I will mentor through their training. Mentoring this group is quite different to the in-school mentoring they will receive through their Initial Teaching Training provider, as mentees can be quite removed geographically from where I live and work. I also have a large group (>20), so there is no expectation, or possibility that I can give them the day-to-day support that an in-school mentor provides. As a group of mentors, we are there for additional support and a different perspective, and meet up with most of the mentees up to four times during the year, at the kick-off event, and three continuing professional development days.

Last academic year I was a PGCE student mentor in my own school again, something I hadn’t done for a few years. The intensity of the process was a good reminder of the stresses and strains that ITT students are going through. Despite the ups and downs, I think we both came out of the process stronger, having learnt a lot and improved as teachers.

So, what advice will I give to my new set of mentees about to launch into this year?

  • Organisation – this is critical to your success during the year. You will have many calls on your times and energy, including your teaching classes, tutor group, school mentor, head of department, school professional tutor, ITT provider tutor, and your family. Ensure you have a diary (paper or electronic) and spend the time ensuring critical deadlines are entered including report deadlines, essay deadlines, parents evening, training days, and so forth.
  • Teaching outline – make use of the departmental schemes of work to see what needs teaching by what deadlines. Most department will provide an outline of ‘Topic X needs covering by October half term, topic Y by Christmas…’ and you will need to stick to this. Especially in larger schools, coordinating multiple teachers, groups and resources is a big job and you need to recognise your position as one cog in a complex machine.
  • Subject knowledge – knowing the ins and outs of the subject you are teaching will help with your confidence in the classroom and students progress, so ensure this is up-to-date. Don’t just rely on reading the textbook, read above and beyond. For example, if teaching equilibrium at GCSE, its worth looking at what extra depth A-level students study to. If you’re recently graduated, some of your subject knowledge will be a very high level, and bringing that down to an appropriate level for school students can be a challenge in itself. There are good websites available such as docbrown.info and www.chemguide.co.uk.
  • Use the resources already available – it is tempting, and enjoyable, creating your own resources, but you won’t have the time (or necessarily expertise yet) to produce high quality resources for every lesson. Most departments will have tried-and-tested resources now for KS3, KS4 and KS5 as we’re a few years into teaching on the new national curriculum and exam specifications. The best source of worksheets for chemistry I have found is scisheets.co.uk, and is a bargain. Plenty of high quality Powerpoints are available from knockhardy.org.uk.
  • Pedagogical content knowledge – knowledge and understanding of how to teach the subject and how students learn. This is the area of teaching that can really distinguish the novice from the expert teacher, and a lot will come with time and experience. There are many good sources of information of student misconceptions, such as Keith Taber’s publications  and Vanessa Kind’s work . Talking to other teachers about how they teach particularly tricky concepts such as use of chemical equations, equilibrium, and structure and bonding is time well spent. Keeping a journal of your learning after each lesson can be useful in consolidating what you learnt from how lessons went, successful and unsuccessful strategies. If you can, practise teaching to an empty room or a colleague before you teach the class.
  • Practical work – this can be the highlight of some students’ day, and one of the most stressful parts of our job. Preparation is essential, especially ordering the correct equipment and reagents in good time, ensuring you have done the practical before the class does, carrying out appropriate risk assessment, and managing behaviour during the practical time. Make use of practicals written into schemes of work already, and draw of the experience of other teachers and the technicians. CLEAPSS is an excellent source ( of support and advice (http://science.cleapss.org.uk/Resource-Info/L196-Managing-Risk-Assessment-in-Science.aspx), and integrated instructions may prove useful (https://dave2004b.wordpress.com/integrated-instructions/)
  • Observations – take the opportunity of your training year to observe as much as possible, inside and outwith your department. For example, you can learn a lot about different teaching styles by going to English and History, how students are taught their maths from that department, and student management from D&T and PE.
  • Key people in the school – get to know the support staff who can make your life easier, and tend to be very supportive of new teachers. Your technicians are critical – talk to them regularly about what you want to do – they’ll probably have suggestions about what will and won’t work, and will know what can be done; school office – the staff here keep the school running in the background and are an invaluable source of support and advice; cleaners – make their and your life easier by training your students in the importance of tidying up after themselves (minimise cut and stick activities!); canteen staff – they keep you watered and fed; reprographics / common room support – give them as much notice as possible if you need large volumes of copying etc; IT support – they’ll keep your hardware and software working.
  • Assessment – try to keep a balance between the lesson preparation and assessment. There will be some things you have to mark based on requirements of the school and department – e.g. topic tests, in-topic assessments, end of year exams, as these will be used by heads of department for whole school progress checking etc. Most departments will have an assessment policy which you should take account of, but hopefully you will be given some latitude in what and how you assess. Not every piece of work needs marking. Be selective, and identify the purpose of the assessment – how will it inform you? What will you do with this information? How will it inform your teaching next-steps? Whole class feedback has proved very useful for me in speeding up marking and improving feedback – it also feeds into my teaching of topics next time round.
  • Extra-curricular – do get involved in the wider life of the school, but keep it to a minimum during your training year – the major part of you role as a teacher early on is in the classroom, teaching your subject – your main focus should be on getting good at this.
  • Classroom management – draw strongly on the support of your mentor, head of department and the pastoral team. Your school will have a behaviour management policy – read it and know what the available rewards and sanctions are for student behaviour. Then talk to teachers in the school, and check how consistently the policy is enforced. If there are local variations in department, make sure you know these at the start.
  • Engagement with the professional bodies – joining the Royal Society of Chemistry and Association of Science Education gives access to support, advice, resources and ideas from people in your area and across the country.
  • Work-life balance – the training year is one of the most intense years in your teaching career. Try to have a full day off at the weekend, and at least one evening off per week. Spend time with friends and family, carry on with a sport or hobby – teaching is a job that will fill the time available regardless of how much time you devote to it – that remains that same in my 12th year of teaching as was in my first year.

Ultimately, my advice is to remember that the teaching career is a marathon, not a sprint. If you are committed to a long career in teaching, keep this in mind. Remember that “good enough” is good enough in your training year.

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