New teachers in challenging environments: what support is crucial?

Understanding what support matters most for new teachers is critical for Teach First.  It formed one aspect of our ‘Outliers’ Study: interviews with twenty-five participants (and two colleagues of each teacher) who had thrived in particularly challenging schools. Every single case study highlighted the impact of practical support in aspects such as planning, assessment and behaviour management; twenty-three also emphasised the importance of emotional support. This post summarises what we learned about the support that mattered most (it focuses on the support provided, not on which supporter offered it).

Asked to explain the quality of the support she received from her tutor, Eleanor noted he had “so much experience and so much knowledge.” Depth of experience was mentioned as important in seven case studies; supporters’ understanding of the Teach First programme was also deemed helpful for five. Participants linked this expertise directly to many aspects of their success: Katie referred to her confidence in her mentor, Fiona to how much she was able to learn through observing her colleague, Darren emphasised that the specificity of his targets derived from his supporter’s teaching excellence. Understanding of the programme helped too: Kyle said his school approached him with “eyes wide open” and knew what help he required.
The most frequent way in which supporters passed on their expertise was through observations and detailed, pragmatic feedback: something mentioned explicitly in fifteen of the twenty-five case studies. Marcy described one colleague as “probably the best mentor I’d ever had… always being there with observations of me, always doing feedback, being completely supportive but also very open and honest.”  Conor appreciated his subject mentor telling him “specifically where at different points I could have improved”, Kyra valued advice on the “nitty gritty” of teaching – planning; the content, activities and pace of lessons; the needs of individuals and exam requirements. In Josh’s case, practical support extended to advising him how to approach his role: “At first I tried to do everything… she would be like ‘No, this is your priority, what are the most important things you need to do?’  She helped me figure out what I needed to do and when.”
Many supporters also passed on their experience through modelling their work and thought processes. Kyle’s mentor described the importance of “the time to actually be alongside him”, collaborating on planning and delivery; Sara’s mentor believed the biggest help she provided was discussing and modifying lesson ideas through co-planning. Six teachers mentioned being encouraged to visit their mentor’s classrooms at will; Katie noted that this openness and honesty about her mentor’s teaching also helped them develop a close relationship. Some trainees also received support in the moment; Josh described an experienced colleague who provided “On hand support when you need it”: he had “the intrinsic knowledge of ‘This is what I’m going to do to resolve this situation’ and could take control of it without diminishing my authority within the classroom and amongst others, which is really clever… he just has a series of strategies that I could just use straight away.”
“We had a relationship that wasn’t just meeting once a week,” Liza said of her mentor. “We spoke every day… I think the relationship we formed was both professional and friendly and I’ve been able to talk to her about all sorts of things. Both about school or how school is affecting my life, and that was really big for me.” Her experience combines the importance of supporters being available (mentioned in eighteen of our twenty-five cases) and approachable (discussed by twelve). The kinds of ongoing conversations Liza mentioned were hugely appreciated: Jack described how Derek would “pop into his lesson when he’s free”; Kyra and her fellow participants gathered in her classroom every morning, and held a ‘debrief’ at the end of each day. Many supporters specifically emphasised their availability to their trainees; Marcy noted her tutor “was amazing at saying, ‘Right, your school is a bit crazy, I’m just here.’” Being able to trust their supporters was also crucial; Fiona explained that “You need one person at least that you feel comfortable going to and saying what is wrong and not feeling ashamed or embarrassed by it that it’s something you can’t handle”.

“When I couldn’t plan a lesson or I was thinking, no, there is just no way I can do this anymore, my tutor would always be there and he would just be like, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.  Of course you can’. He was a real calming influence… he was really, really pleased for you every time you succeeded in something…  his confidence made me more confident in myself, definitely.” Eleanor’s description of the impact of her tutor’s encouragement and challenge was echoed by nine other trainees.  An unusual example of the intentional way in which supporters built their trainees confidence comes from Diana’s subject tutor, who would “email her Dad quite a lot… and tell her how well she was getting on… she really got a bit of buzz out of that, knowing that he knew that she was doing well.” Supporters were also able to offer encouragement by providing trainees with a sense of perspective, something which emerged in ten case studies, and help them maintain a grasp of a big picture, mentioned in five. Warner’s subject tutor boosted his morale by “acknowledging the reality of the situation”; “I think it’s absolutely fine to say you have one of the hardest jobs here.” Through this, supporters were able to push teachers further: one reported her tutor telling her “You’re going to be outstanding by the end of the year Marcy, I don’t care that you’re in quite a challenging school, I don’t care that you have a challenging mentor, you’re going to be outstanding and this is what we are going to do to make you outstanding.”
“We were there for each other and are still there for each other now. If one of us is stressed we’ll talk to each other and message each other when we get home.” Ten interviewees emphasised the value of solidarity with colleagues or fellow trainees. “Sara was quite lucky”, one colleague suggested; her department formed a “good group”, a strong, resilient team with vision, youth and enthusiasm, “looking to make the department better”. In two exceptionally challenging schools, Teach First participants’ closest and most powerful supporters were one another: “we kept each other going,” Amanda said.
In sum, our study suggested that the ideal is support provided by approachable, experienced supporters, willing to give their time generously in order to share their experience, provide practical advice and offer emotional support.
All names have been changed.
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