L-plate educators need greater support – The Irish Times

Driving figures of eights around a freshly mown field may not be “real” driving, but it meant I already had a good sense of how to manoeuvre a car when I took my first practical driving lesson. Sheer repetition in a low-risk environment gave me invaluable practice at the part of driving that can more easily be predicted – and controlled. Once on the road, this liberated some of my focus for the frantic world outside the vehicle and entirely beyond my control.

While there is obviously plenty of real contact with pupils during teacher training, the teaching part is merely real-life application of what one has studied in theory. Each newly qualified teacher or PME (professional master’s of education) student has their own story to share, but all teachers know there are many steep learning curves en route from being a learner teacher to having one’s full licence.

On placement we learn about and experience the process of teaching. As student teachers we are acutely aware of the vulnerability of our positions – and so is everyone else. We are loved while on placement, partly because we are a novelty, and often because we are typically younger than the group’s regular teacher. For pupils, there is lots to be curious about, as anything worth knowing about the full-time staff members has long been revealed. And so, when on placement, we feel their keen interest in us, and many pupils embrace the opportunity for a fresh start with a new teacher.

How teachers behave among themselves is impossible to hide over the duration of a placement, and so PME teachers learn plenty about the culture of work in schools

Really interesting learning can occur here if a student who doesn’t usually do well at a subject blossoms in new hands. A trainee teacher’s liaison or link teacher may delight in this and see it as something they will benefit from when they return to their class group. Others, regrettably, may feel threatened, and have an urge to question how things could possibly be better in this teacher’s hands. A PME is only learning the craft, after all.

For a learner teacher, experiences such as this can bring early insights into the delicate human interactions which are an inevitable feature of workplaces. How teachers behave among themselves is impossible to hide over the duration of a placement, and so PME teachers learn plenty about the culture of work in schools.

With that in mind, how much do we know about PMEs’ experiences and the potential for exploitation? Given that those entering the profession now do so knowing that their remuneration falls short of many they will work alongside, shouldn’t school cultures focus on giving them as much as possible?

“Giving” does not mean unpaid classes or presuming they are happy to be used as a handy casual sub. When on placement the pupils we teach are not really ours, nor are the school and the colleagues. While we might love our allocated school, perhaps even hope that a vacancy will emerge and permit us to stay or return, our role is nonetheless temporary and short term. Many teachers see this as an opportunity to wield power over a PME student teacher in a way they never could over their “actual” colleagues. And yet these student teachers represent the future of our profession.

The current shortage, increasingly referred to as a crisis, requires an urgent conversation around making teaching a sustainable profession and ensuring it makes sense as a choice in the first place. While the cost of the two-year PME may be beyond our control, those of us already in schools heavily influence the earliest experiences of new arrivals. We may even be central to their thinking on whether teaching feels like a career choice for life.

If there is a national set of standards to be adhered to when schools have a PME teacher, these need greater publicising. If the development of a PME policy has been outsourced to individual schools, this may be core to the varied experiences and the challenges many encounter.

Joined-up thinking permits us to link existing problems and resolve them by coming up with one creative solution; here for example, a principal’s workload would be eased by the provision of one robust set of guidelines. Actual application of these would improve early teaching experiences and increase the likelihood of graduates staying in the profession. An added bonus would follow in improved teacher morale for those starting out in the career. In time, and with the right vision, we may even see fewer headlines portraying the education sector as synonymous with overwork.

The L-plate comes off the car with the same speed as a teacher goes from being a learner teacher to fully qualified. While we may have a national induction process in place, we need to examine its effectiveness given concerns about teacher retention. The idea of suspending career breaks, floated last year, suggests that retention by force is now a strategy, but that would be a very worrying course to pursue. Having to apply force to make us stay would hardly be good publicity for the future generations of teachers.

Better recruitment PR involves recognising the need for solid evidence that teaching is a profession in which one feels supported right from the start, as it is factors such as this which determine whether or not we stay the course.

Those prepared to consider a teaching career are the potential saviours of our profession, but only if they stay. Learners’ needs are considered top priority in schools. It is only when this includes the learner teacher that we actively ensure their early days in the profession will whet their appetite for a lifelong commitment.

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