Jessie Falvey (26), a new teacher at Bunscoil Rinn an Chabhlaigh, Rushbrooke, Cobh, Co Cork. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
The new teacher mentoring scheme offers crucial support to graduates. So why are primary teachers threatening to withdraw from it?
Jessie Falvey has heard the stories from older colleagues of how they waited in dread for the nerve-jangling knock on the door.
“I’ve heard how stressful it was. Day to day wondering ‘Is this the day the inspector will come in’?; You would be constantly on tenterhooks.”
Under the current probation system, new teachers have to fend for themselves in the classroom without a formal mentoring or support system. It is left to an external inspector to deliver the verdict on whether a teacher makes the grade or not following an unannounced visit.
Falvey, however, has been spared the nail-biting. That’s because she’s one of almost 800 graduates who has taken part in a mentoring scheme for new teachers who are seeking to become registered professionals.
Instead of being plunged into the deep end of a classroom, the Droichead scheme is more of a gentle immersion. Under the system, senior staff members in schools mentor and support new recruits under an induction process.
Within two years it is due to become the only route to registration for all new primary and secondary teachers.
“With Droichead, they see you every day, they know what your classroom management is like,” says Falvey, a 26-year-old teacher from Bunscoil Rinn an Chabhlaigh in Cork, who recently completed the pilot scheme.
“They can see you taking the kids to and from the yard and the projects you’re working on. It’s a case of developing over time as opposed to this one day where someone comes in and you just do the lesson,” says Jessie Falvey.
But discontent is brewing over the new approach. Following a meeting of its annual congress at Easter, the executive of the INTO, the country’s biggest teachers’ union, is balloting members on a directive not to participate in the scheme.
The union argues that its members are overworked and wants teachers to be externally evaluated by a panel of external teachers or principals. It also wants the system to be “properly resourced, funded and remunerated”.
Simon Lewis, an administrative principal at Carlow Educate Together National School and an editor of teachers’ blog Anseo.net, has been critical of the scheme since it was introduced.
“It’s the Irish Water of education, in that, Droichead isn’t a bad idea, it’s a really good idea. The problem, however, is how it’s being rolled out. It should work and could be a brilliant thing, but it’s been introduced and piloted incredibly badly,” he says.
For Lewis, resourcing of the scheme is an issue, as is the fact that only one type of scheme was piloted and that it hasn’t taken into account newly qualified teachers who aren’t “up to scratch”.
A formal welcome
The Teaching Council, which has statutory responsibility for induction and probation, says key changes have been made to the scheme based on the feedback of teachers and professionals.
At its essence, says Tomás Ó Ruairc, director of the Teaching Council, is the idea of the profession leading its own learning, adapted to its own needs.
“It’s a formal welcome to one of the most important professions in society,” he says. “It’s on a par with what most other professions do, where the experienced members of the profession inducts or welcomes a new member when they enter employment for the first time.
“They guide them into their own professional learning in the context of real employment. That is the spirit of Droichead.”
An ESRI report published in March found that new teachers who took part in Droichead showed greater levels of improvement and lower levels of stress than other teachers.
Participating schools reported greater levels of improvement in teaching and learning among their staff, and principals and mentors were reported to be very satisfied with the scheme, which they felt provided structural support.
There are concerns, however. One of the biggest concerns held by principals and mentors is the amount of time the scheme takes up.
Under the scheme, schools get four release days, or substitute cover, for their classes in order to carry out Droichead.
O’Rourke says the number of release days was an issue among some schools that had more than one trainee on the scheme. For those schools, this has now been increased to seven days’ substitute cover.
Another recently announced change is a reduction in the number of hours newly qualified teachers must work in order to complete their induction.
There is an appetite among most in the education system for a change to the current probation system.
Although the scheme has been welcomed by many secondary school principals, and unions such as the ASTI, the issue of Droichead is a more contentious at primary level.
The INTO executive has been instructed to ballot all members before the end of term on a directive not to participate in Droichead unless it takes the form of full external evaluation.
Critics such as Simon Lewis also feel the move is steamrolling a one-size-fits-all solution. He is also critical of the flexibility of the model and says the scheme lacks a standardised appraisal system.
“If you’re someone just out of college, you don’t just want to get lucky. If you get a principal like me who might have one vision, or you go to the principal next door who has a different vision and they are not shared. The newly qualified teacher isn’t on an even platform; everyone is singing off their own hymn sheet.”
Máire Regan-Walsh, a teaching principal in Bawnmore National School in Galway, shares the view that the scheme needs to be much better-resourced in terms of release days. She understands why principals, who already have a “phenomenal workload”, are reluctant to embrace it. Even so, she remains staunchly in favour, believing the outcomes of it to be “incredible rich”.
“I really think we have to aim for the best we can be and I think Droichead reflects that for me. At the end of the day it’s for the benefit of the children. If we can raise standards of teaching and learning in schools, the children will be the beneficiaries, and that’s what we’re there for.”
For Falvey, who spent three years subbing before finding full-time employment last September, the Droichead scheme has greatly enhance her development. “I liked working with my colleagues. I never felt like they were judging me, I just felt like they were there to give support and guidance, which is great when you’re starting off.
“None of us are perfect; you come out of teacher training and you’ve been given the tools but you’re still learning as you go – even if it’s something really small like how you could help a child who was struggling with sitting still in the chair.
“It might be something they have tried with their own class, and then you can try it out with yours. It was all stuff I could definitely put to use, and I think it benefited me and the kids.”
A MENTOR’S VIEW: ‘TIME IS A BIG ISSUE’
Colette Clarke, a German teacher and Droichead mentor at Lucan Community College in Dublin, supports the model – but sees room for improvement
“I think it’s fantastic for young teachers who are coming in and who have great ideas, great enthusiasm and the experience of older folk helps them to settle in; it’s reassuring for them.”
Clarke provides direction, feedback and tips on a whole host of different educational issues.
A huge amount of contact with her trainees is held informally, over lunch or between classes. However, finding the time to observe an individual’s teaching skills is challenging, she says.
“Time is a big issue because you don’t want to be missing your sixth or third years, or any years really.
“I tend to use my free classes, which is not what we are supposed to be doing.
“And it’s not only that class you’re sitting in on [to observe], but immediately afterwards you’re technically supposed to be evaluating what just happened and discussing how it went, but we might not get to do that until lunchtime which can be two or more classes away.”
DROICHEAD: HOW IT WORKS
Under the current probation system, a new teacher is given a period of time to teach (100 days at primary; 300 hours at secondary), followed by a surprise external inspection towards the end. There is no formal mentoring system in place.
This will all change under the Droichead scheme: new teachers are assigned a mentor, who they can reach out to for advice and feedback, have their classes regularly observed, and attend workshops with other trainees covering a range of educational issues.
The approach a school takes to adopting Droichead is flexible, as is “confirming” that the teacher has successfully completed the process and is thus a fully qualified professional.
Experienced senior staff members can carry out the mentoring process, or a principal can ask an external person, appointed by the National Induction Programme for Teachers, to work with staff in the school to induct the newly qualified teacher.