• Emily Rose Seeber

Student, teacher, intern, or trainee: the identity problem


When I started in teaching I was a GTP, working a 50% timetable, constructive observations, and layers and layers of support: weekly ITT classes, meetings with my mentor in Chemistry, and the school ITT lead practitioner. But what is a 'new teacher' in a school environment? Are they just teachers, albeit inexperienced, inexpert ones? Are they students of education? Are they trainees, undergoing a well-planned program of training to maximise their progress? Or are they interns honing their craft?

Most of the time I felt like a teacher; I had reports to write, lessons to plan, students asking endless questions, parents' evenings to negotiate, and I was accountable for student outcomes. My contract said that I was a teacher.

But sometimes I felt like a student. Once a week all the six GTP students in my school gathered together for a 'training' session on a particular aspect of teaching practice. We were in a classroom and did 'activities' or filled in worksheets, and completed guided reflections: the kind of activities that students do in classrooms. We learned bits of educational theory: the kind of learning that I recognised as learning because it was abstract, theoretical and, examinable.

In my conversations with my mentors, however, I didn't really feel like a teacher or a student. I was always referred to as a 'trainee'. We talk about Initial Teacher Training, trainee teachers, pre-service training, etc. This constant use of language made me feel like a trainee. But, according the the Collins dictionary, the word 'trainee' can mean:

  • a person undergoing training, or

  • someone employed at a low level in a particular job in order to learn the skills needed for that job

In education, we tend to think of 'training' as the in-pouring of information into a person and just hoping that they will change their practice. Training is not personal, it is generic: it is not responsive, it is reactionary; it is not discursive, it is efficient. The trainee must adapt to fit the training plan. It is all too often the one-day CPD course. It is not what I experienced in my sessions with my mentors. That was a conversation, not a training session; my mentors acted as facilitators as we discussed counterfactuals, and hypothesised, got excited about new ideas together, made dastardly plans about how I could improve, were open and honest with each other about what was working and what wasn't, were off-topic, onto new ones which were more important for this week than last week's targets, and so on, and so forth. And, crucially, no-one ever made me feel like a second-class citizen.

'Training' is not personal, it is generic: it is not responsive, it is reactionary; it is not discursive, it is targeted.

I do not mean to say that there is not a place for 'training' in the traditional sense. Sometimes a targeted intervention is likely the best course of action. Sometimes there isn't a need for personalisation as what the training covers is new to everyone, or the attendance on the training can be relied on to select the specific group(s) of people the training is intended for. Sometimes things are going really badly, and the teacher educator needs to react decisively, putting training into place for the new teacher to avert disaster which the new teacher just can't see coming.

Today I was listening to Ann Childs speaking about the Oxford University PGCE course, in which she referred to the PGCE students as 'interns' while they were in their placement schools. This use of language struck me because, the concept of interning, entails the idea that a person is becoming more skilled by 'getting practical experience of the work involved in a skilled job': they are not just the recipients of 'training'. The word is more open to interpretation about how to develop skills in an intern: whereas one expects a trainee to undergo training courses so that they are completely 'skilled-up' to complete the task, a mentor may ask an intern to do increasingly challenging aspects of the full workload until they develop the skills to take it on in its entirety. The mentoring adapts to fit the needs of the particular intern. Now, five years on, I have the language to discuss how I felt in my one-on-one sessions with my Chemistry mentor, ITT co-ordinator, and GTP assessor: I felt like an intern.

So I was a teacher, a student, a trainee, and an intern.

I question whether or not all teachers felt like this in their first years on the job? Do they feel as if they are trying to be different people in different contexts? And does this impact on their sense of identity? Can you develop as a teacher and not feel like a teacher, student, trainee, and an intern at some point? Potentially the lines make more sense for people who've come into teaching via the PGCE route, or maybe the association of place and identity, propagates the self-division. Do Teach First people feel more like teachers that the counterparts on the other teacher education routes?

I think I struggled with my identity during that time, although I was oblivious. When my various roles came into conflict, usually over how I spent my time, I invariably chose to be the 'teacher', and my evidence file suffered accordingly. When my teaching had to take a back seat so I could concentrate on passing my GTP assessment, I lost some of my sense of self. The day after I passed I burst into tears in the Director of Staff's office, predominantly from exhaustion, but possibly also as I had this huge personal shift and was no longer going to be an intern or a student any more.

So now, as I become a teacher educator, one of my challenges is to ensure that my mentees feel a coherence in their sense of self, another is to decipher what that identity should entail, a third is to name this 'new teacher' role that encapsulates this identity.

I'd better do some research...

Image from Philographics.

#teachereducation #education

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© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber.