Sixth Form Experience: Trainee, Mentor and Tutor perspectives
By Megan Kemp (UoM PGCE History trainee), Tom Donnai (PGCE History Tutor) and Ben Scott (Professional Mentor, Wellington School)
Megan Kemp, PGCE History trainee
Although our experiences at both of our placement schools had been massively rewarding, there was one area where our skills were yet to be developed: the challenge of teaching A-Level History in a sixth form setting. As our placement schools catered only for students aged 11-16, our tutor Tom Donnai set up a two-day excursion to the excellent Wellington School, Timperley. We’d covered A-level History previously at University and were now keen to put our learning into practice by planning and teaching revision sessions to Wellington’s wonderful year 13 students.
We got a good feeling as soon as we walked into school: from the VC memorial in the reception to the satirical Trump memorabilia in teachers’ classrooms, you were immediately greeted with the sense that this is a school that takes its history seriously, but with the personable twist that is so key to engaging students in the subject. Fellow PGCE Historian Emma Hollis (in Timperley by way of Canberra, Australia) is joining a great department as an ECT next year!
Our two days were spent teaching and observing Y12 students in History and Politics lessons under the stewardship of the gregarious Mr. Scott, and his dedicated and enthusiastic department. We saw politics pupils taking responsibility for their learning with independent presentations and responding to challenging questions on constitutional reform with aplomb. In history it was a real joy to see the depth of understanding and analysis of a variety of epochs that the students were able to engage with. What’s interesting with A–level history is that while the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the subject are no different to KS3 and GCSE history, the atmosphere and classroom culture seem subtly different, with a really nice, discursive feeling that reminded me of my undergraduate seminars somewhat.
Megan and Ethan deliver the first of their revision sessions to Year 12 Wellington History students
During our time at Wellington, we were tasked with teaching pupils on the dying days of the Wars of the Roses and the rise of Henry VII – a real challenge for us modern European historians and definitely not my ‘specialist subject’ on Mastermind! After a frantic night reading up on the subtle nuances of 15th century politics, we delivered our session to pupils who were both respectful and intelligent, and asked probing questions that kept us on our toes.
After our teaching sessions, we were invited to witness a debate club centred on prison reform; this was a controversial topic that was explored with both maturity and loquacious zeal. As Tom would say, it was a great example of ‘zesty discourse’ and that is most certainly a good thing in the classroom. It allowed us to see the more personal, informal side to the students at an age that we were previously unfamiliar with in the classroom. The students had clearly done their research and approached the debate with an enthusiasm that reflects the ethos of the school at large. There are definitely some budding politicians and historians amongst them!
Even during such a short time we were both able to get a taste of the student-teacher dynamics for sixth form teaching, and I’m definitely keen to teach A-level as my career progresses. One thing we all agreed on was the critical role that secure subject knowledge plays when teaching post 16. Massive thanks to all involved at Wellington.
Tom Donnai, PGCE History Tutor
It’s often said that the step up between GCSE and A-level History is considerable, but in all honesty it’s very rare that our PGCE Historians don’t enjoy the experience of teaching A-level. There are, however, significant training issues that need to be addressed before trainees set foot in the Sixth form setting. One area we always like to address early is an awareness of the exam specification and question types; both have a big bearing on pedagogical approaches and the planning process. This is often best addressed by getting University inputs from experienced teachers of A-level who know both the specification and its demands intimately, and over the past two years we’ve been lucky to have Ben Scott of Wellington School deliver the A-level training for our PGCE Historians.
An in-depth look at examples of pupil work always works well, and the opportunity to ‘ghost mark’ some student responses is a powerful way of finding out ‘what to look for’ in a strong response. Helping students to structure their responses gives useful transferable skills for teaching at KS3 and KS4 too. The issue of building subject knowledge is less straightforward and it’s in this area that trainees sometimes feel out of their depth. It’s salutary to remember that pretty much everyone who has ever taught A-level has felt like this at some point, and this is why teaching is often referred to as a ‘life-long apprenticeship’. My advice is straightforward: read widely, watch great teachers at every opportunity, and remember to engage with the wider practitioner community on Twitter which can be an invaluable source of ideas and materials.
Ben Scott, Professional Mentor, Wellington School
This year more than ever we have been critically aware at Wellington of the need to help provide opportunities for experience and development. Thankfully, the UoM trainees were able to get a feel for almost ‘normal’ sixth form teaching [masks aside!] and it was clear they gained a lot from the experience. An intensive two day programme of observations followed by the delivery of revision lessons seemed to work well and it was great to witness the pedagogical discussions that went into the planning and preparation for Megan and Ethan’s delivery; they are both talented individuals. Ad hoc discussions with those students who were taught by Megan and Ethan demonstrated that they left with a much better understanding of the issues which they would be tackling in their upcoming studies. The partnership between UoM and Wellington continues to go from strength to strength and we are delighted to have recruited a PGCE Historian from UoM to help drive the department forward with a fresh perspectives and insights!