October 13, 2021, by Rupert Knight

Learning to be a subject advocate

In this blog post Anna Baker and Rachael Trott, supported by Catherine Gripton, reflect upon their experiences on the ‘Primary School Direct with Mathematics’ programme, summarising what supports beginning teachers to become advocates for a subject alongside developing their practice in the full range of primary subjects.

Learning to teach

Teaching is complex and learning to be a teacher is complex too. Teacher development is a career long endeavour and a crucial early phase is initial teacher education (ITE). Beginning teachers undertake an enormous amount of professional development in a one year ITE course, making quite amazing progress in a relatively short period. This progress supports them to meet the Teachers’ standards whilst establishing a firm foundation for future development as Early Career Teachers (ECTs) and beyond.

Within the busyness and breadth of primary initial teacher education, subject specialisms are more realistically subject preferences, enthusiasms or relative strengths. These might be based on enjoyable teaching experiences, confidence or prior study (at undergraduate or A-level, for example). It is possible for beginning teachers to build skills as a subject champion, specialist or advocate. The following are four ways that beginning teachers (ITE students or ECTs) can develop their skills as a subject advocate, based upon our experiences of developing mathematics advocacy.

1. Learn to share your enjoyment of the subject

Being a subject advocate is different from being a subject leader and it is important to remember this. You are not expected to know everything about a subject to be an advocate, but rather share your enthusiasm and enjoyment of it. Be positive in your discussions with everyone, from children to colleagues. Throughout this training year, we have felt increasingly comfortable sharing our enjoyment of mathematics with our classes. We show them how we particularly enjoy problem-solving.

2. Learn how to model and encourage positive attitudes towards the subject, being honest and transparent about your approach and also about the challenges

Despite declaring a special interest in a subject, you may not feel like you have much expertise in that area just yet. It is important that you don’t pretend to be perfect and that you model yourself as an enthusiastic learner rather than someone who has advanced knowledge or strong practice in this area. We can share our learning journey and our preferences with children and colleagues, showing that we recognise that learning can be tricky in this area. We find ourselves using sentences such as ‘I found this difficult too but this is how I approached it’. It is important to make mistakes and learn from them, making this clear to others. It is the determination to move forwards that makes you an advocate and not being an expert. We need to know, and share, our understanding (including its limits).

3. Be proactive and open to researching and trialling new and perhaps innovative approaches

Having a special interest means that you might spend a little more time researching primary teaching of this subject. You can identify associations, groups and publications which focus on this subject, picking up ideas for the classroom. In maths, there are lots of websites that have different activities to try in classrooms so searching these is important. Our advice is to explore lots of resources and see what works for you and your class, experimenting and trying new things.

Being prepared to make mistakes enables you to try different approaches. The benefit of being an ITE student or ECT is that you are in a supportive environment where there are mentors and colleagues on hand to help you. This support can provide the confidence to try new things and to innovate your practice and try out things you have read about or observed.

4. Seek out opportunities to develop and to have a wider impact than your own teaching

Being a subject advocate outside of your classroom can help you establish yourself within your school setting. Making the effort to initiate or take part in pupil voice exercises, staff meetings, extra-curricular clubs, and observations across school, can help you make yourself known as being an advocate for the subject. These opportunities to work with pupils and staff within schools have helped us engage with other ITE students or ECTs, as well as experienced teachers.
Advocacy is therefore not about being the most expert teacher in the school or ITE cohort. It is a deliberate attention to, drive and belief about an area of learning. It begins with a particular concern about children’s access to learning in this area and deeply rooted belief that it is essential for children’s lives. We have arrived at a clear distinction between being an expert or leader and being an advocate. We feel strongly that we can all be advocates from the very earliest stages of our teaching career. Although we are advocates for mathematics, we feel this is equally possible for specific approaches or ways of teaching (for example, dialogic practice or forest school) as well as subject areas.

Supporting beginning teachers to develop as subject advocates

Mentors, tutors and colleagues can support beginning teachers to develop as subject advocates through their everyday work with them. Supportive activities might include:

• Whilst supporting development in all areas of primary practice, encourage and nurture specific passions and enthusiasms.

• Be explicit in modelling your thinking in teaching this subject (and your areas of interest) and be transparent about your teaching journey, sharing the ups and the downs along the way.

• Invite beginning teachers to participate in development and other activities in their area of interest, even if it is not directly relevant to their current practice, saying “I am about to do this, would you like to join me?” Don’t wait for the beginning teacher to ask, and sometimes give them a gentle push to get involved.

• Have open and honest dialogue about their development in their area of special interest, using this to decide when to encourage them to go further with this and when to focus on their development in other areas (returning to their special interest at a more suitable point).

• Share research, subject knowledge and planning/assessment resources (new or historic) as these will be of interest to a beginning teacher with a special interest in this area.

• Advocate for beginning teacher, mentioning their interest to others.

• Seek out additional opportunities for them to develop their interest further. This might include helping them to arrange observations of that subject in a range of year groups or even other schools. Help them to gain access to examples of planning for all year groups.

• If possible, help them to find time to work with or collaborate with your school’s subject lead (perhaps in team planning or creating resources) and provide opportunities for them to talk to other people about their area of interest (for example, other beginning teachers in school or other people with a similar interest).

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