There isn’t really anything in the teacher training handbooks or that I really recall from my PGCE course that addresses (or prepares you for) the role of Form Tutor. No one I spoke to ever picked out being a form tutor as a highlight – and there are times I can understand why.
In the few schools I have been lucky to work in, the form system has been slightly different but all of them have a ‘to do’ list as long as your arm in terms of paperwork to complete on their students. However, what all of these schools did have in common was the obvious respect students had for their form tutor. The relationships between teacher and student appeared stronger than those I had witnessed in any subject classroom.
Vertical tutoring: challenge or solution?
In the school I work at we have vertical tutor groups – so a mix of four or five students from each year group. A challenge? When covering difficult issues such as drugs and sexting, it certainly can be! What is suitable for one age group simply isn’t for another. Was it what I expected? Not at all! I was really skeptical that it would work, particularly as I had only seen Year Group based tutor groups, but I found myself watching how my year 11s would interact with year 7s and wondered where else you would see this: students in Year 11 supporting younger students and how kids that would never normally speak to each other in the corridors were sat around talking and working together.
Last year as an NQT, I had a lovely form group, other teachers were envious of the great set of students I had in my group, but they weren’t without their issues. A student who was struggling to settle into life as a Year 7, needed to be monitored in terms of his Attitude to Learning and discuss how to behave in situations that made him angry. Year 11s were beginning to feel the pressure and stress as exams loomed ahead – this was probably where most of my time was focused in the spring and early summer. It seemed many of the older students felt an excruciating amount of pressure to do well in exams and that if they didn’t they would be total failures. It opened my eyes to how the target driven nature of schooling in the UK has turned our children into quivering wrecks every May! Teaching students to understand that, of course exams are important but that they also need to have a sense of perspective about them in order to avoid the ridiculous amount of stress that was building, became an on-going lesson.
The impact of social media
In Years 9 and 10, it’s not exams that are a form tutor’s biggest concern – it’s all about the friendship issues. Who’s falling out with who? The issues of cyberbullying and the joys that are Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. The powers of texting really came to light for me as I saw the effects on a number of students who were being taunted and talked about via social media. Another reminder of how times have changed. It is a very different experience for young adults when they go through friendship issues at school these days and it doesn’t just stop at 3.25 when the final bell rings.
Form tutors: mentors, coaches and sympathetic ears
Despite all of these tough issues, as a form tutor it’s an amazing opportunity to really get to know students – both their good sides and their bad! Your role becomes more of a mentor, someone who can listen to his or her issues and try to coach them through the ways in which they can respond. You have a small group of students that you feel like a parent too. Even though you don’t necessarily teach them you feel responsible for them and their happiness at school. You scold them when they are naughty and you praise them when they have done well. You speak to them about their strengths and weaknesses and you suggest ways in which they can get better. And when they do, you beam with pride. You feel disappointed when they fail, but you’re not judgmental and instead you help them to figure out where to go next.
Yes, no doubt every form teacher has paperwork to complete – signing homework planners, checking attendance, calling parents (usually when they have been in trouble) and 101 other jobs in between. For me, the role of being a form tutor and the impression we could have on students was summed up when a student, who was in my form a year ago, returned this Christmas to give me a present and card. She said that my support had helped her complete her exams and that she couldn’t have done it without me. It’s moments like this (that you don’t always get as a subject teacher) that make the stresses and strains of teaching worthwhile.
I have been moved to Sixth Form this year, which will be interesting and I’m sure will offer a whole different set of issues to deal with. To anyone who is taking on the challenge of being a form tutor I would say, enjoy it! You have the chance to make a huge difference to a student’s life in ways above and beyond just the academic!