‘I’m a teacher, so let me teach’

Scotland’s schools are facing a recruitment crisis, so Thomas Norton finds it hard to fathom why those who have completed on-the-job training in England are made to jump through hoops before being allowed to work in classrooms north of the border
5th April 2019, 12:03am
When There Is A Teacher Shortage In Scotland, Why Do Teachers Trained In England Have To Jump Through Hoops To Work Here?


‘I’m a teacher, so let me teach’


Moments before entering the classroom at the start of my training year, one of my colleagues advised: “Don’t tell them you’re a trainee.” I greeted my first class as a wide-eyed unqualified teacher and it very quickly dawned on me that I was the only adult in the room. For the first time, at the beginning of the new school year, there was no one observing, no one with clipboards taking notes for follow-up feedback, no one able to step in if I needed it. It was me. Just me, 30 children and a PowerPoint with an overengineered seating plan.

That experience was terrifying. I vividly remember thinking to myself that the department office was next door and, if I did need to scream, someone would hopefully hear me and come to my assistance. However mortifying that first lesson, I realised that I really had only two options: walk out and leave the profession in which I had personally invested a lot of money and time trying to join - or deal with it. I chose the latter, and that whole experience has made me much more resilient as a teacher.

Unfortunately, that method of training did not enable me to make an easy move from teaching in England (where I trained) to Scotland and, having jumped through several hoops to become a trainee in the first place, I found that the system north of the border presented me with a few more hoops - hoops that I suggest ought to be re-evaluated in order to overcome the recruitment and retention crisis facing schools in Scotland.

Like a lot of employment-based routes, my training awarded me only with qualified teacher status (QTS) at the end. There was no academic qualification, even though I did meet academic requirements to achieve my QTS, and all my training and the judgements made of it were conducted against the backdrop of the teachers’ standards in England (see bit.ly/TeachStandards).

This lack of formal academic qualification for prospective teachers is currently not acceptable to the General Teaching Council of Scotland (GTCS). I know there is a reason for this: to ensure consistent high standards of trainees and teachers. This decision, however, has a tangible impact on prospective teachers from outside Scotland. For instance, before registering with the GTCS, I had no choice but to complete a part-time “top-up” postgraduate qualification, using my (not so) free evenings and weekends.

The course was pretty much designed for those who trained on the job in England or Wales and who wanted to register in Scotland. Many other participants in my cohort happened to be Scottish themselves, but had trained south of the border for whatever reason. Therefore, the system upheld by the GTCS seems to be squeezing out willing recruits for Scottish schools. Of course, that postgraduate qualification (a PGCE) was not free and it required real consideration as to whether I thought it worth it to gain registration in Scotland. I imagine many other willing potential teachers for Scotland had similar considerations and thought it not wise to pursue registration.

Furthermore, none of the money spent on my PGCE went towards the GTCS or any other facet of Scottish education - it went to an English university. So, who is this system actually benefiting, if it is potentially putting off budding teachers from joining a system in Scotland in need of more recruits?

Perhaps this policy decision has been borne out of a lack of understanding or, dare I say it, a lack of respect for flexible training routes from south of the border. This is misguided as, certainly in my experience, training on the job has made me a much more resilient and effective teacher.

Musical chairs

My QTS training year was intense: I do not believe I have ever worked as hard. A variety of different colleagues conducted weekly graded observations of my teaching. Once a week, I had a meeting with an in-school mentor, who was on hand to set goals, targets and offer advice. I also had an external mentor who came to visit and observe at least once a term.

I attended lectures, training days and conducted a range of pedagogical research, culminating in two essays and some action research in one of my classrooms. I also had a six-week placement to a completely different secondary school, and visited a primary school as well as a special educational needs school in order to gain a broader overview of the education system.

At the end of it all, I presented my portfolio of evidence; this, as well as my teaching, was appraised by another external observer whom I hadn’t met before. I am happy to be corrected on this assertion, but I am not sure how I could further have been judged as a competent teacher. I know the full-time PGCE route follows a similar path of training and assessment, too.

One of the more valuable aspects of my employment-based training was that, even as a trainee, I conducted all the usual business of a schoolteacher, which provided a real insight into workload demands and the changing nature of those demands throughout the year. Although I had a reduced timetable, I did learn how to teach and plan lessons independently to an agreed scheme of work. I marked books, followed school policies, attended Inset days and department meetings, phoned home, dealt with behaviour, attended parents’ evenings, worked closely with learning support to best personalise support for students, and ran assemblies with my tutor group.

To an onlooker, I would have seemed like just another ordinary teacher. The subject of my being a trainee simply never came up outside of my department, which was highly involved in supporting me. In fact, I’m not sure the students even knew, and being with classes from September to July meant I built strong relationships with them. It taught me the importance of positive interactions with all students, something I do not think I would have learned on a full-time PGCE - where I would have conducted short- and medium-term placements - quite as succinctly.

I do not mean to suggest that my training year was all bells and whistles, and that I was on an inexorable path to greatness and glory. It was bewildering, frightening and, at times, messy - and halfway through, I was told I might fail: I was faced with the realisation that, if I didn’t spend every spare moment on my training, then all those hoops I had jumped through would be for nothing.

Yet, having made countless errors, and gained the support of colleagues and the respect of students, I learned invaluable lessons from those mistakes, lessons that I use every single day.

For example, I used to overcomplicate seating plans, at one point changing them every half term for a particularly challenging class. I was convinced this was the silver bullet and that alterations of the seating arrangements would solve all my problems. Writing this now makes me realise just how absurd that was, but I needed to go through the motions with it to really understand. I eventually realised that changing the plan constantly just looked like I’d always got the seating wrong: the students saw through this and, as you might guess, responded in kind.

I have since learned to make small, intermittent and subtle changes to seating arrangements but, as I realised, a fresh seating plan does not solve all teachers’ problems when it comes to challenging students. Instead, we need to look at the bigger picture. More often than not, I change the way I interact with such students to build a stronger and more positive relationship.

Learning “on the job” gave me the time and space to reflect on mistakes and the opportunity to try new strategies. Not only did this reflection help to develop my classroom management, but I also began to see improvements in student progress owing to different strategies I put in place.

I altered the way I presented feedback to students to get them to focus on areas of improvement in their writing. I also found that I could lessen workload pressures by marking little and often, and spacing out assessments where possible.

I figured out how to read a class to mix up activities; when to push them harder and when to lay off them a little. I also realised the power of high expectations. All these reflections were as a result of an almost evolutionary training process and learning about teaching through doing.

There is a teacher recruitment and retention crisis affecting schools north and south of the border. In December 2018, the EIS union said there were just over 51,000 teachers employed in Scotland compared with 55,000 in 2007. I don’t believe that opening Scotland up to recognising employment-based training will be the one saving grace countering the plethora of issues surrounding said crisis. However, it can only serve to help with one important facet of providing more available teachers for classrooms.

Stronger and more resilient

I believe that my method of training has made me a stronger and more resilient teacher. It also meant that my probationary or NQT year was a breeze by comparison. I actually thoroughly enjoyed my NQT year and relished further opportunities to attend training; I felt I had the classroom management side of the job under control, and nothing really fazed me about the other demands of being a teacher.

Colleagues who completed postgraduate qualifications at a university often say they wish they’d had more time in a school before becoming an NQT, as they felt everything was thrown at them at once. Perhaps it was all thrown at me, too - but it was just that I was unqualified and possibly able to hide behind the “trainee” label a little and, at times, plead ignorance.

Like most teachers, I love my job. I love working with young people and there is nothing more enriching or thrilling than being in a class full of them. I have come a long way from that first encounter with a class, when screaming came to mind and I got by on the faint hope of somehow being rescued. I still make a great many mistakes and I will still try to learn from them.

I do not resent the particular hoops I have had to jump through to get where I am; I embrace them. They have become part of my individual experience, steering me through my journey as a teacher. One or two fewer hoops might have been nice, but I made it through, and - it bears repeating - I’m in a job that I love.

Utilising teachers who have trained through alternative methods can help diversify the workforce, and provide a range of learning opportunities for aspiring teachers. Surely, then, we would be better off as a profession if we opened up to a wide variety of different training methods.

Thomas Norton is a teacher of history and politics in Scotland, who trained and previously worked in England. He tweets @MrNorton87

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