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The best of both worlds

Mike Lamb is keeping his options open by teaching at primary and secondary schools

It was to be an interesting day: my first day at my new school, my second placement as part of my science PGCE. When the bell rang I wasn't carried along in a sea of red jumpers and oversized school bags, or jammed between two fire doors. There was no shrieking in the corridors. All the classrooms I entered were packed full of calm and attentive learners and in one class I was even greeted by a full-on "Good morning, Sir" by the smiling throng. That's when it hit home that I was in a primary school.

As one of a small number of students in the country studying a 7-14 PGCE (there are only 20 people on our course and seven providers nationally), I feel privileged to be working in a secondary and primary school as part of my study year, but my view is not shared by all.

"So you'll only be able to work in a middle school then?" a teacher at my first placement had inquired. "That will cut down your options won't it?" I had hoped I might be widening them.

I settled on this course as not only did it seem to give me more choices (potentially I could work in primary or secondary schools), but experience told me that I had enjoyed working with children of all ages. I had not spent much time in schools for several years and wasn't too sure what to expect from either sector.

My fellow students had chosen this route for a variety of reasons: some as they particularly liked this age group; some to keep their options open; some were born to be primary teachers but loved their subjects (Sussex University offers 7-14 courses in maths, science and modern foreign languages); and you simply couldn't get a place on a primary course in the area.

What I found interesting was the split opinions of those already in the profession. My primary school teacher friends shuddered at the thought of working with overbearing thugs, hell bent on starting school riots and instigating teenage pregnancies, and everything else that came with being a secondary school teacher.

Those who taught in secondary schools were even more perplexed: why on earth would I choose to surround myself with "snotty squits" who only let go of your trouser legs to pee themselves?

It seemed that those on either side of the divide could not entertain the idea of working on the "dark side". As such, when I begun the course I had prepared myself for the worst.

After weeks of re-learning everything from Hooke's law to the periodic table and reliving that "burning hair" smell in my science lessons, I thought my secondary placement had left me saturated with useful information, as well as buoyant with enthusiasm. However, my first day on my primary placement suggested that there was more to be gained through this course.

On arrival at my new placement, I had soon witnessed effective differentiation and peer assessment across the class, each illustrated in a calm and stimulating environment, and that was all before break. This was not only a new school, but a totally different way of teaching and learning.

The ability of the class teacher to manage different activities effortlessly, answer a barrage of questions, write beautifully on the board, and all the while maintain a smile was impressive to say the least. Top this with teaching everything from compound sentence structure to long division, the universe and religion (all in one day), and suddenly being a primary teacher didn't seem like the "easy option" that some of our fellow students studying the secondary PGCE had thought it might be.

Believing I had just about mastered some of the skills of the classroom during my first placement, I once again feel at the bottom of an exceptionally steep learning curve. So far the major challenges have included the drastic change in working environment, the need to cover a wide range of content (that has seen me revisiting grammar I didn't even know I had learnt before) and the attention to detail and differentiation in every lesson, to name a few. It has also become apparent that there will be a lot more to take in and learn.

Despite the concerns and reservations of many, I genuinely feel (and hope) that my experience gained in secondary and primary schools will make me a better teacher in either age group.

Seven months into the course and I have been offered my first teaching position. I applied for a secondary school job, as not only did it offer more opportunity to work extensively with science but it was supported by the opportunity to be more involved with sports, outdoor education and field trips. Ironically, the majority of the teaching will be with over 14-year-olds, which in some way legitimises my course choice as an opportunity to keep my options open

Mike Lamb is studying a 7-14 science PGCE at Sussex University in Brighton.

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