As a student teacher, day one of your first-ever teaching placement seems like the most nerve-racking day of them all.
You were told teaching would be hard. No one told you, though, just how rewarding it feels, especially when you reach your milestones as a student teacher. You hold your first-ever class lesson, you help a child solve a problem and witness the joy on that child’s face, and you truly step into the teacher role for the very first time, embracing every single experience.
Before applying for university, I considered various careers, including midwifery, early-years education, nursing and then teaching. When I finally looked further into teaching and started getting a little experience in schools, I decided on becoming a primary teacher, although I was still slightly unsure about it.
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Since passing my first-year placement at university, I have never been so glad to have picked teaching. But last year – despite having assignments to work on – all that occupied my mind was the placement. I was so unbelievably nervous.
I had constant questions on my mind. Will my teacher like me? Will the children like me? What if I fail? What if I can’t handle the workload? What if I can’t handle the class? With hindsight, I was asking myself all the wrong, negative questions. I wish I had told myself not to panic so much, because I ended up having two incredibly supportive mentors.
The placement was a two-week block, then a four-week block. In week one, I would hold two group lessons; by week six, I would teaching for two full days.
My first class lesson was in week two, when I asked the children to write imaginative stories on what they think it would be like in space. In all honesty, even though the children were excited and engaged, the lesson ultimately ended up a flop, as I hadn’t taught enough to support the children in their writing, and failed to take into account all abilities. This is something I’ve discovered is essential to teaching, especially full-class lessons: differentiation is key.
By my final week, I was enjoying a particularly memorable lesson in the PE department, where I used a parachute to promote team-building. Although this will seem very little to a qualified teacher who has a class five full days a week, these were big steps for a first-year student aged 19.
Looking back, I spent the first two weeks worrying about the four weeks to come, when I would be expected to take the class for full days. I tried to focus on building relationships with the children and staff in order to dispel that negativity.
Listening to children and acknowledging their responses feels as if it promotes respect between you and the pupil. According to Hook and Vass (Behaviour Management Pocketbook, 2011) if a teacher is to respond to a child’s misbehaviour respectfully and tranquilly rather than raising their voice, and can point out any possible positives in the behaviour, they are less likely to get an argument or indignant response from the child.
At first, though, I found it hard to see positives in some children’s behaviour because it forced me watch that particular child and teach the rest of the class at the same time. But I began to realise that finding strategies that work for me (and the class) was a process of experimentation, not just following class routines.
In one lesson, I realised I had kept the class at the board for too long with little opportunity to talk. Most did listen well but, when it came to the tasks, the children were letting out all the energy they had been holding in.
In contrast, an ICT lesson I taught went well. I had gone over the lesson’s learning intentions, done a little bit of teaching then sent the class off to their own computers. Then, I brought them back to teach the next part, sent them back again, and so on: I broke the learning up and gave them plenty of time to explore each task.
In that first school placement, it was as if I was learning alongside the class. I became more open to trying new things in lessons, such as launching rockets with the class. I always felt that elaborate, ambitious lessons like this were the ones the class seemed to enjoy the most but also those which required the most time spent planning.
Among other students in my year group, experiences were mixed. With two teacher mentors, I had the chance to watch two different styles of teaching, which I previously had not realised existed. Some students were struggling to have this sort of relationship with their mentor, but I was being told by mine that “[the skills of teaching] will come over time”. It was reassuring and reminded me that I was still only a first year.
Some evenings I would receive a text from one of my mentors reassuring me that I was doing well and that they were proud of me. They were both utterly sympathetic to my situation. On my last day, I learned of a family bereavement; my teacher-mentor completely understood and let me go home as soon as I heard, even though I had planned something for that afternoon. It reminded me that a work-life balance is crucial, which I feel should be emphasised more early in teachers’ careers.
After my very first experience as a primary teacher, I can safely say it is tough, that teaching is an intense career which demands hard work and determination. But, from thinking I wouldn’t even get into university, I think I have found my true calling. Thanks to a placement I will never forget – and a bit like that ambitious rocket-launching lesson – I now feel my career as a teacher is beginning to take off. It is a truly phenomenal feeling.
Courtney Stewart is an undergraduate primary teaching education student at the University of Dundee. She tweets @UOD_CourtneySt