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Out with the old, in with a new life

After a tentative beginning, student primary teacher Judith Fryer is growing in classroom competence and confidence that changing career was a good move

I never thought I would feel nervous about reading a book entitled The Busy Tractor. However, I did when, on the second day of my first observation placement, the primary class teacher asked if I would like to tell the children a story.

Feeling nervous is something I have grown used to over the first half of the eight-month PGCE course. Also, feeling very, very tired. I expected that, especially after meeting a recent graduate the day before the course began. She assured me I would be "very, very busy". Her husband went further, simply saying it would be "hell" - he was meaning for my husband.

I felt shocked at how anxious I was on the first morning at college. I have held down some pretty high-pressure jobs since graduating in 1988, have had the courage to get married and go through childbirth. But that first day I could barely muster an introduction: not very good for someone who has been a professional communicator for the best part of a decade.

Just over 80 of us are on the course, ranging in age from early 20s to mid-40s. Among us are music teachers, teaching assistants, social workers, a lawyer, an accountant, retail and catering managers, mothers and others, all with different stories of how and why we have decided to come into teaching, plus a couple of secondary school teachers who have decided to retrain.

My own story was the reason I was so nervous. I had given up a comfortable way of life which, although I wasn't finding it rewarding, had taken my whole adult working life to achieve. I was earning a decent salary as the press officer at Strathclyde University and had earned the respect of colleagues. On the way I had been a news reporter and head of press for the Liberal Democrats during four hectic years at Westminster.

It was daunting to start all over again. My biggest fear, apart from managing all the study so that I can reach those scores of benchmarks in Standards for Initial Teacher Education, was that I wouldn't like it. Then I would not only be back at square one, but back there without an income.

The tutors were all pretty upbeat. Although they seemed to relish reminding us at every opportunity that we had a tough year ahead, even the maths lecturer seemed confident that this would be the time in our lives when we would realise that "Maths is fun".

The aim is to get us to a point where we are "consciously competent". During those first few weeks we were all classed as "unconsciously incompetent", people who, in our wilder moments, thought teaching must be fairly straightforward. In reality, looking around at my neighbours' faces, I felt we were well on the way to the next stage of being "consciously incompetent". We were becoming only too uncomfortably aware of just how incompetent we were and beginning to get some measure of the height and number of hurdles ahead.

On that first placement in early September, ploughing through The Busy Tractor, some of the 30 five and six-year-olds started to look around for something more interesting, so I had a shot at audience participation. Dutifully, most of them chanted the names of the animals prancing across the book's pages, we wondered aloud how the tractor managed its work without a driver and they assured me they had all seen scarecrows many times.

Reflecting afterwards - too late! - I remembered that I should have asked open-ended questions. Still, I was at the bottom of a steep learning curve. At least I am in the habit of reviewing my day's work and resolving to do better next time, and being a "reflective practitioner" is something the PGCE course team is very keen on.

I remember thinking that in less than two months I would be expected to teach a P5 class of boisterous eight and nine-year-olds for two full days. That was a long way from just making it through The Busy Tractor without losing the class entirely.

During the next seven weeks we were hard at it; college 9am-5pm four days a week with a half-day on Monday or Friday and occasional days spent observing teachers at work. Most of us were lucky in being sent to schools where teachers take great pride in their work and in the progress of all their pupils.

Watching such teachers in action is always impressive and sometimes inspirational. It is incredible to see a class of some 30 youngsters from a range of backgrounds and with a wide range of abilities hanging on a teacher's words and vying to win her approval and praise.

One of the first textbooks I looked through urged teachers never to forget that, like them, pupils have a life outwith school too. This doesn't just mean that some get more support than others from their parents, but that pupils can arrive feeling upset or excited or tired from whatever has been going on at home, just like us.

Maybe this sounds trite to seasoned practitioners, but to a novice like me it is an easily overlooked point that can underpin all sorts of problems that might arise in the classroom. It doesn't necessarily help you solve them, but it is something that needs to become part of your subconscious.

Looking back on this first term, what stands out most in my mind is the first "middle stages" placement, four full weeks with one middle primary class, building up from taking one or two lessons a day to being in charge for a day at a time to two consecutive days.

I think I will always remember the 2002-03 P5s at Kinghorn Primary, in Fife. They are Miss Bell's class, but for hours at a time - and for those dreaded two whole days - they were my first pupils.

My placement there began in week nine of the course. It loomed up in the same way that summer exams loom up each year in secondary school and university. At first it seemed like an enormous obstacle but one too remote, both in terms of time and experience, to be very real. As the weeks rolled by I felt alternately nervous and expectant. It is probably a tribute to the lecturers and course planners to say that as the days passed I gradually started to feel more confident about going in and leading lessons in whatever came my way.

The Friday before my placement began I left college with a dozen or so books on classroom management and "peaceful" teaching in primary schools. A month later 11 of them were returned unread, not because keeping the children engaged and busy was easy but because I was too busy planning how to keep them that way to read about the theory.

For the first time in my adult life I seemed to have little trouble remembering names, though the identical twins posed a bit of a problem.

During my time at Kinghorn Primary, I began to see the challenges of working out what makes different children tick and ways of helping them all get the most out of what I was trying to teach.

I learned a lot, and we all learned that the Romans had quite an impact on Scotland during their time north of Hadrian's wall.

I expect I learned more than my pupils did, as I built up from taking occasional lessons to being in charge for a day. That is not to diminish their ability to learn or the success of my teaching. It is just a simple acknowledgement of what one of the lecturers told us right at the beginning of the course: "You'll teach middle stages first because they are experienced pupils."

Experienced pupils, consciously incompetent teacher: it's a sensible place to start. On odd occasions during the placement I even thought I might be putting a toe over the line to being "consciously competent".

That was certainly not the case during the first games lesson I ever took. Pandemonium. Thank goodness my lecturer wasn't there to see the gangs rushing around carrying benches in all directions. I could feel myself losing control: it was not a comfortable experience.

I didn't feel anywhere near "consciously competent" at the end of my first day in charge, either. My carefully prepared lesson on Roman trade was punctuated by my calling pupils back to attention and asking them that rhetorical "Have you finished everything?" above their chatting and bickering.

Only too aware that Kinghorn Primary is an open-plan school, and that the teacher in the next area probably remembered more about Roman trade than my P5 charges, I settled down that night with Peaceful Teaching in the Primary School. It reminded me that I mustn't take it personally if pupils get angry at my reprimanding them, and that I must always let them know I expect them to behave and try their best. It also reminded me that "peaceful teaching" begins the minute you open the door to let the children into school.

The next day, rather than allowing the pupils to charge in, barge their way around the cloakroom and come shouting into their area, I stood with my hand held firmly up and with a peaceful, expectant smile. I quietly told the ones at the front of the line that I was waiting until everyone was standing ready. Then I was silent, the word filtered back and so were they!

That morning I made a conscious effort never to raise my voice. I radiated positive vibes and praise. It was tiring, and sometimes it took a little while to get the children's attention, but it worked. We proceeded in a generally peaceful and purposeful way.

By lunchtime I was tired but not feeling ragged, as at hometime the previous day. I was beginning to see the big difference between delivering one cracking lesson and the concentration and patience needed to maintain momentum over a whole day.

I was amazed how the children responded to these different methods and by and large they were a pleasure to be with. All of them were friendly, most tried hard. What the lecturers had not said when explaining the benefits of starting with "experienced pupils" was filled in by a seasoned pro: "Yes, P5s are nice; they haven't got their horns out yet."

Next term I return to college for two weeks and then venture forth to make the acquaintance of a class of P7s. I don't have that "I'll never be able to do this" feeling again. This time it's the unnerving feeling that some of them may definitely have their "horns" out.

Still, the P5s gave me a good start and now I have three weeks to refresh myself and glean some wisdom from those classroom and behaviour management books. Yes, they've all been borrowed again.

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