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Over the training hurdles with the big fence in sight

It's been a tough year for mature student primary teacher Judith Fryer, but she is looking forward to probation

The Dundee PGCE (Primary) class of 2003 has, in practical terms, completed the course, though formally we have to wait for confirmation that our final submission, the professional development summary paper, is acceptable.

If it is not, there will be one more summer weekend locked away with files, reliving each placement and summarising our professional development throughout the course. Some of us have been called in to college already to be told that changes must be made; the rest of us have our fingers crossed.

Looking back on the last nine-and-a-half months, my overriding feeling is that each time I thought it couldn't get any harder, it did. The course is cleverly designed, built along the lines of what we have been taught: that is, lessons must be progressive, in each case starting from where the pupil is.

In our case, learning the rudiments of primary teaching in 36 weeks, there has been little scope for differentiating by pace - allowing pupils to learn at something like their own speed - so we rattled through the stages at breakneck speed, picking up the bare essentials of how to teach maths, English, religious and moral education, environmental studies, physical education, art, music, drama, personal and social development and health as we went.

We were assessed by essay after our placement at each stage, but the most gruelling assessment was the placement itself. This is why I think the course is cleverly designed.

As I noted in December, we started with four weeks in middle stages, a class of experienced pupils who, as one teacher put it, didn't yet have their horns out.

We moved on after Christmas to four weeks in upper stages, where (I guess) the tutors expected we might learn a little about behaviour management. It was also, for me at least, like jumping in at the deep end regarding differentiation. Preparing what was essentially several maths lessons to run in one 45-minute slot to meet the needs of pupils working at levels B, C and D was confusing but valuable. I might not have emerged from the experience saying "Come on in, that water's lovely", but at least I didn't drown.

Then we had three weeks to regroup and retune for nursery. In my memory, the sun always shone on that placement. Nursery was hard work but, compared to the rigours of managing differentiated learning for 27 P6 pupils in January and February, it had felt a breeze.

After Easter we spent a fortnight back in college before diving in to early years teaching. Nursery and spring had given me a much needed energy boost two-thirds of the way through the course. So, I went to my P2 classroom in north-east Fife, if not brimming with confidence, at least feeling up to the job.

Those round-faced infants came closest to being my undoing. Nothing had prepared me for the sheer effort of managing 24 lively six-year-olds, a high proportion of whom seemed determined they would rather do anything than the allotted activity, whether play or work. Falling off their chairs, sometimes accidentally, was a favourite.

Thinking my charges must be in need of physical respite, I introduced brain gym as a way of boosting learning and thinking skills. Then, as I watched more children tumble from their chairs one rainy May morning, my own brain told me it was time to exercise the children's bodies as well as their brains.

All I could think of was watching my Dad do his early morning exercises when I was about their age. So, the Mr Fryer stretch came into being. Arms up, touch the shoulders, out to the side, touch shoulders, out to the front, touch shoulders and stretch up again.

I modelled this, taking very deep breaths in through my nose and puffing it out as I went. Mr Fryer, I explained, was now in his 70s but could still run faster than most people I knew and climb hills all day long. A legend in his own lifetime.

After a couple more exercises, albeit circa National Service 1953, and we proceeded with the lesson.

I can't pretend it was poetry in motion but the exercises had given us a change of gear and they were fun. We giggled together as we pretended to flop over a washing line to touch our toes. ("Mr Fryer can do this with no trouble at all!") It spurred me into obtaining a book about brain gym, which I raided for exercises to stimulate brains in ways most appropriate for the job in hand.

Brain gym is something I definitely want to pursue into my probation year.

One rather unnerving - and upsetting - aspect of the turbo-charged progression of the PGCE course was the gradually increasing number of people who failed to return after each placement. A couple of students decided during the three-week induction that teaching wasn't for them but after that we were all safely on board, until just before Christmas when a student decided not to return after the first placement. Upper stages teaching in January and February did for a couple more, then another four or five succumbed during the early years placement.

I suspect it is particularly hard to fall so close to the finishing post after so much hard work and so many late nights.

Although spring helped me to recharge for the final straight on this course, my batteries now feel well and truly flat and it's going to take more than a few bright, warm days to get them going again. My brain certainly is in need of early nights and long lie-ins. Relaxing on a beach reading a novel written by a woman wouldn't go amiss either.

In the meantime, I'm rediscovering the joys of children's television with Kate, my three-year-old. But I'm afraid that, while I'm singing along to Ballamory, I'm also evaluating Miss Hooly and Josie Jump's efforts with their nursery pupils with a coolly professional eye. I also doubt that the Fife Constabulary sends their finest to sort out school sports days with the dedication and time that PC Plum is able to show.

Still, I know where I'm going to be next year and it is just 20 minutes from home. I met my pupils this week and so the next stage in my metamorphosis begins.

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