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Practice made perfect

Linda Pagett offers some teaching practice tips to help students survive their first experience of classroom and staffroom life. They come through the door in dribs and drabs carrying huge bags, denim and youth. Some of them are still on a high, others look as if they've been to the dark side of the Moon and back. The PGCEs are returning from teaching practice. "How did you get on?" I ask, timorously. The room explodes in a variety of expressions, eyes cross, tongues fly out, eyebrows shoot to the roof. "How do you do it?" "I had to wait for 20 minutes for silence." "God, you should have met my teacher."

One student has, sadly, left the course. These are all intelligent young people, full of enthusiasm and a curiosity about a vocation as old as thought itself. As their student days fall between their fingers like sand, they stand poised between two cultures: one they've mastered but outgrown, another they're struggling to understand. Like all cultures both are percolated by ritual, custom and tradition.

As I listen to them swapping anecdotes about their school experience, I am transported to the kitchen table of my childhood. My mother's colleagues used to sit around it in huge starched white aprons creating a contemporary nursing culture. Why did they all smoke, call each other by their surnames and wave cheerily at death as if it were a casual caller? I don't know. Perhaps it was something to do with the war.

It is the transmission into the teaching culture that is one of the students' biggest challenges, particularly as it is in a neurotic turmoil, engendered by ill-thought out, imposed and contradictory change. Bit like the war really. How can I help them understand its quality before their next major practice? It's essential that they relate well to school teachers. I think and write and a million scenes and incidents come to mind. In trying to make sense of it myself I fashion the following advice: * Teachers often seem odd. You'll find out why when you've been teaching for a while. Don't allow this observation to make you underestimate anyone. The old girl who looks as if she spends her evenings knitting kettle holders may well be the only teacher who can control the school bully.

* Staffrooms are often territorial. As a supply teacher I was aware of this and so took my own cup into school, but I was once asked in hushed tones if I'd mind moving. The chair I'd inadvertently chosen belonged to Sid and it was best not to upset him in his condition. As he entered I had to agree. He had a face like the end of the world. I gave him my tea as a peace offering. In my cup.

* Don't project vulnerability in order to gain sympathy. "Can I have the day off, it's my birthday?" won't get you very far. Teaching is for adults.

* Gossip is a strong feature of all schools. Tune into this, as teachers use anecdotes about pupils, parents, other teachers, to translate the nature of teaching to themselves, and exorcise the demons. Everyone's got a story about inspection.

* Political enclaves often exist. You may glimpse a private coffee club at the end of the corridor. If you're invited, listen but never ever offer an adverse opinion on any member of staff even if everyone is having a good bitch about the head. Teaching can be a bit like life at South Fork. Everyone falls out with each other, but at the first sign of outside criticism everyone is "family".

* Don't rush off at 3.30. Spend time preparing the room and your equipment for the morning. Don't risk asking the teacher for multi-coloured pipe cleaners five minutes before the lesson starts.

* Ask the teacher where you can put "work in progress". Take it home if necessary. The classroom can easily look like a junk shop, if there are cardboard tanks lying around waiting until next week for their final coat of paint. If you've asked all the children to bring in a washing up liquid bottle, where are you going to put them? Not just dumped on the teacher's desk.

* You may be lucky enough to have a "master" at your school - someone who other teachers respect as being exemplary at one particular aspect of practice. Do everything you tactfully can to see this teacher in action, for example offer to help at lunch time or after school clubs.

* Develop a wardrobe of voices. It's a tool of your trade. Never screech, no one will listen. Low and slow with a hint of menace is much better for attracting attention but do keep a register which no one associates with you for the day you have to persuade someone to come down from the roof.

* Don't have anything to do with parents. If one wants to speak to you, involve the class teacher. They live with parents long after you have gone.

* Enjoy the children. All of them. Persuade yourself you like the difficult ones. When I did my own teaching practice, I fell in love with all the children and couldn't understand how their parents could let them come to school. Didn't they miss them? I've had my own children since and know it doesn't work out quite like that but the joy pupils can bring is what keeps most teachers in a vilified profession.

This is only a personal guide to contemporary primary teaching. Cultures change but not altogether, not overnight. Recently I joined some nurses at 3am for tea on the ward. They didn't smoke or wear aprons. Even the patients called them by their first names. But one of them confided that it had been a busy night; two of her elderly patients had popped off. She made it sound as if they had stepped from a train.

Linda Pagett teaches in a primary school and college of education in the West Country

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