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Ready, steady, teach - Learning the unwritten rules

At reasonably regular intervals, I find myself wanting to lie across the floor in the faculty office. It's not that I'm losing my grip on reality, but my social sensibilities tell me that, as a trainee, I sometimes couldn't be more in the way if I tried, and I'm half-tempted to prove the theory one way or the other.

When you speak to people in education about life in a school and the politics and working relationships that go along with it, it seems a given that the first thing they'll say is a derivative of: "Don't sit in someone's seat in the staffroom. They'll shoot you." In fact, my short experience so far has shown that staffrooms are largely deserted by teachers who do not wish to waste time getting to them and who prefer to remain in their departments.

A much more common experiment in social awkwardness is realising you simply must approach a particular class's teacher (whose treasures you have been assigned to look after) and get the basics from them. However, that post-bottom-set-Year-9 look that says "Unless you're going to provide me with coffee on a drip, then don't come within 10 yards" makes such situations a tad uncomfortable. And, as we've all found, you end up apologising your way into asking for help.

Happily, as you move through your first placement and on to the second, you quickly become aware of those oft-recited maxims from the teachers you used to know growing up: "We never have time to breathe," and "I'm haggard by lunchtime." And you begin to understand the reality on which they are based.

But even the busiest teacher, with a small portion of their mind on an innumerable number of things, still has that industrial, internal desire to help others that doubtlessly brought them into the profession in the first place. It is their understanding and patience, quite contrary to the semi-apocryphal advice we trainees have fed upon, which is thankfully closer to reality.

In both of my placement schools, I was fortunate enough to work in departments where the staff were happy to help. And for that I'll always be grateful. As with many situations in life, there's an art to picking your moment.

Paul Tait is an NQT teaching English and media at Hungerhill School in Doncaster.

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