Agony aunts on your shoulder

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Teacher training tutors are not just there to judge you. They are a valuable source of support, says David Wright.

Who is this person who visits you during your school experience? A helper and confidante, or an assessor and judge? In fact, the answer is all of these - and an agony aunt (or uncle) too. The roles can conflict, so these shadowy people sometimes suffer from stress and tension just when they should be helping students to cope with their own stresses.

The "agony aunt" role is the least well known, but for some students it is the key one. Here are some mini-crisis biographies where the agony aunt (alias School Experience Tutor) had a role to play. Some of these students were helped by their tutor, while others doubtless found the tutor a hindrance and turned to others for help. The challenge is to find a way to make the tutor useful to you.

Frances was a keen and able student. She was so keen that she over-prepared and hassled her class: there were too many things to be done in too little time. Frowns and grumbles from the teacher resulted in the class becoming grumpy, too. I told her to stop; to calm down and to be positive, a risky strategy, because she was very uptight, and she might have exploded. Fortunately, it worked. On the next visit she smiled and persuaded the class that the work was interesting, and even enjoyable.

Rob was disorganised. His teaching file was a muddle; he forgot where he should be and what he should teach. By the end of his first school experience he needed firm words: "Do better next time or withdraw." But the warning was softened by telling him that he was getting the difficult things right, it was the easier things that needed more attention. Fortunately he had some saving graces. He liked the kids, he smiled at them; he expected good things of them; he was not scared of the "hard" ones nor shocked by them. All these qualities had more to do with having grown up in a tough mining village than with anything he learned on his course - but they rescued him. All the planning and admin can be learned. He did fine, and is now a successful teacher.

Liz was strongly into student issues - anti-racist; anti-sexist; anti-most things. It was with some trepidation that I visited her in a rural school, where such thoughts might seem too revolutionary. No problems after all. She was anti-lots of "-isms", but fortunately she was pro-people and pro-pupils. She expected good things from the pupils, and hence received good things. In the process, she mellowed and became an altogether less negative person. But she needed some reassurance - she was getting conflicting advice from teachers, some of whom believed in the false advice of "Don't smile 'til Easter"! When people ask me if teaching has to destroy one's personality, I quote Liz as a good example of the way teaching can actually do good things to a person.

Dave was quite a good teacher, except that he talked too much. This is a common problem: the change of role from student to teacher brings the conviction that we can do better than all those boring lecturers. But teaching is not the same as lecturing. In fact, what happens is that only the listeners experience the boredom, the speaker is totally unable to identify it. Dave's tutor told him in no uncertain terms that he talked too much, but this only made him cross. In fact, he walked right round the walls of York to get his tutor and the advice right out of his system. Of course, the tutor was right (sometimes they are, honestly). But it took Dave years to believe it.

Tom had spent years and years nearly completing a PhD and knew the world of academia very well - including all the latest academic arguments. He had a big shock when he discovered that teachers understood the word "academic" to mean not "up-to-date excellence" but "irrelevant theory"! He needed some long discussions. He was puzzled to meet a higher education tutor who empathised with kids rather than academia. Happily, he did manage the massive change of attitude. His "passport to success" had little to do with the college course: it was based on a clear memory of his own very ordinary comprehensive school, a willingness to help with football - and the enjoyment of meeting real kids in the real world.

Michael was a mature student - a former insurance salesman. His salesman's patter was his salvation but also almost his undoing. He had mastered the vital need to engage his audience - even the details of the dreaded national curriculum are less boring than insurance! At one stage, I even wanted him to teach the other students about sales techniques - "sell your lesson" was a message I always preached, and here at last was someone who could tell us how. But in his second school, the teachers decided he simply didn't know enough of his subject-matter. A vicious circle was developing - criticism led to self-doubt and loss of confidence. We got him a pass, but only after long, long arguments between his tutor and the school. Sometime the college tutor really is on the side of the student-teacher.

Emily was an excellent student - just back from a round-the-world journey. In fact, she was admitted without an interview, since she was in Australia: we bent the rules because it seemed crazy not to take her on. She had so many qualities. And yet it was Emily who came in a panic to say that she couldn't do part of an assignment and would have to withdraw, even before school experience started. I took a risk and broke the rules again. I told her to write it from the heart now and come back with it in an hour. It worked. In this case, the usual pre-school panic had been transferred to something else. This is quite usual in a tutor's experience, but the student teacher cannot always work out what is happening. I'm glad we saved Emily. She's a real asset to the profession. But I often wonder how many people are lost to teaching in this way.

Nigel needed constant reassurance and lots of advice on pupils who "wouldn't listen". The advice was the easier part; the reassurance was harder because clearly he wasn't doing well. But his ideas were excellent - in time, he could become a successful and innovative teacher with real originality in his lessons, if only we could cope with this first experience. All the teachers he worked with were very "mature" and very confident - which compounded the problem. We nursed him through - "talk less and give them more work to do" was one key piece of advice. But it was touch and go. Nick went on to be a good teacher because he learned more from his mistakes than other, more self-confident student-teachers ever do. I think we'll see some brilliant textbooks written by him in due course.

Sam was doing fine in an inner-city school that most students considered difficult. His explanation was simple: "I grew up in a family of 7 in a rough area, so I understand these kids." All went well until a confrontation with a difficult pupil on almost the last day in school. The deputy headteacher phoned me: "It got physical, and his parents came in to complain." This could easily have been the end of a promising career. I never did discover exactly what happened, but the school was able to contain the crisis and he became a successful teacher. He survived because of good work in the school - one mistake is not necessarily fatal.

Charles was a member of a rather extreme house-church group which apparently believed that the world really was made in 4004 BC - and he had to teach about fossils. I feared the worst, and was far from sure how to deal with the problems that seemed inevitable. In the event, I experienced a very good lesson about fossils. Instead of a rather dreary and predictable set of facts, pupils were encouraged to handle evidence and evaluate possibilities. Good teachers really do come from all sorts of backgrounds. But I had to reassure the school that this particular student teacher was "safe" with pupils and was not using the classroom as a base for religious propaganda. Fortunately, he and I could discuss the issue calmly.

By the way, one of these mini-biographies is about myself, remembering my own time as a student teacher. None of us is perfect and we all have problems - but happily we can overcome them. We are also all different, but your tutor, if you are fortunate, can put your uniqueness in a broader context, and may even be able to help, if you let him do so. The college tutor can be particularly useful if you feel that the school is being unhelpful or too harsh to you.

Just remember that the tutors are only human, too, so the key is to make them feel useful and valued: give him or her something to do! This, after all, is the same advice as tutors give you on how to cope with a class.

David Wright trained teachers in Norwich, and is now a school inspector and author. The names in this article have been changed

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