Agony uncle

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Stressed, nervous, troubled? Every trainee or newly qualified teacher has problems or queries about their first days at the chalkface. James Williams provides answers

Art of studying

I'm having trouble keeping up-to-date with everything and have fallen behind in my reading. There seems so much to take in, yet the lectures don't seem to provide us with anything useful to take into a classroom.

It's not uncommon to face information overload when you start your course.

Your tutors have to balance keeping you informed against weighing you down with information that you don't need yet. The first thing you have to do is decide what to read and why you need to read it. Then look around and find what's relevant. Don't read the whole thing immediately, read introductions and summaries to find out if it's worth reading the whole thing. Finally, you have to know which questions need to be answered and whether what you're reading will do the job. Practise skim-reading or ask for help with study skills. Many universities or colleges will have study skills courses.

Failing that, there are useful books on study skills that will help you deal with the large amount of reading you have to do. The relevance of the lectures will be more apparent after you get into the classroom. You will need the theoretical side to be a good teacher, so don't dismiss it all as useless.

First-day nerves

I'm due to start my initial school experience soon and I'm having a few last-minute nerves - I know it's just observation, but do you have any tips to help the week go as smoothly as possible. I don't want to start off badly.

Don't worry. I'm sure the school will make you welcome. There are a couple of things you can do to give a good impression. Make sure you know how to get to the school, so you aren't late. If you haven't been told what time to arrive, phone and find out what time schools starts and get there 10-15 minutes earlier. Look smart and look at how the rest of the staff dress, then fit in with them.

If you're observing teachers, remember that they might be a bit nervous having you watch them. Remember also that you are there to watch and learn, so don't be critical of teachers you observe, but do ask them to explain what they do and why, so you can understand and learn from their work.

Be helpful and offer to work with groups of pupils: the extra hands in busy classes will be much appreciated. Make notes during your observations and pay attention to what the teacher is doing. You should have a mentor to look after you and they are there to help and support you as well as to assess you, so talk to him or her and act on his or her advice. Oh, and don't forget to smile to show how happy you are to be in the school working with them. The occassional packet of biscuits for the staffroom also goes down very well.

Science of knowledge

I'm quite stressed about subject knowledge audits and knowledge that I just don't have. Does this matter as much as I've convinced myself that it does? I'm training to be a primary teacher and I don't want to spend the whole course learning about algebra and graph-plotting when I'd rather be honing my teaching skills or learning about planning. I didn't do a general science GCSE. Am I going to really struggle in science?

Subject knowledge is important, but remember that it'll take time for you to be competent and confident in everything. The point of the audits is to identify your potential weak spots so that you can do something about them.

A good way of beefing up your subject knowledge is to ask to teach topics that you are weak in. This means that while you plan you'll have to revise those subjects. You won't be expected to be an expert in everything by the end of your course and it may take up to five years in teaching before you feel fully confident and competent in everything you have to teach. The key thing is to know what your strengths are and work at your weak areas. That's the point of audits.

As you've identified science as a potential weakness, ask to work with the science co-ordinator or do some team-teaching of science to build up your confidence. There are also a number of books that can help you pick up knowledge.

Student woes

How can you hide the fact that you're a trainee teacher when you're on placement? I know all the staff will know. I've been told by a teacher friend that most schools will not introduce you as a student teacher. But you can't hide it because there's always going to be another teacher in the room with you.

Believe it or not, pupils see trainee teachers as a positive thing. When you begin, you'll get comments such as "We wish we had Miss X back as our teacher", but by the end of your placement the class will probably be begging you to stay.

It's common these days, with the introduction of teaching assistants and support teachers, for classes to have more than one adult in the room. As long as you are firm, fair, consistent, plan well and deliver your lessons confidently and competently, the fact that you're a trainee teacher will soon be forgotten. As a trainee you have to have a qualified teacher with you as, legally, it will still be the teacher's class and they are responsible for what happens. Good mentors will know when to leave you alone to deal with day-to-day issues and when you may need some support.

They're also good at blending into the background so that even the pupils forget they're there.

Ye olde lesson plan

I'm approaching my first placement. I'll start teaching small groups or whole classes for which I have to produce the dreaded lesson plan. Is it me or is it that lesson plans don't exist in a real school, only in the realm of the student teacher? It's as if the lesson plan existed in some distant past and its true origin is buried in time.

This is often a gripe with trainee teachers. It's true that the amount of planning you have to do is way above that of qualified teachers.

Experienced teachers hold much of their planning in their heads, but to do this they would also have done detailed lesson plans at some point. As a trainee, your reduced timetable gives you more time for planning than experienced teachers have. Use the time to make as many comprehensive plans as you can, as this will help you in your induction year when you'll have less time and more pressure. As time goes on and you repeat and revise lessons, the detail will lessen and soon you'll be planning just like the rest.

Good teachers not only know what to teach, but how to work out why a lesson was good or bad and how to apply this to others to avoid the same problems, or benefit from the successes. If a school is going through an Ofsted inspection, for example, you'll find that even experienced teachers revert to the lesson plan.

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