Are you set for the task ahead?

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Probationer Veronica Hart gives her own review of initial teacher education

Studying to become a primary school teacher was one of the best years of my life. I made some great friends and broke away from a career I was tired of. I was excited about embarking on a new challenge and learned a lot along the way.

But working as a probationer teacher has been one of the hardest years. I have doubted my ability to manage a class, deal with behaviour problems and meet the needs of every pupil in my class. And now, at the end of a successful probationary year, I know I still have a long way to go.

I left a career of five years to study for a PGCE in 2003. The course took nine months: about 20 weeks were spent on teaching practice placements and the remainder was a mixture of theoretical and practical input. Looking back, I wonder if my initial teacher education could have left me better prepared to cope - or if it is the probationary scheme itself that leaves new teachers doubting their ability.

Experiences are bound to vary between those who complete the PGCE course and those who study for a BEd. However, I know people in both camps who have questioned parts of their university training.

I spent many a long night typing up lesson plans and evaluations, wondering if this was what qualified teachers did every night. Needless to say, it is not something I have done since.

Then there were the teaching practice placements. The value of these would often depend on the quality and willingness of the teacher you were placed with, and the school's general attitudes towards students. Antagonism towards PGCE students was not uncommon among those staff who thought a year was not long enough to learn how to teach. Nor were stories of students being banned from staffrooms and banished to the broom cupboard at break times.

The emphasis of teaching practice placements was also slightly skewed. As a friend with a BEd said: "It was all about the perfect lesson. It was not about a progression of lessons.

"As a probationer teacher, you cannot sit and plan every lesson the way they told you. Being a teacher is more about hitting a lot of learning outcomes over time than getting one lesson perfect.

"They say teaching practice is 25 per cent of the BEd course. But at one stage I had a whole year between placements and it was like starting all over again because you had lost your confidence; you had lost touch with schools and it was a completely different age group.

"Also, there are a lot of things lecturers don't tell you that you need to know for school, like how to manage the paperwork and the forward plans.

That has been one of the hardest things about the probationary year."

Personally, I would like to have spent more time in schools, shadowing experienced teachers and picking up tips along the way. Often, on placements, you would feel thrown in at the deep end, and that is a feeling that has been hard to shake off.

I do not think probationer teachers' feelings of inadequacy should be ignored just because 97 per cent achieve the standard for full registration. As a new teacher, you can feel that everyone in the school is doing a better job than you, and so better support would be welcomed.

Probationer teachers do have access to mentors, but their availability and helpfulness can vary significantly from school to school.

I believe that initial teacher education does provide new teachers with a good understanding of the curriculum and knowledge of how to teach effectively. Like everything, however, it is easier said than done.

Although studying to become a teacher was one of the best years of my life, and working as a probationer has been one of the hardest, I don't think my university experience left me under-prepared.

The simple fact is that teaching is one of the hardest jobs you can do. I did -and still do - lack confidence in a variety of areas, but more time at university would not have eased this feeling. No amount of lectures or reading from textbooks could have taught me how to cope when one child finishes all of their work in 10 minutes and another seems to want to take all day. Or what to do when it feels like no one in the class is listening.

I agree that initial teacher education must be seen as just the first stage of a continuous process of career development, but more regular reminders that we are doing a good job could dispel the perception that we are less fully prepared than we would like.

Veronica Hart (not her real name) is a probationer teacher

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