Bolts from the blue

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Anne Smith had a few nasty surprises during her probation year in Scotland. But she survived - and today is teaching happily, elsewhere

I've arrived now, but since my first day as a probationer it's been a bumpy journey. I had a Primary 5 and 6 (Years 5 and 6 in England) composite class of 25 in a large primary school in a priority area. The ability range was huge and I'd worked hard - progressive lessons, lots of hands-on activities across the curriculum, the lot.

I had struggled to get to grips with what seemed the fiendishly complicated Steps maths scheme. I was teaching four maths groups across levels B and C and was grateful I'd been given some support with the lower-ability children. More than anything else, I'd done my best to develop a positive ethos.

At the start, I went to a confidence-boosting seminar at which Andy Vaz, the founder of Background Records, gave his view of positive ways to manage behaviour: give children their dignity by giving them some power over their learning and make clear the choices they have regarding their behaviour - rights with responsibilities.

I have good memories of all the children in my class, but found the behaviour of four or five of them very hard to steer. A couple, a boy and a girl, seemed to live to taunt each other. They constantly wound up everyone around them with fights over rulers and rubbers. With other pupils, kicking over chairs and smacking pencil pots off tables were regular events.

One boy with ADHD ate his pencils no matter what and, when frustrated, he would hit his head on the walls. Once, he smashed the glass in the door with a head-butt.

Another boy with ADHD seemed barely able to rouse himself to speak. I watched him in the playground wandering around aimlessly. I filled in care and welfare forms and told management of my concerns.

It was a rude awakening. The school could sometimes be a scary place, and I often felt depressed by how many children were struggling to cope.

One shouldn't get involved, of course, but I would think about their home lives with parents or carers perhaps struggling to cope themselves. The day and a bit out of class each week for probationary teachers helped me keep my head above water.

I had problems finding a quiet place to work and plan. I was frequently called back to class by my job-share partner to take away one or other of the troublesome children. I would try to get on with my work while they sat whistling, or would talk to them and try to settle them. It was not a good way to keep a clear head for planning. If I sat in the library I could hear exasperated, angry teachers shouting, the yells of frustrated, angry children and the slams of heavy old doors when they stormed out of the room.

I was there to learn as much as I could and do the best possible job, but it was daunting to be in an atmosphere where there were so many problems. I often felt out of my depth.

Just before Christmas, I was called out of class to discuss my interim profile with my mentor, my line manager and the headteacher. We sat in the staffroom. Three months earlier we had sat in the head's room and I'd admitted to having trouble sleeping. The head and I hadn't exchanged more than a few words since. My line manager had been supportive, had led an art lesson on a particularly tough day and been sympathetic when my three-year-old daughter was taken to hospital twice.

With much head-shaking, I was told that the three of them had just finished a half-hour meeting about me and that they had found it extremely hard to decide whether to find me satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

I sat there nodding, feeling sick, angry and bewildered. I hadn't seen this coming. The formal observations and feedback had all shown points for development - I was a probationer, after all - but had been reasonably positive on progress already made. Looking back I don't think there were any clear warning signs.

Eventually I was told I was deemed "satisfactory", even though I couldn't really be wholly responsible for a class in the way other teachers were. By then I had gathered myself together enough to point out that satisfactory referred to the progress I'd made, not to my professional standing at that point.

Maybe they were trying to cut me down to size, but I already felt I was just holding things together. I felt like walking away, several times.

Before the next term in January, I decided there were two possible routes: complain or play the game and launch a charm offensive. On the advice of a wise friend I chose the latter.

I did make it, although I never found out until after the date for the final profile, but that's another story. I am now teaching part-time in another school and I'm enjoying it.

Anne Smith is a pseudonym


* Greet your headteacher cheerily by name whenever you meet.

* Grab any opportunity you can to tell them how well things are going in your class.

* Unless you know you can trust your mentor, don't be too honest with them about how hard you might be finding things.

* Don't chat for long in the staffroom after work. "Greeting meetings" with supportive colleagues are good, but get back to your room, do your marking, make sure EVERYTHING is in order for the next day and get out the door as the janitor is switching off the lights - without a big bag of books.

* Try and complete most of your planning in your time out of class

* Wednesday nights are social nights - you're over the hump of the hill.

* Try, as ever, not to lose your cool with children. Yes, you sometimes need to show them you're angry, but the only time I was told to 'Fuck off, you bastard' was when I had marched a boy around the school looking for the headteacher after a particularly unpleasant episode. I had shown a lack of respect for him - and he certainly retaliated in style!

* Try not to beat yourself up over your failings. Reflect and move on

* Take back control of your own life. Don't be panicked into taking the first job offered no matter what or where. To be happy and do a good job, you need to be in a school where you feel comfortable.

* Remember there is always light at the end of the tunnel. You've just got to get through your probation year, and truly, it does get easier

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