Career clinic

10th February 2012 at 00:00
This week, Professor John Howson answers questions about PGCE placements and the etiquette of references

In search of variety

I am studying for a PGCE in physics. I was placed in a high-achieving independent school for my first teaching practice. I have been told that I will now be placed in another high-achieving independent. When I look for work, probably in a mainstream comprehensive, will my school experience disadvantage me in any way?

This seems like a simple question, to which there should be a straightforward answer. But I suspect, in reality, it is more complicated than that. Your first port of call must be your tutor. You need to ask why you have received two similar placements. As the paying customer, even at the old fee levels, you should expect to be told the rationale behind the decision, especially if you have made no secret of wanting to teach in a mainstream comprehensive school.

There may be a perfectly good explanation. Teacher preparation courses are often marketed, especially by government, as if it is all about the student's choice. However, a tutor also has to take into account the student's individual needs. How well did you cope with classroom management on your first placement? Since you are being placed in high-achieving schools, I assume there is no issue with your subject knowledge. It could be to make you aware of what high-achieving students are capable of, in case you set your sights too low.

But assume it is classroom management that is at issue. Perhaps the new placement is in a school where you can really tackle this, and if you cannot, you can make a decision about whether teaching in a school is the right career for you. In a school with a wider academic spread, the other issues may overwhelm you. At least as a physics teacher you will have some choice about the type of school you want to work at, even in the current job market. Finding your feet in one type of school may be the right thing for you, but do go and talk to your tutor about your concerns.

All about timing

I am unhappy at my school and I am looking for a new position, although I have not made anyone aware of this. I work in a local authority where it is customary to request references prior to interview. What etiquette should I follow with my current position?

This is a common predicament at this time of year, as teachers consider whether they want to stay in the same school. The main recruitment season has already started for headteacher vacancies. And the increase in recruitment activity will move down the salary scales over the next couple of months, culminating in a peak in mainscale teacher vacancies during and just after the Easter holidays.

If you know you are going to be looking for a new teaching job, how early do you tell your referees and, in particular, your headteacher? Clearly, you would not want your head to discover you were looking elsewhere from another head, especially if you were subsequently not appointed to the vacancy.

So the obvious answer is to tell them as soon as you have submitted your application. But in either a small school - and for your team leader in a larger school - it might be worth making your intentions known at an earlier stage. If you tell your best friend in the staffroom about your plans, can you guarantee they will not mention it to someone else?

If the news escapes by the back door, you will have lost control of the situation. Also, if you are unhappy at your present school, others may have noticed that fact and be wondering what you are going to do. For all these reasons, it is better to be open as soon as possible. Who knows? The school may decide they want to keep you and, if possible, address the reasons why you are unhappy. Good luck.

Professor John Howson is our resident career expert, with 40 years in education, including spells as a teacher, academic, school recruitment researcher and government adviser.

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