Up the creek without a paddle
Here's a riddle: Why is a classroom like a canoe? The answer? First time out, you're liable to capsize. David Train, coach to boatloads of UK international canoeists, works hard to make canoeing safe and easy for beginners as he believes every sport should have an accessible entry level. "How many people are put off from canoeing," he says, "by the fact that their first lesson turns out to be all about capsizing?" Learning to teach can be a bit like that. You put on a crash helmet, push off into the deep bit and over you go. Here's a capsizing student teacher:
"I have come away from one class thinking I have failed completely. The way it appeared to me was that they had got nothing down on paper that I could see, and they had not understood what I had tried to get across to them."
This is a quote from a research paper by Chris Kyriacou and Paul Stephens of York University, in which they report on PGCE students' concerns while on school placement. Most are familiar - dealing with disruption, coping with the workload, being assessed.
Recognisable, too, is their growing realisation that what you plan may not be what you actually teach. Students have always put too much into their planned lessons. When they worry about workload, they are often actually victims of their own inexperience. Perhaps it is a stage they must go through.
Kyriacou says: "All student teachers should have a sense of 'good enough'. There's no point spending all night working on something that's going to be over within 20 minutes."
One problem, he says, is that there's always a temptation to do the work you like best. "It's easy to find that if you don't like marking then you'll do it in a cursory way, whereas if you like producing materials for a practical lesson, you'll spend hours on it. You have to learn to do both at a reasonable level."
It is, he suggests, a matter of keeping a sense of proportion. "What I'd say to student teachers is don't get overconcerned that what you're preparing isn't fantastic. For most teachers, things are not fantastic all the time. Mostly, things are good enough, and they rise to a higher level every now and again."
Kyriacou and Stephens report other less obvious student worries - teaching about sensitive issues, for example. A student reports how during his lesson on divorce, his class played games because they didn't want to do the work. Many of the children had divorced parents and, he says, "I was not going to be the one to say, 'You are going to learn about divorce and how it affects children' ". Another student found that when she asked pupils to imagine their own funerals, they "emotionally distanced themselves".
Of concern here was that student mentors were not sufficiently aware of the difficulties. Children do sometimes like to talk sensitive issues over with a student, but they are just as likely to be distressed, annoyed or disengaged.
Some teacher educator assumptions are challenged here, too. Take classroom observation. It's often taken for granted that students should watch good teachers at work, and yet this report finds being put in this ill-defined position often leaves thestudents confused and embarrassed. The relationship between an experienced teacher and a class contains many subtleties, and a deal of analysis is required if the student is not to be misled by, for example, the apparent ease with which the experienced teacher keeps discipline.
Another problem area is where the student looks after an individual or a small group while the teacher leads the lesson. Here, a student says she felt like "teacher's little helper".
Yet another concern - being forced to turn into a hard-edged disciplinarian when every personal instinct is against it - seems poignant and unfortunate. One student says: "It feels like I am ordering people around. I am being told by people that, basically, I have to lose my temper with certain people, and I find it very difficult to lose my temper."
There are, of course, lots of teachers who manage without losing their tempers, and many schools where "ordering people around" would be seen as inappropriate and counter-productive. In his book Stress Busting for Teachers (see page 34), Kyriacou has much to say about the ineffectiveness of aggression and the bad effects of frustration and anger.
As Kyriacou's research with Stephens shows, the worries that students have on teaching practice are matched by emerging accomplishments. Students enjoy taking responsibility, for example, and "getting stuck in". One student recalls the moment when, at a parents' evening, a couple turned to him and said: "Right, so you're the man to ask then." With this acceptance of responsibility comes growing confidence.
When starting on a teacher training course, it's difficult for a student to even guess in advance whether they are going to make it or not. As the course goes on, the question is resolved, though it can happen quickly. Kyriacou says: "It's when a student teacher realises they can do the job and says: 'I can do this. I'm on track. I'm going to be successful.'" Passing the PGCE year, though, does not finish the job. That learning continues is reflected in the growing emphasis on continuing professional development. In Stress Busting for Teachers, Kyriacou points out that a teacher moving through a career encounters many changes and new starts that throw up problems and stress points. It is not unknown for a distinguished and experienced teacher appointed to a big secondary headship to rediscover the experience of finding it difficult to keep order in the classroom. Pupils do not automatically respect newcomers they don't know, and the experience can be quite shattering.
To that degree, the PGCE year is a very crowded rehearsal for all that will be encountered many times. As Kyriacou tells his students, it's always going to be a memorable year.
"The one thing we can guarantee is that they will have stories to tell for the rest of their lives. There's nothing like the PGCE year. Everyone is in the same boat, and it's a real journey of adventure. Some graduates choose to go off to Borneo for a year. I think they can have just as much excitement going to their local secondary school."
Student Teachers' Concerns During Teaching Practice, Chris Kyriacou and Paul Stephens. University of York Department of Educational Studies. Evaluation and Research in Education, Vol 13 No 1 1999.