Cross the theory chasm

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Frances Farrer asks seasoned classroom campaigners for the tips they found most useful as newly qualified teachers.

There is always a gap between theory and practice, and the worst is you cannot find out where it is until you start. You may set out with the best possible intentions backed by what seem like solid gold ideas, yet find the reality so far removed from expectation that your training seems to have left you in the cold.

Take heart, if this happens it will be in isolated areas and there will be ways around them. Here are three teachers' early experiences, intended not to alarm but to encourage you. If your first term does not turn out exactly as you thought it might, be assured it is an experience shared and overcome by many.

Caroline Jones first taught abroad, in different age groups and subjects. She came to this country to marry and re-trained as a Montessori teacher.

"Montessori theory is very idealistic, it's a 19th-century method that needs to be adapted to today. Faced with real children you find they're very different. If you try to apply the ideology straight out of the book - for example, not saying 'No' to anything - how will they know it's wrong? I always confront a problem with children, then they know where they stand.

"You're told, when children are learning to write, just tell them to form letters properly, don't tell them when there's a mistake. I found I had to stop them when they were making mistakes, or they would just go on doing it until it became a habit.

"The children respond to you better when they are required to do their best. They soon learn I'm not going to accept any old rubbish. This is not a very Montessori outlook.

"The ideology disappears when you start to teach; maybe too much time is spent on it when you're training. Maybe you should have more teaching practice. When you find what you've been taught doesn't work, your ideals disappear and your own personality has to come out.

"Where I do agree with Montessori theory is I think the years from three to seven are the best years of their lives for learning, and I believe their lives are very different if those years are good. The children I've been able to stimulate to work are now doing very well. Maybe if they're enjoying themselves in the early years they can go on and take the rest of their education with confidence."

Tony Dwyer is a music specialist, educated at Manchester Grammar School and Reading University in a very traditional, academic mode. His first teaching post was in east London and came as a shock.

"Not only was my own education at an established grammar school, so was my first teaching practice. Nothing in my background had prepared me for ordinary children who were not academic or musically motivated.

"What hit me was that nobody had ever discussed discipline, not during my PGCE year or at the school I trained in. I was told at my job interview that my predecessor's discipline had been poor - but there was no guidance on how to deal with it.

"My training had concentrated on sifting musical children, and in such an old-fashioned way as to be almost laughable. The other major aspect was theorising about racism and equal opportunities. When I started my first job both these approaches were irrelevant. I went to the deputy head and the music adviser and said I was having difficulty.

"The deputy head came into two or three of my lessons and then told me what to work on. He said I must be quicker, stricter at the beginning of lessons. The music adviser supplied better material, jazz and pop, and the score for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, pieces away from the strict classical mode.

"The other staff were supportive and had practical suggestions like if you want the children to sing you should get them round the piano so they can't wander off. My training hadn't taught me any of this. Even simple things like the best way to set out the classroom hadn't come into it.

"Luckily I had the sense to ask for help, and it came. The best advice I got was an old adage from the deputy head, which I pass it on to new teachers. He said 'Don't smile before Easter'."

Penelope Lightbown, an Oxbridge graduate who is now a head of department, encountered one or two areas of difficulty when she began teaching. They were mostly in the pastoral area, and unfortunately had to be overcome by trial and error.

"There is no effort made in some PGCEs to introduce you to pastoral things such as form tutoring, yet it can be a huge role. The first term you shelve it because you can't face it. There are problems in making a judgment, especially now when absences must be chased - it's a role that can expand almost infinitely. There may be policies and procedures laid down which experienced teachers don't follow, the only thing is when you start you won't know that.

"My biggest problem in my first year was my head of department who came and yelled at my classes when I asked him for advice. He was ex-army, and so was his discipline style. I was left looking silly. I never went back to him again. I looked for other people in the staffroom and it took me a long time to find them.

"Moving school, I went somewhere with low expectations and I found if I set work which the Learning Support Department thought was too hard, I got my knuckles rapped. The lower-ability groups were being written off. Another hazard for beginners is parents' evening. Good courses train for it, but not all. Often newly qualified teachers are unprepared. I was shocked at my first one. I was quite critical of the efforts of one child, then found his father had taken him home and given him a terrible rocket and frightened him.

"Now I always ask parents to talk about a child before I speak. You can gauge their level of interest from how they talk, and from that, how they may react, and moderate your comments accordingly. Also, some come along with a bone to pick and it's important to know who you can refer to, otherwise you can bear the brunt of their aggression.

"The biggest mystique seems to be concerned with tutoring and on teaching practice it's hard to do it in someone else's class. There's much less understanding of it and it is much less discussed than any other aspect of teaching."

Positive advice comes from a seasoned primary teacher: "When you're learning, the best people are the very good practitioners who give practical information. Simple things like, 'You can't expect them to spend a whole lesson on that, split it up'. Poems and songs can help do that.

"There are stupid basic things you don't know when you start, like saying 'Put your hand up if you can tell me' instead of 'Can anyone tell me?' - which will get them all shouting at once.

"Or putting out all the pencils and worksheets so you don't waste time with one or two children not having the right equipment. Or saying before break, 'This is what I want after break'.

"Very tight preparation is the key to all of it. The teacher has to be all-time prepared, so they can't be thrown. Even if you have the discipline of the children walking into the room in a line, it will affect the lesson: they come in calm and get straight down to work."

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