Dispatches from the front

7th September 2012 at 01:00
For student teachers, the first placement on teaching practice is strewn with potential pitfalls. Douglas Blane visited a school staffroom to get advice from the experts, and asked seasoned BEd students for their list of do's and don'ts

The most uncertain step for student teachers is into a classroom on school placement to deliver a lesson for the first time. But school staff have concerns too, and listening to them is good preparation for anyone wondering what to do - and what to avoid.

"It starts with dress," says Sally Nicol, 41, principal teacher of creative arts. "You have to ask yourself if 6-inch heels, lacy tights and a short skirt is what you should be wearing in class."

"We don't get much of that in our new maths teachers," says John Newman, 32, principal teacher of maths and numeracy. "But you're right - it is about common sense."

"Then there's how they engage with staff," says Ms Nicol. "They're always keen to impress you with how much they know. They should realise there are people who know much more than they do. They have to learn to listen."

Student teachers also need common sense when it comes to finding their way around a school and getting there in the first place, says Ms Nicol. "Some expect you to solve all their problems - how to get a lift, where they will eat lunch. They need a bit of initiative, a willingness to figure things out."

New student teachers should expect support from their school, however, and should always have an experienced teacher in class with them. The potential for losing control, a novice teacher's greatest fear, is thereby reduced but not eliminated, says Ms Nicol. "You have to earn pupils' respect, not demand it.

"We had one with a lot of experience outside teaching, so he expected children to treat him with respect. But his vocabulary and use of language was way over their heads. Teaching is like driving a car - you stay in first gear with the first-years, and only when you get to fifth-year do you use top gear and start motoring."

Listening to staff in a school and being guided by them is important. "That's not always an easy one," says Margaret Higgins, 47, principal teacher of science. "They can get contradictory advice from different teachers. One student asked about seating the class and I said she should organise it herself, so they know you're in charge. Other teachers were telling her to let them sit where they wanted because it caused less hassle. I would always advise them to try the more disciplined approach first."

"That's right," says Harry Diamond, 36, principal teacher of history, geography and modern studies. "The number of students I've had in, who say, `In this first lesson we're all going to agree the rules.'

"No, no, no! You tell them the rules - and if they break them, they're for it. This is not a democracy."

Preparation of students by the universities could sometimes be improved. "Most have been prepared to teach Standard grade," says Ms Nicol. "But we only teach Intermediates in my subject at this school. Is that the universities or is it the students' fault, for not finding out in advance about the methods of the school and authority they're going to?"

One area of preparation of student teachers that is clearly growing worse is their spelling, grammar and pronunciation, says Mr Newman. "I looked through one guy's slides for a lesson, and on the first one he had confused `their' and `there', and on the second instead of `trundle-wheel' he had `trumble-wheel'. It was full of mistakes. You get that a lot now."

Even language student teachers are making elementary mistakes, says Anne Smythe, 48, principal teacher of English and modern languages. "Some say `I seen this' and `I done that'. If they do that on slides, the kids will notice and they will lose credibility."

Student teachers are invariably keen to get hands-on with a new class. But they should use their first few sessions to observe the class teacher and pick up as much as they can, say the teachers.

"That can be misleading, though," says Mr Diamond. "If kids are all sitting quietly, doing what I tell them, they can get the idea that it's a doddle. They need to observe closely to see what the teacher is doing to make things go smoothly."

"They often miss the chance to pick up wee nuggets, and even take notes, of things you deal with quickly in a classroom to make it work," agrees Ms Nicol. "I might let pupils choose their own groups, say, but if there are 18 of them, I need to ask specifically for two groups of four and two of five - not just tell them to get into groups."

There are so many plates to keep spinning in a classroom that the first placement should be about observation as much as delivery, says Ms Smythe. "We don't let them deliver a lesson for the first two weeks. We won't give them the tough classes, but they should be observing those and learning from the teacher.

"Our expectations are greater on second placement, by which time they should have learned quite a bit about class management and preparation. I had one student who had a great idea to get kids making sentences. But there were words missing, the kids got frustrated and the lesson failed. She hadn't acted on advice and she hadn't prepared well enough."

Once again, though, common sense must be the guide and getting the balance between over- and under-preparation is not easy for the inexperienced.

"I had one student who was coming in really early in the morning, staying late at night and drinking cans of Red Bull to keep going," says Mr Diamond. "I had to tell her to slow down or she'd burn herself out."

Over-preparation on paper that shows no understanding of the practicalities is common on first placements, says Mr Newman. "It gets better with experience, but you often see in-depth lesson plans and timing of activities that show no understanding of transitions or how much kids need to be told.

"I had one guy working through a very detailed plan, who got to a certain point in his lesson and just said to the class, `Now I want you in groups - get into groups.'"

In general, student teachers on first placement should think less about content and more about the craft of teaching, says Ms Higgins. "The curriculum has changed since they were at school, so they're learning about the content and can easily get too focused on teaching that, so they don't take account of what the pupils are learning. They race through and try to cover in one lesson what we would spread over four."

The most important aspect of a teacher's craft is the relationship with pupils, and student teachers' expectations of this can be unrealistic. Aiming to be liked is too ambitious for a first placement, says Mr Diamond. "They should work at trying to build a rapport, rather than getting too elaborate with fancy methods and too much content. But they need to realise that takes time, no matter how good you are with kids. Respect is more important than like, because that leads to discipline."

A new teacher earns respect by being fair with all the pupils, says Mr Newman. "There is no ranting or shouting at anyone and the lessons are interesting and motivating. It's about liking you as a teacher, rather than as a person."

Years of experience mean school staff have plenty of salutary stories about student teachers. But their overall experience with the novices has been positive, they say.

"In the last three years, every one I've had has been very strong," says Mr Newman.

"They bring you new ideas, research and ways of teaching," says Ms Higgins. "They develop resources and help us develop as teachers, particularly with their ICT skills. Our student teachers have contributed a great deal to the department."

"The quality of student teachers coming out of the universities has improved in the last five years," says Ms Smythe. "Our most recent was phenomenal. He brought loads of skills to our department, particularly in ICT, and left lots of good resources we could use when he had gone."

"They should always leave something you can use," laughs Ms Nicol. "It stands them in good stead when they come for interview."

DO'S AND DON'TS FOR STUDENT TEACHERS ON FIRST PLACEMENT

Fiona Telfer, 19, BEd, Year 3, University of Strathclyde

Do's

  • Offer to help, even if the task is dull.
  • Take opportunities to teach more than your allotted time - the more practice you have, the greater your confidence.
  • Make sure your behaviour management strategies are suitable - for example, clap and clap-back to get groups to move to a new task, while not raising your voice.
  • Listen to all feedback on your lessons and act upon it.
  • Get to know all the children's names quickly. It will help behaviour management and relationships. Write a seating plan to learn names quicker.
    • Don'ts

      • Don't leave gathering resources until the last minute. Another teacher may be using what you need and your lesson will have to be altered.
      • Don't talk about the children or their work in the staffroom.
      • Don't rely on technology working.
      • Don't arrive at 9am and leave at 3pm.
      • Don't forget to enjoy every moment!
        • Rebekah Hutton, 19, BEd, Year 3, University of Strathclyde

          Do's

          • Communicate well with your class teacher.
          • Be friendly to staff and take time to go to the staffroom.
          • Keep on top of paperwork for the university - little and often is best.
          • Get to know the children.
          • Make the most of any extra opportunities.
            • Don'ts

              • Don't be late.
              • Don't turn up unprepared.
              • Don't scrape by, doing the bare minimum - the more you put in, the more you get out.
              • Don't forget you are still learning - you are not expected to know everything.
              • Don't panic! Everyone is nervous at first.
                • Illustration by David Humphries

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