Faltering take-off as PGCE students learn to fly solo

19th June 2009 at 01:00

The handwritten note on my work desk simply read: "Thought you might need this." Inside were four chunks of Swiss chocolate - the expensive kind, not the usual cheap stuff. It was at that point I knew she was ready to fly the safety of the nest and make it on her own.

Mentoring. Every year in late spring, expectant, exuberant and enthusiastic PGCE students arrive like a predictable migratory flock. I help mentor them on the role of form tutor and matters pastoral.

In the staffroom, we have, somewhat cruelly, a guess at which one will be the first to rush out of a classroom in tears and which hardy soul will last the longest without dissolving.

Fitting in the mentoring this year was more of a challenge than before. I am no longer form tutor to a harmless Year 7 class, but to GCSE pupils hardened by hormones and too cool for school.

I pass over life-saving pieces of information to my student first: the location of the toilet, the kitchen and the photocopier code. Then I introduce her to as many staff as possible, adding tactful explanations of the usual unspoken power politics and hierarchy that govern the workroom. I explain where they can sit and work and, more importantly, where they can't sit and work and, crucially, whose mug never to use, including my precious Wonder Woman one.

That done, we venture to the form room. I offer no opinions on any of the pupils, feeling that it's always best for someone to find out without prejudice. The pupils eye the newcomer warily. I am old enough to be their mother, so I like to think that I have a certain default gravitas. She is certainly young enough to be their sister.

This lot can smell fear at 50 paces, yet she is all smiles and enthusiasm. Fortunately there are no cupboards in this classroom. In my last school, the form locked the student in the store cupboard. Twice. I decide to make sure this student has a classroom key - just in case.

To help meet the long lists of government criteria, I set up Teacher Pursuit days and watch the PGCE students as they literally trot behind colleagues having yet to master the art of the teacher fast walk. Then we have a day of Pupil Pursuit. I "motivate" the pupil to take care of the student by offering lots of gold stars to make sure they don't inadvertently "lose" their follower. That has happened: one year the student was left abandoned by the science department pond. I tactfully suggest students keep their mobile phone with them just in case and that it has the school reception phone number in it.

In week one, I stay by the side of my class as the student takes the register. I encourage her to be brave enough to come out from behind the safety of the teacher's desk and face them front on.

In week two, I stand by the door and observe matters. In week three, I take the bold step of hovering unnoticed in the corridor listening intently for sounds of panic and mayhem.

Tasks are passed over. We start by checking prep diaries and asking for shirts to be tucked in. Then I suggest she talk to Pupil N about throwing clay around the design and technology room and Pupil J about a messy, custard-smearing incident in the lunch hall. I wonder if there is a criteria box that would cover such items.

I suggest she find something engaging and educational to do with them in morning form time. She decides to show them her recent photos of Roman ruins. Hmm, not quite what I had in mind.

The form sits quietly and politely while I emanate unspoken class control from the back of the room.

"When are you back properly, Miss?" they ask. Thinking I am being missed, I allow my pride to swell. This is a fatal error.

"She's just too keen about everything," they lament. Her nickname becomes established by them in that moment: Keen-O. It could have been a whole lot worse.

The PGCE students spend their time either hogging the workroom computers or the photocopier, printing reams of every single resource sheet they can get their hands on. One does this for three hours. My patience is tried when they complain about having a busy day that involves just three periods of teaching. I try to encourage them to enjoy it while they can, without depressing them too much about future workload, and hand over emergency Wagon Wheels to keep them going.

And finally, it is time for them to leave.

I make the form sign a thank you card and buy a leaving gift for our student on their behalf - a multicoloured giant mug with the words "miracle worker" on it.

I love it. She loves it. The form thinks it's stupid and naff, but have been warned not to pass any comments. She leaves them a box of Heroes and me a posh box of chocolates. The criteria boxes are all ticked off. Time to fly solo.

Julie Greenhough, English teacher at an independent school in London.

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