First encounters

12th February 1999 at 00:00
Alison Richards on why she's chosen to do a PGCE.

Several Christmas cards I received this year from old university friends contained messages such as "Hope the teaching is fun!" or "Hope the kiddies aren't causing you too much hassle!" I wondered for a while why this should irritate me so much. I know I have taken a different road to the "consultancies" paths of my Cambridge peers, and that "teacher" somehow lacks the same kudos, but to imply I had chosen to teach for "fun" suggests friends have no idea of what I am going through.

I may be a "high-quality graduate" (a 2:1 from Cambridge), the type the Government says is not being attracted into teaching, but I was drawn to teaching more than any other profession. I did not choose it as a fun option; I chose to teach because I believe I can be a good teacher.

I love my subject (geography) and I enjoy the challenge, the humour and the unpredictable nature of working with children. During my first seven weeks' teaching practice I learned a huge amount. I have been more stretched, challenged and fulfilled than ever before. And I have learned that you have to be dedicated to get through this course - let alone a whole year of teaching - and that some of that dedication has to be inherent.

Virtually every week so far someone has dropped out of the course. On several occasions -after a hard day, a difficult lesson, or when I have lost my voice from shouting - I have had to remind myself that I believe in what I am doing.

Financial reward was never a consideration. How could it be? My financial situation is almost astonishing in the light of teacher shortages and the drive to recruit more people. I worked for a year after graduation, but to receive a grant you have to work for two years to be considered independent. My eligibility was, therefore, measured by my parents' income. From previous experience we knew there was no point in even filling out the form.

"So how are you living?" people ask me. Answer - in debt, in the form of a student loan and a large overdraft. Everything I spend this year will have to be paid back. But perhaps I should mention the travel assistance I received for the school placement - pound;19. No, not pound;19 a week but pound;19 a term - 59p for each day I spent in school. So I suppose I am actually paying to teach. I have to smile as I write this because I realise that I sound like a whingeing teacher. I have truly entered the profession - and to add insult to injury I have probably just ruined my chances of becoming a "superteacher".

I am not surprised that my Cambridge friends have chosen other careers. Most are already on salaries of pound;20,000, they have status and have also managed to clear a large chunk of their undergraduate debts.

I wasn't prepared for the amount of work and financial hardship doing a PGCE would involve. We're told we should be grateful that we don't have to pay tuition fees. Suffice to say, I couldn't do this course if it cost me any more.

I am writing this as I procrastinate over an essay entitled "An Investigation into my Classroom Interaction Technique", which is proving less forthcoming than this column. This is indicative of my experience of the PGCE. I am thinking about teaching but not, it seems, about what the course is trying to get me to think about.

A colleague has compared the PGCE to learning to drive, except that she feels she has been told: "That's a steering wheel, there are the gears, now off you go."

Nothing can really prepare you for the first time you stand in a class and teach. What is important, though, is having a supportive tutor and other trainees with whom to exchange ideas and classroom tales. To know that others are going through similar experiences matters hugely. Perhaps I am being prepared for being a teacher in more ways than I think.

Alison Richards graduated from Cambridge in 1997. She is a PGCE student in Sheffield.

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