First Step - It's all in the plan

10th April 2009 at 01:00
With the new school year starting in August, Scottish probationer teachers need to act now to secure their futures

This is the busiest time of year for probationers (the equivalent of newly qualified teachers) in Scotland, who have to keep more plates spinning than ever before. Their experience and confidence in the classroom have been growing steadily, with maybe just a few blips, since last August, but new challenges now face them.

From a teaching point of view, the final term is the most crucial time of year, with exams looming. "It's a tough term for everyone in a school," says Eleanor Docherty, drama teacher at St Luke's High School in Barrhead, near Glasgow. Probationers have to complete their final profile (a document listing any continuing professional development (CPD) they have undertaken during their probationer year) for registration with the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) in May or June. And because the school year starts in August, rather than September as it does in England and Wales, the job hunt in the final term can get frantic.

The key to getting it all done is planning the non-class contact time, Miss Docherty believes. This amounts to 0.3 of each week for all probationers, which compares favourably to the 20 per cent non-contact time NQTs in England and Wales receive. But it can't be treated as a chance to slacken off. "When I started here I'd sometimes be doing things that didn't amount to much during my free periods. I wasn't setting myself targets or lists of things to do," says Miss Docherty.

"At this time of year especially you can't do that. You need a clear focus for every minute of the day. So during this period you'll maybe plan to complete some of your final profile; in another you will complete a job application," she advises.

And there's no excuse for not keeping on top of your registration documentation, says Colleen Clinton, probationer teacher at Carmondean Primary in West Lothian. "The local authority and the GTCS have been sending us emails reminding us to keep adding to it regularly, and not let ourselves fall behind.

"Apart from giving yourself a lot of work, you're bound to forget the details - of the CPD you've been doing, your meetings with your supporter and the lessons given by other teachers that you've been observing. I take notes at the time then enter it all at the end of the week."

Formerly a paper portfolio, the two profiles a probationer has to submit during the year to satisfy the standard for full registration - the interim covering August to December and the final for January to May - are now completed entirely online. This is a huge boon, Miss Clinton says. "It means you can work on it anytime, from anywhere you have access to a computer."

To add that little extra to a probationer's job application, in the tough job market, Miss Clinton suggests putting together a portfolio of novel activities and projects. "A photographic record - of displays you've made with the pupils or planning you've done - is especially useful.

"It's something I started for myself, because we've been doing an environmental studies project from scratch, and developing all the resources. But my headteacher said the photographic record will be valuable at job interviews."

It pays to look ahead with job applications, says Miss Docherty. "One of the best things I did was to go online, back in January, long before I was applying for jobs, download a job application form and try to complete it.

"The deputy head in charge of probationers at St Luke's set up mock interviews for us at that time. So we went through the whole process, which was great. It meant we already knew what to do with applications when things got hectic this term." Local authorities each have their own application forms, but they all ask the same sort of questions.

Miss Docherty's main concern at the start of her probationer year was failing to make the right first impression on classes, she says. "I solved that by observing experienced teachers as often as I could and learning from them. I'm still doing that now.

"I watch anybody who'll let me, in just about any subject. You see so many different styles and fantastic ideas. It's the best form of CPD."

There is perhaps just one danger in all this keeping up-to-date, looking ahead and preparing for busy times, says Miss Docherty. "I'm a bit of a perfectionist, which means you can put extra pressure on yourself.

"I'm not there yet, but I think you have to learn to say to yourself: 'That is enough for now'."

- Next week: Working within the law.

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

- Set specific tasks to complete during non-contact periods.

- Update the online profile needed for full registration once a week.

- Practise completing job application forms well in advance.

- Consider keeping photographic records of novel projects.

- Try to get the right balance between doing things just in time and looking ahead.

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