Good training ground

16th November 2007 at 00:00
It's still teaching, although this time it isn't a sea of children's faces in front of you. But sometimes it feels remarkably similar, says Kate Aspin. Photographs: Richard Hanson.Put that away, please." I fired my best teacher frown at the girl at the table in the corner, who was obliviously texting away, indicating the "no mobiles" sign on the wall. Another day at the chalk face, you may think - nothing unusual about that.

This was different, however: it was my first day as a university lecturer, training would-be primary teachers. After 13 years of primary teaching at various levels, including deputy head and acting head, I decided to take the plunge and change direction. I wanted to refresh my passion for the vocation that had become a treadmill of frustration and paperwork. I had been doubling up as both a deputy and a class teacher, and had found it hard to give my all to both.

Rather than moan, I emailed institutions and discovered that you do not need dozens of academic treatises under your belt to be a teacher trainer, just passion and a wide range of primary practice.

The serial texter was in my very first lecture, and I clearly wasn't enthralling her with my witty repartee and PowerPoint visuals. The others in the group seemed more engaged, but I was struggling to adapt my usual teaching methods to a group of adults. I could get them talking, but bringing them back together was another matter entirely.

How do you persuade adults to stop and pay attention. Clap? Stand there with an "I am waiting" expression? Or my patented Year 2 attention grabber: "one, two, three ... look at me"? I had been in the job for three days and it was swiftly dawning on me that my wide-eyed, "how lovely to be surrounded by passionate trainees", ivory tower expectations were as unrealistic as expecting the parents you want to see on parents' evening to actually turn up.

We don't stand at the front in a cap and gown, waffling behind a lectern. We only really use the dreaded PowerPoint as a guide. Like teachers, we use lesson plans, reveal our objectives and often have a plenary at the end. Sound familiar? We aim to model good practice, so we like to put the trainees into the same scenarios as the children. So we bring out the number fans, the glue and mod-roc, just like any good primary lesson, and get stuck into evaluations. We look at all the issues that might crop up, from the practical (how do you organise a Year 1 art class with no teaching assistant?) to the theoretical (what does the latest research say about the relationship between schools and parents?) We try to balance pedagogy with practice. It has been great to have some time to read and research current theories. Often as a deputy I was too busy to do much thinking.

The learning curve has been as swift and every bit as brutal as my first few weeks as a new teacher. The trainees can be stimulating and passionate: discussions about the merits and issues surrounding synthetic and analytic phonics, for example, are fascinating and remind me why I became a teacher in the first place.

The frequent complaints about timetabling and placements are infuriating. The trainees sometimes become irritated if you don't answer emails at 7pm on a Saturday, or they phone you at the weekend as they have a job interview on Monday and really need to go over potential questions immediately. Such is student life in the world of loans and tuition fees: they are keen to see what their money is being spent on, and who can blame them?

Having a desk in an office seemed like a novelty at the start. After all, a teacher's desk tends to be a repository for lost hair bobbles, broken toy cars and confiscated items. However, sitting and typing all day is a strange experience for someone used to working in a primary school. The quiet of an office is unnerving after years of adapting to answering three questions at once and knowing that the child bobbing up and down in front of you really needs to go, now.

After years of marking everything from Year 6 to Year 2 work I was looking forward to reading intellectually challenging essays. While some of my students produce these, others still require the "see me - we need to discuss your sentence structure" approach.

The marking is less frequent, but intensive. If they have worked hard to write 5,000 words the least we can do is spend a decent length of time going through it and giving them helpful feedback. School practice is one of the highlights of my new role; schools vary enormously in their attitude to, and support for, trainees. Some are truly inspirational places, with staff who give time, energy and enthusiasm to new recruits. These are often schools in challenging situations themselves, and I am very grateful to them. Others are less welcoming, with closed staffrooms mirroring the closed minds of the people in them, and with staff who see trainees as a chance to have a quick skive and do their online shopping while the students battle against challenging behaviour. This can be very off-putting and a negative placement can discourage trainees, sometimes for good.

The students themselves vary too, from the coolly confident to the terrified and timid. Some need their "bubble popping" as they have a superficial arrogance that soon deflates, others struggle with the organisation, workload and demands and need patience and at times encouragement to look at other careers instead. Seeing the trainees grow, take control and develop into positive, passionate practitioners who start to see the links between theory and practice and are able to reflect on their lessons is rewarding.

It is remarkably similar to watching children grow and develop mentally and physically. I still regard myself as a teacher, just of adults now, rather than children.

Six months on and the texting trainee is now a new teacher with a school placement and I am at last starting to find my feet. Both of us have come a long way. We still have so much more to learn.

Kate Aspin is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Huddersfield.

What you need to know

How do you find out about teacher training vacancies?

Look at the back of The TES jobs section, or see, a website specialising in academic vacancies. University and college websites will also advertise posts.

What is the pay like?

Not as much as people think. It varies, but average pay is similar to management points 5 or 6 on the pay scale (pound;34,000-38,000). Would-be millionaires or headteachers need not apply.

What qualifications do you need?

You do not need a PhD, but further study is an advantage. A National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) or Leading from the Middle qualification all demonstrate academic commitment. A good degree in teaching or a degree and a PGCE is fine. It is your ability to reflect and your practical experiences and responsibilities that count.

What other attributes are required?

If you are keen on the idea but unsure what it would involve, the best idea is to get involved with your local training provider. Why not become a senior mentor and support trainees in school? Or act as a new teacher mentor: this can be an immensely satisfying way of developing your own skills too. You may be able to attend lectures or give guest lectures to trainees. We encourage skilled practitioners to come and talk about special needs, or target setting and assessment with our students, for example.

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