How was it for you in practice?

9th January 1998 at 00:00
James Williams finds out how three student teachers coped with their first experience ofbeing in front of a class

There were high points, low points, exhaustion, laughter but, thankfully, no tears after Peri Coelho, a scientist, Hannah Jeffreys, a mathematician and Doreen Lawson, a geographer, all PGCE students at Brunel University, completed their first teaching experience.

"What took me most by surprise was the effort required to establish class control," said Peri. "To establish and then maintain control was vital. The initial lessons were about just that."

Doreen, who had taught before, found that experience to be her saving grace. "Where I come from originally, Sierra Leone in West Africa, discipline is not an issue. The pupils there did not misbehave with the teacher. I found that I had to vary the way I managed classes here, for example in a GCSE class the pupils choose to do the subject and it is a little more relaxed. With the younger pupils, well, they have to do it and you need a tighter grip. I found Year 9 the most demanding. I had to be firmer with them than with other year groups. One thing I do know, humour in the classroom is important."

Class management and the prospect of pupils misbehaving was a common concern before their first experience. Hannah Jeffreys found that some of her initial discipline problems were related to how she projected herself and her voice in the class. "To begin with I didn't use my voice enough, and I wasn't aware of my limits. Sometimes you do need to shout a bit. A couple of lessons were wrongly pitched and so one group, mixed ability Year 7s, was difficult. I tried to keep the whole group together at the start and some of them got bored. "

One of her best lessons, however, occurred with a Year 9 group. "After a lesson on trigonometry where the purpose wasn't immediately obvious to the pupils, the class were taught how to use their calculators as a tool to help them. I had tried to develop a lesson where they applied their knowledge. I had given them a few verbal descriptions of what they could achieve and then they found that they could get the answers with the help of the calculator. They now know what some of the buttons on their calculator are used for, and how trigonometry can be used in everyday life."

The planning needed for successful lessons quickly became obvious to the students. As Doreen said: "I had to plan rigorously for the lessons, especially for the lower ability groups. I tried to make sure that all of the pupils were involved in the lesson; I asked the pupils to give me personal examples about topics to make them feel involved. Sometimes it is hard to make geography interesting, so variety in my lessons was important. My teaching style also varied according to which year I was teaching. It involved a lot of lesson planning and I often had to change my plans to adapt lessons to suit the ability of the pupils."

Peri's views on lesson planning highlighted some of the more practical issues related to full-time teaching. For their first experience the students had one third of a full-time teacher's timetable. During their next school practice this will rise to two thirds. "Some lessons you can plan quickly," said Peri, "a quick lesson plan could take me half an hour, but other lessons would take me three or four hours. I obviously will not have that amount of time in my next block of teaching. Hopefully, with the experience I've gained, I will be able to plan more quickly and effectively. I will still have to do the background reading of course and that will still take up time."

The students' first-hand experience of teaching has changed their perception of teachers and teaching as a career.

For Peri, it has given him a greater respect for the job. "It's given me a huge amount of respect for teaching and teachers. I didn't really appreciate the extent to which they have to devote their own time to being a teacher; it is an extraordinary amount of work. Just observing them in the classroom does not convey just how much work they really put into the job."

Doreen really appreciated the time given over to her as a student. "The school was great. They were very supportive of me. Even when everyone was rushed off their feet they still had time to help me."

"I had to virtually ditch my social life," Hannah conceded. "I set out for work at 7.30am so late nights were out. I also spent my lunch hour seeing pupils. Other staff were also working through the lunch hour, the difference is that they had a full morning of teaching behind them and an afternoon of teaching to come. What took me a lot of time was marking. I was lucky in that I had time to do marking during the day. I spent a lot of time recording what the pupils had been able to do and what they had not grasped. Teaching is very demanding."

Every teaching experience will have its highs and lows, its good lessons and its bad ones. It was no different for the three students. For Doreen, the fact that pupils moved from classroom to classroom was a new experience for her and one that had its problems.

"At first I didn't appreciate the need to get pupils out of the lesson on the bell," she confesses, "so my timing in lessons was not always good. I saw a lot of wasted time in this practice. When I taught in Sierra Leone, the teacher moved from class to class, this made it easier to get control of the pupils. As you finished one lesson you set the pupils up for the next lesson and the next teacher. Time is not wasted as they move from class to class. They are also already in a working mood, once they leave the class they forget about work and begin to chat to their friends. Assemblies also make it worse for the first lesson of the day. If an assembly overruns then they arrive late and your lesson plan is immediately out. I also made sure that I spoke to other teachers to know what the pupils are like in other lessons and I picked up a lot of tips abut class management and discipline."

For Peri the backing that the school and the science department gave him was important. "At the start of my experience I had a problem with one girl in particular and I didn't have the confidence to know that I would receive backing from the department and the school. But they supported me fully, both the head of science and a head of year. That was great. What was a problem in the first week was sorted out in the second week.

"Brentford was, for me, the right place to start. It is a brilliant place to begin teaching. It's not too difficult but it is certainly not easy either. The department is so helpful and supportive. The head of science gave me full backing. I was treated like a full member of staff. It was perfect for me."

Hannah was grateful for the feedback given to her by her mentor when lessons didn't go exactly to plan. "Having the sort of feedback that tells you exactly where and when the lesson started to go wrong taught me a lot. Now I would have the confidence to stop a class when I felt that they hadn't understood what it was they had to do and explain it again to them. My worst lesson happened when it became clear that all of the pupils, even the brightest in the group, had not understood my instructions."

Doreen's West African background was useful in one of her best lessons, when the class were looking at the distribution of populations, wealth, education and food between different countries. "I divided the classroom into groups and assigned groups to continents, but the groups were of unequal sizes to reflect the population size, for example 13 pupils were in the Asia group out of a class of 27.

"I then gave them things to represent education, food and medical aid, pens, plates and Red Cross badges. Out of ten plates for food I gave only two to Africa. The pupils immediately started to say that this was not fair.

"The fact that I came from West Africa made it much more relevant to the pupils. I could use my own experience to help me teach them."

For Peri, there were several lessons where he felt satisfied. "Taking a lesson with a difficult group and turning it around to be successful is a great feeling. Also taking a lesson that didn't work, and taking it away and analysing it to find out where I went wrong, changing my plan, teaching the lesson again and seeing it work is very satisfying. I think that analysis and evaluation of the lessons is crucial. I personally feel that is more important than the lesson planning."

For all three students, their next teaching experience will offer yet further challenges and adventures. They are all confident that next time they will adapt even faster to new situations and, by drawing on the wisdom of their mentors, and the practical skills gained in their first schools they will develop and grow in confidence and emerge equipped to deal with the full-time job.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at Brunel University

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