If you're afaint-heart, forget it

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Two placements down and into the final furlong. Elaine Mitchell reports on the class of '96. Intense, pressurised, demanding, stressful: descriptions common to the lips of today's aspiring teachers. At the beginning of the year I wrote about the hopes, aspirations and fears of four students as they came to terms with the realities of the profession.

This Easter, with two school placements tackled and the final furlong before graduation in sight, we met again to review the pleasures and pains of their course. All four had successfully manoeuvred the pitfalls of the classroom, but the stress was telling. "At the moment I'm beginning to wonder why I bothered about all this. I feel very tired," Marian Randall, of Moray House Institute, said.

Since September, she has juggled family commitments with the pressure of teacher training and had reached a low ebb. "The course is really hard going, but if you do this and have a family you need a wife yourself to help take care of the kids and the housework," she said. "This is definitely not for the faint-hearted."

Despite all this and "the constant pressure of continual assessment" she is "muddling through". To date, she has tackled primary 1 to primary 6 and is looking forward to "getting on to the same wavelength" as the big kids in primary 7. "I haven't found any of the age-groups particularly difficult, perhaps because my own kids have gone through these stages."

On reflection, her earlier "trepidation" over the responsibilities of her first placement now seem laughable. She, like all the trainees interviewed, has found her feet and is beginning to assume more responsibility in the classroom.

For Jim Gillon, this required a testing degree of lateral thinking. From the comfortable middle-class suburb where he had his first placement, he was dropped into a Glasgow area of priority treatment. "You have to think hard about how you will explain things to the children. You can't assume your context, that they have been certain places or done certain things, or you run the risk of embarrassing them."

Aiming to be realistic and to make primary children's experience work in his favour, he made the seemingly incongruous link between the Muslim hajj and a visit to Parkhead Forge. In discussing first impressions, feelings of excitement and expectations, the children had a yardstick with which to imagine their pilgrimage to Mecca.

While positive about his course, he, and the majority of his peers at the Jordanhill campus of Strathclyde University, is beginning to flounder under financial pressure. The restrictions of living on a grant coupled with a "massive outlay" for travelling expenses and the need to spend more money on materials have left him struggling.

"A lot of students work to make up the shortfall, but with a course as intensive as this one it is very difficult to take a part-time job," he said. "So far, I have been lucky in that the schools have allowed me to use a lot of their own materials, but some people have been unable even to make photocopies and have generated a lot of expense."

George McDaid, a secondary trainee at the Craigie campus of Paisley University took out a student loan for a trip to Tunisia, an obligatory camel ride and a well deserved chance to recharge his batteries. "It's been a very tough year," he mumbled through jet-lag.

With the mentoring scheme in ruins, following opposition to the degree of staff time needed to make it a viable option, the General Teaching Council has been left to form a working group which is currently considering the options of forming a partnership between schools and teacher education institutes.

While the working group deliberates, the training process for students amounts to an arduous round of planning, evaluation and revision.

Following the Scottish Office guidelines, Craigie divides the 36-week course equally between college studies and practical teaching experience. Trainees begin with two weeks on campus and are introduced to a range of issues aimed at raising awareness before they embark on a fortnight of observation in a school.

This process is achieved through shadowing a first or second-year class teacher.

Trainees return to the classroom for three weeks before going out to their first teaching placement, where the emphasis rests on fifth and sixth-year pupils. Despite the logistical problems of introducing a trainee to classes cramming for exams later in the year, the older pupils are closer to the age and level of ability of undergraduate courses than their younger counterparts.

Prior to the first placement, study skills relating to teaching, classroom management, practice and discipline as well as voice projection and the rudiments of Sixth Year Studies, Highers, vocational and modular courses are examined. From this point, trainees are given placements that work down to first-year pupils.

The process of continual review has been testing, but has proved useful in recording the strategies which work and has prevented him from "dashing forward" to repeat the same mistakes. "I still have the impression that, as students, we are still very much at the tip of the iceberg. There is still a long way to go and a lot to learn."

But he adds: "This is a good attitude to have, no one should feel that they have reached the top level and can rest back." Admitting that his "initial exuberance" was spent, the experience of facing a class of disenchanted teenagers had far from shattered his ambitions.

His first placement at a sprawling Ayrshire secondary was a period of overcoming nerves which allowed him to test out teaching methods during his second placement in a small Dumfriesshire school.

"There was quite a contrast in my placements both in size and the types of pupils I was asked to teach," he explained. "In Dumfries, I was teaching third and fourth-years in a compulsory setting where a lot of them would rather be in their beds. You had to work that bit harder to make things appealing."

At this stage he hopes to take the relatively unusual step of concentrating on teaching fourth and fifth-year classes which others would shun. "Because I was disenchanted by school, I feel I can relate to this group better than most, " he said "If you can bring one of these pupils round and get some good work out of them it gives a great sense of achievement."

His main concern is the choice he believes will have to be made between his two subjects, English and history. Considering literature his first choice, he said: "I will be sad to see the other subject go."

Valerie Dillon, a fellow secondary teacher, has an entirely different perspective on teaching a mixture of subjects. "I feel that going to St Andrew's College, teaching religious education, modern studies and English, I am good value for money," she said. Two-third of the way through her training, she remains undaunted but realistic about what lies ahead.

For three hours every evening and a chunk of her weekend she can be found huddled over lesson plans. This diligent working pattern is something she cannot see abating until she has been practising for at least two years. "The first couple of years will be hell," she said.

She is, however, "still really enjoying school" and believes that the information that came thick and fast at the outset of the course is beginning to fall into place. "Things are beginning to gel and I can see where I'm going," she said proudly. From now until June, her main worries will remain the same: "Will I pass all my assessments and will I graduate?"

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