Lessons from the front

14th November 2003 at 00:00
For any trainee, stepping out in front of a roomful of pupils and taking charge is a pulse-quickening prospect. Anthea Davey offers advice, and PGCE students and tutors offer more

If you're one of today's 34,000-plus PGCE students, you will probably have recently begun your first teaching placement. Whether you've been looking forward to it ever since deciding to become a teacher, or have undergone feelings of trepidation, you're embarking on a steep learning curve. Now you need to get as much out of your time in school as possible to be fully prepared for your first teaching job in 10 months' time.

SPENDING TIME IN SCHOOL

Ways of entry into the teaching profession have become increasingly varied.

The most common route of entry, chosen by 52 per cent of primary and 85 per cent of secondary teachers, is the PGCE, which consists of time in college and two teaching placements. Primary postgraduate courses comprise 18 weeks of teaching practice, while secondary courses have 24 weeks. Four-year programmes have 32 weeks based in school.

The course should give you the pedagogic basis for your training before any placement begins. Observing experienced teachers at work is the next stage of your induction into school life. Then a period of gradual withdrawal by the class teacher should allow you to increase your confidence until you are ready to take charge.

BE ORGANISED

When that happens, you need a large degree of organisation and it is vital that you set up systems from the outset. Get a diary or planner and a school calendar so that you know when there are in-service training days, parents' evenings and so on.

Know your timetable and write in appointments with your mentor or school tutor. Keep up to date with lesson plans and self-evaluations. A big bag for lugging plans, books, resources and so on around classes is useful.

TAKE BREAKS

Once you start teaching, make sure you take breaks from the work. The first few years of teaching can place pressure on relationships with partners, family and friends, who can resent the amount of time planning and marking can take and the weariness that is the lot of many in the profession.

Reassure them that it will get better, but also try and inject some balance into your life. If you are over-tired, your teaching will become less effective.

SCROUNGE AND KEEP

While it is vital for your professional development and often necessary for interviews to have created your own schemes of work, make sure your colleagues give you resources. If you can, plan your lesson on a computer because it will be a time-saver in your first year. Even if you end up at a school that follows a different syllabus and your lesson plans and schemes seem redundant, keep hold of them: you may be able to adapt them or use them later in your teaching career.

The internet is invaluable for research. Some websites are devoted to specific subjects and contain useful worksheets, while others may be excellent on certain topics.

ENJOY EXTRAS

In the midst of planning, teaching and marking, extra-curricular activities may seem like an impossible additional burden, but they can make your life much easier in the long run. Getting to know the children outside the classroom regime breaks down barriers, can help with classroom management and is impressive at interview.

It's also often the more rewarding part of the job when you see the team you helped coach win a match, or the drama rehearsals you helped with culminate in a wonderful end-of-term production. These activities are also a good way of getting to know staff in other departments.

THINK OF OTHERS

It's vital to have good "people" skills in a social job such as teaching.

On bad days you will need your colleagues, so make an effort from the beginning to get to know them. The other PGCE students can also provide a support network.

The school secretary - probably one of the first people you meet on placement - has the potential to be a useful friend. While others may be teaching when you have a question, the office staff are easy to track down and knowledgeable about school systems. They, too, are busy, so pick your moment.

An even more crucial relationship will be the one you develop with your mentor. You must be able to take criticism in order to improve your teaching, so don't allow your pride to get in the way. Ideally, your mentor will give you the opportunity to evaluate your lesson first and demonstrate that you are aware of your successes and areas for improvement, and then take on board any additional comments.

Your mentor should give you support and encouragement and advice. A key factor in a successful relationship is the weekly meeting, so make sure it is established from the outset.

BE PROFESSIONAL

When in the classroom, think of yourself as a teacher and not as a student: children respond to a confident approach. Getting to know names can help establish authority and will certainly make discipline easier.

It's easy to feel like you're in the way on teaching practice, but remember that the people you're working with were once students too, and they are able to benefit from you. When the regular teacher is sitting at the back of the classroom, it can be an ideal time for him or her to observe the class dynamics or to work with an individual child.

Mentoring is also useful professional development. Teaching other teachers is a good way of reassessing the skills needed in the classroom. Student teachers often bring new ideas in terms of resources and teaching methods that help schools to adapt to change.

You might find yourself referred to as a BT - it's the latest up and coming jargon and it means beginning teacher, that is, a student.

Anthea Davey is an English teacher at the Latymer School, north London, and a former mentor

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