Loneliness of long-distance trainees

17th November 2006 at 00:00
Student teachers overwhelmed at their first 'strange' school are offered companionship

doomed hollywood bad boy James Dean said being an actor was "the loneliest thing in the world". Wealthy actress Joan Collins believed loneliness is "the universal problem of rich people".

But it is student teachers on placement at unfamiliar schools who are now feeling isolated, according to research from the University of Sunderland.

Professor Caroline Walker said schools underestimate how scary it is to walk into an unfamiliar classroom - three of the trainees in the study went on antidepressants.

"Teaching is unique - you are always surrounded by people, yet in the classroom you are really alone," she said. "I understand, after doing this research, why so many people leave the profession."

A study of trainees on teaching practice identified three main reasons for them not staying the course: they had little in common with their pupils; they felt their individual identity was being replaced with that of a teacher; and they were overwhelmed by, as the researchers put it, an "insurmountable and conformity-driven workload seeping into every minute space in time and place" .

The good news is that new communications technology could provide support: the university gave 62 trainees personal digital organisers so they could swap notes, write blogs, vent their frustration and provide support and companionship.

As the placements proceeded, the researchers analysed 12,337 emails and 7,440 blog entries: "Reading the emails gives a real sense of loneliness - this was a huge theme to emerge," the research says. "The emails were used as critical friends for information and consolation." Student teachers often found themselves regarded as leaders, but did not want to be, or relish the power struggle with their mentor.

Two very different trainees, Max and Sandra, from the university teacher training course, were tracked on placements.

Max was daunted before his placements, saying he would "potentially have some difficulty with pupils because I'm gentle, quiet and non-confrontational". He solicited advice almost every night. During his placement he came out as gay and fellow students offered support when a tutor made an acerbic comment. Sandra, by contrast, used the technology to advise others, but also to seek reassurance. She was from a middle-class background, and found her working-class pupils a terrifying challenge.

Professor Walker said: "This technology can provide enormous support when students are on placements a long way from the university or each other.

They console and reassure each other in a way we never could even if we sat at a computer answering their questions all night."

Support in cyberspace: Practice placements and the loneliness of the student teacher, by Alan Gleaves, Caroline Walker and John Grey, University of Sunderland.

Don't stand alone

Have two separate identities: your teacher self (Mr or Ms X) and your real self. If you have a bad day, remember that it happened to Ms X, and not to your real self.

Make a particular effort to maintain your friends and social networks. Come the holidays, you'll be looking for people to go out with.

Training to teach can be an opportunity to make long-lasting friends: you are surrounded by people with the same interests and beliefs as you.

Try to talk to people in the staffroom. Everyone has been new at one point.

Remember that you do not have to be friends with the people you work with.

It is a job, not a social event.

(Source: Sara Bubb, of the Institute of Education, in London)

'You need to talk to someone'

The first time Liske Russell de Boer walked into a classroom of teenage pupils on her school placement she had no idea what she was letting herself in for. "I thought, 'Oh God'," says the trainee design and technology teacher. "It was daunting. The kids would not be quiet and they all had sharp tools and bandsaws."

Ms Russell de Boer, 26, (pictured)a teacher trainee at Edge Hill university in Lancashire, is doing her placement at the 600-pupil academy of St Francis of Assisi in Liverpool. The academy, which was opened by the Prime Minister and visited this year by Alan Johnson, Education Secretary, caters for pupils from one of the more deprived areas of the city.

"If I did not have support I would feel very lonely," she says. "You have got to get on as a team, otherwise the kids will just get to you, because some of them can be quite difficult."

The placement has been good, she says, because the academy's staffroom is friendly and there is another trainee to talk to.

"There are no funny staffroom politics. You can drink from any mug, you can sit anywhere, whereas at some schools you can't do that."

Staff in the design and technology department are also supportive. She says: "I'm self-sufficient and not afraid to ask my mentors questions because when you have got a class you cannot say 'I don't know'."

At the end of the day, Ms Russell de Boer goes home to her boyfriend, pours a glass of wine - and then pours her heart out. "You just need to talk to someone," she says.

Photograph: Colin McPherson

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