My blossoming new career - and not a paper in sight

11th April 2003 at 01:00
Student primary teacher Judith Fryer has learned how to cope with the stress of an upper stages placement and enjoy the challange of a child-led nursery

Judith Fryer, aged 36, a mother of one, gave up her job as press officer at the University of Stathclyde last April in order to move to Fife with her family and start teacher training after 13 years working in Northumberland, London and Glasgow

Newspapers have dominated my adult life. As a journalist I read at least two each day; as a press officer it was all the heavies plus a couple of tabloids.

Working at Westminster, I would be awake at 6am listening to the Radio 4 bulletin before putting in last-minute telephone calls and, while dressing, monitoring the television and radio for the politicians I had fixed to be on. By the time I arrived at work I would also have filleted The Times on a jammed Tube train.

In Glasgow the regime was slightly slower, but increasingly I began to resent the hold newspapers had over my life; weekend and out-of-hours calls and all those Sunday papers. I decided if work had to be that intensive, I might as well throw myself into an occupation where I would value the results more than I was coming to value another few inches of copy won on behalf of my employer.

So, less than a year after leaving my last job, I am now three-quarters of the way through the PGCE Primary course at Dundee. Life is strictly timetabled; up at 5.30am or 6am in order to squeeze in some study before heading off to Kinghorn Primary, in Fife, where I have just finished the nursery teaching practice. Newspapers have been binned, even the Sundays; I've no time to read them. Instead I rely on Radio 4's Today and PM during the drives to and from school or college. My grasp of world affairs has been kept up to date through the fog of a mind preparing for the day ahead or anxiously reflecting on work just done.

January was hard: late nights and early mornings, all of them dark, and slightly freaky drives through icy countryside to reach school, but that's the nature of winter. Children were sick at school and at home.

My daughter chose the night before my upper stages placement started to wake up upset and feverish - twice. (Was she subconsciously coming out in sympathy or seeking revenge?) In the middle of the night, as I tried to get her back to sleep, the words of one college friend kept coming back to me.

"You know," she said, leaning confidentially across the table, "I've heard that this placement is seen as the make or break one. Middle stages was the warm-up, but this time around the teachers are told to pile on the pressure a bit."

I hadn't known. And that's certainly the way the upper stages placement felt to me.

"Differentiation" was my watch-word throughout the lead-up and my placement with P6 at a primary school in Kirkcaldy. It had around 680 children altogether, including the 120 in the on-site nursery.

I was lucky: I had a very experienced teacher who seemed happy to share as much of her experience as I was able to absorb, who was willing to give me access to all her neatly filed resources and who signposted me towards others. When I got lost - embarrassingly frequently at first - my teacher showed me again where the upper stages' shared maths resources lived and where I could find a variety of language resources (one floor down, turn left, through the computer suite, on my right).

It was the planning for the five days' responsibility which threatened to do for me, upper stages being the first time I had come across curriculum planning and weekly planning as a backdrop to the now familiar daily and lesson plans. Coupled with the need to differentiate across three curriculum levels in maths and language, my mind frequently began to whirl.

Hours disappeared as I locked myself away in the struggle to conquer.

With four maths groups and five language groups to co-ordinate through their lessons, teaching became a different discipline too. At times I felt more like a traffic policeman, directing different groups to come forward for 10 minutes or so of direct and interactive teaching before dispatching them and calling for the next. At other times, perhaps when I momentarily forgot whether it was the Sea Greens or Aquas who should be joining me next, while the Scarlets were politely reminding me that I had left one too few worksheets for them, I felt more like a rabbit caught in headlights.

It took my college tutor, casting her watchful eye over a fraught maths lesson (following an exciting snowy lunchtime), to kindly urge me to calm down. We agreed that I was getting over-anxious to make sure I got everyone through the lesson and that it was becoming a case of more haste, less speed and of stress being infectious. (I thought I had it battened down.) From that day, I deliberately slowed down. I tried out some of the soft start techniques I had read and heard about, such as a poem after break, soft Mozart playing in the background as we prepared for art or mental maths games we all could participate in, in order to bring the class together and help the children (and me!) relax before expecting them to focus on work ahead. The classroom became a smoother place for us all to be and the four remaining days of responsibility - and the rest of the placement - became more enjoyable, certainly for me and I reckon for most of the class.

Back in college after it was all over, the trainees manically swapped tales of how we had survived. One man had regularly been up until 2am planning and preparing lessons and working on "the file". He told us that he had then got into the habit of ironing his shirts as a way to relax and calm his mind - while his wife and family were all safely tucked up and sleeping - before finally retiring to bed for a few hours. He would have a bottle of beer to aid this process and wondered whether he had been right to leave his job in business.

Many women, myself included, admitted to feeling they were losing it at some point during upper stages and to inflicting tears and exhausted tantrums on their unfortunate - and probably exhausted - families.

I tend to hang around with the maturer trainees. That is, in a broad way, how we have settled down socially and I suppose that's natural. Looking around the canteen or lecture hall, I sometimes wonder how some of the younger ones are finding the PGCE course. I know a few of them pretty well and they astonish me with their philosophical outlook on the many characters, young and old, we are all coming across. I'm afraid to say that, in my early 20s, I tended to judge some people harshly and found it easier to offer sympathy than empathy.

Anyway, the majority of us made it safely through upper stages before rattling straight on to prepare for nursery. It's been great! The challenge of working in Kinghorn Primary's child-led nursery has been enormous.

Working alongside a four-strong team to manage the behaviour and facilitate the learning of 60 three-and four-year-olds was tiring enough. Harder still was writing up my understanding of the reasoning behind every aspect of nursery practice and planning, as well as in-depth observations of the ongoing development and development needs of three of the children. Add to that some research into a relevant educational issue and the development of three learning contexts and it is no wonder we trainees are all burning the candle at both ends.

Again I've been lucky, landing in an environment where the team was keen to let the children outside as much as possible and where vigorous exercise was encouraged.

After three frenetic weeks, I have grasped the fundamentals of child-led settings. Far from being an easy option where children are allowed to run riot, this approach demands complex management skills. It rests upon children feeling happy and secure, because not until then can the adults start to teach and successfully model considerate and responsible behaviour.

Because the children have so much freedom to play what and where they want, it is important that when a definite request is made the child does what is asked. No activitiy is allowed unless it can be rigorously justified using the 3-5 curriculum guidelines - and it's all done through play!

Now it is time to look forward to early years and the final placement. We trainees have three weeks in college to prepare and then it's out again for five weeks, including a fortnight's sole responsibility for our class. It is a daunting prospect.

And I wonder what the news will be telling me while I make my way to school and back every morning and evening. I hope it starts to sound a little more positive than it has been since the course started in August. It's certainly seemed strange mentally preparing for every day with children while also keeping an ear on the diplomatic crisis and ensuing war.

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