Oh, if only they had told me on day oneI

28th October 1994 at 00:00
. . . about pink slips, about how to fill in the register, about pacing the workload. Carolyn O'Grady asks five teachers what advice, trivial or important, would have helped them in their first terms. There can be few new teachers who at some time in their first year have not raised their eyes to heaven and thought: "I wish I'd known that before I started." Even teaching practice can't prepare you for you moment when you are left entirely responsible for a class, and a college can't anticipate every challenge and eventuality, though teachers often do wish they had anticipated a few more.

So I asked five teachers from different sorts of schools what they would have liked to have known before they had started teaching, or even, as in the case of Philip Pemberton, who quakes at how very nearly he came to missing what he now sees as his vocation in special needs, what they wished they had known before training.

Most mentioned the stage fright and fear of responsibility when they found themselves for the first time in charge of a class. Many expressed their disillusionment or bewilderment at the public perception of teaching. But points varied considerably. If anything emerges from this, it is perhaps the need for a broader curriculum in colleges that takes in counselling, administration and assertiveness.

All the teachers have had one to two years of experience except Sue Jameson who has been in her school for three years.

Sue Jameson

Uffculme School (grant maintained secondary) Devon "People don't realise how much work teachers put in in the evening and during school holidays. There is a perception that we clock off at four. But there is so much that you can't do during the school day that you have to do at other times.

"Marking homework is the obvious thing, but there is also looking at curriculum changes, talking with parents, organising trips. Extra-curricular activities require a lot of organisation. In the first year you have to work exceptionally hard during the week to get a free weekend, but it's important to make free time for yourself.

"I have accompanied children a several exchanges and trips. It's not a holiday. Being in loco parentis is an immense responsibility. How many people have 30 children for up to a week?

"But on a more positive note I hadn't realised what a terrific buzz you can get out of teaching. In my first year parents came up to me to say 'thank you'. It felt great. I like the fact that pupils come to me for advice. It's nice that they trust you enough to do that and feel they can communicate. There's more to teaching than just teaching a subject."

Andrew Reeve

Cheadle Hulme School (independent secondary school)


"Sometimes with a class you feel that you're not getting your point across. You say, 'Does everyone understand?' and get a lot of blank faces staring back at you. You haven't got another approach in the bag.

"It's then that you need to have someone to talk to who can come up with alternative ideas.

"In my case it was my head of department who suggested, for example, new materials or approaches I hadn't thought of.

"Teachers are too often reluctant to admit that things are not working. You need to have someone to turn to with problems who you see on a regular basis. Don't be afraid to talk through difficulties. You can learn a great deal from other teachers "In class if you don't know something, it's important to be honest with the pupils. Don't try to bluff your way through, afterall they may have to use the information in an exam.

"You can't do it all the time, or they'll begin to lose confidence and if you know your subject well you won't have to; but it's completely OK to say, 'I'm not sure about that - but I'll find out' now and again."

Jennifer McDonald

Pollokshields School (primary)


"What took me by surprise was the amount of responsibility we were given right away. In teaching practice you always had someone there. All of a sudden you're in charge of a class. It was very different from teaching practice,. when there was always another teacher there and you could discuss everything.

"In the first year especially the amount of work is immense. At first I was making loads of my own materials - worksheets and other things - and taking on much too much. I realised you can't sustain that level of work. You have to use textbooks.

"You start by trying to make everything exciting. Then you realise you can only make it so thrilling and then you have to get down to the business of covering everything in the national curriculum. At college we were encouraged to do an overall topic, The Zoo, for example. You soon realise that there is no way you can tie in one subject to everything in the national curriculum.

"I was also surprised at the public perception of teaching. People are either very respectful or they think its an easy job with loads of holidays and finished at 3.30pm every day."

Philip Pemberton

Rees Thomas SLD School Cambridge

"I wish I'd known a lot more about special needs. At college we were scared stiff of special needs children. We had a choice of special needs, junior or upper years. I chose junior; but in retrospect I wish I'd chosen special needs. Once you'd chosen your pathway in the second year other subjects were hardly discussed.

"I might easily have missed out. It was only by accident that I got into special needs: the headmaster of a school near my home offered me work on a voluntary basis and I loved it. It's a lot of fun.

"It's a lot more rewarding because you feel you can make a lot of difference in their lives. If you teach a child to eat better and to go to the toilet, it will make a lot of difference. You get to know the kids really well.

"The pupils have a lot of life. They don't care about Nikes and other trends. They're wonderful people to work with. Plus it's a lot more challenging. You've got to use all your intelligence, skill and creativity to get through to them. I don't want to go into mainstream again.

"Another thing: you don't have to wear a tie and shirt. You can even wear dungarees if you want!"

Lisa Manna-Smith

Leasowes High School and Community College

West Midlands

"The emphasis at college was on subject areas. And though every school is different I would liked to have been more aware of what I would be expected to do in my role as form teacher so that I could have found out what was required before I started.

"I had little idea how to fill in the register or cope with the paper work. When pupils came to me to ask for blue slips or pink slips I didn't know what they were.

"Also as form teacher children come to you with all sorts of queries. They want advice on teenage problems and they expect you to know about the running of the school. At this school we see all our pupils on a one-to-one basis and it can be difficult striking up a conversation with a child. Moreover I didn't know the best way of talking about a child's problems at home A bit of counselling training would have been useful.

"Though I was given a tremendous amount of advice and support by the personal and social development co-ordinator it was still daunting to discover I had to deliver sessions on sex, drugs, alcohol and careers. Again, I had no experience."

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