Placements are all well and good, but nothing can fully prepare you for taking charge of your own class, says Phil Bennett
Life in teacher training college is relatively safe and cosy. An assortment of new-found friends sharing similar experiences; staying awake for an hour at a time in uncomfortable lecture rooms; completing essays on "The Importance of Pedagogic Reflection" within the eight-week deadline; having the right change for the coffee machine; finding outlets that sell the essential leather elbow patches; and working out the quickest route to Last Chance primary school for the two-week teaching placement.
One year in this cotton-wool world (known affectionately as a PGCE) can give a new teacher inside-out knowledge of the national curriculum, the Child Protection Act, the "absolute necessity" for fair tests, and how not to split an infinitive.
But what about children? What do they look like and how do they behave? What is pedagogy, and who invented such a ridiculous word?
School placements during training gave me a reasonable idea of what junior children were like. But as for being responsible for them - that was someone else's problem. I observed, occasionally being let loose with a hands-on session to hone my pedagogic skills. My ornate lesson plans would dissolve after five minutes, usually following an off-the-wall remark from Johnny, or the spontaneous combustion of a child. However, the "real" teacher was always on hand to retrieve the situation with a word or a look. "This is easy," I foolishly thought.
The classroom had piles of textbooks, trays full of calculators, pencils, erasers and scissors, and myriad tables and chairs. Where were the computers, fax machines, water dispenser and telephones I'd become accustomed to during my years in industry?
Suddenly it hit me. In 10 minutes, I would be facing 25 children expecting leadership, inspiration and an education, or, more likely, just fun. Outside, at least 50 guardians wanted me to give their loved ones an IQ of 220, a loving personality and a right foot like Beckham's. My decision to quit selling steel and become a teacher was suddenly the worst I'd ever made.
Nothing can prepare you for taking charge of your own class. I kept reflecting on this during the milliseconds in which I was able to stand back and think. Immediately that first bell rang, I subconsciously jumped on to a surfboard and attempted to ride the teaching wave - with a complete lack of control.
A handful of the class tried to test out the tolerance levels of this new face, and for the first half-term I felt I was battling a miniature army. But with perseverance came success, and the children gradually learned about my expectations of them. By half-term, I was able to begin to teach.
Aside from the children, the most daunting area for a new teacher is resources. How can I teach children about the gods of Ancient Greece when all I know about the country is the bizarre dress sense of its national guard? The PGCE didn't prepare me for this. Somehow, I managed to fumble my way through with the invaluable help and ideas of my teaching colleagues.
There is no substitute for an experienced teacher, so use and abuse them (it makes them feel important when they are asked for advice). Another excellent resource is the internet - you may unearth a gem that will transform a child's learning experience.
The third major challenge is the language. It is incredible how a simple instruction can be translated in so many ways. For instance, at the command "clear up", children might leave the classroom to wash their hands, or put paintbrushes in the bin, or stack chairs on top of artwork on the table. If a command contains any degree of ambiguity, a child will find and exploit it.
My advice to any teacher following my brief but enjoyable year so far would be: make your classroom a disciplined but enjoyable place where children will want to come every day; keep a sense of proportion and a sense of humour - make lessons fun for them and you; ignore those weird dreams where your class waits at the end of your bed and you can't find any underwear. They'll stop as your confidence increases.
Phil Bennett is a Year 5 teacher at Alexander Hosea primary school in Gloucestershire