Practice imperfect

14th January 2005 at 00:00
What happens if your teaching placement goes wrong? It's not the end of the world, says James Williams, if you do the right thing

This year, nearly 36,000 trainee teachers will find their way into schools, willing and eager to practise their skills and learn how to be a professional.

With that many trainees, each needing two placements, it is inevitable that sometimes things go wrong. The key to a good school experience rests on the relationship that develops between the trainee and the school-based mentor who take responsibility for the their day-to-day work. If that relationship doesn't develop, or problems occur, a good placement can go bad all too easily.

Before trainees are placed in schools a lot of behind-the-scenes work and negotiation takes place between the colleges and the schools. How many trainees can a school take? In which subjects? Who will be the mentor? Once these things are decided, the college tutors then need to match the trainees to the available placements.

This is not as simple as it may seem. Taking into account the needs of the trainee and their personal circumstances is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. However, once the puzzle is completed and the trainees turn up for their first experience of actual teaching, each and every one is hoping for a good experience. So, why do placements turn sour and what can be done to resolve those problems or, better still, prevent them from happening in the first place?

agree on Expectations When your mentor's expectations seem unrealistic, it feels as though nothing you do is right. This can quickly damage relationships. Agree what you and your mentor expect from each other. Most often there is a description of what is expected from mentors and trainees in the documentation provided by your college. Look it up, read it and talk it through with your mentor. Find out as much as you can about the school before you arrive, and be prepared - every day.

make the effort to fit in Some trainees complain about not fitting in. This is a two-way street. You have to make an effort to fit in - which is usually rewarded by acceptance.

You have to perform as part of a team, offering to make the tea for someone on a heavy teaching day, occasionally buying biscuits. Joining in with the staff at break times and lunchtimes all help, as does turning up in good time and not dashing off at the end of the day. Offer to help out where you can.

blend in Conformity is not a word that most people like. They want to be individuals, not conformists, but teaching has an element of conformity about it that we cannot escape. Don't stick out like a sore thumb, either dress-wise or character-wise, unless and until you know that you are accepted by the school and staff. There will be plenty of time for your individual flair to come out once you have proved that you can hack it in the classroom.

Know the system It is vital that you understand the rules and procedures of your placement school. Suddenly imposing a whole-class detention when this is not part of the school discipline procedure can cause problems for the mentor who has to deal with the backlash from parents and others. So get it right the first time: read the school handbook.

Act on advice Mentors are experienced teachers; their advice is usually very sound. If you disagree, then by all means ask for explanations, but do it politely and don't simply ignore it.

use your mentor A common complaint of trainees is that they receive conflicting advice. One teacher says do something this way and another teacher says do it that way.

The best person to resolve this is your mentor. Tell him or her that conflicting advice is hampering your progress, ask your mentor to talk to other staff about this on your behalf.

be professional, not personal Problems rarely, if ever, go away if you ignore them, but remember to attack the problems and not the people you think may be at their root.

Relationships will never survive personal attacks; if you attack your mentor, there is usually only one loser - you.

know who to ask If things do go wrong, there is usually a clear line of people who you can call on to resolve problems.

1 Your mentor should be your first point of reference and if you enjoy a good relationship can usually solve 99 per cent of any problems you encounter.

2 The school professional tutor is the person briefed to look after all trainee teachers on placements in a school. If there are issues and problems that cannot be resolved with your mentor, the school tutor should be the next person you see.

3 The college tutor will have built up a relationship with the school mentors and professional tutors over time. Unresolved issues and problems can be referred back to them and more often than not they can resolve them.

4 The course leader - each college has one - is the person who can, in cases of serious breakdown, either intervene or rearrange placements if the relationship between the trainee and the school is beyond repair.

Words not war The golden rule for resolving problems in placements are much the same as discipline procedures in schools. Don't fire the big guns as a first resort! Talking and tackling the problem is the first resort; only if that doesn't work should you graduate from the mentor to, ultimately, the big boss. It can be tempting to go straight to the top to try to get a problem resolved quickly and in your favour, but this can cause more damage than good. The result could be a school withdrawing a placement because you failed to let them try to resolve the matter.

James Williams is the PGCE course leader at the University of Sussex

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