Reaching crisis point

25th October 1996 at 01:00
Student teachers often waver at a critical moment in their training. David Wright recalls a few who wobbled but survived. More than 90 per cent of the student teachers who complete their course become qualified teachers. But there are no statistics on how many waver at a critical moment. Is it half - or even 90 per cent?

"Teaching practice" used to be an "in at the deep end" experience. Today, it is a bit gentler: "school experience" sounds less alarming, but it is still the moment for self-doubt: "only one of me and 30 of them."

Mini case studies of student teachers who wobbled but survived are hard to come by. There is no "agony column" for student teachers, and no agony aunt to publish wise replies. Here's the nearest thing: anecdotal crises of various types, and how they were solved. They're all true. . . Even if you don't encounter one of these teachers, you'll soon find that almost every teacher has a story about a crisis they survived.

Runaway success

"C" had everything going for him: over 6ft tall; from the East End of London; and he'd even worked in a children's home. So the self-styled "hard" kids in school seemed quite "soft" to him. Yet even C wavered. He ran away, back to his girlfriend after only two days in school. Fortunately, his girlfriend told him not to be so silly and sent him packing. Even more fortunately, a kind school took him back. C is now a successful teacher.

Confidence trick

"S" was back from travelling light in Pakistan and brimming with experiences. He produced brilliant schemes and lesson plans, full of ideas that would work. He came to see me: "I've got this problem with lack of self-confidence. " I told him this was his (and my) greatest strength: it enabled us to have creative thoughts and keep trying to do better. I'm not sure if he believed me, but he passed. He is now a successful teacher.

Advice and deaf ears

"F" had a more unusual problem. He fell into all the usual errors of student-teachers, but this was not the problem. When offered copious advice, he was so busy thanking all and sundry ("Thank you, that's exactly what I needed to hear") that he didn't register the advice. Tutors only got him a pass by apologising for the inadequacy of the course, to placate the school. Gradually, he learned how to cope.

A soft touch

"A" was an intellectual - he knew the latest theories and was up on his subjects. He was critical of the "out-of-date" teachers - and of the children. The wise teacher told him: "You use all these Latin words - our kids are more Anglo-Saxon." But he couldn't get the message. He seemed to dislike the children, especially the more deprived ones. In short, he was excellent, except that he was on the wrong wavelength. He was rescued by falling in love with "H", a member of the same course.

She liked kids and gradually humanised A. But I'm still not sure that he realises that she saved him. They are now successful teachers (and married with children, too).

Quick change

"J" had to use a moped from her remote village hideaway to get to school. But the headteacher decreed that female teachers must not wear trousers. The tutor was in the middle of an insoluble problem. But we resolved it: she had to arrive at school before anyone saw her and change before any children turned up. J is now a good teacher.

Hard lines

"K" had excellent exam results. But he was the product of a boys' grammar school. Inevitably, seven years in school has far more impact than seven weeks on a course about how to teach. He had succeeded as a student by treating education like medicine: it's nasty, it's horrible, it hurts, but it'll do good eventually. His "medicine" didn't work on pupils: schools now have more positive and cheerful approaches to learning. Not everyone has an IQ of 120. It was a long, slow learning process. I just couldn't get through to K. Eventually, a friendship with "P" developed. She was a cheerful, positive student-teacher who taught him a thing or two that I never could.

Revealing all

"E" was an ideal student, cheerful, positive, intelligent. She didn't have too many worries about teaching - she was a "natural". But she was so natural that she discussed her parties and boyfriend with the teachers. After a few less-than-successful lessons, the teachers claimed that she was not committed enough. A tutor visited and tried to calm the situation down. He identified the main discipline problem as being caused by a low-cut dress, but hesitated to say so. Before she went to the next school, a long discussion of what went wrong helped a lot - and she did fine, after all.

The workaholic

"G" was an excellent student and student-teacher: positive and friendly, efficient and hard-working. (Have you worked out how rarely these elements come together in one person? Yet the ideal teacher in an ideal world has them all.) But in school he became stressed and negative. He was given the firm advice: "Stop working so hard." He took the advice, cut out working late at night, and soon became a very good teacher.

Nobody's perfect

"N" had a different problem. He took every helpful suggestion as a negative criticism, and wrote two pages - closely written and argued - to explain that what he did was right. Ultimately, he put everyone's backs up, but he wasn't bad enough to fail. N is now the most successful one of all - within two years of teaching in schools he was earning more than the top of the university lecturer scale. So just what the moral of this tale beats me.

You are doubtless about to encounter a problem or two. Almost everyone does. If you can spot a likely problem, talk it through rather than bottle it up. Take heart that everyone encounters difficulties, but they are not insuperable. Many famous people survived a bad start. Dr Livingstone's first sermon apparently consisted of one sentence: "I have forgotten everything I was going to say."

Almost everyone has self-doubt. It's the student-teacher who does not learn from doubt who has the ultimate problem. The people who selected you for a teaching course have already judged that you have the right personality for teaching. Most people on your course succeed in becoming teachers.

Your tutor's advice is free. If you ask for advice, it's a sign of strength rather than weakness. But help from a friend may be just as important . . . someone who relates to kids.

David Wright trained teachers in Norwich and is now a writer and inspector of schools.

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