The reality of life at the chalkface

18th November 2005 at 00:00
Sensational stories about disorder in schools paint a bleak picture of teaching; yet still the profession finds recruits. A television series starting next week tells it as it is, following six trainees at university and on placement, reports Su Clark

If the tabloid newspapers are right and our schools are little more than battlegrounds where pupils and teachers face a daily barrage of violence, disorder and disaffection, why do so many people still choose teaching as a career?

The truth is that many teachers enjoy their jobs, and thousands try to join the profession every year, trusting that their expectations of classroom life will prevail over sensationalist reports of an education war zone.

"When I told people I was going into teaching, their responses varied from shock to horror, and some had a tinge of pity," says Blair Paton, who is into his fourth month as a probationer at Meldrum Academy in Aberdeenshire.

At 22, he has chosen teaching over a career in the RAF. Some might find his choice strange, but life in the RAF would not have suited his aspirations as a musician, going to gigs every week with his band.

Others have chosen to ignore the tabloid tales of classroom mayhem too.

Neil Thomson, a former slaughterman, funded his undergraduate degree by working as bouncer and is now at Kincorth Academy, Aberdeen. Jane Hunter left her family of three children behind in Orkney to study in Aberdeen and is now back home at Stromness Academy.

Last year, Mr Paton, Mr Thomson and Mrs Hunter, along with two other mothers and a passionate biologist, completed their initial teacher training under the watchful eyes of a television crew following their every move. From Tuesday, the public will get to see, over six weeks, how they fared.

Teacher, Teacher is not a lurid tale, although there are some tears and episodes of frustration. It promises to be a realistic expose of teaching and the training teachers have to go through, and it could prove a major fillip for recruitment. All those participating wanted to show the real side of teaching. In doing so, they make it look appealing.

The programme was made by Tern Television, the company behind the award-winning Gutted documentary on north-east fishermen.

"We all think we know schools because we've been through the education system," says David Peat, the director, "but the reality is, once you are an adult, even if you have children, you don't get the chance to go back.

Pupils and teachers inhabit a world that, once the classroom door is closed, is known only to them.

"Tabloid tales portray a certain image of schools today. This was a great chance to give an insight into school life in an observational style, without the need to sensationalise, blur faces or resort to secret filming."

Four women and two men were chosen as the main focus for the series. They are a fair representation of the 200 students on the year-long PGDE, says Cathy Macaslan, the vice principal of learning and teaching at Aberdeen University. Each week, they were followed by the television crew, during their placements as well as at university.

"You got used to them being there," says Fiona Ferguson, from Broughty Ferry, who trained to become a technical studies teacher and is now at Craigie High, Dundee. "You were under stress anyway, being observed, but having a TV crew in the corner didn't make it any worse.

"I had decided, when I agreed to do it, that I was going to make sure it was as honest a portrayal as I could give. It was going to be warts and all, and sometimes even cold sores, so that people could really see what teaching was about."

It was not just the trainee teachers who were put in the spotlight: Aberdeen University and its tutors also feature heavily. Ms Macaslan is happy with the outcome, believing it shows a realistic picture of the course and of teaching in school.

It becomes clear, as the series continues, that the course structure, with three lots of six weeks on placement and six weeks on the course, is inflexible. For Sheila Docherty, who had to commute from Dundee, leaving her six-month-old baby with a series of carers, this led to a crisis early on.

"We appreciate this," says Ms Macaslan, "and we are currently piloting a distance learning course in secondary teacher training to encourage a diverse mix of people who would find teaching a rewarding career. However, there is still the problem of placements, which can't be done part-time."

Mrs Hunter, whose nearest teacher training institution is at Aberdeen, reckons distance learning would not have suited her. "I think I would have dropped out. I don't have enough self-discipline.

"If I'd done it part-time I would have had to juggle work, children, my obligations to the community and the coursework. It was much better to do it the short, sharp way," she says.

Mrs Ferguson, who also has three children, had to commute for more than an hour and a half each day. She still feels she wasn't worse off for time than other students. "Many had full-time jobs to pay for the course," she says.

Mr Blair worked between 25 and 35 hours a week in a hotel restaurant, and Mr Thomson worked as a bouncer at an Aberdeen bar (although not during the week while on placement).

The students agree that the course wasn't too onerous, but there was a feeling that some sessions were a waste of time.

"Some of the course is dictated by the Scottish Executive and it doesn't seem relevant," says Mrs Hunter. "We did a whole session on chartered teachers, yet we won't be eligible for five years. We could have done with much more on behaviour management."

As the series progresses it becomes clear that the placements were the most enjoyable part of the training for the students.

"I found the first six weeks at university fascinating," says Mr Paton, "but after that the placements were much more interesting, even though the shortness of them could be frustrating as it takes that long to build relationships with the students."

"It (the course) was completely different to my undergraduate course," says Anna Cashmore, who is now a probationer at Elgin Academy. "To start, it was only two days a week at university with the rest home study and I wasn't used to writing essays.

"But by the end of it, I felt well prepared and ready for probation."

Mr Thomson felt equally well prepared, and like the others, is loving being a teacher.

"I enjoyed teacher training but I'm enjoying teaching and getting paid to teach much more."

Teacher, Teacher begins on Tuesday, November 22, at 8.30pm on BBC1 Scotland with "Why teaching?"

'I wanted to do something rewarding'

Sheila Docherty

34, drama

"When I was at school I thought only dead brainy people went into higher education, not people like me, who could bump along in the middle without doing much work.

"I just wanted to be an actor.

"So, I left school and did a variety of jobs. When I was 20, I did a theatre and art course and began working with young people doing drama workshops. I loved working with kids.

"It wasn't until I was in my mid-20s, when I was sharing a flat with some students, that I realised I was just as capable as them of doing a degree.

It was my epiphany. I applied to Bristol to do English and drama.

"On the last day of my course I discovered I was pregnant, so I came back to Dundee.

"I liked the idea of working with children and young people, and I needed something that would fit my position as a single parent, so I decided to go into teaching. I chose Aberdeen because it was a good course."

Blair Paton

22, technical education

"I started university with the intention of becoming an officer in the RAF and it sponsored me through my degree in electronics and electrical engineering at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. But, even then, my long-term plan was to leave at the contractual age of 38 and possibly go into teaching.

"By the time I had finished my degree, I recognised life in the RAF wouldn't suit me. I'm a bit too laid back.

"It was a bit of a last-minute decision to go into teaching and I applied very late, but I got a place. Teaching suits me much more."

Fiona Ferguson

36, technical education

"Teaching had always appealed to me, even back when I was studying architecture at Aberdeen in the early 1990s, but my degree wasn't acceptable then. I couldn't teach it. So I moved on to other things.

"Nowadays the focus has changed within teacher training, but I only discovered this two years ago through a chance meeting with an old friend of my brother.

"When I discovered he was studying to become a teacher at Glasgow, he suggested I reconsider it as a career.

"Since graduating. I'd worked full-time and part-time in various jobs, including as a development officer in a private school, and had got to the point where I really wanted to do something more constructive with my time.

My youngest child had just started school, so suddenly teaching was an option again; something I'd wanted years before and could now do.'

Anna Cashmore

24, biology

"I had decided before I even left school that I wanted to be a teacher.

When I was choosing my undergraduate degree, I went for something I enjoyed, so I would want to teach it every day.

"I didn't want to do primary; I knew that.

"I chose biology because I love it. I feel completely passionate about my subject. It is probably because when I was in school I had this brilliant biology teacher, Philip Austin. He was always thinking up new, inventive ways of teaching. It made me want to do something where I could feel I was helping others to understand something they didn't understand before, something that could be rewarding.

"I didn't get in when I first applied. I went off and did a year of working, gaining life experience and then tried again. I got in second time."

Jane Hunter

41, English

"The idea of my going into teaching had been around forever. My careers adviser at university in 1987 suggested I become a teacher, but it was the last thing I wanted to do at the time.

"I told him I was too short; that was my excuse. Really, I was too scared. It takes confidence to stand up in front of a lot of teenagers.

"The idea came up again a few times over the years, but I always put it off for one reason or another. Then my marriage broke down and I needed to find something for me, something secure and rewarding. I'd also just reached 40 and realised that if I didn't want to spend the rest of my life wondering 'what if I?', I had to do it now.

"I also didn't feel so guilty about burdening my ex-husband. Before I felt responsible for things and wouldn't have burdened him with extra responsibilities while I went off to study. I didn't feel so beholden to him after the marriage broke down and, fortunately, he was willing to return to look after the children for a year to allow me to leave Orkney for Aberdeen."Neil Thomson

37, geography

"I was a slaughterman for 12 years, but a combination of reaching 30, being made redundant four times in five years and getting divorced made me realise I wanted to do something more.

"I did an access course and then I started a degree in geology and geography. Once I was on the course I started thinking about becoming a teacher. So I switched to pure geography, as there isn't much call for geology teachers in Scottish secondary schools.

"I'm currently working as a supply teacher because the probationary post I was allocated was too far away from home, but it has worked out OK. Just before I started, I got a telephone call telling me it would be long-term supply and that I will probably be able to get my requisite 250 days by the end of the contract to get full registration."

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