Set up to fail

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Jamie Last is angry he had to quit his PGCE after just seven weeks.

He explains why

I dropped out of my PGCE course after just seven weeks. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not going to apologise either. I agonised over the decision for weeks, but I knew in my heart that teaching just wasn't for me. I walked away from what would have been an interesting and challenging career.

Will I live to regret it? Maybe. Am I angry at why I left? Absolutely. I firmly believe I was set up to fail.

I'm not here to sling mud at the teaching profession. Enough of that happens already - and some of it by teachers. Please excuse my ranting but there's nothing more tedious for a trainee than walking into a staffroom and being forced to endure cries of, "Oh why do you want to become a teacher?" It was demoralising. I found myself justifying the value of the profession to teachers with 20 years' experience.

I was thrilled at the prospect of teaching from the day I was accepted on to a PGCE business education course at Kingston University. The small travel company that I had worked hard to establish for three years had ground to a halt. At the tender age of 35 I decided on a career change.

Teaching not only appealed but offered the challenge I craved.

Equipped with more than 10 years' experience of work, I strode confidently and eagerly into teaching. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the onslaught to come.

From the moment I started the PGCE, I realised my subject knowledge was out of date. I was teaching business education which encompasses many curriculum areas, many of which I had not studied before. I was immediately under pressure to develop new knowledge, learn how to teach and cope with the realities of being a student again.

Then, just eight days into the course, I began my first school placement, the timing of which I still find astonishing. What other profession requires students to come face-to-face with clients at such an early stage of their training? Lawyers and doctors study for years before they represent their first client or treat their first patient. Lacking confidence in my own abilities and feeling the strain at preparing lesson plans on subjects I knew little about, I soon appreciated why teaching has its own dedicated counselling helpline.

At this stage the value of good mentoring should have kicked in, but an almost total lack of organised induction worried me. I had, in effect, three mentors taking charge of me in the three subject areas that I would be teaching. Inevitably, effective communication between them on my overall needs and progress was impossible.

Their expectations of me were in complete contrast to my own; the pressure became almost intolerable. Having to blubber the same message three times that I just wasn't ready to begin teaching full classes when I hadn't even taken part in team teaching, was demoralising. As proactive as I had tried to be in expressing my needs and concerns to my mentors, my life at school was becoming a misery. The only times I ever met my official mentors was during their lessons.

I have no doubt that my mentors are excellent teachers, but they simply didn't have the time or, I felt, the inclination to do that job. This wasn't a surprise and I did not take offence. The daily undermining of the profession must be demoralising. They don't need the extra hassle of mothering a PGCE student for 10 weeks. It is yet another distraction from concentrating on the core job of teaching. But if a mentor isn't willing to embrace the job, they shouldn't take the appointment.

The arbitrary way in which trainees are allocated a mentor is a serious failure in the PGCE system. Universities sell the course on the promise of continued support, yet outsource the responsibility of providing it to teachers starved of free time. Football clubs spend millions of pounds developing training academies and the Metropolitan police commissioner has recently spoken about the need for university schools of policing. Why doesn't education consider doing the same?

Seven weeks into the course and having reached breaking point, I dropped out because I could no longer see a role for myself in the profession. I had preferred my life outside teaching when, despite working in a pressurised environment, I felt in control and I could both earn more and leave the stress behind at the end of the working day.

I don't blame my failure solely on bad mentoring - there was clearly more to it than that. But more support and a little inspiration from my mentors would have helped. I care about teaching and am saddened that it just wasn't for me. I don't know how we should train teachers better, but I know that we should.

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