The show must go on

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Laura Mannering helps you to keep your act together under observation

Teaching is a performance art. From the moment you enter the classroom you have to appear almost infallible to retain the faith and respect of the pupils.

For the nervous trainee, establishing this confident front for the first time is daunting. With queasy stomach, clammy hands and a mind which has gone blank des-pite hours spent planning a lesson, it can be hard to ooze authority. Add to the audience a clipboard-wielding observer and you may suffer an attack of stage fright.

Formal classroom observations by course tutors or mentors are a feature which all trainees must face. In my case, anxiety before my first observation manifested itself in recurring dreams in which my class was rioting but I could not speak.

Even for the self-confessed exhibitionist, the prospect of being observed for the first time is nerve-wracking. "As a teacher you have to be an actor all the time and that's part of me anyway. I'm quite happy to go in front of a quiet crowd and make a fool of myself to get things going," says Louisa Todd, a PGCE student at the University of Sussex. But although she likes playing to an audience, she does not relish being watched teaching. "I'm worried that the children will misbehave and play up to the observer, especially as they know I'm new."

Louisa's fellow trainee Stephen Cox adds: "There's the fear of making a mistake, of being questioned by a pupil and not knowing the answer. And what if one of the children asks if you've got a girlfriend. How do you answer that?" Dr Angela Jacklin, who has tutored primary PGCE trainees at the University of Sussex for eight years, says the important thing is to remain in charge. "Don't let the class faze you, and if they do, don't let it show. If you are asked a cheeky question, never answer it. Give an icy glare or remind the child that that is not what they're here for."

Dr Jacklin also advises students not to be pessimistic and to see observations as constructive. "At the beginning of the year trainees are usually very concerned about observations, but after the first visit they think it wasn't so bad after all. By the end of the year they see them as positive, because they improve with practice."

Headteacher Jane Andrews agrees that observation and constructive criticism are necessary. She mentored Sussex University PGCE students for 10 years and now chairs the Primary Management Group at the university. She says trainees' observations are the beginning of a process which goes on until they retire.

But if you don't feel calmed by knowing that classroom observation is a good thing, this 10-step guide based on Dr Jacklin's and Mrs Andrews' tips should help you give a confident performance.

* Research the lesson well.

* Ask the observer in advance which skills they will be assessing.

* Plan the lesson thoroughly and keep the plan close to hand.

* Script key parts of the lesson, such as the introduction and conclusion.

* Prepare a seat for the observer near a group who will be listening carefully and working hard.

* Warn the children somebody will be coming to watch the lesson and they will be less distracted.

* Avoid eye contact with your observer. The class will not focus on you if you do not focus on them.

* Don't introduce new routines or disciplinary phrases as they may confuse the class.

* If the lesson is spiralling out of control, stop and use an alternative activity to regain control.

* Get a good night's sleep the night before.

As a trainee, I once taught probability to a class while observed by my course tutor. Half way through we had an unexpected visit from the school foot nurse. In seconds, discussion in the classroom switched from the likelihood of throwing a head or a tail when tossing a coin, to the exchange of insults by pupils preoccupied with the smell of each other's feet.

If such events occur, don't panic. Put your hands on your hips and look mean. The most important thing is to give the impression that you are in control. As the year progresses this will come more naturally as the metamorphosis from actor to teacher takes place.

Laura Mannering is a supply teacher in Hertfordshire

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