So good to have got that fellow-feeling

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
What did McCrone mean to a fledgling teacher? Jane Nieminska was outside looking in.

Over the past two years I have had the dubious privilege of watching the McCrone agreement implemented from afar. As a class teacher, when few things seemed certain with the future except, perhaps, for the agreement's pay rises, I took stock of my career and decided that, with all the uncertainties, perhaps now was the time to temporarily jump ship and look for a fresh challenge.

So for the past two years I have been fortunate to undertake a secondment to Moray House School of Education at Edinburgh University as a teaching fellow. The aims of the teaching fellowship are threefold. First, the students benefit from having someone fresh from the classroom to support them in their learning. Second, the department gains a current practitioner to teach with them. Finally, for the teaching fellow, the benefits are many - far beyond the one aim listed on my contract.

As with any new job in teaching, I have had to build relationships with new colleagues, make sense of new policies and a different curriculum and meet my new class - it has just been on a slightly larger scale. I have been lucky enough to work with a whole range of students from the BEd and PGCE primary courses who are just embarking on this journey at a most exciting time.

Working with the students has been the most rewarding aspect of the job, especially helping them to prepare for placement. In the classroom we often take for granted the processes we have in place to make our days run smoothly. Teaching students about these processes has enabled me to reflect on my own practice and values, with the added benefit of having more time to use research to underpin my theories. I have thought carefully about my planning and the process I undertake and I have had the time to develop my understanding of the assessment processes I use in class. Few teachers have this luxury amid the hustle and bustle of a busy week.

Certainly being a tutor for students on placement has been an opportunity to see a different side of the coin. I have learnt a lot about schools by being a fleeting visitor in many - something I will take back to my own.

Good first impressions do make a difference - the easily found entrance, approachable staff at reception, attractive and welcoming entrance halls, children who are happy to talk about their work and being able to find somewhere to speak to students and staff. It has been a great way of visiting a huge range of schools, picking up good ideas along the way - another thing we rarely have the opportunity of doing.

The intellectual challenge was daunting to begin with. The first time I was handed a bundle of essays to mark and began the terrifying ordeal of not only grading these, but of providing some sort of constructive feedback, was enough to send me into a mild panic. In the end, I decided to use similar principles to those with which I mark the children's work, but just at a different level. It has been comforting to know there are moderating processes.

There were challenges on placement visits of providing constructive verbal and written feedback to students in a short time, liaising with students and schools where there was a breakdown in communication and having students who were not performing to the required standard. Honesty proved to be the best policy and to ask when in doubt. Just as we as teachers are buoyed by our children achieving, there has been nothing more rewarding than having the opportunity to observe those competent students you just know are going to make excellent teachers.

Perhaps I am painting a rosy picture. There were, of course, difficulties to overcome. The main thing I noticed was the relative isolation compared with a school. Everyone is involved in their own aspect of research or work. You can go for a number of days without seeing another member of staff when doing placement visits; although working in a classroom can be isolated, there are break times when you can meet together. No bells ring here to send you off to the staffroom.

I also found it difficult to apply for jobs in schools: feedback from interviews or applications suggested that lack of current classroom experience was an issue. But, perhaps as universities make more use of practitioners, linked with a greater awareness and innovation in continuing professional development, then maybe this will become just another way to further your own development.

Going back to school in August is an exciting prospect. I am looking forward to working with the children again and to working closely with my colleagues. I have a greater knowledge of the way to support students on placement and have gained much from working with people so eager to be in the profession and with a thirst for the job.

I have to admit to being apprehensive. Will I still be able to teach children? How will I cope with the rigidity of a school day after the flexibility of the university? How will I fit back into school life? How will I catch up with a school and colleagues who have moved forward together when I have moved forward on my own?

Perhaps the prejudices of being away from the chalkface will diminish as I return to school and my teaching fellowship just becomes another item on my CV. Would I change the experience? Not one minute of it.

Jane Nieminska is a teaching fellow at Moray House, Edinburgh University.

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