So you want to teach. Why?

9th March 2001 at 00:00
PGCE interviews aren't what they were, discovers a serial applicant

Once more unto the breach, I thought as I settled down for my third PGCE interview in 13 years. It's not a perverse pastime, but the consequence of withdrawing from two previous offers of places.

As the latest interview progressed, I was struck by the startling contrast with my first in 1988. I'm married to a teacher and have many teachers among my friends and neighbours, so I'm well aware of what has happened in recent years. You have only to watch the television news or read the press to observe the deluge of new initiatives and pressure that is overwhelming many teachers.

Back in 1988 it was rather like trying to join the British army before the Great War, in that fantasy land of Edwardian England when only gentleman scholars were considered fit to represent their country.

The interview was conducted by an officious man who made it clear he was doing me a favour. This was a course on which only alpha students of the right background would be accepted. The emphasis was on political correctness, academic knowledge and the pursuit of excellence in an ethereal Mr Chips wonderland where pupils fell over themselves in the race to learn.

At once complacent and barely acknowledging the realities of financial crises and mounting paperwork, it resembled an interview for a fast-track PhD, not an opportunity to participate in the daily rough and tumble of an inner-city comprehensive. The implication was that there were plenty of candidates where I came from.

I was offered a place, although I had not expected it, despite having three degrees. I didn't take it up because another job came along - even then it was relatively easy to forego the chance of a teaching career. Twelve years later, life had moved on in many ways, and I found myself being interviewed once more for the same course at the same institution.

The contrast was staggering. The main consideration seemed to be whether or not the candidates were functionally literate. Gathered in a classroom, we sat a spelling and grammar test that would not have taxed my 14-year-old son. In 1988 cndidates were selected on academic and intellectual skills; in 2000 it was a graduate's ability to spell "accommodation".

The overbearing elitist had been replaced by two apologetic members of staff. Far from engaging in an examination of my views on medieval kingship, they were anxious to know if I knew what I was letting myself in for, and were primarily interested in the fact that I could write web pages and the possibility that I would be able to help other students do the same. An offer was made but the chance came instead to move to East Anglia and live in rural bliss. Once installed, I re-applied, but to a different institution.

This was more like Berlin in February 1945: old men, women and boys lining up to enlist. Two of us were mature applicants, the others barely older than the school students they were hoping to teach. While we waited for interviews, we swapped stories of suicidal teacher friends. The staff who interviewed me were pleasant, but they looked as if they were in permanent receipt of bad news. Like incongruously honest used-car salesmen, they made no attempt to sell the course. "Why on earth do you want to be a teacher?" seemed to be the attitude.

I had several good reasons, and I stumbled through them. They managed to find several ways of implying, without using the actual words, that teaching was the contemporary equivalent of becoming a kamikaze pilot, and one of them even ventured that he'd love to get out of teaching himself.

We moved on to theoretical questions on classroom strategy, for the sake of form. How would I use role-play? I trundled through what I could remember, then crumbled halfway through.

It seemed pointless to go on. "Look," I said, "we all know I could spend all evening preparing a dynamic lesson with a great handout, only for the whole thing to be punctuated by some fool deliberately breaking wind, causing localised desk clearances and a minor riot, rendering the whole thing a complete waste of time."

That, I thought, would be that. The interviewers just smiled, and nodded. "So true." I start in September.

The writer wants to remain anonymous


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