Like an actor in rehearsals, newly-qualified teachers must grasp the moment and develop their own performance techniques. Phil Revell reports
It's unavoidable. Sooner or later, aspiring teachers in initial teacher training will have to go out to schools, stand in front of a class - and teach. Teaching practice, or TP, has metamorphosed into school experience and is the centrepiece of initial teacher training.
"In my first placement, I had a 50 per cent timetable which went up to 75 per cent on the second placement," says Jonathan Dale, who took a one-year PGCE at Liverpool John Moores after doing a degree in Biology at Edinburgh. "They tend not to give you really difficult classes."
One of the real problems for new teachers is timing, says Jonathan. "When you're first starting, you can look at the clock and realise with horror that there are only five minutes left."
And the opposing scenario is equally disastrous, when the teacher runs out of material and dries up at the front of the class. "I always made sure that I had enough material, especially for the higher groups where you needed extension work."
Jonathan used to leave a ten- minute buffer at the end of every lesson to give him time to sum up the lesson and set homework.
One issue for the hosting school is how much autonomy to give the trainee in the classroom. Most schools are only too well aware of the need to maintain their position in league tables, and that can lead to a reluctance to hand over too much control to a student who is, after all, still learning the job.
"When I was doing teaching practice, the normal teacher was nearly always there," says Jonathan. "That ensured there were no disasters. I was learning and I welcomed that lifeline."
By contrast, Jacqui Evans was left alone with her primary class for most of her final placement. "In the last teaching practice, my classroom teacher was hardly ever present.
"The only time she sat in was during the assessment observations and during PE," she remembers. "I was happy with that: you need to be on your own."
Looking back, Jonathan, who now teaches science at the de Ferrers School in Staffordshire, feels that his TP didn't fully prepare him for the challenges of the classroom.
"I do feel that I would have benefited from more experience of classroom management on TP," he says. "The first time I've really had to deal with problem pupils is in the current job. I know the strategies and the theories, but I've only just started to put them into practice.
"Unless you've been left on your own, you'll not develop the skills. I'm lucky in that the management here are quite supportive."
The contrast between the one-year PGCE and the three-year BEd or BSc is nowhere more evident than in the workload. PGCE students spend most of their year on teaching practice, yet they still have to produce the evidence that they have met the new standards for Qualified Teacher Status.
"There was so much paperwork, it was suffocating," said Jonathan. "I had to show evidence that I'd met all the standards, plus the preparation and the marking. I had three lever arch files full of material to hand in. To try to keep on top of all that was stressful."
By contrast, Jacqui would have liked a longer final placement to allow her to see through some of the work she had begun with her class. Jacqui's low point came in her second year.
"The personalities around you make a difference," she says. "There was a contrast between my second and third year TP in that respect. I was more comfortable in the final placement."
Both teachers would have welcomed more contact with their college tutors but, in reality, it's schools which deliver most of the TP programme and assessment.
"In Initial Teacher Training in general, we work in close partnership with the schools," says Dr Neil Simco, Primary Partnership Leader at St Martin's College in Lancaster.
"We call the lead teacher an associate tutor and he or she does the bulk of the observation and takes the lead in assessing the student." The college will make visits to discuss a student's progress, but the main responsibility lies with the school.
"We are moderating the assessment that the school is making," says Dr Simco. And what are schools and colleges looking for? "The bottom line is that we are looking for the student to meet the standards," he says. "There are two fundamentals: the ability to plan effectively and the ability to build a relationship with the young people in the class."
At the Ridgeway School in Dorset, design and technology teacher Rosemary Cairns is the professional tutor with responsibility for anything up to 20 students a year.
"They need to have good subject knowledge and good classroom management," she says. "Students usually say that classroom management is what they need to work at the most."
Many people see teaching as a performance art and Rosemary Cairns agrees enthusiastically. "Unless a teacher has got something of an actor or an actress inside them, they are not really going to be able to perform in the classroom."
But, despite her assessment role, she argues that her main job as tutor is to offer support. "There are going to be problems: I tell them that they are not on their own. The regular teacher will be within easy reach."
And what of the maverick, the exceptional student who sails through school experience, has the children eating out of his or her hand, but whose folder and notes bring to mind an overturned dustbin? "There is room for the compliant maverick," says Dr Simco. "We want students to be individual and to have their own persona in the classroom, but they also need to demonstrate professional standards."
The analogy is with the driving test. Students should save the handbrake turns until they have completed the course.
Meanwhile, Jonathan and Jacqui are getting on with their new career. "I feel positive about teaching," says Jonathan. "You get good days and bad days, as in any job. I'm enjoying it more than my TP because of the additional responsibility: they're your class and you share in their successes."
Jacqui, who is teaching at the Willows county primary school in Lichfield, echoes those comments. "In my second year at college, I had second thoughts about teaching. But, now I'm doing it for real, I think it's brilliant - really rewarding."
TIPS FOR TP
1 DON'T go in to school underprepared: if it comes to a choice between marking and preparation, do the preparation.
2 DON'T see individual children on your own and out of sight of other people, and beware of any physical contact, however innocent, with any pupil.
3 DON'T allow difficult situations with pupils to turn into a confrontation. Either send for assistance or go yourself.
4 NEVER lose your temper: this will simply delight the class.
5 DON'T be mollycoddled. The only way to learn classroom management is to take full responsibility for the class. If the school won't allow this, see your tutor.
6 DON'T fall behind with college work. Try to get as much of it as possible out of the way before your final placement.
7 DON'T ignore the school's procedures. Find out what they are and stick to them.
8 DON'T treat the school staffroom as your own. No matter how welcoming the school may be, the staffroom area is still a place where you should remember your status as a guest.
9 DON'T flout any school dress code. If the pupils wear a tie, so should you. And short skirts are not practical dress for most classrooms. The children will love it, for all the wrong reasons.
10 DON'T bottle things up. If there is a problem, tell someone fast. That's what your tutors are there for.