Those who can
I fell into the PGCE basically - but enjoyed it so much! Even a week before the course began, I thought I was going to be a lawyer." Confessions of first-year teachers can sometimes surprise themselves - not to mention their listeners. Expectations of teaching, built on hearsay, press coverage and experiences remembered from their own secondary education, become overturned only in the experience of teaching itself. Amelia Slocombe who, having "fallen" into teacher training at the age of 24 at Bath's School of Education, was only certain that the year's training ("standing in front of 30 undisciplined adolescents who could eat me for lunch!") would stretch her character.
A year and a half later, she is now a language teacher in a minority female staff at the all-boys Whitgift School in Croydon. Teaching is still an enjoyable revelation: "It was like, hang on a minute . . . a stimulating job! So many of my friends - accountants and bankers - ring me up and say 'I've had such a boring day'. I could never feel that unless I'd had too many free periods because everyone's away on a field trip." It is, Amelia says, "the unpredictability of untamed human beings" which makes teaching challenging and fun.
Relearning the basics has been a fundamental part of her experience so far. "As a graduate you're used to dealing with highfalutin' ideas. You're not used to breaking the them down in a simple message. As a language teacher I learned the structures when I was 12. I can't remember how. I've got to forget what I know and approach it from the pupils' viewpoint." Some of the most pertinent lessons are the most banal: "Not teaching with your back to the class, not shuffling papers - the simple things - or you would otherwise lose the class's attention."
Unlike some of her peers who would have preferred more independence in their teaching practice, she was comfortable to learn by example. Her first and most abiding rule was: "If you can't control, you can't teach," and she adds, looking surprised, "I became a bit of a little Hitler - and remain so!" The blocks of practice on the PGCE made her certain that standards of discipline and concentration would be better maintained in an all boys' environment. "Girls are less rowdy but boys are easier to discipline and don't have method in it; I mean, girls are cunning and sly. Boys don't harbour grudges." So far her theory has borne out - with a few surprises: "These are boys who do cadet corps. They're used to a loud booming voice disciplining them. Fortunately I don't have a high-pitched voice but, on the other side of this is that they can treat you like their mother . . ." Noting that the PGCE could have advised on parental inteviews ("Some expect you to know what colour their son's socks are"), she wonders whether her own motto for order, "Start off so strictly they hate you", is an attempt at self-discipline: "My main problem now is that I find them too entertaining . . . That can lead to mayhem."
The diversity of schools and their communities across the country promises that one NQT's experience will be unfamiliar to the next. David Wilde, teaching 11 to 16-year-olds at Withernsea High School, an East Yorkshire secondary, trained to teach environmental science alongside Amelia at Bath. Stepping out of training college, his experience confounds the classic advice for new teachers: "Don't smile till Christmas." "I feel confident and competent in what I'm doing in the class - and I smile a lot. I smiled from the first lesson onwards. They like that. If you go in as the hard man, you've just got nothing to fall back on."
Coming into his first teaching job aged 30, he has exchanged an isolated, mercenary world of selling drugs in the pharmaceutical industry for a world of young people and constant human contact. Already qualified with a BSc and an MSc, his desire was to contribute to science teaching ("Let's face it, it can be made so dull!") and make it as practical, fun and fascinating as old teacher "heroes" had taught it to him. But his experience of the wider world was essential: "If you've seen a bit of life yourself, you can bring a bit of life into the classroom. Otherwise you're straight from the classroom, to the university, the college and back into the classroom. And what do you know about the real world then? That's what the kids are aiming for at the end of the day."
But is this the energy of an NQT speaking? "When I did the PGCE, I did meet the 'you must be crazy' attitude of established teachers . . . and yes, if I step back and think, 15 to 20 years' on, perhaps. But, come on, I know medics and engineers who are saying the same thing."
He is unsurprised by the main frustrations met so far. When, on parents' evenings, he finds himself sitting at a table, meeting only parents whose children want to try, he asks himself: "Why is it you who come along? I'm only ever giving out good news. It's always the top people who turn out." It's the simple things in class that go wrong that annoy him - not being able to work the video, clumsily knocking over a Bunsen burner - all things that can spoil the smooth performance of teaching.
References to the performance and entertainment element involved within their teaching are made by many NQTs. After eight months as a primary teacher at Thomas A Becket middle school in Worthing, 23-year-old Rebekah Kerney draws a direct comparison between teaching and acting: "I could now pass A-level drama with an A-plus!" Her children, she states with some pride, "think I'm mad - my sense of humour. Originally, of course, I couldn't be like that or they'd take advantage of it." Like David Wilde, Rebekah knew that she wanted to be a teacher; both her parents teach and, beginning her PGCE at Exeter, she was not entering the profession blindly. When she greeted me with a half-serious "two terms and still alive . . ." she couldn't disguise her enthusiasm. "Actually, I've enjoyed practically every moment."
The teaching is far more tiring than either the practice on the PGCE or her parents' experience prepared her for but an inherited stoicism overcomes it: "Yes, you have to give a lot of your life up to teaching - but you get equal amounts back. After all, you're in there for the children." Her charges, the most naughty of whom she affectionately refers to as "the Pickles" ("I like my children to have a bit of twinkle, you can tame them by the end of the year"), are eight and nine-year-olds. On her PGCE, there were moments when not enough independence with small children in the classroom made her teaching practice comical: "It was almost like baby-sitting . . . one teacher and two trainees in the classroom." Inevitably that undermined an attempt to experiment with method and style: "One of my teachers was as strict with me as she was with the class!" Now with her first job as a class teacher, she is installed in her own classroom. Discussing the new wall displays for the summer term with the pride of an interior designer and joking about "the dynamics of being a primary teacher . . . the trials of pin marks - everyone's having a backing paper frenzy . . ." she points out the necessary creativity of a primary teacher.
Conjuring effective visual displays from bizarre resources (a papier mache half-moon made from a pudding bowl mould stands on the wall behind her) is one of the many aspects of the broad sweep of primary teaching - including having to be an expert from maths to PE. Her specialist subject is music. That four members of staff at her school also specialise in music could, in theory, lead to an NQT's nightmare - the cramping of personal style. "But I'm not squashed at all, I'm encouraged to develop in my own way." If there is a problem, she can go straight to her mentor, who will not only present a listening ear, sit in on parents' evenings, but also observe and criticise her teaching style - a system she says she will miss greatly when the "N" officially disappears from the "QT".
Persuasion, humour, fair judgement, adaptability, sympathy, patience and being tough-skinned: the kaleidoscope of talents that these NQTs list has to be drawn on in order to fulfil their role is, as one of them said, quite unique. Each stressed the basic challenge to their personality; the need for charisma and for authority in the classroom, to be spontaneous and controlled; to be an actor, a public speaker, and as organised as a secretary. And all that is beside the responsibility of knowing one's academic subject. The message from new entrants to the profession at the moment is very strong: "Those who can, teach."