Through the rabbit hole

25th August 2006 at 01:00
One day you're trying to stir up a flicker of interest from surly Year 9s, the next you're making a Roman centurion's uniform out of newspaper. Harriet Dunn has no regrets about swapping secondary for primary

It was period five on a grey and grim Thursday afternoon in early 2004. The intellectual banter with Year 9 was reaching its frenzied peak: "Lee, comment dit-on 'je vais par le train' en Anglais?" "Dunno what you're saying, Miss, 'cos French is gay."

I had been teaching modern foreign languages for nine years; I was fed up with what was becoming an increasingly devalued subject and with hearing the same old answers in GCSE oral exams: "Justin Timberlake ist gut."

Foreign language learning had recently been made optional at key stage 4; meanwhile, the DfES announced that by 2010 the key stage 2 curriculum must include a second language.

Was I missing something? I had always connected best with my Year 7 classes. Once I had the courage to admit to myself that I should have trained to be a primary teacher, I knew I had to leave the secondary sector. The question was, how could I go about converting?

Via the internet, I heard stories of teachers in my position who had simply resigned and walked into their dream primary job. Images of teaching astrophysics to a group of child prodigies under the cool gaze of an Ofsted inspector ruled out that option.

Then I came across Return to Teaching (RTT) courses, intended for those who want some support re-entering the profession after a career break. Courses consist of 15 days of theoretical seminars and a 10-day school placement, usually spread over 10 to 12 weeks. Returnees receive a pound;1,500 government bursary, as well as child-care costs.

RTT providers are LEAs, universities or private educational companies.

Course prospectuses soon made it clear that my chances of adapting them for use as conversion courses could accurately be described with the words "snowball" and "hell", since they are not intended to swell the numbers of primary teachers at the expense of a secondary shortage subject. However - as Year 11s frequently fail to grasp - perseverance pays off. I found a handful of institutions in the UK that would accept me. None were in my town, but I was willing to commute. I took the plunge and resigned from my job.

I started the RTT course at Roehampton University in January 2005. The theoretical part of the course was excellent, although in such a short space of time, the seminars can't do more than open the door to the methodology of teaching each subject, and the resources necessary to keep up-to-date. But I was inspired by subjects such as geography and science that I had never really thought about. The sheer fun of making a Roman centurion's outfit from newspaper sparked an interest in art that gave me the impetus to find out more about teaching it.

I organised my own placement locally, in Shropshire, where I took a Year 3 and a Year 6 class. I planned my lessons meticulously, and it was time well spent. At interview, examples of good practice are always necessary, and anyway the class teacher will be able to spot rushed planning a mile off.

My lesson on co-ordinates, using a treasure island map, worked brilliantly - which is more than can be said for my confused attempts at discussing Jabberwocky with Year 6. The teacher's feedback was lengthy, but we were fortunate enough to be joined by Lewis Carroll himself, who did a good few turns in his grave.

After my course I started supply work, which I'm still doing. This is indispensable; no interview panel in their right mind will employ someone with 10 days' experience. It is also a valuable way to get yourself known, and - with luck - to the top of any interview shortlist. Planning a day's lessons in 20 minutes, with half a sheet of A4 as guidance, as you are frequently required to do as a supply, is quite a skill in itself.

I have found primary supply work much more rewarding than the indentured servitude that is secondary supply (of which I have done my fair share).

The games, quizzes, competitions and rewards that have a limited shelf-life in a Year 9 classroom have a much bigger appeal for primary children. And no Year 6 child can compete in surliness, arrogance and rudeness with Year 10 bottom set on a Friday afternoon.

Becoming a primary teacher was, professionally, the best move I ever made.

For me, the classroom is now a rewarding and fulfilling place to work. Just as long as I steer clear of Lewis Carroll.

Harriet Dunn is a primary supply teacher in Shropshire

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