Your problems answered

9th January 2004 at 00:00
James Williams, PGCE convener at Sussex university, answers queries from the staffroom forum on 'The TES' website

From darlings to snarlings

I teach a (usually) lovely Year 7 group. I say usually because for one period a week they are trolls of the highest order, shouting, ignoring me and generally being disruptive. I can only think that this is due to them being in a different room for this lesson, the temperature of the room and the fact that the lesson is after lunch. How do I deal with them when they are like this?

It's amazing what can change a class from peaceful to problematic. Weather, food, temperature and time of day all play a part. But you're right, the change of venue and diet seem to be what does it.

Try changing the class's routine, insisting they line up and then letting them into the room in a controlled way. Move them around with a new seating plan, or try moving the focus of the class by teaching from a different place in the room. Make sure the activities do not encourage poor behaviour. Keep movement around the class by the pupils to a minimum. Use rewards and sanctions to the full.

It would help if schools looked at the food on offer to pupils as it's well-known that cutting out junk food has a remarkably positive effect on behaviour.

Help me not to quit

I'm on my first PGCE placement and I find it hard. Standing up and teaching is difficult. I get so nervous before lessons I could be sick. I also feel I am bad at explaining things and trip over words. I'm on the verge of quitting, but I want to continue.

Teaching is like acting. Lots of actors get stage fright and this is what you have. You can get over it. Think of all those actors and entertainers who quit teaching and became celebrities instead: Chris Tarrant, Sting, French and Saunders, to name but a few.

The key is preparation: good lesson planning, followed by some scripting to help you through the lesson. Write out key phrases and questions. These are your lines and you should have your script to hand in case you forget anything. Practise your lines, looks, stances, poses and so on, in front of the mirror, or, better still, on video. Create a character that is the "teaching you".

Think of lessons as performances. Own the stage, your classroom. Rehearse your performances mentally, and before you start lessons take a moment to breathe deeply and calmly look over your plan. If you forget anything just pause, take a deep breath and look at your lesson plan to regain your place and composure. Your pause will seem like an eternity, but it will only be a few seconds.

I feel undermined

I'm a trainee who has a problem with my class teacher. When I'm teaching, she often steps in if a child is misbehaving and tells them off, and I am left with my hand in the air like a lemon! She also tells me how things are going in front of the children. I know she's only trying to help, but I feel she is undermining my authority and I would rather be left to make my own mistakes and develop my own way of handling the children.

I'm sure she's trying to be helpful, but you need to be left to develop your own strategies. Have a quiet word with her. Tell her that you appreciate her support and helpful comments, but that you'd like to try to deal with situations on your own.

Suggest that she focuses on one or two aspects of your teaching: for example, how you start lessons, or how you handle the transition from one phase of a lesson to another, and observe and write comments about this for the two of you to discuss after the lesson. Ask her to act as a learning support assistant and take a small group of pupils and work with them on a task set by you. Knowing when to step in and when to leave the trainee to deal with problems is an art experienced mentors have down to a tee.

Teaching the skilled

Teachers are reinventing the wheel over and over. Why is it that key stage 3 is sorted but key stage 4 is a mess. No one can tell me what to teach or how to teach it, and I'm wasting time finding resources, preparing lessons and so on, when all over the UK there must be thousands of teachers doing the same thing. Is it just me or is this crazy?

It's strange isn't it? We all have to teach the same things yet teachers are "reinventing" the work as you point out. Why? Because that's what good teachers do. The fact is that there is no one way of approaching a topic or teaching a subject, the skill of the teacher is in designing and deciding what is best for their class. Good teachers will naturally change what they teach and how they teach it from year to year. There are plenty of published schemes for all subjects, but these are just guidelines and suggestions, not a permanent, fixed solution.

When I first started teaching,I was told that there were two types of teachers and it was up to me which one I wanted to be - a real teacher who had taught for 40 years, or someone who just taught one year 40 times.

Adapt, change, and evaluate your teaching so every year is different, otherwise you won't meet the needs of your pupils. Teaching to a formula is boring, the trick is to adjust the formula to your style and for your pupils.

Supply and demands

I've just completed my first week of supply work. What a shock! No teaching as such, just trying to ensure pupils get on with work left by their usual teacher. In some cases I've failed dismally. Do you have tips on how to tackle classroom behaviour when meeting a class for the first time?

Supply teaching is very hard. Most pupils rely on the fact that you don't know them or the school's procedures, so you have to get to know both quickly.


* Arrive early and ask for a staff list so that you have the names of key people, such as deputy heads, heads of year and heads of department.

* Ask for the discipline, reward and sanction procedures, so you know the drill when a pupil steps out of line or needs rewarding for good behaviour or hard work.

* Bring a notebook to write down pupil names and have spare paper for pupils who forget their exercise books, as well as spare pens and pencils.

* Learn names as quickly as possible and check pupils give you the correct name by looking at their diary or the cover of their exercise book.

* For tackling bad behaviour having a tangible reward is good. For example, you could dish out sweets or small coloured pencils to those who complete the set tasks.

* Try to build up a bank of activities across a number of subjects so that if work is not left, or is of poor quality, you still have things for the pupils to do.


I'm working as a teaching assistant in an infants' school, with a view towards training through the graduate teacher programme next September. I want to know how to manage the workload - or should I choose the postgraduate certificate of education?

Neither route is easy. Both can produce good teachers and both have a heavy workload. You need to examine which one would best suit you.

If you're self-motivated, highly organised and an independent worker who has experience of managing your own work, then the GTP route could be for you, but do make sure that it provides proper support and training, with a phased introduction to teaching - not straight in at the deep end - and an opportunity to study the important theory elements that all teachers need.

The danger is that you are used simply to fill a vacancy and not given proper support and training. A PGCE is more structured and intense as it lasts only 36 weeks. School placements will be found for you and you will have access to a wide range of support mechanisms, from university and college tutors, to student advisers. These may not be available on the GTP route. Talk to your local provider about both routes before you decide.

As for the workload, it's heavy either way, so if you are not a naturally organised person, start now on getting into the habit of being organised.

As a teaching assistant you know some of the pressures, so the workload shouldn't come as a complete surprise.

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