Time to take the controls

A student teacher's first lesson is always difficult one, but it needn't be too stressful, says James Williams. Will your hands sweat? Will there be a lump in your throat or a knot in your stomach? Will you feel that the whole world is looking at you expectantly, hanging on your very word, or, worse still, will they simply ignore you completely?

With the right preparation and information, your first school-based teaching practice will, hopefully, not be too stressful or painful an experience. Proficient teachers will tell you that there is no substitute for classroom experience and no amount of lectures and theory will make you a good teacher. To a certain extent this is true, but, those first steps on the road to being a teacher are important ones.

At the Beacon School in Banstead, two PGCE students, Celine Marmion, a science student from Kingston University, and Alan Bentley, a business studies student from Roehampton, are about to take their first steps. Talking to them about their feelings, worries and expectations raises some important issues and points towards ways in which the school can help students and they can help themselves.

Their top four concerns are: discipline, classroom management, determining the ability profile of the groups, and that first full lesson in front of a class.

Both students feel that a profile of the classes they are going to teach is an essential piece of information from their school-based mentor. They also wanted an opportunity to observe the classes in the weeks before their teaching practice so that they could form their own opinions on individual pupils. That would give them a chance to see the sort of strategies the class teacher used with some of the more difficult or demanding pupils. If the school mentor sets the student's timetable as early as possible, then this can easily be achieved. As Celine Marion says, "We need to make our own judgments of the children and build up a relationship without having to worry about planning and doing the lesson as well; observation of the class will allow us to do this."

That first lesson is always a difficult one, but early and thorough preparation is the most effective way to ensure success. Students always have problems judging the pace of a lesson and early lesson plans can suffer from either too much or too little planning. Trying to plan to the last minute exactly what you are going to do does not allow enough flexibility to adjust a lesson during its delivery.

When, as a student, you plan your first lesson you must discuss what you hope to achieve with your mentor or class teacher, who will best be able to judge what can and cannot be achieved within their classes.

Above all else, you must not be afraid to ask for help. You are not expected to be a master of the profession at once. What may look easy to you watching an accomplished teacher in action is often not at all that simple when you try it yourself. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of understanding, knowing that experience can save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

Another common difficulty lies in finding the level at which pupils are able to work. "Getting down to basics is what I think it is all about," says Alan Bentley. "You're trying to light a fire for your subject and if you make things too complicated you will lose them." Celine, who has lectured in chemistry at university level in the past, agrees: "We presume an awful lot about pupils' knowledge, and we must get the level right, if we underpitch or overpitch it can be difficult to take the class with you."

Becoming a teacher means becoming an important person in the lives of your pupils. "It is," says Alan, "a much more responsible job than I had realised, and your appearance - how you dress and act in school - is also important. " Celine remembers a quotation from Henry Adams as an important reminder of the job of a teacher: "A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops."

Both Celine and Alan have been reassured by the strong back-up offered them. They have had to realise that in school they do not know the rules and the pupils do! Reading about the school's policies on discipline, homework, the rules and regulations and, most importantly, the disciplinary route for encounters with inevitable rogues, is vital for new teachers.

One lasting piece of advice is never, never get into a no-win situation. Lose an argument with one child in a class of 30 and you can lose the whole class.

For Celine and Alan, as for most new teachers, the most stressful lesson will be the one where their tutor will make judgments on their ability in class but, with good preparation, support from the school and a shot of confidence from successfully-planned les-sons, even this be more of a molehill than a mountain.

James Williams is head of science at The Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey and a school-based mentor for students and newly-qualified teachers.

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