As a trainee teacher, nothing scared me more than the prospect of a class of 30 teenagers.
How would I manage them? How would I get them to do what I needed them to do? What happened if they turned on me?
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In the first year of my degree, as a student doing a BA with qualified teacher status (QTS), I was none the wiser from observing seasoned veterans. I could see students behaved well and they knew where the boundaries were. Occasionally, if a student overstepped the boundaries, I could see the teacher following up on this with sanctions.
What I couldn’t see, though, was the hundreds of skilled interactions, deliberate decisions and minutiae of a teacher’s classroom management that had occurred long before this.
In short, it was entirely unhelpful to show me the finished product – I knew what to aim for but I had no idea how to get there.
One of the benefits of the BA QTS course was that I trained over three years. This gave a certain level of reflection and time that one-year courses don’t. But, most importantly, it gave me the time to arrange my own placements before we returned to university in late September. This meant I could go and observe the most crucial points in any teacher’s academic year – the first lessons.
I was really fortunate to have been taught by some incredible teachers. My A-level English teacher, Karin Prasad, who inspired me to get into teaching, was kind enough to open up her classroom to me at the very start of the academic year, so I could see her work her magic.
It was a game changer. I could observe the explicit and implicit ways that great teachers build great cultures in the classroom.
I remember having a moment of absolute clarity. Great behaviour didn’t just happen – you had to build it yourself. The secret was revealed and I felt part of the club.
Now that I’d seen it done brilliantly, I knew how to improve my own practice, right from that daunting moment where you take over a class as a trainee.
Given that this had such a profound impact on me as a developing professional, it seems a glaringly obvious flaw in our current teacher training models lies in the points of the year that trainees get into classrooms.
A cursory glance at term dates and course layouts at a range of providers shows that trainees aren’t getting into classrooms at the very moment where they will learn the most.
They’re missing out on seeing some of the most important things that they need to learn. It is no good expecting trainees to know how to get off to a flying start without having seen it done by others. They need to be in those first lessons that an experienced teacher has with a class.
As a profession, we know that there is a serious problem with retention and recruitment. Teachers leaving the profession state time and time again that poor behaviour of pupils is a key factor in their decision.
While schools also bear some responsibility for this, I believe training providers could set up their trainees for success far more effectively by using the first two to three weeks in September as an observation point.
Of course, it takes some bravery to open your doors as a classroom teacher at this point in the academic year but the rewards could be huge. Everyone’s a bit nervous of new classes, no matter how long they have been teaching or how good they are at behaviour. It’s potentially a vulnerable time.
But don’t we, as experienced professionals, owe it to the next generation of teachers to let them into the secrets of experience? To let them see how experienced teachers on the frontline approach a new class of 30 teenagers?
The more we demystify the process, the more trainees can enter their future classrooms with a clear, explicit understanding of the things they can do to set their standards high from day one.
Amy Forrester is an English teacher and director of pastoral care (key stage 4) at Cockermouth School in Cumbria