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Your problems answered

James Williams, PGCE convener at Sussex university, answers queries from the TES Staffroom online forum.


I've just had the personal and social education lesson from hell. I've been given Year 8 to teach three times a week. I have never done PSE before and don't have a clue what I'm doing. I didn't realise the classes rotate every two weeks, so last week a different class turned up and I had no class list or seating plan ready. The kids were awful. I couldn't make myself heard above the noise. They were shouting, hitting each other, throwing things and not doing the work. It's hard to know how to deliver PSE when you've never done it before.

PSE is difficult to teach for a non-specialist. Teacher training normally covers your specialist subject, but PSE involves a steep learning curve.

For one thing, some of the topics are difficult to teach, such as sex or drugs education. You need to know your pupils well if you are going to broach difficult and sensitive topics and you need to know your stuff.

Pupils often see PSE as a "doss lesson" because the teaching is often poor -often because it is taught by non-specialists.

I wouldn't recommend giving difficult lessons or classes to newly qualified teachers. If you are, be prepared. For difficult subjects, children need to have objective, knowledgeable teachers who are not seen to be "preaching".

For sensitive subjects, schools should think about employing specialists and not assume that all teachers can teach all things. Talk to the head of PSE and see if some lessons can be rotated. Find out which topics are to be taught and select some that you feel you can tackle with confidence. Leave difficult subjects to others who have more knowledge of the pupils and more experience. Ask if you can observe some PSE lessons being taught so that you can learn from other people.


I am a form tutor and last week a member of staff consulted me about a pupil who had bruises on his body. I talked to the pupil one lunchtime, but he kept wandering off the subject. He was outgoing until last term, but has now become quiet and overly watchful and has been under-achieving in subjects he is normally good at.

This is a sensitive area and teachers - especially new teachers - must be careful about how they deal with these situations. Any suspicions raised must be dealt with sensibly and carefully. You have a duty to care for your pupils, but you must not take on things that you haven't been trained for.

If you, or others, suspect that sudden changes in behaviour or bruises are more than teenage moods and day-to-day knocks, report these to a senior member of staff.

Every school must have a named person who deals with matters of abuse or suspected abuse of children. It is usually the headteacher or another person in the senior management team. Find out who it is and tell them everything you know and of all conversations you have had with the pupil and other staff about him or her. Try not to get involved and under no circumstances try to find out from the pupil or parents what's going on.

That could cause more harm than good. If a pupil does confide in you, never promise to keep this a secret and pass on these details immediately to the named member of staff.


I have a place on a PGCE course starting next September. Can you give me tips on how to prepare? I want to brush up on nearly everything. I'm also planning to do a computer course to improve my IT skills. Is this a good idea?

Congratulations. There is a lot you can do to prepare. Look at the national curriculum requirements for your subject and conduct a "subject knowledge audit". Think about what you know, what you feel confident in, and what areas you think you need to brush up on. Look at some pupil textbooks to get a feel for the level that pupils should be a working at. Contact your college or university to see if they have any reading lists. Many split their lists into categories such as "must have", "recommended" and "non-essential". And keep reading The TES to stay up to date with developments.

The IT skills course is a good idea as lots of places now require you to submit word-processed coursework.

Also, get some rest and see your friends and family as much as you can. A PGCE is a hard, stressful year but very rewarding. You don't have much time for friends, family and partying before the year gets under way.


I did my first music lesson on my first placement at a secondary school and I feel a failure. The Year 7 class I took are supposed to be lovely and when I observed them they were fine, but they made my life difficult. They didn't stop nattering and I could hear myself being negative, which is what I didn't want to be. Is this normal or am I doomed?

No, you're not doomed and it is normal for the first lesson to be difficult. Don't take this personally - even experienced teachers have problems with new classes. They aren't doing it intentionally.

Children like routine and anything that disrupts this will provoke atypical reactions. Over the coming weeks they will compare you to their normal class teacher, possibly unfavourably, but in time they will settle to your style. Set out ground rules and be consistent and fair.

Above all, be positive and focus on the behaviour that conforms to your standards by praising those that do what you ask of them. Keep the negatives to the minimum. It will be difficult but persevere and stick with it.

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