The end

I can still remember the moment I decided I wanted to be a teacher.

I was three months into a job working as a TA at a London independent school. The Year 3 teacher, still a good friend, asked me if I would go into the adjacent classroom to fetch his guitar. I did, and handed it to him. His class, a small, well-behaved group of fifteen, sat silently in front of him on the carpet as he carefully removed an elegant, sea-green acoustic out of its rigid case.

“Ok…” he said, tuning the strings slightly. I noticed that the children were absolutely silent.

“I’m going to ask someone to choose a song for this afternoon, seeing as we’ve been working hard.” He ran through a list of songs, the names of which I can’t remember. After each one, a group of three or four children would let out a “Yeah!” of pleading enthusiasm at a volume they knew was just about acceptable. After the song was chosen, the class went straight into a singalong, the children hanging on their teacher’s every chord.

That’s what I wanted to be – someone to inspire kids into taking up the guitar, easily convince kids that singing wasn’t uncool, and be an all round good teacher.

It hasn’t happened. It took an observation and devastating critique of my planning and organisational capabilities to confirm my worst fears – I was failing, and failing hard. Last week, in small, cold room sat uncomfortably on chairs made for five year-olds, the phrase ‘there is a real concern’ was repeated several times at me, and I knew, really, that I had reached the end of the road. The day after, with my voice cracking, I told my mentor, school link tutor and head teacher that I had decided to withdraw from the placement.

I’m not going to start a list of all the dramatic highs and lows I experienced over the course of my placements. My year and a half of teaching I will see as a brilliant experience, seeing only a glimpse, though, sadly, of how brilliant it might have been to become comfortable and settled.

My only regret?

I never, not once, took my guitar into school and played it for the children.

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Suits and lessons

All names have been changed.

Picture the scene. A primary classroom, abuzz with the heady mix of twenty seven children, a distracted mentor and a sweating, nervous PGCE student.

It’s obvious why the I’m so tense. It’s my second lesson of his first full day of teaching on my new placement. I’m already utterly drained and numeracy is my greatest weakness.

I am working with a group of seven children, who have long passed distraction, arrived at boredom and heading towards outright agitation. But that’s not the reason for the mentor’s nerves.

Today he is being observed as well. Not by the relaxed and charming headteacher, but by three education officials from the county council. He has no idea when they’re supposed to be arriving, but his edgy glances towards the door clash noticeably with the exaggerated faces of approval directed towards child with the paper clock.

When the officials arrive, its staggering. There are indeed three of them – the only man of the three is a dead ringer for Peter Serafinowicz’s bumbling dietitian Brian Butterfield. The children are totally distracted and all concentration is broken. There are no smiles, no polite waves. They swish between the tables, muttering to each other and making notes, possibly writing “STUDENT SINGLE-HANDEDLY RUINING YOUNG CHILDREN’S FUTURES.”

Then they leave.

Perhaps there was no better way to do it. But I later learn from the Deputy Head that one of them commented on why I was sat with the children during the plenary. The reason was their presence had made the mentor so uncomfortable that I had suggested he did the plenary for the lesson in an attempt to calm him down.

I may be a fresh faced PGCE scamp but if any of those decrepit, overweight suits had ever been teachers I’ll eat Billy Madison’s crumpled Spiderman hat.

If anyone reading this ever has to observe a teacher in action, don’t do that. At least a quick apology for interrupting the flow of a lesson and perhaps a friendly greeting after the lesson.

These teachers and mentors have a tough enough job as it is without Brian and the gang making an appearance.

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A new beginning

Apologies to any regular readers (yeah, right) who have seen the frequency of my posts dip considerably recently. I begin a new placement in mid January which will be the final step in my quest for qualification as an educator of youf.

I also realise, looking at the stats for my blog, that it was at its most popular when I did not shy away from speaking my mind about the range of emotions I experienced during placement. I was initially quite intimidated by a range of negative responses I received from my first posts, namely ‘the staff room‘ and ‘the head‘, and thought I was possibly doing something terrible. But since I stopped being being totally honest and upfront, people have stopped reading.

Thank you to everyone who continues to read my blog!

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The immeasurable value of a good mentor

In my experience, and talking to my fellow students about theirs, there are several factors that contribute to a ‘good’ school placement. The organisational capabilities of the student is, course, critical. Our job is one in which we are so snowed under with paperwork that the ultimate goal of our profession – to help our children be safe, happy and confident – can sometimes become buried under charts, assessment grids, and an avalanche of progress reports that bear more resemblance to an accountant’s bottom drawer than the file of a teacher of 7 year olds. 

Another factor is the commitment of the student. A PGCE is not for someone who isn’t sure about teaching, and just fancied giving it a go. The pressure, paperwork and loss of free time will soon convince them that it was a bad idea in the first place. 

But the most important factor is the who the student will be sharing a classroom with. The truth is that a mentor should inspire a student to teach to the same level that a good teacher inspires children to learn. Sadly, this is not always the case. 

Teaching is all about confidence. Confidence in a PGCE student means they are more effective and communicating with the children and being clear, fair and approachable. This in turn results in a disciplined, happy and confident classroom. 

Mentors are central to this. In my first placement, my mentor barely acknowledged my presence in the classroom during my first two ‘orientation’ weeks. I would sit at the back taking notes while she taught and I would be totally ignored. 

I would not expect my mentor to change her teaching habits to the detriment of the class. But I was never accepted in the class, or the school. Having a student was, for her, a box ticking exercise for her CV on the path to an increased salary. This poor start was followed by her and the school placing unreasonable demands on me after two weeks (something my university later admitted) led to my withdrawal, and an awful period of self-doubt as to whether my dream of being a teacher was one big mistake. 

A fellow student described how every decision he made and every piece of initiative he showed was shot down by his mentor. Students, whether they be 25 and on a PGCE, or 7 and in Year 3, are hugely vulnerable to excessive criticism. When your confidence is chipped away gradually, you begin to believe that you will be never be good enough. 

Fortunately at my referred placement, it was an entirely different story. My mentor actively included me at every possible moment, putting both my mind and the children’s mind at ease. I was part of the classroom the moment I stepped in. I would sit at the front of the class alongside my mentor, a small but hugely significant tactic, as the children immediately saw me as a teacher, not an observer. 

It is absolutely critical for mentors to realise that for some students, going into the classroom for the first time and looking down at a sea of expectant little faces is an utterly terrifying prospect. The best mentors are those who praise at every opportunity and only criticise constructively… just like the best teachers. 

Mentoring is not easy. It requires an extra commitment beyond the enormous pressures they already experience as teachers. But they should not take on the task unless they are fully committed to making their student the best possible teacher they can be. Having a PGCE student should be as a stepping stone to a senior position, nor an opportunity to reduce their own teaching time and give themselves a rest. 

It is my second mentor who I will remember, and keep in touch with to regularly thank them for helping me become a good teacher of children. Hopefully, I will be able to repay them by becoming just as a good a mentor as they were. 

 

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A quick thank you

Just a quick note to say thank you to everyone who has read, commented on and referred my blog so far.

Its great to read opinions and thoughts from as far as Texas and I hope it continues!

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Radio 1’s Secret Teacher

Whilst I don’t listen to Radio 1 as much as I used to (I’m creeping up to the outer reaches of its target audience, and now prefer the smooth, comforting tones of Jeremy Vine to the mouth-breathing, name-dropping, flopping-haired hot air monger Nick Grimshaw) Greg James’ Secret Teacher diary is worth a listen even for people who never listen to the station.

It’s a funny insight into a teacher’s mindset, including the games they play to alleviate boredom during exam sessions eg the ‘Who Can Stand Behind the Ugliest Pupil Game’.

I can’t find any past episode unfortunately, but the segment plays on Wednesdays just after 5pm.

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A PGCE student’s personal life

Does it matter what a teacher gets up to in his personal life?

It wouldn’t be a shocker to anyone to find out that teachers drink. Some drink to excess and take drugs. At a London school where I worked as a TA before starting my PGCE, the Friday ritual of beers and more became as routine as taking the register in the morning.

Should teachers have separate rules for this sort of thing? Is it acceptable for a teacher to be lying face down in a puddle of his own sick on a Saturday night, and then arrive fresh-faced and ready for topic work on a Monday morning? Common sense would dictate that as long as the teacher is doing a good job and the kids are happy and being taught well, it doesn’t matter what the idiot gets up to on a Friday night.

This is less of a journalistic blog post than an open invitation for discussion, for parents and teachers alike. This PGCE student loves teaching, and the children in his classes… but also loves the excesses of life, because that life is too short not to push it as far as humanly possible.

What do you think, parents and teachers? Thoughts below or on twitter at @pgceblogger

 

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