Diary of a PGCE student

Diary of a PGCE student

We asked Sylvia, an initial teacher trainee, to tell us about her week-to-week experiences in university and on her school placements during her PGCE year.

Meet our PGCE diarist

Hi! I'm training to teach English in secondary school. I'll be writing something each week about the experience of teacher training, the PGCE course and the day-to-day reality of teaching practice. I completed my first school placement in December, which to my pleasant surprise went very well. The university-based part of my course is divided into two aspects of training: subject studies, which for me is English, and professional studies, which covers everything teaching involves outside your own subject area (issues such as classroom management, the role of the form tutor, legal matters, and career development). We have two assignments to hand in before the next school placement begins, so I'll be writing something about that aspect of the course over the next couple of weeks. I am fortunate to have two excellent university tutors, so I'll also give you an idea about some of the work we do, and what kind of help and support you can expect as a PGCE student. Then from late January I'll be back in school for an extended period of teaching practice, which is when the fun really starts! I'll be filling you in on my progress, successes and failures over the course of my second placement, and aim to give you a good idea of what the steep learning curve of teacher training is really like, from the point of view of the trainee.

Week 1 – First week back on the course

Last week was our first back at university after a leisurely, month-long Christmas break. But as with all university "vacations", the mulled-wine-infused stupor was, even in late December, tinged with the guilt of that distant knowledge that we had two assignments to hand in mid-January. Nobody contemplated working before New Year: rightly so, in my opinion, as we were all in great need of a break after the damp autumnal depression and fatigue of our first school placement. By the end of the first week of January, as serious procrastination set in, we all had exceptionally clean bathrooms, fully comprehensive filing systems, and neat piles of books arranged according to size, colour, theme, etc. Soon enough we all felt the metaphorical whip cracking, and got down to our assignments – only to find they were not so hard after all! The PGCE is a busy course, so it's important not to make work for yourself. Do the assignment and hand it in. It's a pass/fail issue, and you won't fail unless you really don't follow the brief. What really matters is the teaching practice, and that you care about being a well-prepared and professional teacher. Our work was due in last week, and alongside the nasty deadlines we had a day of mock interviews, professional studies presentations to deliver, and a meeting with our school mentors. I was incapable of mustering up anything more than a half-hearted attitude towards the work we were doing, and personally I'm looking forward to teaching practice again. Despite the physical and emotional demands of being in the classroom, there is very little opportunity to procrastinate, and you do have a sense that your work really matters. There's a little window of time in which to prepare your lessons, and you just have to get on with it. It also means that, for those with perfectionist tendencies, there is a time limit: it's important to learn that you do as much as you can, and then you stop. I'm back in school tomorrow, so get ready to hear about the shock of the second placement. We're actually going to have to do a lot of teaching this time...

Week 2 – All about behaviour management

This week began with a final session in university to prepare for our second school placement. One of the most pressing issues for trainees going into school is behaviour management – a topic you will sometimes find euphemistically called ‘classroom climate' and ‘learning culture', but in you-and-me speak means discipline. This educational newspeak is aimed at framing everything in a positive light, and at labelling difficult behaviour as separate from the individual (a child is no longer a naughty boy/girl, but an individual exhibiting ‘challenging behaviour'). This is undoubtedly an enlightened move, aimed at understanding children who do not come to school with the necessary emotional resilience to cope with the knocks and brushes of everyday life. Don't assume that these kids are in control of their behaviour, because often they are not. It is part of our job to painstakingly show them where the appropriate boundaries lie, but also to help them understand, by the time they leave school, that the ‘real world' of jobs and public places will not make allowances for them. This is all very admirable in theory, but in practice it can feel very unfair that 28 children in the class are willing and able to work, but are prevented from doing so by the two who are not, and who consume 40 per cent of the teacher's attention. Someone has written an excellent book on the subject called Getting the Buggers to Behave, which gives some good, straightforward advice in realspeak. Much of the apparent ‘skill' actually comes down to personality: some people command instant respect; some have to work a bit harder at it but manage to establish a good relationship with their classes; others, no matter how hard they try, just can't create a good working atmosphere. That said, there are numerous strategies that trainees and newly qualified teachers can pick up through observing good practice, and during the first half of the PGCE it's really important you observe carefully, because in the later months you'll be bogged down with teaching/planning/marking/crying. It is a mysterious thing, though, because good teachers are not all the same, and in my observations this week I have seen very different personalities command respect in radically different ways. More on this next week....

Week 3 – It's always best to avoid preconceptions

I've settled into my second week at school and have just delivered my first full lesson to a lovely year 7 class – who surprised and heartened me by rising to the task set with consummate ease and enthusiasm. One of the things I find disconcerting is having to constantly shift my expectations of pupils as I move from school to school, and class to class. Year 7 are 11-12 year olds, and there's a bit of me that expects them to be babies. The danger of this preconception is that what the teacher expects, the teacher often gets. Before starting the PGCE you have to complete two weeks of observation in a primary school, and I've since noticed a huge contrast between the mature, independent year 6 students and the infantile, helpless year 7s they regress into over the summer holiday. The nice thing about teaching year 7, however, is that they generally don't scare you and are not usually taller than you, and they do have an eagerness to please that is scotched by the disturbing effects of later adolescence in older pupils. My current school has a quite unique demographic, in that it is a successful comprehensive serving a (mainly) affluent community. The students are very articulate and confident (bordering on arrogant, at times). From what I have observed so far, there is also a culture of talking freely in class in this school, which usually works to your advantage but can be really hard work. I enjoy having students with plenty to say, and I'd prefer a class full of lively, over-confident kids than a bunch of grunting misfits, or crushed egos who dare not speak for fear of ridicule. However, it's hard work getting them not to voice their opinions, and sometimes this morphs into backchat and incessant background chatter. The exhausting thing is trying to find strategies that work to keep order in this environment, when I've come from a quite different context of more formal pupil-teacher relationships. Overall, though, it has to be said that the beginning of my placement has been something of a walk in the park with only a bit of teaching and lots of free time. The reason for this is also what has turned the other teachers in the department into irrational, nervous wrecks: Ofsted. We are being inspected on Wednesday and Thursday, so guess which rookies are not allowed anywhere near a classroom.

Week 4 – Schools or germ incubators?

I'm afraid I didn't get to see Ofsted in action after all this week because I was off sick for three days (although I understand it went swimmingly, despite – or perhaps because of – the pressure). Schools are giant germ incubators and I have been told by numerous people that teachers spend their first year being struck down by every virus cosily multiplying in the warm, moist, spewy corners of the classroom. So far they've been proved right, and I have been off sick three times in the past year (coincidentally I've worked in three schools – they have their own unique germs and you have to build up immunity to each one). So the lesson I'll take from all this is to keep dosing myself with vitamins, Echinacea and fresh organic smoothies. I take a 1.5 litre bottle of water to school and try to drink that rather than endless tea and coffee, and also try to think about proper nourishment when packing my lunch. I'll also try to always keep unhealthy, droplet-infection-spawning teenagers at arm's length. When I'm an NQT I might add to this a little homemade tea tree oil spray, which should do wonders for the general salubrity of my classroom. I haven't done any real teaching since the cute year 7 class, but will be thrown into the lions' den fully next week. I have been formally introduced to my lively and tricky year 8 class, who were bizarre, amusing and charmingly engaging. I completed a doctorate last year, which means that I get to call myself Dr at school if I want, which is embarrassing when you just want to blend in like the lowly beginner that you are. The year eight teacher is very keen for me to use my title, so when I introduced myself I asked them if they knew other teachers who had the title ‘Dr', and they said, ‘Yeah, Dr Lawson'. When I asked them if they knew why she was called Dr Lawson, they said, ‘Yeah, it's because she's a science teacher!' I don't know what this says about the status of the arts in school, but it looks like I could be up for a job in the science department next year. However, I'm seriously thinking of a change of career direction if bird flu comes our way!

Week 5 – Thinking about jobs

I've now taken over all the teaching for my classes, and things have really moved up a gear. I taught three lessons in a row yesterday, and by 11.30 am was feeling physically and emotionally frazzled. The big challenge for us trainees is to try to get on top of planning lessons and schemes of work that we have never taught before, while researching and writing two university assignments. I've been surprised to find that the most emotionally draining thing is not kids' behaviour, but the elation and despair that seem to hit you hourly as lessons flow beautifully or crumble – seemingly independently of you. I'm learning to ride out these feelings and to stay calm and positive. My big priority is organisation, and making sure I make the most of my time when every minute counts, but it isn't always easy when you get that sinking feeling approaching the school gates when you're teaching first period. Jobs are also starting to come up, and as a group we are all going through the introspective process of weighing up our options. I have an interview at a local Catholic school, which is apparently very, very religious and also a ‘challenging school'. Having been placed in two ‘nice' schools, I'm keen to gain some insight into the realities of working at the coalface of the inner city. This doesn't necessarily mean I'll take the job, but a radically different environment will help me to reflect on the right balance for me and become a more self-aware teacher. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, people on the course are rapidly losing their ideologies about working in the state and non-selective sectors. I want to work locally, but I live in a city known for its ‘difficult' schools and I also want to work where I can be most effective. As one of my colleagues put it, it's not just the kids with the dirty collars that need you. I still haven't made up my mind on where I want to be, so watch this space!

Week 6 – Lord of the Flies?

I was visited by my university tutor today, and I felt very much less fresh-faced and calm than at his last visit. The lesson planning is really starting to get challenging, and we're struggling constantly to keep on top of things. The days pass in a blur of activity, and we trainees are trying to negotiate the balance between planning far enough in advance to be well prepared, and planning just before lessons to keep ideas fresh and in sequence with previous lessons. As if this wasn't enough, my year 7 class has begun playing up. A student in year 8 remarked the other day, in the context of looking at Lord of the Flies, that children become like savages when they have a cover/supply/student teacher. She was proved right yesterday, as my lesson plan crumbled and the class descended into a chaos of riotous chatter and rude backchat. I woke up at five in the morning, thinking about how to manage a bunch of really not very scary eleven-year-olds: as I dozed off to sleep I vowed that I would deal with it. I managed to retrieve the situation today by hauling them over the coals, telling the kids in no uncertain terms how disgusted I was by their behaviour. I ended up with a very contrite class, and six letters of apology – not to mention three of the main culprits in tears. It's not a nice feeling making a child cry, but I hope now to have established my boundaries with the class. My tutor was able to observe a much smoother, productive lesson today, and in our debrief time offered the heartening advice that this would be absolutely the hardest time of the year, and that better things are round the corner.

Week 7 – Every day there is a new surprise

This week has been another sorry tale of racing to finish lesson plans in time, managing challenging students and not getting on top of university assignments. My student colleague – we'll call her Helena – and I have both been dragging ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn and collapsing on the sofa in the early evening. Both our partners dread the sight of us as we come through the door. Mine never knows what my mood will be: tearful anguish, added to a sorrowful ‘this is just tooooo hard and I'm never going to be able to do it...'; elation and manic enthusiasm about a breakthrough made with student X that means nothing to him; or (the usual one) just a semi-catatonic woman on autopilot heading for the comfort of a hot bath. But with the lighter evenings, things really are looking up for us. Every day there is a new surprise, like an off-the-cuff lesson going brilliantly or developing a surprisingly good relationship with a difficult class. The big lesson I've learnt this week is to understand the level of the students you're teaching, which means pitching everything a lot lower than you might expect. Yesterday I had two completely rubbish lessons, and it was all down to the fact that I misjudged the difficulty of the tasks. My top set year ten class had never heard of the word ‘nostalgia', and accused me of making it up just so I could use long words. I asked a year eight class to translate a speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream into ‘modern' English, and while some of them reeled it off in minutes (impressive given that it took me a good half hour, with notes from the text) many could not write a word. I'm not going to get into the debate about mixed-ability teaching here, but what I did take away from the lesson was just how vast the range of ability within my class was, and to plan very widely differentiated tasks if I'm not going to dishearten the slower ones or bore the swots.

Week 8 – A grammar school interview

This week I have been thrust from the relative comfort of a supportive department into the harsh world of real jobs and interviews. I was called for interview at a boys' grammar school (in another region, of course) where I had applied with the vague fantasy that it would suit me to work in a school with a strong academic bias and traditional ethos. I think I made up my mind very quickly that I didn't want to work there: a dingy entrance hall and reception area looked onto an equally dark and musty school hall full of fidgety boys assembled before a droning headmaster. As I loitered in the entrance hall waiting to be met, a bunch of boys barged past me to sign in late before shuffling into assembly. The whole place smelled of testosterone – not in an attractive way, but in an unbalanced, festering adolescent sort of a way. Needless to say, I did not like the school and the school did not like me. I found the boys unresponsive, and the ‘welcome' we candidates were given as a department left a great deal to be desired. I found the questioning very hostile – particularly from the head – and we were not given any opportunity to see the department (although we met some of the English teachers who were perfectly friendly) or to ask questions about the NQT year and how we would be supported. On that basis alone I would not have taken the job, so was relieved to be rejected at the last post. I was given the feedback that I seemed reserved, serious and humourless during the interview process and that they felt concerned at my ability to relate to children. I know that I don't come across as bubbling with enthusiasm if I don't feel comfortable, so I take their point that I did not give of my best on the day. However, I do think there was a certain amount of projection going on (psychologically speaking), because this runs counter to most of the feedback I have been given on all my teaching so far. It was quite hurtful to be given feedback in those terms by senior staff with such a glaring lack of emotional intelligence that I wondered at their ability to function in the adult world. I was left saddened by a school that felt depressed, whose students seemed inert and passive, and was glad to get out.

Week 9 – A job offer!

Another week of interviews led me to a very different environment for my next possible job. My second interview was at a school that has a radically different intake from the boys' grammar school. It is a large Roman Catholic comprehensive that serves the most deprived part of the city where I live. The pros: 15 minutes from my house; not such a results-driven school, so less exam stress and marking; a colourful and challenging environment. The cons: challenging kids; iffy recent Ofsted report; very different atmosphere from my two placement schools. I've been talking extensively to friends and colleagues about the realities of working in tough, urban schools. The challenges presented by the students are enormous, but the rewards are also very different. Managing behaviour can be an almost insurmountable task; but, as one of my colleagues told me, in these schools there is a powerful sense of camaraderie among the staff, and you can build some life-changing relationships with students for whom school represents a safe haven in an otherwise chaotic life. However, other people have also told me that it is naïve to go into such an environment with what's known in the trade as Michelle Pfeiffer's ‘Dangerous Minds syndrome' – thinking you can change the world in your classroom. I am not a missionary, and I recognise that anything I can offer will only make the tiniest impact. When I was interviewed on Monday I was impressed by the down-to-earth friendliness of the staff that I encountered, and I was also taken by the rather idiosyncratic feeling of the whole place. I was called again for interview on Friday and met the head teacher, and I immediately warmed to her. She seemed firm but compassionate, and I have to say that all the heads I have come across to date have seemed to me either business-like number crunchers or bullies. This was quite a refreshing contrast, and I was offered the job on the spot. I ruminated on the offer overnight, and decided to go for it. I feel excited, but also apprehensive about exactly what I have let myself in for...

Week 10 – The calm after the storm

Now that the job's in the bag I've been able to concentrate once again on those teaching skills that seem to have so impressed my interviewers! Yikes! Last weekend was spent deep in contemplation about the pros and cons of this job, but I decided to take it and now feel relieved and secure in the knowledge that as of July this year I will be a fully paid-up member of the non-student fraternity of tax payers. This has been the most difficult part of the year by far: increased teaching load; endless assignments; interviews; general emotional stress (several of our course couples are on the rocks...) During the last two weeks of the placement I was at last able to breathe a little and put my feet up for a day or two. I went to a different school for two weeks of Key Stage 5 practice, which comprised teaching English at A level and as part of the International Baccalaureate. I taught a mixture of English literature and English language, including a bit of Shakespeare, contemporary poetry and linguistics. Having studied to doctoral level all this stuff is like a dream to me, and I really felt that I could spread my wings and get stuck into some higher-level teaching. Many young teachers understandably feel somewhat insecure about the level of knowledge needed to teach A level, but for me it's the younger ones that present the biggest challenge. A couple of weeks of calm, discussion-based teaching was just what I needed by the end of the placement. I now have a weekend in Norway and a couple of weeks pottering around my allotment to look forward to, so will fill you in on how the butternut squash seeds are doing next week.

Week 11 – Getting ready to go back to school

Our last placement finished long before Easter and we have been fortunate enough to enjoy one of those implausibly long university breaks involving little bits of work and lots of displacement activities. With another two weeks before our third and final placement it is now getting to the stage where I'm worried that I will have forgotten everything I learnt on the last placement, and that it will be back to square one with new classes and new challenges. Still, at least my ski goggle marks will have faded enough for me to not look utterly ridiculous on my return to school. I've had plenty of time over the vacation to return to the earth, planting up a little herb garden in my new house and putting in potatoes, red onions, shallots, garlic and beans in my allotment. I've also planted four trees – having been made guiltily aware by my boyfriend/allotment colleagues of my need to repay the carbon debts incurred by a ski trip and city break to Oslo. The only remote bit of action on the PGCE front (apart from the assignments that are more boring still than news from the allotment) is that we all had a visit to a special school this week. We all went to different places – ranging from autism units within mainstream schools to pupil referral units for children with extreme behavioural difficulties, and schools for severely disabled children. A common theme running through our conversations afterwards was how relaxed and happy the teachers seemed compared to in mainstream schools. The main differences are that special schools have no pressure to produce good exam results, and that they deal with very small class sizes – sometimes on a 1:1 basis with students. This gave many of us food for thought in terms of our options later on in our careers, and reminded us that there are loads of different options for us all.

Week 12 – The final placement

This week is something of a transition for us on the PGCE course. We're just penning the finishing touches to our last assignment, due in on Friday, and today was our first day back in school on our third and final placement. For me and most of my colleagues, this means that we're back in the same school as last time. Some people have third placements in a different school, as the last one is meant to take into account your need to address the QTS standards that have to be met before you qualify as a teacher. In theory we're supposed to be placed in two or three very different schools, but the reality seems to be that matching placement schools to students with a means to transport themselves to them is a very difficult task. I got off lightly with a 45 minute drive to school – a number of students on the course have to travel more than an hour each way. Some of us are dreading the prospect of six more weeks of long commutes, and at this point in the year people are counting down the weeks and looking forward to a 'proper' salary. Not much will be changing for me on this placement: I'll be acquiring a lively year 9 group and otherwise teaching the same timetable. More interesting for me this week was laying hands on my own school reports after fifteen years or so. It all reads rather like a horror story, and there are some parts where I wonder whether the teachers actually confused me with another pupil ('talent and commitment' in drama and 'flair and enthusiasm' in music strike me as particularly suspicious). In English, alas, I was guilty of 'incessant chatter'. Still, it was interesting to get some insight into how it was to teach me, and to gain a little understanding of the stages some of my own students will go through on their way into the adult world.

Week 13 – Summer time

This week I have been truly thrown back into the lions' den with my classes. The teachers we're working with are, understandably, now expecting us to work completely autonomously and with a slightly bigger teaching load. I have taken on a year 9 class who find it very difficult to keep quiet, and I'm back with year 7 giving me grief on Wednesday afternoons. There is a lot of talk around about how the weather and the time of day affect student behaviour, and from what I can work out it's all about extremes: snow, wind, heavy rain and hot sunshine are a recipe for excitement. Anything else means more or less subdued classes and perhaps a quieter working atmosphere. The response I've had from my classes has varied dramatically from open rudeness and hostility from year 11 boys to squeals of excitement from my lovely year 8 class and a friendly welcome back from year 10. Despite the grind of the difficult classes, it has been truly rewarding to be able to build on the relationships gradually built over the course of the last placement. It is now giving me a hint of how it feels to have worked hard to establish yourself with classes and to see them really flourish as a result. The summer term is wonderful, also, because most of the coursework/SATs pressure is off and the work is far more topic based. This term I'm able to do a whole unit of work on drama with year 8 with the students acting out scenes from a play in every lesson. This seems to really bring plays alive for students, and allows them to put into practice what they are supposed to comment on in their essays. So there's at least one class that gives me a lift at the end of the day, which along with the sunshine is keeping me happy.

Week 14 – A teacher is as good as their last lesson

This week's lesson has been, in the words of my Head of Department, that ‘you're only as good as your last lesson'. If you teach a bad lesson, you feel like a rubbish teacher until you teach another good one. With only a week to go until our next half term it felt like this week would never end. An extra class has given me another headache in terms of managing planning and behaviour, but also an extra boost and feeling of achievement when things go well. I have found that as a new teacher (indeed a temporary one) you have to be really black and white about rules and consequences in order to have a hope of keeping order in a classroom of lively adolescents. This week this has left me with very ambivalent feelings about the kind of teacher I want to be. It's not nice being so strict with children, when you would never dream of being as direct or downright hostile to adults. I feel like I'm the nasty one and not the popular one, but I'm told that in the long run kids actually appreciate people who keep good order – as long as they know that you care. Another important lesson I learnt – as a year 10 lesson (during which they were supposed to be doing a timed essay) unravelled alarmingly on Friday – is that you must make sure that the students feel confident enough to do the task. I got this one wrong, and thought that they could just do a timed essay without too much help (they had done one before). They practically refused to do it, and my handle on the class was almost lost completely. I retrieved the situation by suggesting we work on how to plan an essay, and almost immediately the atmosphere was transformed. I realised then that a class going well depends so much on the level at which the task is set, and it has to be appropriate to the majority of students in that class.

Week 15 – Building positive relationships

This week has been a nice period of winding down – finishing off projects and slotting in the odd fun lesson before half term. It's been the usual rollercoaster of feelings from buoyant delight when a lesson goes well or a class is won over, to depression and overwhelming exhaustion at the thought of how much we still have to learn. My mentors have started to be really picky and critical in their feedback on my lessons – constructively so, but the pressure is nevertheless moving up a gear once more. We do need this kind of feedback at this stage, because if we are let loose on classes on our own without adequate preparation things could unravel very seriously, very fast. Year 7 seem finally to have settled into the routine of me being their teacher. The battle of following through with sanctions on behaviour seems to be paying dividends: because I went to the effort of giving detentions, following school procedures on discipline and phoning parents at home the children know now where my boundaries lie. My best experience this term has been picking up where I left off with year 8, who squealed with delight when I came back to teach them (unlike Years 7 and 10, who groaned). I really appreciate being able to build on the positive relationships that were established during my first placement at the school. I have unexpectedly discovered that I love teaching drama (having never been a luvvie), and these days year 8 come bounding through the door each lesson eager to learn and fighting over who is going to perform scenes from this term's class play. There will also a drama competition the first week back after half term, so I have told year 8 in no uncertain terms that we will be the winners...

Week 17 – Reaping the rewards

The summer term in school has been a really pleasant experience so far. It's not exactly that the teachers and students don't take things seriously any more, but it is as though a lot of the stress is somehow lifted from the school environment. Most GCSE work is now entirely in the hands of the students: we have done all we can for them. I have to say that the past four weeks in school (plus a lovely half term week, of course!) have been by far the most enjoyable of the whole year. I really feel like I have got the wind in my sails, and everything is beginning to come a little easier. I have relaxed somewhat about starting so early in the morning, and I feel that I can now fall back on some of the good relationships I have established with my classes. Today I was observed by my university tutor, and his assessment of my teaching bore out my feelings in a number of ways. He was pleased to see me teach the same class he had observed back in February, and commented on how good my relationship had become with a class of students who had initially been very hostile. I'm now counting down the final ten days to qualification and finally feeling confident about starting my job in July. There is also the added bonus of school actually being a great place to be when the sun is shining.