teaching with 'l' plates on

a week wouldn’t go by when i wasn’t asked several times whether i was watching bbc three’s teacher training advert/reality show ‘tough young teachers’, to which i replied OBVIOUSLY (in actual capital letters). the tellybox is one of my favourite topics anyway but the six-part series following a bunch of over-enthusiastic fresh-from-the-university-womb twenty-somethings wanting to give teaching a go was right up my street. oh i how laughed at their classroom mishaps, cringed at their attempts to control hapless teens (watching the english trainee crawling under the desk in pursuit of a mischievous year 10 was a particularly favourite moment of mine) and longed to provide a comforting wing when they sobbed over lessons gone wrong because it was, in many ways, an actual replica of my life…minus the crawling under tables part. however, another reason i was particularly intrigued by ‘tough young teachers’ was to see whether my perception of the teach first training programme had some substance beyond what i had witnessed when i worked in support. it did.

when teacher training first crossed my mind, my mum piped up with teach first; the idea was certainly appealing – train for six weeks in the summer then go straight into the job. perfect! i’ve always been more hands-on with my approaches to life. however, i only got as far as the teach first’s several-hues-of-blue website before putting a big, fat red metaphorical cross through the scheme; it wasn’t the concept of a demanding workload on a no experience basis, nor the fact that you get placed in challenged schools – it was their ‘criteria’ that required potential trainees to have top-notch academic results beyond what i had achieved in my school days. i raised an eyebrow wondering why someone would care how many UCAS points i gained when it comes to determining whether i was a suitable candidate for the job or not and thus, it was struck off my list of potential teacher training options (well, it’s not like i would have been offered a place anyway!).

fast forward several months and one career change later, i found myself in a classroom supporting a lesson with two teach first trainees. as someone who was fortunate to be educated privately, i was transported back to my own school years as one of the teachers reminded me of my former peers; well-spoken, overly expressive and ridiculously intelligent – i should point out that i was a staff pupil and so, thanks to my dad working in the same vicinity, i spent my seven years in the private sector being pretty much ignored resulting in me turning out as some teachers described as ‘refreshingly normal’. anyway, it came as no surprise that students from significantly less privileged backgrounds in a inner-city west midlands academy would not take well to someone whose only understanding of the dole came from borrowing daddy’s credit card. i witnessed breakdowns, chaos and a lot of flapping, all while helplessly watching on waiting obediently for direction – i was always conscious of not treading on the teacher’s toes – which made me question the credibility of teach first in terms of how well it prepares its trainees for the classroom but also, the quality of their lessons.

this experience made viewing of ‘tough young teachers’ all the more fascinating to me and some of the featured trainees bought back all the toe-curling memories from my year in support, especially as i watched pupils abuse their teachers as if it was normal and throw dictionaries across the classroom like they were playing football. of course, that’s not to say trainees on other programmes escape the nightmare groups but seeing meryl, the english student, pulled up in front of a panel of top dogs who filled the room with concern and the prospect of failure, my heart bled a little. it appeared (though i’m aware there may have been an element of fabrication for the television factor) that she rarely had support and was essentially thrown to the lions and left to be torn to pieces. in fact, the trainees i worked with were lone rangers too, something i assume is part of the course. in comparison, i always have someone in the room with me (insurance reasons apparently) and although it may seem tedious, particularly during the final stages of training, i have found this support to be invaluable. from day one, i was advised on how to enhance my practice and given a backbone for behaviour issues; it’s hard to see where you’re going wrong if no-one is there to put you right and having oxford university on your CV doesn’t appear make you a teacher training prodigy.

i overheard a conversation about the programme in the staff room a few weeks ago where one teacher expressed how they struggled to understand how good teachers can be determined by their academics. this was a view i shared following my own research into teach first and i think, to a degree, ‘tough young teachers’ proved that. yes, it’s a charity and gives disadvantaged students opportunities to aspire to be something great but i certainly don’t think your a-levels and subsequent degree certificate can prove whether you’re capable of that or not. in fact, what the show highlighted to me was that teachers are essentially born and not made – take maths trainee and harrow alumni, nick, who clearly had a natural way with students whose backgrounds were worlds apart from his own; it’s a shame that his highly strung mates convinced him that money was more important than matter.

‘tough young teachers’ may have only scratched the surface of what teach first can offer and i’m sure there are trainees out there whose upbringings may reflect those of the students they teach. likewise, it’s also important to recognise that all the trainees passed with respectable grades so clearly, it is an effective training scheme that i’m sure produces some fantastic, inspiring teachers. however, as for prioritising academic achievement over the ability to enable your pupils be the best they can be, i’m not so sure. after all, the rest of us don’t need impressive academic credibilities to do an equally good job.

okay, i hold my hands up – i have been terrible at writing in this! i remember being told before i started teacher training that i wouldn’t have a life during the year and thinking it was nothing more than scaremongering. i guess the lack of activity on this blog shows that i don’t but in fact, it’s more because i haven’t been able to justify the time i could spend rambling online when i needed to maintain actual relationships instead (as well as those with social media and the TV) as opposed to being buried by an avalanche of uni and school work for the last five months…although it wasn’t far off at times!

anyway, the whole point of this blog was to track my teaching journey and in a nutshell, i LOVE it. i know i may sound uber eager with rose-tinted glasses on and all that but i genuinely enjoy what i do. having worked in a role in industry that wasn’t right for me, i guess i have an appreciation for being in a job that i don’t mind getting up for in the morning and that also ticks my boxes. i recently met a friend who is hoping to start their school direct training in september and when they asked if it was as hard as everyone said it is, i explained that i’ve found people either sink or swim during their teaching courses. luckily, i would class myself as a swimmer although i feel sorry those who are struggling to keep their heads above water. in the theme of this post, here are my (so-far) teacher training revolutions:

train your brain on the art of organisation
anyone who tells you teacher training is tough isn’t wrong however, i’ve found that 95% of being able to keep your head above water on the course is as simple as staying on top of everything. i know it’s proper boring to say but really, a diary, hoards of post-it notes and my iphone’s ‘reminders’ app are my heroes. i suggest keeping your uni and school lives separate because everything just mashes into one big ball of overwhelming otherwise. however, i found it’s less stressful to start chipping away at uni work two months before the deadline than to leave it to the last minute undergraduate degree style. i was definitely one who couldn’t look further than the week before an assignment due date when i was at uni the first time round but teaching is full of surprises, and not always ones you’ll want to deal with when you have 4,000 words coming out of your ears. 99.9% of the time, whatever school asks you to do is more important than uni so giving yourself these buffers will make your workload easier to handle. and if you get no surprises? finishing even earlier gives you one less thing to think about!

you won’t know it all…and never will!
when i was applying for teacher training, i was made to feel a criminal by high-brow university folk if i wasn’t 100% sure what a finite verb was or could recite every auden poem ever written…in fact, i couldn’t name one! the whole process is quite deceiving actually, which annoyed me slightly when i arrived in my school in september feeling a fraud yet only to discover that the finer details of subject knowledge don’t actually matter. of course you’re not going to know everything on your school’s curriculum – what you do know makes life easier when it comes to lesson planning, but you learn what you don’t which can actually make your lessons better. as long as you’re willing to learn something new, whether it means reading a text from scratch or analysing an anthology of poems at short notice (from an english perspective), subject knowledge is a small fish in a big pond of teaching tools.

get involved, even if it means leaving after 3!
teaching – as anyone with half a brain will know – isn’t about rolling out of bed for 9 and being back on the sofa by 3; a great way to get to know your colleagues and students in a different light is to get involved in some extra-curricular activities. this is pretty easy if you’re in PE but will require a bit more enthusiasm for anyone else. i was lucky as i was interested in the school show, which my department runs, in addition to having my own idea that i was able to get off the ground, but making sure you say ‘yes’ to out-of-class offers is a must. even if you have uni work playing on your mind or want to go home ASAP to hide in a darkened room after wondering whether you’re cut out for the job, it really is one of the most rewarding parts. my school has been brilliant and offered me loads of opportunities but don’t be afraid to say no. you may have to be slightly tactful, as you don’t want to offend nor not be asked again, but i’ve had to turn some people down, not because i wanted to but because i did risk burning myself out otherwise. it’s worth considering what you’d like to do before you start your training as you can bring it up with your mentor when you start.

become mates with your coursemates 
you’ll already have plenty in common with your fellow trainees when you start your course but as the year progresses, you’ll find each other valuable sources for comfort, support and grumbling. whilst everyone has been through teacher training and will be able to offer a comforting wing to temporarily hide under if it gets too much, your coursemates are the only people who know exactly what you’re going through and can make everything a lot easier to deal with…even if it’s just to share your mutual hate for that pesky uni essay.

getting an interview for any form of teacher training comes with a hybrid of emotions, mainly sheer delight and absolute terror. one thing i quickly learnt is that a school interview isn’t like a standard job interview – you can’t really go in with a beaming grin, say a few things to big yourself up and nail it. as detailed in my previous post about the interviews i went to, they’re like the teacher training equivalent of ‘x factor’ bootcamp with all sorts of tests being thrown your way and somehow, you have to do alright in all of them. every interview was different but some factors will be the same universally:

  • first, the captain obvious point: whether you’re going to a uni or school interview, dress like a teacher. blokes have it easy – suit, shirt, tie; for girls, it’s a little tricker. i think it’s important to show personality as a teacher so i never went for the ‘safe’ monochrome look mainly because i was going into a classroom, not a boring business meeting. i opted for a tailored dress every time (‘next’ is my saviour) as you’re safe as far as covering cleavage and legs is concerned. i’m crap in heels so i always wore flats but unless you can withstand towering stilettos for hours on end and mastered the art of tackling all sorts of obstacles in them, it’s worth keeping your feet firmly on the ground as you’re likely to be shifted from pillar to post throughout the day.
  • don’t be afraid to ask questions before the interview day – in fact, it’s kind of what they’d like you to do! essentially, finding out whether you’ll have access to a computer, the class size, the levels the students are working at, whether there are any SEN pupils you need to be aware of as opposed to lunch arrangements or where to park your car will put you in the good books.
  • swot up on education news. it may not come into your day-to-day teaching but there will always be changes being discussed by the government, and sometimes implemented, throughout your teaching career that you’ll need to know about so this is a dead-cert question at interview. sources like the TES, ‘education guardian’ and the actual department for education website are great for finding out the key education news of the moment. don’t just read the headlines…scroll back a few pages to make sure you have everything covered!
  • a teacher training interview lasts for a few hours and you will inevitably have some ‘down’ time, whether that’s waiting around for your interview or a tea break. regardless of the situation, remember that you’re always on interview – even someone who has nothing to do with the interview process itself may be asked for an opinion on you albeit the receptionist, the incognito member of staff sitting behind a newspaper whilst you’re making friendly chat with your competition or the students you’ve spoken to.
  • teaching is all about being reflective and you need to show that you can assess yourself. consider what you have learnt so far in your experiences of teaching but also be prepared to talk about how you could improve the lesson you delivered at interview. you’re certainly not expected to be to the finished product at that stage so choose your words wisely!
  • be sure to read the school’s OFSTED report, their latest news, find out about the curriculum and activities they do before you go to interview. even though you’re applying for a training place, they are still taking you on as a member of staff; it’s worth seeing how you can fit in. you’re likely to be taken on a tour of the school, which is a perfect opportunity to ask questions, but you can also ask how you can become involved in aspects of school life that interest you during the interview.
  • don’t rely on the school to provide resources for the interview lesson. make sure you take lined paper, writing pens, a board pen, highlighters…you get the drift! also make sure you write a lesson plan (if you don’t know how to write one, i’m sure a quick google will enlighten you!) – this will help you plan your time wisely but also give the interviewers something to refer to, resulting in big brownie points!

you’ll normally be told on the day whether you have the place. it’s great because it puts you out of your misery fairly quickly but even if you’re not so lucky, make sure you take the feedback on board with a smile. i went for more than one interview associated with the same university and if you leave them with a positive impression regardless of the outcome, you may strike lucky next time. i was one of two in the interview when i was successful – the other person’s graceful attitude and willingness to learn meant they were referred to another school who took them on the next day (i know this because they’re on my course now!). every cloud and all that!

last year, i felt that i was ready to go back to school in the final weeks of the summer holidays – not this time. i’m sure we only finished yesterday..? that’s not to say my excitement for the impending academic year ahead has subsided though. na-uh. however, anxiety levels have increased a notch or two now i’m at the hump of the holidays and rapidly descending towards september.

i’m only nervous of the unknown; every person who’s been through teacher training in the history of time has said how hard it is on the body and mind which is a little hard to swallow when you’ve spent the last three weeks doing bugger all. my dad has said it might not be so bad because i’ve already dabbled in a bit of teaching and therefore voiced in some of the basics, but i’ll be keeping my guard up until further notice.

i was browsing forums during the final weeks of term to stop myself from exploding from boredom and it was interesting to see what different trainees were doing preparation-wise; some were already getting resources together whilst others were discussing their pre-course tasks. the top thing on my priority list though was ‘chillax’, not because i’m an absolute lazy arse (just a bit of a lazy arse) but i know that the next ten months, maybe more, of my life are going to be mental busy and i don’t want to spend the precious free time i have now doing stuff that might not be worth the effort or completely pointless altogether. i’ve been told my first few weeks will mainly consist of observing rather than teaching so i thought i’d wait until i’m in school to find out exactly what i’m doing and when before delving into resource creation. i’m hoping that i can use my free lessons to get going…hoping!

all i’ve done really is tackle some of the recommended reading my uni has given me, bookmarked anything that will probably be relevant later, and looked through a few specs as requested by my new head of english. i mentioned phil beadle’s how to teach in a previous post and now i’ve trawled through the whole thing, i definitely recommend getting a copy – it’s like the bible of common sense teaching. pimp my lesson (look on amazon) is a pretty decent read too as it’s full of ideas to incorporate into your lessons whilst ticking the ‘good/outstanding teacher’ observation criteria.

as for other bits, i’m off to california on sunday. i’m not one to take work with me on holiday but i’ve stocked up on a few books to get through the longer than life flight. as soon as i get back, i’ll be landing into my first week on school direct. time flies!

this is more of an english specific post (soz) but the concept might help others.

at some point during the school direct application process, you’ll be asked to complete an audit of your subject knowledge. firstly, the easiest thing is to check what you do and don’t know against the national curriculum (remember that it’s set to change from sept 2014) and figure out what you need to work on from that. if you can, try fill your brain with new nuggets of info ahead of the interview process. of course, institutions don’t expect you to be able to name every recommended ks3 text nor be able to reel off all the poetic techniques known to man, but you won’t get far if you don’t have the foggiest about what you’re expected to cover in your subject. also, be prepared to explain to a panel how you intend to improve your knowledge on what you don’t know ahead of starting the course. if your school is on the ball, they should send you schemes of work before you start – even if they don’t, ask!

as a whole
there are five main areas of subject knowledge in english. one of the unis i was interviewed at sent me a form to fill in so you can base your own assessment on this:

- pre-1914 literature
- post-1914 literature
- language (this goes beyond knowing where to put a capital letter and a semi-colon. a good site to refer to is cybergrammar.co.uk)
- literature from different cultures (of mice and men is one of the most well-known novellas here)
- literature for teenagers and children

i definitely freaked at some of these categories but you’ll find lists of suggested authors and texts within the national curriculum – even if you just read a few of the suggested texts, it’s better than not having a clue! like i said already, no-one will have a solid knowledge of everything at this stage so interviewers won’t expect you to. if you start brushing up early (say…now), that’s one less thing to flap about if you get ‘the’ call.

testing, testing…
whilst it’s not a requirement to have an in-depth knowledge of english gcse and a-level exam specs, it’s worth looking on potential schools’ websites to see if you can find out what exam boards they use. this worked well for me as my support role was specific to gcse english so i already knew the set texts, poetry anthology and controlled assessments for the exam board my new school uses, which i explained that to them in my interview. again, showing an awareness of popular exam tests/reading them if you have the time, will show that you can hit the ground running. i’ve worked across two gcse exam boards and of mice and men and animal farm have cropped up both times; romeo and juliet is a popular choice for shakespeare. i can’t speak so much for a-level as i don’t think a training year involves much work with ks5 but it’s worth keeping it in the back of your mind, especially if you’re keen to teach in sixth form.

read all about it
unless you’re already an avid reader of teen fiction, the easiest way to brush up on your knowledge of books which are ‘down with the kids’ (oxymoron perhaps?) is to pop to your local library and peruse the teen section. although the national curriculum is ideal for finding out which authors have gove’s stamp of approval, picking up any literature that tickles your fancy can be just as valuable. one piece of advice i was given when i started on my teaching quest was to read teen books simply so you can recommend reads to your own class (it probably makes you look like you know what you’re talking about outside of your actual lesson…).  i’ve been a member of a library for a while now, and despite feeling like an ultimate nerd, i’ve managed to get through quite a few books without paying a penny. ideal.

i feel incredibly old when i remember that i started my undergrad degree SIX years ago. this was emphasised the other day at my uni induction morning when at least half of the room raised their hands to show that they were in the process of completing their degrees. apart from my blatant lack of awareness when it comes to the ageing process, i quite like being in the ‘older and wiser’ camp by which i can safely say i’ve been in the real world, done it and got the t-shirt declaring that didn’t like it.

in some ways, going back to uni is a slight novelty for me; i didn’t leave so long ago that i’ve forgotten how to ‘be’ a student but i feel i know more about the world of work than my fresh-out-of-education peers. i used to daydream of life pre-graduation, particularly in my old job, longing to turn back the clock to a time when my biggest concern was whether staying in bed watching jeremy kyle was more important than going to my lecture (jezza usually won) but being a student this time round will be an entirely different ball game.

going for my uni induction was considerably less daunting than visiting my school properly for the first time as a) you know everyone is feeling relatively similar to you and b) it’s something we’ve all done before. in terms of what was covered, it was fairly standard: the tutors introduced themselves before dissecting our welcome packs which were mainly filled with complexing-looking spreadsheets; modules for the year ahead were explained which included details of how we’d be assessed and we received our timetables for the academic year. in summary:

  • i’ll be taking seven modules over the year: four which are equivalent to final year undergrad work and three at masters level (it seems pretty standard to get credits towards a masters in the pgce year). some of the modules are assessed in school whilst the others are more academic.
  • every wednesday will be spent training which alternates weekly between school and uni. additionally, i’ll be spending four full weeks at uni throughout the year when we’ll be focusing on enhancing subject knowledge, teaching theories and given time to complete assignments.
  • obviously i’ll be in school when i’m not at uni but i was given a better idea of where i’d be and when in terms of placement. i’ll be at my main school for all of the autumn term and then allocated to another school after christmas for a month. following that, i’ll be going to a special school for two weeks (this can be anything from working to students with severe learning difficulties, EAL or G+T pupils, maybe even primary) before going back to where i started for the remainder of the year.

what next?
in terms of pre-course work, i was sent an induction pack after confirming my place featuring a reading list which emphasised swotting up on behaviour management and reflective teaching. i’ve got two books to peruse over the summer: phil beadle’s how to teach and some massive lump of regurgitated tree on reflective teaching. to be honest, i can’t really read academic texts out of context so i’ll probably save the latter for a rainy day. i do, however, recommend beadle’s take on teaching – it doesn’t hold back, essentially offering a ‘real’ view on classrooms today. the book itself is written in an autobiographical style so not only is it easy to digest, it’s surprisingly enjoyable too. of course, i’ll have access to the uni library once i start in september and i’ve got a list of recommended websites to flick through which i’ll check out at some point.

i haven’t been given any assignments as such so i can basically spend my summer in the garden, holidaying, chillaxing…and reading teaching books OBVIOUSLY.

don’t worry, i’m not going all match.com on you but i thought it might be useful to share some nuggets on one of the biggest ‘q’s’ of the whole school direct palava: what school should i go for? the obvious or remotely sarcastic response (if you’re anything like me) might go along the lines of, “whichever one has a place” but if you want to have a shot at success, it’s worth delving a little deeper.

as i’ve mentioned before, you can only apply to a certain number of schools at a time and you don’t want to be wasting spaces on institutions who don’t feel your experience is relevant to them. you may consider that the criteria to teach a certain subject is the same universally but schools may have set requirements for trainees depending on their curriculum and the way the department is set out. here’s a rundown of what to consider when you’re weighing up your options:

how close is too close?
distance is important for any job, even more so when you’re commuting for free (as far as i’m aware, you don’t get ‘expenses’ paid on a non-salaried place). however, i think working in a school can blur the lines of the work-life balance if you don’t pick your location wisely. as a trainee, you’ll still be expected to attend parents’ evenings, after-school meetings and be pulled into the occasional last-minute affair on top of marking, lesson planning and uni work so you don’t want to be spending endless amounts of time in transit. likewise, it’s worth mulling over whether applying to the school up the road is the best idea – do you really want to end up becoming a local attraction to incredulous students whilst you’re traipsing round tesco in your finest ‘for the house only’ attire? similarly, living too close could cause issues if you end up on the wrong side of certain pupils; my boyfriend, although he went to the brilliant local secondary, reminded me that it would only take a little bit of detective work from a bad egg to find out where our house was and potentially make life difficult (admittedly, we are right on the main pathway to the school for most of the town!). whilst i’m looking forward to halving my current hour-long commute, i do and will continue to appreciate being able to come home and not have to worry about bumping into students off-guard!

even though you apply to a lead school, you could be placed at one of the others attached to it during your training (you have to complete two placements). if you’re invited to interview, you’re often given information about all the schools within the consortium so it’s worth bearing in mind that you could end up closer or further  from home than you initially expected. in fact, one of the interviews i went to revealed they had just signed up to my local secondary even though it was 20 minutes away.

the extra factor
the first thing i did when the list of schools popped up on the application portal (i should mention that not every school is involved in the programme and i read gripes on the internet from some people who struggled to find places within a reasonable distance) was stick them into google. of course, it was to get a feel for the place as i think a website can say a lot about an institution but really, it was the curriculum i was interested in. coming from a journalism background, i didn’t want my existing knowledge and skills to go to waste so it was important for me that media studies was offered. i also felt that if a school found it to be a worthy enough subject for their students to study, they might take an interest in me as media is often tied to english.

i looked beyond the classroom as well to see what i could possibly see myself getting involved with as i wanted to be in a school where i could dabble in extra-curricular activities – i don’t believe teaching should stop at the end of the last lesson! it’s worth thinking about what interests you could bring to the job whether it’s in the form of a lunchtime society, after-school club or sport. i’m particularly keen on drama as i did a lot of singing and acting when i was younger; one of the draws to my new school was their annual musical in which the english department are heavily involved so it was perfect for me! i’ve got a few more ideas for extra-curricular stuff up my sleeve if i need it though as ultimately, i want to gain as much experience as i can.

judgement day
lords of education, ofsted, obviously play a huge part in how a school is perceived but i think it’s important to not judge a book by its cover. i read from someone else’s experience that the criteria for a school to offer trainee places is longer than my arm, so i believe that an ofsted verdict shouldn’t be taken as gospel when it comes to deciding who to train with. of course, an ‘outstanding’ rating is attractive but it can also be a hinderance. one school i was interviewed at had this prestigious rating and they weren’t as open to my background as my academics weren’t solely in english. in comparison, my new school have offered me more opportunities because of where i come from but they were disappointed with their recent ofsted inspection. i certainly don’t feel like i’m at a disadvantage – i felt at home in my new school as it didn’t seem highly strung! – rather, i’m embracing being able to grow with an establishment that strives to do better.

one of the most useful things you can do prior to an interview or even before applying is to read the school’s latest ofsted report. it gives you a thorough overview of the school that you don’t always get from a website in terms of stats, logistics and a closer look at individual departments. essentially, just because a school is considered to be ‘the best’ doesn’t make it the right place for you!

worth a visit?
whilst this didn’t affect me, there’s no harm in sneaking a peek at schools ahead of applying. i suggest keeping a close eye on school websites for school direct open days as i was invited to a few once my applications were received. i didn’t end up making any of them as i couldn’t get away from work on time but you might as well go along if you can. they’ll give you a chance to get a feel for the school and usually give you more information on the application process and the associated schools in the scheme. admittedly, this is all stuff you get told at interview anyway but it also means you can meet key staff (foot in the door and all that…). one thing that you can’t really find out from a website is what the people are like at the school so this gives you an early opportunity to work out if your potential colleagues are up your street.

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