This time a year ago, I had just received the name and contact details of my first placement school. I had spent two weeks at university full time, learning the basics of planning , assessment and what the curriculum entails and had one more to go before starting my first placement.
My main concern before receiving the details of my placement school was its proximity to my rented flat. I was never a morning person, and the prospect of having to rise before the Sun was worrying (something that you have to rapidly learn to cope with as a teacher). Another worry that a lot of people had was the OFSTED rating of their placement school, or whether or not the school had an above average A*-C GCSE score. I was (extremely) fortunate that both of my placement schools were within four miles of where I live and were outstanding schools with exam results to match.
The first morning of your first placement is nerve wracking. I remember being sat on a crowded bus, surrounded by pupils in the uniform of the school I was due to spend the next three months working at, wondering what I was about to get myself in to.
Here are a few things that I wish someone had told me:
- Contact your placement school prior to your first day. Your university should give you the contact details of the person at your school who will take main responsibility for all PGCE students, and if they don’t, contact the school and ask. It makes a strong impression to email ahead, introduce yourself and ask any questions about dress code or materials that they would like you read through before your first day. Check first that any information that you are asking for isn’t on the school website.
- On the subject of school websites, make sure you have a look through yours. In the interview for my NQT position, I was asked about the impression that you can get of the school from the school’s website. There is nothing stopping them asking what you think of the school’s ethos during the early days of your PGCE placement, so ensure that you are aware of the school’s core values.
- Dress smart. I distinctly remember one of the other PGCE students on the first day of my first placement turning up in a pair of trousers and a shirt. No tie. No suit. The school’s policy for male teachers is a suit, collared shirt and tie. Apart from the impression you may leave on the members of staff at the school, you will feel awkward and uncomfortable for the entire day if you are underdressed. It is also possible to be overdressed, however there will most likely always be someone more overdressed than you. It is slightly more tricky for female teachers, however I have always been told that unless your schools requires a suit for female teachers, the rules to be guided by are as long as you cannot see up it, through it or down it, you will probably be okay (plus the obvious shorts, spaghetti straps etc). However it may be best to wear a jacket or blazer on your first day – just to be on the safe side.
- One piece of advice I received from the Head of Sixth Form from my old secondary school when I told her that I was training to be a teacher was to be ‘smart with time’. This is the best piece of advice I have ever had. As a teacher, your to do list will be endless. You will have added three things to the end of it, before you have ticked one thing off. Therefore, you will quickly learn to prioritise and become more efficient with the tasks you need to do. You will also learn that all the other teachers in the school are fighting to also be ‘smart with time’, and therefore whilst some may come across as brusque, it is most likely because they are very well aware that they have three lessons to plan, four sets of worksheets to photocopy, 120 books to mark and a parent who wants to discuss a report waiting for them.
- It can be very easy to just talk to the other trainee teachers whilst on placement, if you are lucky enough to have others at your school. On both of my placements, there were over ten other PGCE students of all different subjects on placement with me at the same school. However, try to talk to other teachers. Trust me – I understand that the staffroom can be daunting. And there definitely have been seats or areas reserved for individuals or certain cliques of teachers. But try to get to know other members of staff beyond the other trainees. One way to get talking is to ask for advice. Find other teachers of challenging pupils and ask them how they deal with them, or even better ask to observe them.
- The first few weeks of observations can feel like they last forever. I have definitely been sat at the back of a classroom and felt like the lesson was never going to end, however there is ALWAYS something to learn during an observation. Even if you feel bored to tears by the lesson and your eyelids are suddenly feeling very heavy, try to work out why you are not engaged and interested in the lesson because if you are feeling that way, it is most likely the case that the pupils are disengaged and uninterested also. Try to pick a focus for your observations and look out for something in particular, for example how the teacher caters for the gifted and talented pupils, the questioning of the pupils or the use of assessment throughout the lesson. Ask your department for an exercise book and keep all of your observation notes in that exercise book – remember to note down the focus, date, time, teacher and year group.
- Lesson plans can take hours. There is a reason why most schools will start you on an extremely reduced timetable. You may only be teaching five or six lessons a week to begin with. One other trainee I know took over six hours to plan each lesson in the first few weeks. We all wondered how on earth we would ever be able to plan the 24 lessons a week that you teach in your NQT year, however trust me – you will crack it.
- There will always be challenging pupils. In every single school, you will be challenged by some sort of student behaviour. This may be behaviour that disrupts learning, or behaviour that challenges your confidence. I have had pupils point blank refuse to complete the work set. I have had pupils tell me that I should not teach them because they deserve more than a student teacher. I have had pupils who have ripped up the worksheet that I have lovingly crafted. I have had pupils ask me questions that I didn’t understand, let alone know the answer. You will learn to deal with all of this.
- The one word that everyone loves in education is ‘progress’. The whole idea of education is facilitating progress in the pupils that you teach. This may be short term progress over a single lesson, but must contribute to long term progress, over a term, year and whole school life. The best way you can ensure progress in your pupils is by getting to know them. You need to know what they need in order to make progress. Read and annotate their IEPs. Speak to they form tutors. Look at the data. But most importantly, speak to your pupils. Aim to speak to every single pupil in every single lesson you teach. (TIP: laminate a seating plan so that you tick off each pupil with a board marker when you have spoken to them)
- Finally, be pleasant to everyone you meet at school. I have had two separate assistant heads, at two separate schools, tell me that they ask the staff on reception, or in the reprographics office, or who work in the site team, what they think of teachers coming for an interview. If a person has been rude to these non teaching staff, it may be the case that they are not given the job. It is so important to be pleasant to everyone, teaching staff, non teaching staff and pupils. It may be the case for you, as it was the case for me, that the whole is almost entirely in control of your end of PGCE grading and therefore taking pride in the way you act is as important as your lesson plans and differentiation.