This is my fourth year leading the secondary mathematics initial teacher education programme in Cambridge. It is fifteen years since I trained to be a teacher in Sheffield. With the research I have been doing on teachers’ professional learning, I have had some time to think and reflect on my own teaching and what is involved in learning to be a teacher.
In part I write this as a ‘welcome’ – a welcome to the profession. Also I offer, to those embarking on a teaching career, some advice on how to cope with the training year and prepare for their teaching career.
Teaching should be regarded with no less respect than any other profession, for example, doctors, accountants, engineers and lawyers. And I can’t help myself but get angry if anyone tries to undermine the professional standing of teachers. So my first piece of advice: be very proud of the profession that you are about to become part of.
But we have to face realities, the profession is at a point of crisis, pay and conditions have been undermined, the nature of the work has intensified and become focussed on a narrow set of measures. The recruitment and retention of teachers is in a poor state. Do not let this deter you though, for with these challenges comes the possibility of renewal and regeneration. Though they be challenging times, they are times of personal and collective opportunity.
But your focus will be on the present. You will be well aware that the one-year Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) is very demanding. What I want to do here is explain why and offer some tips and things for you to think about in order to try and make it manageable.
What is it like learning to be a teacher?
Working as a professional in the public sector is an important role and one which comes with a great deal of responsibility. Teachers have the chance to make a considerable difference to people’s lives. While they cannot always mitigate for the disadvantages that are a result of the deep inequalities in our society, they have it within their powers to potentially change young people’s lives.
You will be enthused, no doubt as I was and still am, about the possibility of being transformative and imbued with a passion for and a deep knowledge of your subject.
When I began my PGCE course, I was brimming with ideas of how to enthuse learners and explain the concepts, ideas and processes in my subject. However, I found that there was so much more to it than expressing my originality and communicating my knowledge passionately. Frustratingly, I had to learn how to do this within the structures and culture of the education system and the particular school I was placed at. What I found hard was tempering my individuality and originality to comply with and be consistent with the norms that existed in the school. Indeed, for my first placement I avoided this altogether. I forged my own path and failed. During my second placement, however, I was much wiser.
It is important to recognise the consequences of schools’ limited budgets and resources (it’s a shame that it took me so long). Teachers are working under incredible time and resource pressures; they are doing their very best with limited resources. There is not the time to deal perfectly with each pupil or to create perfect lessons. Often a full-time teacher is teaching up to 23 out of 25 lessons a week. There is little time to create bespoke and wonderful learning experiences for each classroom encounter. There is limited time to support individual pupils, parents and the community.
Under these constraints, schools and teachers find ways of making it work. They establish working systems and routines for lessons and around the school. As you learn to be a teacher you learn these established and tacit ways of working, what I describe as the structures and culture of education. As you gain experience as a teacher, you learn to assert your individuality within the structures and culture.
This is demanding. It is emotionally and mentally demanding. You do not have the kind of personal freedom or agency that you may be used to. It can test your well-being to the limit, you have to try and plan your lessons within a system for which the rules of engagement are not explicitly explained. They are implicit and tacit rules and often rationality is not obvious and can seem opaque. My advice is to be patient with yourself. As you observe experienced colleagues in and out the classroom, ask yourself what do they do to make the job easier for themselves and learn from them. It takes time in school to become acculturated to the way-of-(professional)–life. But try to give yourself opportunities, even if it be a part of a lesson, to experiment with your own ideas. It gives you a chance to express yourself. As you develop you will become more comfortable as you become familiar with the culture of schools and the tacit rules and routines that exist.
Taking care of your mental health
You see how demanding this is. I have not even talked about the major concern of every trainee, that is managing behaviour. I will come to this. But before doing so, I want to talk about your mental health; this is really important. For many beginning teacher training, their expectations are high, they quite naturally want to be the best teacher they can be and make an impact. As I have described, the context in which professional learning takes place, because of the predominance of cultural practices and tacit rules and knowledge, is so much different from undergraduate learning, where the learning is around theory rather than learning ‘practice’. This means that you learn information and means of reconstructing that information to pass examinations. If you learn this process effectively you can be successful in examinations. In learning to teach there is no such process, it is more about absorbing the tacit rules and culture of schools. As an individual you have less control, it is therefore emotionally and mentally demanding. My advice is, as soon as you feel your levels of anxiety or stress levels get to a point at which you feel you are not your normal self, then get advice. Most universities have plenty of help available. If at any time during your training you feel that your mental health is being undermined, seek professional advice.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find you need help, especially if this is the first time. People often learn a great deal about themselves during phases of their lives when they experience extraordinary emotional and mental challenge. It is for this reason that learning to teach is such a powerful experience; often you learn so much about yourself.
Will the pupils behave?
All trainees worry about this. It is a supreme test of the self. A test of whether you can ‘control’ a class of young people. There is so much written about various techniques: using your body language, your voice, and the use of rewards and sanctions. There will be plenty of advice on managing behaviour and motivating children to make the most of their learning. The most important factor is self-belief (more technically I talk about self-efficay). It is the belief a teacher has in their capacity to maintain order in the classroom, it involves having good relationships with individuals as well as understanding what behaviours need to be addressed and what should be ignored.
Developing self-efficacy or confidence in managing behaviour takes practice and experience and needs time to observe experienced colleagues. It involves trying out techniques and getting to know individual pupils. Some trainees come along having had some experience that has helped them with this, for others it takes longer. You will make mistakes early on but colleagues are supportive and pupils quickly forget. So again, be patient with yourself, observe experienced teachers, read about theory and practice and learn in the classroom. Most of all don’t worry. Worry undermines your self-belief.
Theory, research and assignments
This can feel like a chore, especially for maths and science trainees. No matter how much you might love social sciences going into it, having to read theory and carry out small-scale research can feel like an additional hoop to jump through. However, it is this engagement that maintains teaching as a profession. Of course you can learn to teach without this, and you can become a very effective teacher. But as a profession, we should strive to engage in scholarship: for teachers to have an understanding of the underlying disciplines of philosophy, anthropology, sociology and psychology. Teachers also need to be familiar with subject specific research. There is a lot said about the use of evidence in education, but teachers need to have a deeper understanding of what we mean by evidence, how educational research is undertaken and how to decide on what to incorporate into practice. The PGCE provides a very brief introduction to these things. It can take years of further reading and reflection to develop this to a point where you can effectively apply scholarship to your teaching. Having come accross Vygotsky as a trainee and understood some of the basic ideas, it was still a few years before I could really make sense of the implications of his work.
During the PGCE there is opportunity to begin a scholarly journey, to get a sense of the range and scope of thinking in educational research and to begin to develop your own scholarship. The PGCE is too short to really go beyond this and we should really make teacher training last longer. Compare it to the period of a time a medical practitioner spends learning about underlying theory.
One of the pressing issues for those entering the profession is the policy context under which you will work. Not only is it difficult to recruit teachers to the profession to work in certain parts of England, it is difficult to recruit people to train to teach some subjects, like for example Maths and Physics, and it is increasingly difficult to retain teachers. You are new to the profession, enthused and feeling that you have the power to change things, but there are teachers a few years down the line who are leaving, fed up with workload and the culture of performativity. Clearly I do not want to put you off, but I do want to equip you with insights into the context in which you plan to make what will hopefully be a long career. You need to know what is happening and what you can do about it.
Since the 1970s state education has increasingly moved away from being a public service, owned and accountable to the communities that schools serve. It began with changes to the way school funding was managed, then came the introduction of City Technology Colleges, then Academies, the introduction of OfSTED in 1992 and finally with schools being run by Multi-Academy Trusts. Local Authorities have very little involvement in the local provision of education. In this time successive governments have expected more from the profession and the intensity of teachers’ work has increased. We are also at the stage where performance related pay is likely to be implemented more widely. Teachers are having to work harder than the previous generation and working longer hours to try and deliver unrealistic targets that do not adequately quantify the work of the school, the teachers and pupils.
It is important that new teachers challenge the direction in which schools policy is going. Well not straight away, but part of your preparation should be to start to network and organise, in order prepare to challenge centralised accountability and redress the diminishment of community ownership. Don’t expect policy makers to do this for you. It is a professional responsibility to act collectively to challenge inappropriate government reforms. It is time to think and act collectively, and foster professional solidarity and activism, much like the junior doctors have done. So make sure you join a teaching union. Together we can create a community-owned school system which is accountable to that community. But it needs us all to stand together and decide on how we want schools to run and decide together what the purpose of education should be.
Have a great year.