For the past 12 months, teaching has taken over my world. I’ve never highlighted, annotated or reflected so much in my entire life, but it’s finally over (for the summer at least). I’ve survived my PGCE year, I’m qualified and I have a job as an NQT in September.
When I started applying for the PGCE, I spent a day at university alongside fresh-faced graduates competing for a place. I seemed to be the oldest person in the room by far (I was 30 at the time) and it was at that moment that I realised I was one of the very few ‘career-changers’. Having worked in marketing and PR for the previous seven years, I’d never worked as a TA, let alone a teacher, and I only had two weeks’ experience in a primary school. It was a big change. Almost everyone else had a foundation degree in education or early childhood studies. They spoke a different language: not only were they fluent in pedagogic jargon and educational acronyms, but they also had an envious familiarity with day-to-day school life. Despite the odds, I was accepted and last September I began my perilous PGCE journey.
I can’t look back at myself during that first school placement – and all of the things I was utterly clueless about – without wincing. I suppose I spent most of my first week at school in a state of shock. Culture shock. Bombarded with information, I experienced generational language barriers, knowledge and technology gaps. Aside from a fortnight’s voluntary work, the last time I’d set foot in a primary school was during my own childhood. Back then we had blackboards. We didn’t even have whiteboards, let alone the interactive kind. We had landlines which weren’t wireless and we used encyclopedias for our homework. We learned about ‘magic e’ and Letterland, Clever Cat and Hairy Hat Man. Split digraphs and nonsense words were nowhere to be seen. Oh, how times have changed. There have been some amazing advances in the last two decades – so much so that the above description seems quite nostalgic.
The biggest challenge I faced was something I like to call ‘plate spinning’; the juggling act required to achieve everything expected of me. Academic assignments, practice-based research, planning, teaching, reflecting upon and evaluating lessons, getting to grips with formative and summative assessment, progress, evidencing teaching standards, ensuring that each and every one of the 30 children in my class felt supported, challenged and praised … not to mention finding time to enjoy some sort of work-life balance. I suppose I never really did get the hang of the latter.
Initially, planning took an eternity. I probably spent three hours preparing each hour-long lesson. At times, I would spend half an hour simply staring at a blank lesson proforma in horror – physically and mentally exhausted – with what can only be described as writers’ block. I would scour TES, Twinkl and Pinterest for hours on end in search of fun, engaging activities – none of which would ever quite fit the Learning Objective I had in mind.
I was working much harder than I had done in the world of marketing. It was all consuming: all day, every day, evenings and weekends. Every waking hour – and each restless night – was spent thinking about lesson plans and learning. Yes, there are decent holidays for teachers, but believe me they are well needed and truly deserved. By the time each half term rolled around I was begging for a break. I began to understand why so many teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Sadly, many are increasingly put off by the excessive workload, the bureaucratic hoop jumping, the pressures of inspection and the relentless pace of change. I’d only been in the profession six months and I couldn’t see myself keeping it up for much longer without it affecting my health.
It seems that the pressure on new teachers to be instantly ‘outstanding’ is huge and that those who struggle initially are all too often chewed up and spat out rather than nurtured and supported. Almost every cause of stress I’ve had in the classroom over the past 12 months seems somewhat irrelevant now. It’s all about perspective. Luckily for me, I had inspirational leadership and a wonderful mentor to remind me of this and to build me back up whenever I felt things were falling apart.
As teachers, it’s our job to navigate our way through successive fads and fashions and this is no easy task – especially when school curriculums, strategies and requirements appear to change at the impulsive whim of politicians and policy makers. I began to realise that the best teachers are those who make decisions about pedagogy and resources according to their own professional knowledge and experience and match that to the needs of the children with which they are currently working. If I’ve learned anything this year, it is that one approach does not suit all.
Discovering the Cambridge Primary Review during my first academic assignment was a real turning point. For me it brought together all of the professional knowledge and experience of teachers all over the UK. CPR and CPRT call for the abandoning of quick fixes and snap reforms, instead outlining key priorities for primary education and offering a long-term, sustainable vision for primary schools, grounded in evidence from real-life interviews, written submissions and extensive practice-based research.
CPR’s 12 inspirational aims are intended to shape curriculum, pedagogy and school life as a whole and, like many others, I have now adopted these in my own practice. I truly intend to inspire and excite imaginations, teaching children how to collaborate and advance their knowledge through dialogue with others. Not only do I want to help them foster skills in academic subjects, but also in communication, invention, problem-solving and human relationships. I hope to open their eyes to the different ways through which we can make sense of our world and how we each have the power to make a positive impact upon it. I want to create a classroom culture that celebrates diversity and community, sustainability and equality, embracing a philosophy that places the child at the heart of education, and where creativity is valued just as much as numeracy and literacy. Children appreciate creativity and challenge. Doing something different in lessons can make them much more exciting and engaging and I’ve learned that taking a small risk can go a long way.
‘Miss, that lesson was the best!’ beamed one of the 7-year-olds after our experiential introduction to the new Digital Gamers topic. Now, it may have been the significant amount of time playing Just Dance on the Wii, exploring BBC games on the desktop computers or navigating the Big Buzz Wire that I had allowed during this particular lesson, but I am still trying to persuade myself that it could have been the research, planning and careful-crafting of resources (not to mention the hours spent printing, sticking, cutting and laminating computer game characters for our exciting new wall display) which had made my last lesson so enjoyable.
Thankfully, it’s all becoming a bit easier now. I’ve had a whole year to try things out; keeping those that worked, letting go of those that didn’t. I’m starting to find my own style, my own voice. Even though each class is temporarily ‘on loan’, I’m developing increasing awareness of how children learn and what they need to progress. Maslow, Piaget and Vygotsky’s theories are finally becoming more tangible and meaningful.
When it came to writing our end of year reports, I derived so much pleasure from seeing the progress children had made that I knew, without doubt, that teaching was the job for me. I’m finally starting to feel like a real teacher and – with the responsibility of my own class looming in September – it’s a good job too. Next year promises to be a busy, challenging and stressful one, but if all goes to plan it’s going to be one of the most satisfying, varied and exciting ones too. As a primary school teacher, I am rewarded more every single day than I ever was as a marketing manager and as I navigate my way through my NQT year, I’ve promised myself I’ll remember this.
Sadie Phillips is a trainee teacher at the University of Plymouth. Follow her @SadiePhillips.