I'm slowly starting to settle into my probation year as a secondary computing science teacher and it's got me reflecting a lot about everything I learned whilst on school placement as I start to find my feet and learn a lot about my own teaching style and values. It also just happens to be around that time of year where many student teachers are getting ready to head out on their first school placement so this seems like the perfect time to share some tips to surviving and getting the most out of school placement, because let me tell you - it goes in so fast!
So for all of my teachers in training, no matter what stage you are at, here are some of the nuggets of knowledge and tricks that I picked up during my PGDE year that might be useful to you too.
1. Do not, and I mean do not, compare yourself to others!
This is possibly one of the hardest pieces of advice to take on board and really follow and I'm definitely guilty of doing this every now and then. It is so easy to look at all the other students on your training course and start comparing the stage they are at to where you are and this vicious cycle can sometimes leaving you doubting yourself or feeling like you're not good enough.
Let's not do that! Everyone will take their own time to learn and develop and reach milestones and that is absolutely fine. Everyone is coming into the teacher training programme with different experiences and backgrounds so some areas of teaching and learning will click into place a little faster for different people.
If you ever feel like you're getting to that stage, take a step back and try listing the barriers you have overcome and the things you are proud of. At the end of the day, you will be able to speak to your school mentor and university tutor about your progress and they will be sure to support you with reaching those milestones at a speed that works for you.
2. Explore opportunities outside the department you are working in
It can be so easy to get settled into your school placement and find yourself interacting only with the staff in your own department. As awkward as it might feel initially, try your best to get to know other staff members and explore what's happening across the school community. Whether that's extracurricular clubs that different departments are running or school wide initiatives, it all helps with getting to know what your students are seeing and interacting with as they go between different classes.
You also never know what kind of tips and ideas you will pick up from observing different subjects and how you can try that out in your own lessons, it's a win-win!
3. If you can, shadow a student or a class for a full day
Following on from my second point, try and get the chance to shadow a student or a class for a full day. Some training programmes ask you to do that in the first placement and sometimes it's optional but I would highly recommend arranging an opportunity for you to do it.
After shadowing some students for a day, I had my eyes open to what it's like being a student in high school again. It was tiring moving around to different rooms and having to adapt to different routines and expectations based on the teacher leading the lesson. It really helped me to appreciate why my students were so tired when they got to me at certain times of the day or realise how important it is to make my getting ready routine for the start of a lesson crystal clear and simple to follow.
4. There will be lessons that flop or don't go to plan and there always will be
Teaching can be unpredictable and chaotic, you never quite know what's going to come through those doors or what mood your class will be in. So much of teaching is about being able to adapt to these situations and that can be really tricky.
And sometimes, lessons just don't go to plan. That isn't something that teachers in training face, that's something that all teachers face. Throughout the rest of your teaching career, there will be good lessons and other lessons that might fall over and not work out the way you imagined. And that's absolutely fine, the important thing is that instead of beating yourself up about the not so great lessons, you take the time to reflect afterwards and think about what you would do differently next time.
For example, I know that I will be delivering the same lesson to all 4 of my S1 classes and the first time I deliver that new lesson, there might be issues with my plan and after each lesson, I tweak little parts so that next time it runs a little smoother or I look at different ways to explain concepts that students respond well to.
The important thing is that you keep looking to learn and build on your skills whilst getting to know your classes and learning what works well for the students in your classroom.
5. Don't be afraid to ask for help
There's a lot to learn about when you're on school placement and it's only natural that you will have questions or sometimes not feel confident about what you are doing. And whilst sometimes you might feel like you don't want to bombard your mentor with questions, it's always better to ask instead of bottle it all up. Besides, there's usually someone else in the group who is wondering the same thing!
Get to know the others on your course and lean on each other to work through problems you're facing and share resources, don't always try to re-invent the wheel.
And anytime you feel like things are getting too much, take time to sit down with your mentor at school and talk to them. There are plans that can be put into place to support you with working towards your provisional teaching license and nobody will think less of you because you need a little more help with something. Look at it from the opposite perspective, as a teacher you would want to know when your students were struggling or feeling overwhelmed. As tough as it can be, speak up and ask for help!
6. Share your own ideas with the department you are working with
Lots of schools love having student teachers come in for placements because not only do they get a chance to share some of their teaching practice with you but they also enjoy learning about some of the ideas and resources that you have come across so far that they maybe haven't seen before.
Don't be afraid to share resources or ideas with your department and if you feel up for it, get stuck in with some curriculum design with some suggestions for activities.
7. Look at feedback reflectively and not critically
Another tough piece of advice but so worth it once you can look at feedback as something to help you and not make you feel bad about yourself. This also links back to the point about accepting that not every lesson will be fantastic and there will be things to learn from every lesson that you deliver.
Feedback is a really important part of helping you to grow as a teacher and think about different approaches to teaching. But often we look at feedback as negativity or criticism and you can see that from talking to students in school. So many of us focus on the negatives and don't celebrate the positives or achievements enough.
Make sure whenever you're talking about feedback with your mentor or writing a reflective self-assessment, you do take the time to really consider the things that did go well and what you are proud of. Then look at where there is room for improvement and think about what you can do to explore improving that part of your lesson.
8. Go outside of your comfort zone and try different things
It is so easy to fall into repeating the same routine with your classes once you find something that works and you are comfortable with. But once you have had enough time and gotten comfortable with one approach, use your time on school placement to try something totally different and see how it feels and fits in with your teaching style.
For example, if you have gotten really comfortable with using slides to deliver your lessons, why not try delivering a lesson with only 3-4 slides and using the whiteboard to support the materials on your slides. You might find that different approaches work best for different types of lessons or classes but all of that experience is helping you to get used to delivering to classes and means you are more likely to be able to adapt if you have to.
9. Don't leave all of the admin tasks to the last minute
There's no avoiding that as part of the teacher training year, there is a lot of admin and paperwork that has to be done each week to document your journey and progress as a teacher. I wouldn't describe it as enjoyable but it's part of the requirements so has to be done.
It can be so easy to avoid doing the paperwork and putting it off but trust me on this, try your best to stay on top of it. Set aside a couple of hours each week to update the documents that you have and that way it doesn't turn into a mountain of paperwork that you need to make sure is done before your university tutor visits you on placement because there are much more important things you will want to focus on in the run up to observations.
10. Remember to take some time out for yourself
Your teacher training year is a lot of hard work and can be draining at times. That's why, as difficult as it can be sometimes, it's so important that you set aside plenty of time each week to do something for yourself that is not related to teaching or school. I know that is so much easier said than done and it's something I've been working on since starting my probation year but it just isn't sustainable if you are working all the time and always thinking about school.
Do not feel guilty about taking that time out so go on, book that yoga session or pick up that book you started reading before placement started and enjoy it.