While I was living out in Lyon, my oldest friend was doing her PGCE. She likened it to a year-long driving test – and that analogy rang true for me when I did my PGDE (the Scottish equivalent of the PGCE) this year.
You see, while you’re training there’s always a colleague at the back of the room – just like there’s always someone in the passenger seat accompanying a learner driver. They observe you in action, and provide feedback to help you hone your skills. You reflect on how your lesson went (some will be total car-crashes, others will feel more like a trip in Mr Weasley’s Flying Ford Anglia) and identify which aspect(s) of your practice you need to work on. Little by little, you gain confidence and competence behind the wheel (or stood in front of thirty-odd teenagers, as the case may be).
And then, just like that, the course finishes. Placement 3, done and dusted. The last assignments submitted. You pass. Next time you stand up in front of a class, there’ll be no one* observing you day in day out (which is both exciting and terrifying).
*There are a handful of observed lessons across the year.
I’ve found the PGDE nerve-wracking (it’s essay-based, and exams always went better for me than essays), exhausting (I was guilty of late-night lesson planning on more than one occasion) and exhilarating (can anything beat the time a class stayed after the bell to finish a game because they were so invested in it?) in equal measure. For the past ten or so months, it’s been a huge part of my life – and yet I’ve shared little of the experience (mostly because blogging in general slipped onto the backburner for months at a time). Without further ado, here’s an A-Z of the PGDE – with the caveat that this represents my experience, and may or may not overlap with yours.
A is for… always learning, be it via MOOCs* (I’ve completed three this year: Learning for a Sustainable Future; Global Education for Teachers; and Foundations of Spanish for Global Communication), CLPL** on language pedagogies and topics such as decolonising the curriculum, or informal conversations with colleagues.
*Massive Open Online Courses, provided by the likes of FutureLearn and edX in partnership with leading universities
**Career-Long Professional Learning
B is for… balance. Balancing (sometimes conflicting) priorities. Balancing work and play. Balancing perspectives. For me, teaching is a balancing act which provides constant challenge but rich rewards.
C is for… conflicted curriculum. I still feel very torn between the flexible BGE and the exam-driven, formulaic Senior Phase, which a peer on my Curriculum Plus 2 module described as “reducing a whole discipline to a set of formulas for passing exams”. This resonated strongly with me, as I saw first-hand how students were attempting to learn presentations and job applications off by heart for their exams. I still find it difficult to reconcile the predictable exam format with the unpredictability of language in the real world.
D is for… discussion with fellow PGDE MFL-ers. Often over a cuppa. Usually via Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Teams (but in person where possible). I found having this space to decompress and discuss the highs and lows of placement invaluable, and the resource-sharing that came with it sparked new ideas for activities along the way.
E is for… #edutwitter. For a long time I thought, what do I need yet another social media account for? Yes, there’s a lot of utter trite on Twitter. But there’s also a community of teachers sharing ideas, resources and tips, and that’s well worth being part of. (If you’re a languages teacher, #mfltwitterati is a good starting point.)
F is for… feedback, without which there wouldn’t be progress.
G is for… growth, which is incremental and hard to see in the moment. When I compare start-of-Placement 1-me to end-of-Placement 3-me, I can see how far I have come and how much I have learnt from those around me.
H is for… having high expectations of all students, no matter their background or perceived ability level. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because this shows students that even if others don’t believe in them, you do. I saw the effect this could have on students, particularly those that had been earmarked as “lower ability”, in my first placement and it was transformative. When you make it clear to students that you believe they can do it, they believe in themselves that little bit more.
I is for… infectious enthusiasm. I think if there were to be a recipe for the ideal teacher (though I use the word ‘ideal’ with caution), a good dollop of infectious enthusiasm for their subject would be on the ingredients list. If you’re enthusiastic about what you’re teaching, chances are students will be too. Conversely, if you start with ‘I know this is a bit boring, but…’, students will switch off (I would too, in their shoes).
J is for… judgement – and specifically, judging when to move on to a new activity so as to keep the pace up. A tricky one, especially in the early stages of getting to know a class as it’s only by the end of a placement that you really begin to feel that you know the individuals in the room and what works best for them. Here’s hoping this’ll be easier once I have my own classes…
K is for… kindness. Treat yourself with the same level of kindness you extend to others. If you don’t look after yourself, you’ll burn yourself out and be in no position to support others (i.e. your pupils and colleagues). When I contacted a friend and former colleague and asked for her advice on work/life balance before starting the PGDE, she came back to me with: LEAVE ONE DAY AT THE WEEKEND FREE. (Her use of caps, not mine.) Gold dust. Teaching can consume you if you let it. Don’t. Make time for yourself and for doing all the weird and wonderful things that make you tick.
L is for… lesson planning, which has a tendency to expand to fill the time available. I’m still working on setting boundaries for this.
M is for… mistakes, of which I made many (see waiting for silence below). When I was a student, I was terrified of making mistakes. Over the past few years, but particularly over the course of the three school placements, I’ve come to appreciate how mistakes provide the catalyst for learning and development. (Side note: Elizabeth Day’s book How to Fail is an entertaining and thought-provoking read on this topic. I’ve only just started listening to her podcast.)
N is for… new beginnings. Adapting quickly to new teams and ways of working in Placements 1 and 2/3 has given me more confidence going forward into the TIS* and I’m looking forward to the next chapter in West Lothian.
*Teacher Induction Scheme. In Scotland, the TIS provides “a guaranteed one-year training post in a local authority to every eligible student graduating with a teaching qualification from one of Scotland’s universities” (GTCS, no date).
O is for… open-mindedness. And also… optimism, without which we would forever be stuck in the world that is, rather than creating the world that could be.
P is for… pétanque. A rather niche entry, but one of my fondest memories of Placement 3. I was introducing sports with jouer and faire to my S1s (who are twelve/thirteen years old). (A quick crash course in the French verb jouer: sports that you play and that involve a ball take jouer, with the structure jouer au + sport, e.g. je joue au tennis = I play tennis. Pétanque is the exception to the rule: it’s je joue à la pétanque = I play boules.) The colleague whose class I was taking happened to have a child-friendly set of boules at home, and brought it in. Five keen beans arrived at lunchtime for a game of pétanque in the corridor, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Q is for… questions. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve sent a message on a group chat that started “Silly question, but…”. There’s almost always someone else who’s been wondering the exact same thing. If you have a question, ask it.
R is for… respect, which is the foundation for effective teaching and learning. It’s not enough for students to respect teachers; teachers must also respect their students.
S is for… self-belief. I’ve learnt a lot this year about the Scottish education system, the ins and outs of Curriculum for Excellence and approaches to teaching, but most of all I’ve learnt to have faith in myself.
T is for… trust, which ties in with respect. It also encompasses thoughtfulness: if students can see you genuinely care about them (as individuals, and not a sea of faces) and their learning, this helps build trust.
U is for… (feeling) uncomfortable, which is part and parcel of challenging my existing beliefs and biases. Still working on unpicking those. My Curriculum Plus 2 module has been particularly helpful for exposing me to debates and systemic issues in education, and providing a framework for navigating these.
V is for… valuing everyone’s input. Creating a learning environment in which every student feels they belong and that their contribution will be valued takes time, but is worth the effort expended. Enough said.
W is for… waiting for silence, which is harder than expected. Conversations with mentors helped me to understand that by not insisting on silence, I was undermining myself as I was giving students the impression that low-level chat while I was talking was acceptable. I should have persevered and waited for total silence, as however uncomfortable it felt in the here-and-now it would have paid dividends in the long run.
X is for… (e)xtra-curricular. On Placements 2 and 3, I helped out at Breakfast Club once a week and my department’s after-school weekly homework drop-in. I found that seeing pupils in a different context helped me to build stronger relationships with them.
Y is for… you be you. When you start out, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling as though you should be a carbon-copy of a more experienced colleague. Take all the opportunities that come your way to observe others in action, then pick and mix strategies. Keep the bits that work for you. (I loved one colleague’s “registration conversation” routine, for example.) Ditch those that don’t. (Shouting at pupils just isn’t my style, so I didn’t even go there.) But above all, be yourself. Difference is a good thing.
Z is for… zzzs, which were much-needed when the course finished.
For those who teach or have taught, I’d love to hear if you saw flashes of your own experience in this. For those aspiring to teach, I hope this fires you up for what will be an intense but immensely rewarding year.