Things I wish they’d told me.

I graduated with a PGCE from The University of Bristol  in 2011. Here’s five things I wish they’d told me.

1. Just because things are shiny and new, it doesn’t mean the kids learn more.

OK. Maybe I’m slightly exaggerating here. I was never explicitly told that just by making things appear sparkly and laced with a ‘new’ piece of technology that the kids would learn more. But the PGCE class certainly seemed to think this way, me included. Perhaps what’s more disappointing is that we were never explicitly told otherwise.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to recall our PGCE ‘showcase’ session, where each student in the cohort showcased an element of their practice they felt would be interesting / valuable to others. I remember delivering a less than inspiring 20 minute session on accents and how I thought we could encourage students to write in standard English whilst maintaining their beautiful Bristolian twangs. I was blown away by other people’s efforts though. Shiny. Technological. Resources galore. One of my peers showed us an incredible video that he’d made as an engaging starter. I was in awe. In fact, that summer I spent ages creating my own video – blending carefully selected pop-music tracks with romantic imagery to help introduce a ‘Relationships’ themed poetry anthology. It was going to be a great starter. Until I couldn’t get it to work on the school computers.

Why at the time wasn’t I able to recognise that spending two (or more) hours on a starter is ridiculous? Why was I so desperate to incorporate technology for technology sake? Maybe it was inexperience, but maybe we should have spent more time actually exploring how useful our ‘showcasing efforts’ really were.

2. Teaching Phonics isn’t evil.

Despite being an English teacher, I consider my knowledge of phonics teaching to be incredibly poor. We didn’t actually learn about it at Uni, we were just made aware that teaching reading through phonics completely undermines the nature of ‘meaning’. We read a lot about this as well – a lot of Literature supporting the same point. Yes, we knew a lot about why Synthetic Phonics was wrong, without really being told what it was or how it is used in Primary Schools.

I still don’t really know enough about phonics – but I don’t think it’s evil anymore. Luckily there’s plenty of people on Twitter who are much better informed than me, debating the ideas I was never really properly introduced to. In particular I’ve found @HeatherBellaF‘s phonics posts incredibly informative

3. Inclusion doesn’t mean every child will be fine in your class, all the time.

I clearly remember leaving my PGCE believing that permanent exclusions were ghastly and to be avoided at all costs. I remember being adamant that special schools shouldn’t really exist, and that if we were doing education properly in the UK, every single child would simply attend their local school, whatever their needs.

Again, I won’t claim to be an expert on
Special Educational Needs, and I guess that’s the point. I’m actually not trained enough, skilled enough, knowledgeable enough to teach any child. Thankfully other teachers are, in a variety of alternative provisions.

I’ve also seen, met, and taught students that have been excluded for their continual, serious misbehavior, something that would have been inconceivable to me after leaving my PGCE. I don’t know what has happened to all of these children having left my school. But a few of them have popped back in, and the transformation has been remarkable. One particular boy, after attending a ‘studio school’ for two years stopped by my classroom for a chat at the end of last year. I couldn’t believe how much happier he was outside of mainstream, and how much more he had achieved since being excluded.

My views on inclusion also coloured my views on behaviour management. I use to think sending a pupil out meant that I’d failed. I use to take poor behaviour to heart – always feeling that somehow my lesson had failed. I now think more about the majority of my classes who want to learn, want to listen and want to attend lessons without disruption. Sure, I would rather the students prone to disruption stayed in the class. But, If I have to send people out, it’s without the same feelings of guilt and failure.

Nancy Gedge’s three recent posts on inclusion are excellent.

4. Group-work isn’t necessarily the holy grail.

My main essay for the’Educational and Professional Studies’ unit’ was entitled How do Teachers Secure the Benefits of Group-Work. 

Here’s the first part of my abstract:

During my time at University, or at placement schools, I am always grateful for the company and advice of fellow trainees. We discuss lesson ideas, share experiences and where possible, share aspects of good practice. There is one particular aspect of teacher practice however, that is guaranteed to be met with unanimous acclamation – the use of group work. Intuitively, we all feel there are huge benefits to group work. It allows students to build relationships, to cooperate, to learn together and seems to represent an ideal of classroom organisation.

Whatever your opinions on group-work, it’s hard to ignore how obviously biased the abstract is. The title itself is ridiculously presumptuous. Someone should have intervened.

The assignment aside, I do remember clearly being convinced that group-work was unquestionably the best way to learn. There was an almost in-joke with my PGCE fellows that we would always ‘pull out the group-work’ for an observation – you know, because it’s the most impressive thing to do. We all used it in our interview lessons too, or said we did anyway. I wish someone had just said to me plainly, that group work’s all well and good, but you shouldn’t feel like a failure if kids work on their own. Individual work is fine. They don’t need to talk. They might even prefer working that way.

5. Student Voice can be absolutely dreadful.

In one of my placement schools, there was a whole school drive on group-work. It had been decided that this was the best way students learn, and we weren’t doing it often enough. Alarmingly, this decision was made based on a student questionnaire, where students picked how they learnt best from a range of options. I didn’t bat an eyelid at the time.

Why oh why did I think that students were the best judges of the learning process? I’m a teacher with 4 years experience, and I’m not even sure I understand it particularly well.

Don’t get me wrong, I like listening to my students. I’ve even been know toy ask them to review my teaching at the end of a term. But would I use student voice to make huge decisions like lesson planning and curriculum design? Absolutely not.

I know that there’s plenty of routes into teaching, and teacher training is constantly under scrutiny.I still look back on my PGCSE fondly. I left feeling prepared to be a teacher. Yet, I can’t help feeling that hearing these messages would have prepared me even further. I wonder if anyone else’s training experiences were similar?

7 thoughts on “Things I wish they’d told me.

  1. But don’t be too hard on yourself, David – or your trainers! I’ve been around the world of education enough to know that ideas and trends come and go, and I’m sure that some of the things we currently rate may well be discredited at some point in the future.

    The important thing is that we keep thinking, discussing and learning from experience. No teacher training programme can prepare you completely. No leadership training (at any level) can mean you’ve cracked it until you get in there and do the job and learn from the process. I’m a great believer in Robert Quinn’s phrase ‘We build the bridge as we walk on it’. Keep walking, keep building, keep reflecting and sharing your views! It’s a fantastic journey!

    • Hi Jill,

      Thanks very much for your kind and thoughtful comment. Of course, you’re right to say that there are trends in teaching – I’m fairly inexperienced but even I’ve seen things come and go out of fashion (mini plenaries might be a good example of this!)

      I also wouldn’t want to be appear too disparaging about my trainers. I really do have fond memories of my PGCE and learnt a great deal thanks to their knowledge and dedication. I think much of what I wrote about was a product of the collective opinions / biases of the cohort together, not necessarily the feelings of our trainers. I imagine there’s only so much you can cover in the brief time we actually spent at University.

      Thanks for reading!


      • Interesting to think about, though. I’m going to be involved with on-the-job trainees as part of the new HMC Teacher Training initiative, and it’s making me consider how best we can prepare them.

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