I enrolled in a PGCE (post-graduate certificate in education) at The Institute of Education to teach English in secondary schools in 2013, having spent the previous five years coordinating non-profit youth outreach campaigns for the Department of Health and Home Office.
Nothing could have prepared me for the roller coaster that was to ensue! I had debated whether or not to apply to Teach First or for a PGCE, but a PGCE won out. In Teach First training, teachers learn on the job, going directly into state schools and earning their teaching stripes through direct contact from the outset. A PGCE is structured differently; for the first term, trainee-teachers only spend a few days in school and the rest of the time is spent studying pedagogy and working on written assignments with an allotted senior tutor. The contact hours are gradually increased (lessening the shock!) and allowing a little more time for reflection.
My first in-school placement was in a local academy school in Tulse Hill and I am hugely indebted to the English department there, who nurtured me beyond my hopes. The school was large and socio-economically and ethnically diverse. Classes were streamed, but even so the disparity of learning approaches and needs were a lot to get one’s head around when lesson planning. I had 1st generation immigrant EAL students in my class, who were being put through GCSEs with only a foundational grasp of the English language. I worked in classes where there were eight or more students with dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD. I was also faced with confronting behaviour from children who were struggling with mainstream learning or who came from troubled homes and were ‘acting out’ at school. As a result, I had to learn quickly how to tailor resources and create differentiated tasks so that each student could access lessons and feel involved. At the beginning this was hugely time-consuming, but it became much easier as I grew familiar with my students and I developed more creativity in how I approached teaching.
In both this school and in the following placement, I was met with under-confident, overwhelmed learners, who were facing the prospect of exams with heavy hearts (assessment tended to be termly and annually, as well as the obvious milestones of GCSEs and A levels). ‘Teaching to the test’ has always been something I have struggled with as a teacher, as whilst I appreciate the need to gauge where students are with their learning, I fear that this approach stifles genuine interest in the subject and places too much stress on students’ shoulders.
This predicament was an aspect of teacher training that the PGCE with the Institute of Education managed so beautifully. They encouraged us to meet ‘teaching to the test’ with flair, and taught us how to craft engaging, dare-I-say-it, FUN, lessons, using mixed media and multi-sensory teaching. Creativity knew no bounds, whether that looked like a classroom being turned into a film set, students acting as teachers, whole texts re-written and printed with illustrations and additional information in wonderful handbooks. The bank of teaching resources and ideas that we trainees accumulated as a result of our training was vast and stood us in good stead as we commenced our teaching careers in earnest.
In my second placement, I taught an A level class Shakespeare, an opportunity I had not had in my first placement, where I only taught Key Stage 3 & 4 (including GCSE). Some of my students in this class were very bright and hoping to apply to Oxford and Cambridge. Once more it was necessary to differentiate learning, this time to stretch and challenge those learners and prepare them for the rigours of Oxbridge tests and interviews. Each lesson was planned with additional tasks and optional ‘stretch’ questions to encourage more analytical thinking and sophisticated expression. The concept of having a ‘stretch’ question came from the Institute and has become a permanent feature of my teaching approach. Regardless of the level of the student, all learners should have the opportunity to be challenged and to push themselves. The PGCE training taught me to adopt this aspirational, positive way of teaching rather than use the language of lack.
Upon completing my PGCE, I went on to work in a similar school to that of my first placement. Again, I had a fantastic department that held a long-standing relationship with the Institute of Education and those ties with my original tutor and cohort remained strong for the duration of my in-school career. In that school, I was promoted to Deputy Head of English and Key Stage 3 Coordinator, but I don’t think I would have survived more than a few weeks if it was not for the excellent preparation that the PGCE gave me!
This article was written by Charlotte J, a valued tutor of Bespoke Tuition since 2016.
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