Throughout her time as a PGCE student at Bishop Grosseteste University (BGU) Jessica Barker has been collecting her top tips to help fellow students succeed in their efforts to become teachers.
I started writing this post way back in September and have added to it throughout my time on the PGCE course. These are some basic but helpful tips that I want to offer any upcoming PGCE students, and most of them apply more generally to trainee teachers coming from other routes into the career too. Read on and hopefully you’ll take some of this on board and find it relevant!
1. Take out a loan. Yes, you’ll end up with a little more to pay back once you’re earning, but that was inevitable after your degree anyway! The student loan can work wonders and top up your bursary to a very comfy sum. For those of you not fortunate enough to receive a bursary in the first place because our government don’t deem your specialist subject worthy of one (don’t even get me started), the loan will really help.
2. Quit your part-time job. It’s going to be so hard to balance a part-time job and the training for a full time career, which quite honestly requires all of your time and effort. Long gone are the days when you’d get home from work and could switch off from it all, you’ll now be working long into the evenings and at least one day of the weekend. Don’t let a part time job hinder your training year, take the loan out and quit your job.
3. Use your age as an advantage. This is for those of us entering into the profession straight from undergraduate, particularly if you have a baby face.
You’re entering into a school late, the kids don’t know you but they’re observant and are going to recognise that you look pretty young. The minute that somebody seems to clock on that you’re only in your early twenties is when you should start to use your age as an advantage. Kids instantly have a lot of respect for you when they feel like they can relate to you, so don’t be afraid to show them that you’re interested in some of the same things as them. There’s a real temptation to hide your youth but I’ve found that chatting to the year eight boys about Fortnite and discussing prom with the year eleven girls really has helped me to win them over. Don’t give too much away about yourself, do more listening than talking, but admit that because you’re only five to ten years older than they are, you share similar interests – they’ll start to see you as more human. Also, even though you know that actually the difference between a sixteen and a twenty-two year old isn’t that mammoth, they won’t. So they’ll still see you as a proper fully fledged adult, even though you might not feel like one yet!
4. Take snacks, water and coffee. Teaching is physically (and emotionally) draining, you can never relax because you have to remain constantly alert, so you’re using a lot more energy than your body is probably used to! It’s a good idea to take something to nibble on at break time, just to give you that boost through until lunch. Water is a good idea too because working in a school makes you prone to headaches – the bright yellow lights and the noisy kids are a winning combination for heavy eyes and a pounding head, and staying hydrated will ensure that this isn’t made any worse than it needs to be. Coffee is good at helping you feel a little more alive, particularly on dreary and dull days when you’re having to teach some of your most challenging classes! It’s also just good for socialising in the staff room, you have a reason to nip there and make yourself a drink, and you can sit and chat to everyone while you do.
5. Be professional. You’re a trainee, people are watching your every move, and that isn’t just when you’re being formally observed in the classroom. You might think the staff room is a safe place to vent about your nightmare year eight’s, but what you maybe don’t know is that Satanic Sammy’s mother is also a science teacher at the school and is sitting directly opposite you as you don him with that nickname! So avoid over-sharing, even when the other member’s of staff are chatting away about personal things, don’t get involved. You don’t want to give people any excuse to judge you. This doesn’t just apply to the things you say, but also be careful around what you do. Even if other staff members are okay rocking up to school five minutes before the bell for registration is going to ring, you can’t behave like that. It’s annoying but you’ve got to make sure you’re doing everything the “right” way, and be assured, somebody will tell you if you’re not!
6. Get involved with extra-curricular activities. As a trainee you’re not obliged to help out with book club or choir, but staff will really appreciate you offering a helping hand, and it’s a fantastic way to get to know the students. It’s nice to show that you’re taking a wider interest in the school too (and this will help you tick off Standard Eight of the Teachers Standards) so find out what there is to be getting involved with. Extra-curricular activities are fun to be a part of – they’re filled with the kids that are passionate about that activity (be it drama, reading, sport, and so on) so you don’t have to worry about bad behaviour, instead it’s a nice opportunity to see the students at their best. I ran book club at my last school, and most of you know that I’m not an avid reader, but I absolutely loved seeing the students take an interest and develop a passion for literature.
7. Have one day off a week. You’ve overloaded with work, but it’s important to have some time to yourself too. I honestly can’t remember what I did before my PGCE because while on it, 90% of my time was filled with marking, planning and teaching. I tried to have one day a week where I did something completely unrelated to teaching, and it was usually Saturday. I’d go out for a meal or to the shops, I might go for a walk if the weather was nice (sometimes ending up at the pub), I watched some TV or I wrote my blog, just anything that I fancied really. It’s so important to switch from your professional self to your personal self, and it makes you feel a lot better about life.
8. Buy personalised stamps. As a PGCE student, you’ll be sharing your classes with host teachers – this can be tough, especially on second placement. The kids are usually able to adjust to having two teachers in the classroom, often it’s the other teacher who can’t. I found on my second placement that some teachers were very reluctant to let go of their classes and still wanted to have a presence within the classroom while I was teaching, which could make it very difficult to establish myself. I bought a personalised stamp that read ‘Miss Barker says fantastic work’, and i used it whenever a student’s classwork or homework was especially impressive. This is first and foremost to give the students some recognition, but it was also for my own sake too! When they got the stamp they knew that it was me who had marked this work, which helped me to build a rapport with them. It sounds really trivial but this has helped so much, because students then reached out and thanked me for marking their book, and wanted to discuss my comments. They appreciated it and recognised that it was me who was putting in that effort.
9. Live at home if you can. This comes down to personal preference because everybody’s living situations are different, but for me, I don’t think I’d have managed this year if I didn’t live at home. Shared accommodation is something I never want to go back to and definitely couldn’t have put up with while doing my PGCE. I think I could have managed living alone this year, not in a group, but life is so much easier at home. I’m really lucky to have super supportive parents who I’m very close to, which definitely helped because I always had someone to talk to if I’d had a bit of a rubbish day. I also got all of my meals cooked for me, my pack-up was always ready for me on a morning, my bed was made if I didn’t have time to do it, and my clothes were all washed and neatly ironed! You don’t realise how much you value these things until you don’t have them, and having lived away for three years, I can see just how lucky I am. If you know you’ll get looked after at home, move back there. I get that it feels a little strange, to hundreds of children you are a teacher, and yet back home you feel like a teenager – but that’s okay! You can be responsible and professional at work, and still have your mum take care of you at home, for this year at least. Also, life is much more affordable when you live at home, and your money will stretch so much further. It’s worth considering.
10. Ask for help. So many people from my cohort quit during first placement, about a third of us just dropped out, and I was shocked. As stressful as it was and as hard as it seemed, I couldn’t believe people could just give up… then I moved to my second placement and I finally understood. Sometimes you feel under-valued, unappreciated, demoralised and even bullied… and you need to speak out. Expectations vary from school to school and while one placement might be easygoing and quite casual, another might be very strict and on top of things – if you’re struggling with the pace of it all, or if you think you aren’t good enough, you need to talk to one of your university mentors/tutors. I was having real problems at my placement school so reached out to my school based mentor and made them aware. I then received lots of additional support from the people at university and knew that as hard as the course had become, I could get through it. I ended up being removed from my second placement school and moved back to my first one, this was exactly what I needed and had wanted for a very long time. Things just didn’t work out at the second placement and it was affecting my self esteem and happiness outside of work, and because I reached out to the uni and continued to report to them whenever there was an issue, they were able to get me out of a bad situation and into a better one. Don’t be afraid to tell people that you’re not doing great, it’s better to mention it early on than wait until you feel the only option is to quit. The people at university will want to help you, it’s their job, and they will act on your behalf and make things easier if you’ll only ask.
It’s a long year full of ups and downs – sometimes with more downs than ups – but it’s worth sticking out and completing. Enter into your PGCE year with a positive mindset and face the challenges as they come to the very best of your ability. Enjoy the experience and remember it won’t last forever, the end is in sight right from the very beginning and you can do it. I really hope you found this post useful and will take some of these recommendations on board. I recently graduated from my PGCE, qualifying as an Outstanding teacher and having received two merits in both of my assignments, and will be beginning my NQT year this September, and I can’t wait.
Thank you for reading.
Jessica successfully graduated this summer and will now begin her NQT year, you can keep up to date with her progress on her blog “Life as a University Graduate”.
You can find more information on the wide range of innovative PGCE courses offered by BGU on our website. Alternatively you can contact our Enquiries Team or join us on one our Open Days to find out how to begin your journey into teaching.