I handed in my PhD thesis at the University of Oggsford in September 2015 and needed something to do afterwards. In the preceding year I had applied for many post-doctoral fellowships and jobs but hadn’t been successful with any of them (perhaps because of not having my PhD yet, not being good enough, or because my heart simply wasn’t in them). The only application that came back positively was a Post Graduate Certificate in Education for teaching secondary school religious studies in Cambridge. I had applied for this because teaching was one of the things I was considering doing and because I needed to be in Cambridge where my wife was going to start a PhD of her own. So I started the PGCE.
I found the PGCE course to be extremely hard work. It was not as intellectually challenging as a doctorate, but it was much more emotionally, physically and logistically challenging, because of the sheer workload, the interpersonal pressure and the variety of demands it places upon its entrants. What was more, for some of it I was preparing for my doctoral viva and then writing my minor corrections for my thesis around the PGCE work, and my wife also had some difficult health problems during it. Thankfully, by the grace of God I still managed to pass the course. So perhaps I have some helpful things to say to add to the other online resources out there about surviving a PGCE. In case this is true, her are my top ten tips for surviving one, for anyone to whom this might be helpful or who might be interested.
TOP TEN TIPS FOR SURVIVING A PGCE:
- ABANDON PERFECTIONISM
If you try to do everything perfectly during teacher training, you will be up until at least 4am each night and lose your life to it. Efficiency is the name of the game now. This will be good preparation for actual teaching as well. When what you’re doing has reached the standard of ‘good’, stop. You will hear professional teachers in secondary schools repeat this adage many, many times. If you are a perfectionist or have been a perfectionist in areas of academic study prior to teaching schoolchildren and you carry over this attitude into it, you will suffer. Allocate time to task; do task to best of ability; stop task and leave it there.
- EMBRACE PROFESSIONALISM
“Professional” = a word that when used in the workplace designates or justifies acting like an up-tight, anal-retentive robot. But seriously, the sooner you start treating the whole thing like a job, the better. You will go into the course and school in the right mind-set and understand much better all the expectations that will be placed on you. PGCE ‘student’ is a misleading term. Think of it more like starting a very full-on job of about 48-54 hours a week. At the same time, getting this clear will help with point 3…
- REST WELL
Sure teaching is a “vocation”, but the original meaning of the word “vocation” is “a calling from God”. And God wants you to rest, just like he did on the seventh day. God doesn’t want you to have no work/life balance. If you stick to the first two points properly, you can still have a life outside of the PGCE and teaching. Keep to good boundaries. If you plan all your work out properly then you can do it. Suggestions, for e.g., include: Don’t work beyond 7pm; take at least one day off a week; keep spending time with people and doing things that you enjoy and that refresh you.
- STEAL EVERYTHING
Plan like a magpie; teach like a beast. This year, lesson planning will be the bane of your existence. Teaching training students are expected to plan all of their own lessons with original resources, whereas actual teachers collaborate, use lots of other people’s lessons and have forgotten how long this process takes, especially when you have no clue how to do it. Solution? Thieve. Pilfer. Raid. Go on TES online and search for your lesson topic—someone else out there has already taught it much better than you. Find other communities of teachers where they share resources. Use the other trainees in your year for ideas and help.
- GROW A VERY THICK SKIN VERY QUICKLY
You will constantly be given “constructive” criticism on a teacher training course. For some people this is fine, but for overachievers with huge superegos, like most successful graduates from Russel Group Universities, it can be crippling. Learn to focus, very intently, on the positives and not to let the multitudinous “helpful suggestions” get to you too much. Take the “What Went Wells” to heart and let the “Even Better Ifs” go to your head, rather than the other way around.
- READ THE PGCE HANDBOOK AND WORK OUT EXACTLY WHAT YOU NEED TO DO TO PASS
This will not always be immediately clear because the Faculty, different lecturers and different schools will all say different things. But if you look and think carefully then you can work it out. There is enough guidance and scaffolding on the course to show you exactly what hoops you have to jump through in order to get the qualification, including for the academic assignments. It is a teaching course being taught by teachers, after all. Remember that these are all pass/fail—you will not be given a mark for anything on the course.
Realise that if you simply get to the end of the course and have ticked the bare minimum of all the appropriate boxes, you will get a teaching qualification. Research has been done to show that this is the case for almost all teaching training courses. It is as much about testing your robustness, resilience and adaptability as your teaching prowess, if not more. Think about how much time the assessors have to look at different things, how thoroughly different things you do will be checked, whether and when the OFSTED inspectors for the course are coming in. Not everything that you will be asked to do will be helpful or possible for you to do, or will even be checked up on. Therefore, prioritise.
- START USING SANCTIONS AND REWARDS IN SCHOOL ASAP
All teacher trainees, and teachers, worry about behaviour management. This is probably because of the primal fear hanging over from earlier evolutionary days of being overrun and beaten to death by a herd of 30 aggressive children. Some of best behaviour management tools involve punishing bad behaviour with your school’s sanctions and positively reinforcing good behaviour with your school’s reward system. It’s basically like training dogs. The sooner you start doing these things the better.
- MAKE A LIST OF TEACHING STRATEGIES
You will come across a huge variety of teaching strategies in your lesson observations and lectures. Write them all down! Then add to the list/spreadsheet/spider diagram throughout the year. This will be extremely valuable to you. When you sit down to plan a lesson, you can look at your activities bank and quickly pick what you are going to do in the lesson and give yourself a skeleton to hang the content on.
- MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE PEOPLE ON YOUR COURSE AND PLACEMENT
You should make friends with them anyway because they are interesting and cool people. But also: You are going to be with these people for what will seem like a very long time. See them as your fellow soldiers in the trenches. If you irritate or take offence at someone on the first day, you are going to have a difficult placement. This is your working community of encouragement, your source of support and comic relief in school, your lift sharers, your comrades who are the only other people going through the same horrific experience of protracted torture as you are.
- FIND WHAT YOU LOVE ABOUT TEACHING, LAUGH AT KIDS WHEN THEY’RE FUNNY, LAUGH AT YOURSELF, BE PRESENT, ACTUALLY ENJOY IT!
Several tips rolled into one, but the basic message is: Make sure you actually enjoy it! You may feel like you are just barely surviving, surfing from one anxiety crisis to the next, getting through by the skin of your teeth, but why does it have to be like this? Stop, breathe, be mindful and take the time to notice that you are in front of a group of kids, teaching them about something interesting, and they are coming back at you with incredibly imaginative, hilarious and unique responses! Don’t miss the joy of it.
Stumbled upon this and found it helpful? Want to protest, agree, add? Let me know in the comments.