most of them taken in
growing or in the
illusion of it
— R. S. Thomas, Selected Poems 1946-1968
Some recent blogs on PGCEs, QTS and initial teacher training led me to reflect on the practicalities of how I became a teacher.
Generally speaking, it takes two years to become a qualified teacher, by whichever route you choose (PGCE + QTS, Teach First or Schools Direct). Opinions vary as to how long it will take you to become a good teacher, although it is generally agreed that this is not an automatic process. (‘Good’ according to whom is a question I will leave to one side for this post.)
From my own experience, I would venture to make the risky generalisation that good teachers are not born, they are not made (in the sense of being manufactured on an assembly line); rather, good teachers are grown.
I entered the profession some 20+ years ago via the near-universal (at the time) PGCE route. To be honest, I wasn’t driven by any sense of vocation aside from a hazy idea that another year of uni would be kind of nice (ooh – and a bursary too, thank you so much). As I recall, the course had two school placements: a short one (of two weeks) and a long one (of — wait for it — six weeks).
The rest of the time was passed pleasantly on campus, sometimes attending lectures on educational theory and philosophy, and other times having useful (and sometimes not-so-useful) small class tutorials on the stuff of actual Physics teaching. I regret to say that I was often more focused on drama society productions and going to the pub than on my studies and placements.
Nevertheless, I passed. I don’t know how, but I passed. And I managed (again, God knows how) to get my first job. It was as a Physics teacher at a small rural comprehensive. I won’t say in which part of the UK, except that there were so many Mr Jones’s that we had to be distinguished by referencing our teaching subject. I was “Mr Jones Physics”.
And I was rubbish. I couldn’t control a class to save my life, my planning was abysmal (when I actually did any), and I spent most of each lesson shouting at students (well, at least all that drama society stuff was put to some use after all) in increasingly desperate attempts to get them to copy stuff off the blackboard (one of those old style ones where the writing surface was a looped belt that you used chalk to write on). Without a doubt, the present-day me would have fired the then-me without a second thought.
Surprisingly, I still made it through my probationary year (the prehistoric version of QTS), although with my ears ringing with a stern admonition to mark my students’ books more often.
What saved me? An inspirational Head of Science who — wonder of wonders — saw some teaching potential in me. He unselfishly gave me the lion’s share of A-level Physics teaching. Gradually, in the relative calm of an A-level class, I learned how to communicate my knowledge of Physics to students in a useful way. I learned how to talk with rather than at or down to students. I learned how to control a class using the maxim “It’s not the severity of a sanction that matters, it’s the certainty.” And, sometime near the beginning of my second year of teaching I remember a lesson with a Y10 group when I had the shocking thought “Hey, I’m enjoying this!” I became confident enough to write and develop my own teaching resources. I started getting positive feedback from students. I learned techniques and strategies to help students across the ability range. And . . . well, I was hooked.
So: fast-forward to today. Am I a good teacher? Hell, yes, I think so. A-level Physics take-up at my school has never been so healthy. Results are above the school average and improving. Ex-students occasionally write to me saying how much they enjoyed learning in my classes. A student gets up at the end of the final lesson before the exams to shake my hand and say “Thanks for being a great Physics teacher!” A young woman says that she persevered to the end of A2 Physics simply because “It’s so rare to a teacher who is so passionate about his subject.” (PS — I’m not making any of this stuff up, honest; blowing my own trumpet does not come easily to me, but I think I need this to give some perspective on what follows. Plus I need to counter some of the steady drip-drip-drip of SLT negativity.)
The point is: it wasn’t the PGCE or QTS* process per se that made me into a good teacher. It was time, good guidance and inspiring examples from colleagues and friends and — most importantly of all — learning that I, myself, wanted to do this well and putting the hours into thinking about teaching, planning lessons, developing teaching sequences and ways of communicating concepts and — perhaps most importantly of all — learning about how important it is to know about children’s possible misconceptions in order to effectively teach (thank you, Rosalind Driver and her colleagues for this research).
So if PGCE and QTS-equivalent did not, by my own admission, turn me into a good teacher, should they be dispensed with?
Absolutely not. I believe that QTS is the “Goons’ Cambridge tie” (see below) of the teaching profession. It is the minimum standard. It is the line drawn in the sand: to be a teacher you have to do this and this and this*. And to an extent, anybody who wants it can get it (assuming they do the necessary work, of course). It is the necessary first step.
So far, I have not heard an argument that convinces me that QTS is a major obstacle to outside experts entering the classroom. As far as I can tell, all such arguments are obfuscatory justifications for cost cutting by way of employing temporary or transient staff.
Teaching looks easy but is actually much harder than it looks. Unless a person is willing to “buy the tie”, so to speak, I do not think they will develop the classroom expertise that students need and (usually) respond so warmly to.
Do take a seat with the other applicants.
Thank you. I sat down next to a man wearing a brass deerstalker, white cricket boots, and a shredded cardboard wig.
Don’t tell me you’re applying for the post of announcer?
Oh, yeah! And I’ll get it too, you’ll see! I’m wearing a Cambridge tie!
You? You were at Cambridge?
What were you doing there?
Buying a tie.
The Goon Show, “The Greenslade Story”
* Ridiculously oversimplified, I know. My apologies to all those who have had to assemble multiple ringbinders of evidence for the QTS standards.