Saturday, 24 December 2016
Chapter 2 Teacher training
I can’t say it was all fun and frolics in Le Havre – there were some difficult and lonely periods as well, but it was my first lengthy experience of independence and I learned a lot about myself, others and how to get on with people. It also had the effect of making me tire of academia. I had had a taste of freedom, responsibility and participation in the world of work, and that made my return to student life (with its instruction, deadlines and imposed structure) all the more difficult to bear. I did what I had to do in my final year at university, but I certainly felt the need to move on. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life, so I started applying for anything that vaguely took my fancy. I no longer remember the detail but I do recall that I put in some 27 applications, including one for teacher training at Moray House in Edinburgh.
My application was somewhat half-hearted. I only had to think back to some of the experiences of my own teachers to understand why this was the case, though I did enjoy my time as an assistant in France (even if I realised I wasn’t a “real” teacher), and that was why I applied.
Apparently, that year (1980) was the first time candidates were called to interview and I duly presented myself for interview in March.
It didn’t go particularly well. I did not shine. I was acutely aware of potential discipline problems and although I had got on well in Le Havre, I was only too well aware that the style of teaching I adopted in France was not what would be expected of an “official” teacher in a Scottish secondary school.
My two interviewers did not introduce themselves, appeared to simply go through the motions and did little to put me at my ease. I can recall little detail, but their questions were dull and uninspired while my responses were equally mundane and revealed little flair or enthusiasm. The low point came toward the end when I was asked how I would deal with a difficult second year class last period on a Friday. Rather predictably, I came out with some advantages of learning a language which they instantly and rather dismissively rejected as “far too philosophical”. I snapped back, asking what they would do, and they suggested giving the class comics to read or games to play – something simple and undemanding that wouldn’t cause ripples.
I would later recognise the wisdom of that strategy (or more substantial variations of it – it’s never that simple), but at the time it seemed to me they were expecting an insight I couldn’t possibly have, or if this was something I should have known then I was not what they were looking for and I didn’t have what it took to become a “proper” teacher.
In any case I gave up on the idea of a career in teaching, a decision confirmed by the letter of rejection I received a few weeks later.
Shortly afterwards I obtained my degree and wanted to find a summer job, since a more permanent position wasn’t in the offing, to keep me going. I replied to an advert seeking teachers of English for foreign students at a summer school in Edinburgh (thinking my experience and informal approach as an assistant might suit their requirements), and I got the job!
I was able to apply the same strategies as I used in France – I was friendly, open, willing to share thoughts and experiences and I used music, books and personal input to try to engage students’ interest. We also went on trips to St Andrews, local tourist sites (Edinburgh Castle, Tantallon Castle), the cinema, and I even acted as a barman at a leaving party.
It was altogether a successful time which was eventually extended to include the following Easter and summer periods.
However, I still didn’t have a permanent job and my time with the Edinburgh language school was due to come to an end in September.
Just as I was becoming anxious and started to wonder just what I was going to do, I received a phone call at the beginning of October from Moray House offering me a place on the PGCE course (Postgraduate Certificate in Education, leading to a teaching qualification for secondary education)! One of their students had dropped out and I was next on their list! Naturally I was delighted to accept, especially after my successful time with the language school. I was aware I was a second choice, but at least I had something to aim at and I could give it my best shot.
My recollections of classes at Moray House are fairly vague. There were classes on legal aspects of the profession, and social aspects involving raising awareness of various potential problems and situations, and awareness also of your own response to these problems and situations. Of course, there were also classes on teaching your subject, but these seemed to consist largely of recollections from our tutor rather than structured lessons on how to go about teaching a class, dealing with form, content and behaviour. There were broad suggestions, but little in the way of concrete ideas or advice. On the other hand, so much depends on the particular composition of a class – age, ability range, interest, conduct, background knowledge and, of course, the relationship with the teacher, I suppose it was difficult to generalise and cover all eventualities.
Half the time was spent on placement in local schools, and I much preferred that element. I attended three very different schools and gained something from each.
My first placement school was very near where I lived. It was a fairly large secondary school and the pupils were very mixed. The school as a whole, and the department where I was placed, were highly organised but fairly cold. There was little rapport between pupils and teachers. It was efficient and productive but rather stolid. The distinct distance between pupil and teacher made me fairly uncomfortable as I was used to trying to build a bond with students in order to engage and involve them, but it seemed to me that this establishment was too regimented for that. Indeed, I was told I was being “too nice” to pupils, including some who actually turned to me for help with homework rather than go to their “proper” teacher, presumably because they felt I was more approachable, yet I was being told this was not the way forward.
I left that school with serious misgivings about my place in such a rigid and disciplined environment – I felt it just wasn’t for me.
My second placement was a little farther away but was still within easy travelling distance from home. After my previous experience, I was more than a little anxious about what awaited me.
The first lesson I learned from my second placement is that each school has its own atmosphere and “feel”.
Here the staff were firm but friendly and fair. They entered into conversation with pupils and there was a warmth in their relationships, though there was a clear line not to be crossed. I was delighted and felt much more at home in this environment. My attempts at engagement with pupils met with approval and I even received praise for my teaching of a difficult grammar point. This was something of a breakthrough for me in that I felt I was making progress as a teacher, and it led to the development of a strategy I’ve used time and time again ever since – break down the point you’re covering into its component parts, revise what may be familiar and ensure understanding of these parts, then build up understanding of each new element until knowledge is complete and pupils are able to apply what they have understood.
All told, a much happier experience and one which gave me hope for the future!
My third placement was in a much more modern and avant-garde establishment. Here, pupils were encouraged to be responsible for their own learning – a modern and laudable policy, but in this school it was interpreted by pupils as meaning they had a choice in terms of attendance, focus and concentration. There was considerable variation in teaching methodologies and levels of discipline, but at its worst, there was informality taken to the point of disrespect and lack of responsibility which appeared to do no-one any good.
So, I had seen three distinct variations on the theme of education. I was fairly unhappy with the restrictive practices of the first, encouraged by the less formal but effective policies of the second, and left perplexed and anxious by the apparent lack of structure and effectiveness of the third.
Although I preferred a less formal and cordial approach, I recognised the need for limits. I hoped that being reasonable with people would produce reasonable behaviour, but I had to accept that not everyone was open to reason and a certain level of discipline had to be imposed – for everyone’s benefit.
Of course, all of this was academic and of no importance unless I managed to find a job. Toward the end of the year we all embarked on the process of finding employment, which was going to be particularly difficult for me (my tutors kindly pointed out) as I had only one language to offer while all my fellow teaching students had two. It appears it was principally on that basis that I was initially rejected – nothing to do with my weak responses to my interviewers’ questions!
Thus, it was with something of a heavy heart that I took part in what was called “The Milk Round” toward the end of the session. This consisted of a set of preliminary interviews (not job offers) at Moray House with representatives of all the local authorities or regions in Scotland. Their purpose was to establish the chances of gaining employment in each authority and therefore whether it was worth applying to them.
I attended interviews/conversations with representatives of several authorities (which existed at the time), including Central, Lothian and Strathclyde. In each conversation, I was told politely (yet indifferently) there were few posts coming up for Modern Languages teachers, and what few there were would go to those with more than one language.
A sense of hopelessness fell over me. It was clear that every authority was going to say the same thing. What was I going to do?
As I was walking along a corridor, I came across a door with a sign saying “Highland” above it. I actually walked past it, asking myself what was the point. However, emboldened by a feeling of pointlessness and thinking I had nothing to lose, I turned around, put my head in the open doorway and, vaguely aware of four gentlemen, one in each corner of the room, I called out quite cheerily but hiding a sense of desperation, “Don’t suppose you have any jobs for French teachers, do you?”.
Three of them shook their heads sorrowfully and said no, but the fourth in the corner diagonally opposite the door called back, “Come over and we’ll have a chat.”
After a millisecond of raised hope, I realised the chap was simply going through the motions, probably because he was bored and would rather chat to someone for a few minutes at least than just leaf through some papers for the umpteenth time.
And so, he asked the usual questions about what subjects I did, where I had studied and for how long. Then, however, he asked what Moray House thought of me. I answered honestly as I was sure I wouldn’t be seeing him again – that I was OK, but nothing special. He then asked me what I thought of Moray House, so I told him about the strengths and about the weaknesses I perceived in their course. Finally, he asked how I felt about working in schools, and I was able to tell him I vastly preferred that aspect of the course to any other, and that I particularly enjoyed being with young people.
Mr Alan Forsyth, Education Manager for Easter Ross, smiled benevolently, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I think I can offer you a post at Invergordon Academy.”
Stunned does not cover it. “A job? You’re offering me a job?”, I asked in a somewhat high-pitched and disbelieving tone. He confirmed it. I couldn’t believe my ears. This was not supposed to happen – these were not job interviews as such and in any case, I was the last person they would want! Of course, it was true, and I discovered the following day that I (the most unlikely candidate) was the only one of our class to be offered a job.
I rather arrogantly asked to visit the school before finally accepting (I’ll put that down to shock), but there was never any doubt about my acceptance.
All I had to do now was find out just where Invergordon was! It transpires it was some 200 miles north of my home, but that was of no importance – I was just relieved to have found a job.