Tips for PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education) students
So I am three months into the nine month PGCE course. I had heard that it was tough and it certainly is but I thought it might be useful to look back on some of the expectations I had and how those have changed since I started the course as well as some of the difficulties and tips for those considering studying a PGCE.
For a start, what you have been told is true – the PGCE is a tough course.
No matter what your background – if you have zero teaching experience or fifteen years under your belt – it is a tough course.
So why is it so tough?
Obviously the reasons will vary slightly for each person but, based on my own experience and that of my course-mates, here a few things we have noticed.
The pace of the course
It is an incredibly intense, fast course so there really is no time to fall behind. As one of our lecturers said in the introductory lecture – it takes longer for someone to get pregnant and have their child.
Time management is key!
Depending on your university the structure may be slightly different but you can safely assume that most of your university sessions where they teach you what to do will be finished by Christmas. You will still have assignments and some workshops but the biggest majority of the course is spent in the schools teaching.
This brings me to the second point…
During the PGCE you will usually spend three periods of time in two different schools.
In our university we call this SBT (School based training) 1, 2 and 3. SBT 1 runs from September to December, SBT2 January –March and SBT3 April to June. SBT1 and 3 are generally spent in the same school and often the same class so you can see both your progress and the development of the pupils.
During the school placements you are fitting into someone else’s classroom and way of doing things which may or may not coincide with what you believe is good teaching.
Sometimes it is difficult to find out who you want to be as a teacher when you feel constrained by teaching in the same way as the teacher whose class you are in.
This brings me neatly to the third thing many of us have found difficult so far.
In university we learn about best practice for teaching at primary level and study a myriad of ways to deliver material, with a focus on holistic and cross-curricular approaches to education, creative teaching strategies and students taking part in hands-on activities.
Sometimes it can be difficult to reconcile this with the reality of your school placement where there is often a tighter structure to the timetable (e.g. Every class must study a minimum of 1 hour everyday for mathematics or having to cut off a great activity because the students have to go to P.E. and can only use the hall in that slot).
Schools also have different priorities and cultures and you have to teach within that culture. For example, is it school policy that lesson objectives must be explicitly taught and students must write them down in every class? Or is there a decided way of teaching a certain subject (e.g. phonics) that leaves little room for creative interpretation?
This can affect how you plan and teach your lessons, in some cases forcing you to teach in a way that you don’t feel comfortable with…which can be really frustrating when you then get criticized for attempting to copy the class teacher but falling short.
At several times our course tutors have exhorted us to keep open minds and try everything – you never know, you might find a different way of doing things that actually works better but you may never have tried because you were stuck in your ways. Or working in a certain way might reconfirm your commitment to being a different kind of teacher when you get your own class.
Either way, you just have to get on with it, giving it your best effort and keeping on top of the mountains of lesson plans you will need to write…which links to something many students have found the most difficult part of the course.
Organization. Organization. Organization.
You will generate a lot of paperwork when everything you do have to be recorded, evaluated and reflected upon.
Lesson plans will
sometimes always take longer than teaching the lesson itself and it will feel, at times, that you are fighting an uphill battle against being completely overwhelmed with all the bits of paper and where they are supposed to go.
Your file where all your paperwork is kept forms part of your assessment so a disorganized file can actually affect your grades, as well as making it more difficult to find what you need when you need it.
This has been one of the most difficult things for me to keep up-to-date with so I try to do a little bit of filing everyday after school or university and spend a good part of the weekend getting everything sorted out.
You need to find a system that works for you. For me, I have standing box files for each university subject – I simply take the paperwork I need for each day at university and file it back in the boxes as soon as I get home.
For school we are required to have a school file with all of the relevant paperwork – get this organized early on by buying more dividers, polypockets and ring reinforces than you ever thought you would need.
Things from your placement files will later provide material for a teaching portfolio so it is worth keeping things as organized as possible.
Lesson resources should be filed by topic or year level, whatever works for you, but make sure you know where to find them as nothing is more frustrating than having to make a resource again just because you can’t find it!
The same goes for computer files – make sure files are saved with clear file names in a structured fashion. It is worth auditing your files on the computer every few weeks and renaming and sorting resources – trust me when I say you will thank yourself for it later!
PGCE students are also required to maintain an online portfolio (known as Pebblepad) which will also be used during your NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) year to track your progress. More on Pebblepad later…
The last point is something that will remain an issue throughout your professional career.
A teacher’s job is never done.
You could live at school and work 24:7 and still not get everything done. So take care of yourself!
I have been struggling with sleep deprivation as I usually go to bed around midnight and have to wake up at 5.30 to get to university or school.
My school culture is a long day with most teachers in school from 7 until 7. As a trainee I have to be seen to be committed and follow this pattern, even with a 45 minute to 1 ½ hour commute each way.
It is very easy to get run-down by sleeping less, skipping meals and, of course, the kids are very generous with their germs.
If you are tired and sick you won’t be teaching to the best of your ability so put your best effort into your lesson plans and preparations but know when to stop.
Give yourself permission to relax or you can easily get stuck in a destructive cycle, which is then difficult to break when you start doing this job for real and the stakes are even higher.
These are just a few thoughts on the PGCE so far.
Has any of it matched with your experiences or expectations?
How has my experience been different from your own?