'It's my first lesson and I'm shaking. It's nerves'

After a distinguished career as a BBC journalist, Stephen McCormack has taken the plunge and is training to become a teacher. Now comes the moment of truth as he faces his first day in the classroom
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The Independent Online

It's the morning of the white envelopes and the scene looks like a cross between Oscars night and the day A-level results arrive. I and my 80 PGCE teacher-training colleagues have come in to find out about our first school placements: where we're going to be between half-term and Christmas. All round the room, letters are torn open and frantic eyes scan the contents for the key information.

It's the morning of the white envelopes and the scene looks like a cross between Oscars night and the day A-level results arrive. I and my 80 PGCE teacher-training colleagues have come in to find out about our first school placements: where we're going to be between half-term and Christmas. All round the room, letters are torn open and frantic eyes scan the contents for the key information.

My sheet of A4 informs me that I am to present myself at a large Home Counties mixed comprehensive near the M25. I read the address and take in a few facts; the school has getting on for 1,700 pupils - that's a small town's worth! A trainee from my college apparently went there last year, and is now teaching in the maths department, which can't be a bad sign.

Other trainees this year are bound for Inner London schools, and some even further afield than me. Work on the placements has been a round-the- clock struggle for college staff for the last few weeks, and the task has not been helped byone or two schools, at the last minute, saying they can't,after all, accommodate another trainee teacher.

It's pep-talk time. Our head tutor wants to pass on a few tips about how we should approach the teaching practice. Plan your journey, go on a dummy run if necessary, but whatever you do, don't arrive late. Dress professionally! (Do we need to be told this? I suppose experience has shown that some of us do.) And what about this final tip? Make sure you have good soap and a strong deodorant because kids can be awfully blunt if they get a whiff of... well, let's leave that sentence unfinished.

A week later

Day One at my new school, the place where I am soon to take my first Bambi-like uncertain steps in teaching. As I walk self-consciously through the main gates, I observe, thankfully, that there are no riots breaking out in the playground and, if any classrooms are on fire, I can't actually see the smoke. My college told me not to expect the red- carpet treatment, because "schools are busy places at the start of the day". So I am slightly taken aback, but well impressed, to be greeted at the front door by the Head, who is not only expecting me but knows my name.

The staff-room fills as the morning briefing session approaches. This feels and looks like a young place, full of predominantly young people; the only similarity to the collection of teachers I remember from my school days is the fact that the art teacher is the only one without a tie! The deputy-head establishes order, makes some brief announcements, and, with an efficiency and clarity lacking in many a business meeting I've been involved in, invites other senior staff to make contributions.

The detention system needs tweaking a little: "Teachers, please don't forget the orange slips. Three students have been excluded, each for two days, for rudeness to staff or bad behaviour, and will subject teachers please provide Year Heads with work for them to be getting on with during their enforced time at home."

The Head invites me and the other trainees into his office for an introductory chat. He's an instantly impressive and likeable man, proud of his East End roots, and proud of the school he leads. The catchment area is mixed: plenty of middle class, some of what used to be called stockbroker belt, but large sections, too, of council estates and areas of deprivation. This school has some very bright children, he says, and some very weak ones, too, with substantial difficulties. The exam results are well above average for a school with this demographic mix. He's a maths teacher, too, and derives just as much satisfaction by helping low-ability students get a pass at GCSE (rather than nothing at all), as he does by sending streams of 18-year-olds off to university.


Back in college, we're comparing notes on first impressions of our schools. Accounts vary wildly. There's the place where a bell rings at 12 o'clock every day in the middle of lessons so that everyone can drop what they are doing (must be interesting in the chemistry lab!) to say the angelus (a short Roman Catholic prayer). And the all-girls school where, when a fellow-trainee asked a class to introduce themselves, half of the girls informed her that they were "freaks".

Elsewhere, less amusing stories are emerging. Some classes have been observed where disorder reigns and where the f-word is casually thrown around. One colleague has refused to go back to her school, after trying to intervene in a fight, being turned on by one of the combatants, and thengetting less than satisfactory support from the next teacher to arrive. These incidents form a clear minority, but are worrying nevertheless.


College lectures, on educational theory and teaching issues, such as classroom management and lesson planning, continue two mornings a week. Some sessions inspire. During others, though, a glance round the room reveals a little doodling and gazing into space.

Today, we definitely have one of the first variety. What threatened to be a rather over-worthy and over-wordy talk on the spiritual, moral, social and cultural aspects of school life, for me, turns into a moving experience.

A senior teacher from a London school addresses us onthe wider responsibilities that schools in general, and teachers in particular, have for guiding, supporting and caring for teenagers. It can be a battle, he warns, but can prove fulfilling like no other job.

He tells us of an experience he had a few years back. One morning, he hears that the father of an 11-year-old girl has died unexpectedly. That evening is the school disco, and the girl turns up looking distraught and lost. He can think of no words to express his sympathy and support, so, impulsively, he just gives the girl a consoling hug. She moves away and, somehow, gets through the night, and on with her life.

Five years later, when the girl, along with the rest of her year, is leaving school, the teacher receives a bottle of wine as a present. On it is a card from the girl saying simply: "Thanks for giving me a hug on the day my dad died."

I am not the only one in the lecture room with a tear in my eye. And not alone, either, in feeling bolstered in my determination to work hard at the pastoral side of the job.


As part of preparing for teaching in school, we are all, in the maths group, having to give a mini lesson in college; while one teaches, the rest play the parts of appropriately aged children. I have prepared a lesson on recurring decimals, aimed at a Year 7 class, or First Year in old money. I come unstuck fairly early on over something I would never have predicted.

While I'm doing a simple subtraction of two decimals on the board, a comment from someone in the class plants a seed of confusion over the sum in my own mind. For 30 seconds I am lost, the channels of communication in my brain temporarily put through the food mixer. I might as well be attempting to recite Shakespeare in Mandarin.

Eventually, I claw my way back and continue the lesson, but the moral of the story is clear. I must prepare every last detail of what I am going to teach, and even then expect to have occasional moments when numbers spin before me.

The first lesson

The day has arrived when I am to stand in front of real children - a whole class, not a specially selected, small and compliant sample - and teach a real lesson. The chosen guinea pigs for this educational experiment are a class from Year 7. Thirty-odd (happily not 30 odd) 11-year-olds who started at the school in September and have already shown above-average maths skills.

This is the plan: in the last lesson they did areas and perimeters of rectangles, and I'm to introduce the challenge of areas and circumferences of circles, a task that entails finding out about the magic number. After a little preamble, I'm going to hand round paper and compasses, and talk them through drawing a circle of any size and then dividing the circumference by the diameter and comparing their answers. Simple.

Except half an hour before the lesson, I realise I've forgotten to bring a reel of cotton so that we can measure the circumference. After 10 minutes chasing dementedly around the school, I locate some cotton in the textiles department and head for the classroom.

Introduce myself and take the register. (Their "real" teacher is sitting at the back ready to rescue me if I flounder). Get the lesson underway. Hands shoot up as I ask questions and I try to pick out different ones each time. Most answers are there or thereabouts... but one or two are well-intentioned but just wrong. How do I respond without undermining confidence? It is a skill I haven't yet got.

Just as I am about to set them on their way with the task, I realise that I am shaking a little. Nerves. Something I remember feeling when I first broadcast live on the radio. Another sign is that I appear to be writing and rubbing off information on the board like a mad professor. The kids out there must think I've lost it.

However, the lesson proceeds just about as planned and, I think, some learning, via a bit of practical discovery, takes place. Afterwards, the teacher tells me my main fault was in firing questions and new information at the children before they had the chance to absorb and complete the previous set of instructions. A very fair point, I concede, and one I'll have plenty of opportunity to work on between now and Christmas.