That old back-to-school feeling

Ex-BBC man Stephen McCormack shares his thoughts on his first week as a trainee maths teacher
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So the day's arrived. And it really does feel like a new satchel, long trousers sort of occasion. The frisson of expectation and excitement, tinged with a touch of apprehension, is just like I felt at 11 when I went to big school for the first time. New teachers, new friends and will I survive?

There are just over 80 of us sitting down in a hall waiting for something to happen. "When did you graduate? What's your subject? Where are you living?" I gaze around. Most of my co-trainee teachers appear to be in their twenties, but there are enough thirty- and fortysomethings dotted around for the mid-life career-changers like me not to feel conspicuous.

A line of people sitting on chairs appears, facing us at the front of the room. They are introduced to us by a man with an Ulster accent. He is leading the whole Post Graduate Certificate of Education course and they are our subject tutors. A jolly nice bunch they seem. We are made to feel very welcome - and very rare, as an overhead projector flashes up a newspaper headline: FOUR THOUSAND TEACHER POSITIONS STILL CAN'T BE FILLED.

"Teaching children is a privilege," we're told. No dissenting body language there. The course we're embarking on is tough and demanding, but the staff will always be there to help us through. Days in college will be divided between group sessions on general teaching matters and subject-specific work in our tutor groups. There are a few mild moans when we're told that most days we'll be working until six o'clock, except from those among us who've been out in the world of work, for whom six o'clock sounds like an early finish.


The Teacher Training Agency target for the Maths PGCE course here is 25 people. That, I suppose, is the number of trainee Maths teachers that this institution should be putting through in order for the overall supply of Maths teachers to have a chance of meeting the demand out there in schools.

There are 13 of us sitting in our classroom this morning, nearly a 50-per-cent shortfall. This, despite the Government's laudable attempt to ease the financial burden of PGCE students this year. A six-grand so-called training salary isn't bad if you're 22 and haven't yet had a real job. But it hasn't tempted many more people into the profession. There must be fatter carrots out there, or jobs promising more in some way or other. Clearly the teacher shortage will get worse before it gets better. Physics recruitment is, if anything, in more trouble. Of the 20 or so students on the Science PGCE course here, there is not one single Physics graduate. Chemists yes, Biologists yes - but not one Physicist.

But I'm not here to be a doom-monger, and there's much that cheers me. On meeting my Maths colleagues, I am inspired by the talents and enthusiasm around me. Most are in their early to mid-twenties. I am one of two career-change oldies. Among our number, we have three from Ireland, one each originating from Angola and Iraq and the rest are Brits. Eight with Maths or part-Maths degrees, the others with sympathetic subjects: computer science, engineering and the like. Yes, we're sizing each other up a little, but the stronger feeling in the room is of a group relaxed in the knowledge that they're among like-minded people. Some, like me, exhibit liberation at having taken the plunge from one career into teaching, in the hope that some of the idealism and optimism will be well-founded.


Coming from journalism, a trade which aims at precision and simplification of language, I can't help myself adopting a vigilant and hostile attitude towards jargon and educational psychobabble. So far, though, there's not been much to get too hot under the collar about. OK, we've had talk of "learning outcomes" and "attainment targets" and I'm having to get used to geometry being called "shape, space and measure" and statistics going by the name of "data handling", but I'd still have difficulty writing a Daily Mail leader with the material I've encountered so far.

Today, though, there is something I can get my teeth into. It had to come, I suppose, a session on Learning Styles. The world, is, we were told, divided into people whose learning styles can be categorised, with snappy labels such as Wholist Verbalisers, Analytic Imagers and Intuitive something-or-others. After an hour or so of us being assailed by such theories, a hint of restlessness began to pervade the room, an atmosphere which surfaced explicitly when one student behind me asked when the lecturer was going to tell us what the point of all this was. We all recognise that children pick things up in different ways and we will need to consider tailoring our teaching methods to accommodate all pupils, but perhaps don't yet need to drown in psychological theory.


The maths group is getting on really well and we're starting to get to know each other more. Our first free lunchtime is spent in the nearby pub and the first discussion that emerges is about religion. Is there a God? If so, does any world religion have superior claim to that deity? Who goes to church? How often? Shouldn't we be on the RE course?

Back in college, the course is taking shape, and it's a shape that's substantially influenced by a rather weighty tome we're all going to get well acquainted with: The National Curriculum, and specifically the Maths section of it. Among the tutors, there are some with a thinly concealed animosity for this document, or rather for the way in which it was seen as being imposed on the teaching profession. But the recent revisions of it seem to have begun to wash away much of that hostility.

Ofsted, too, attracts a few barbed comments from the college staff, particularly since the college itself is about to receive a visit from a team of inspectors to look at how teachers are being trained. However, the tutors certainly don't push their views on us, nor in any way colour their lectures or tutorials in a way which might nurture prejudices in our own minds.


Our first school placements are already looming on the near horizon. Very soon we'll be spending two days a week in school and from half-term until Christmas, five days a week. Soon we'll be told which schools we're going to, and there's understandable, intense curiosity among us on where we might end up. This will be the first of two blocks of school experience and the college will try to ensure we see two different types of school. So, each student might get one single-sex school and one mixed, or one 11-16 comprehensive and one sixth form. In school, we'll have a mentor to organise which lessons we teach and give us advice and feedback on how we are doing.

Among my colleagues, two concerns are paramount: will our knowledge of our subject be solid and durable enough to enable me to teach lessons and answer questions, sometimes out of the blue, and, second, will we be able to keep order in the classroom? We've all heard stories, and some have first-hand experience, of schools and classes where chaos and worse reigns. How will we, as green new recruits, cope with that?

Well, we'll soon find out. And despite such apprehensions, we all agree that the sooner we experience the feeling of standing in front of 30 teenagers, the sooner we will know if we have made the right decision in entering what, to my mind, is the most important profession in society, bar none.

This is the first of a series of diary extracts from Stephen McCormack, who has just left the BBC to train to be a maths teacher. As a journalist, he has reported from some of the world's hottest troublespots