It's barely 9am on a frosty Tuesday morning, and Sarah Fleming, 21, is talking about the Tooth Fairy to a cross-legged group of perky five- and six-year-olds. One of the children, in her year-one class at Raglan Infant School, Enfield, north London, says that he laid a tooth under his pillow last night. But when he checked this morning, the tooth was still there. This causes some consternation among the class, where many of the children are sporting gap-toothed smiles. "That happened to me once," sympathises one small girl. "Try again," says Sarah. "She'll probably come back tonight to collect it."
Giving judicious advice is just one of the things Sarah is learning as a newly qualified teacher, or NQT. While many of her friends are still at university, or agonising over which career-path to take, she's been teaching since September. She graduated last summer, with a BA in primary education from Canterbury Christ Church University. "I don't feel that I missed out by going straight to university and not taking a gap year," she says. "I feel really lucky that I've always known what I wanted to do. I could never have worked in an office in front of a computer all day."
During their first three terms of working in a school, newly-fledged teachers have extra support and opportunities to step up their skills. There is a lot of feedback and assessment from other teachers, who give constructive advice and make sure that the new recruits are not feeling out of their depth. At the end of the year, the NQTs are assessed to make sure they measure up to a set of national induction standards and can continue. More than 99 per cent of NQTs who have done the induction period make the grade.
There's one-to-one guidance, too. Each NQT has a mentor at the school, usually an experienced teacher, who observes lessons and gives regular feedback. "It's a complex job, so it makes sense that they get plenty of support and they don't feel thrown in at the deep end," says Helen Duggan, a spokesperson for the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), which works to improve professional training and development for school staff.
Sarah's mentor is Jude Wood, who is the assistant head teacher at Raglan Infant. For the past eight years, the motherly Wood has been responsible for the induction of rookie teachers at the school. This has meant supporting them through personal hiccups, as well as through professional issues. "In the past," she smiles, "it has been housing problems, parents, and boyfriends."
Her mentoring role involves regular meetings to help Sarah set and achieve her targets for the term. Sarah is a big fan. "I've found having Jude as a mentor really useful. You can go to her if you're unsure about something or for general advice. She's really helpful. For example, before my observation, she lent me books on the subject I'd said I was planning to teach."
Wood says part of her job is putting the brakes on eager NQTs who are so enthusiastic about their new jobs that they risk getting overwhelmed. "During the first autumn term, a lot of new teachers tend to get ill. They catch the children's coughs and sniffles, and we almost have to force them out of school because they're so keen to carry on teaching. Often, they're all-singing, all-dancing from day one. We tell them it's about trying to keep a steady pace."
This morning, after steering her frisky class through a spelling lesson that involves an action-packed rendition of the Three Little Pigs fairy tale, Sarah agrees that the job can be intense. After three years of study, she says, it took a while to get used to arriving at school at eight o'clock to set up her classroom. While the children are at school, from 10 to nine until 10 past three, she needs to be constantly on the ball, using a multitude of interactive techniques - clapping, shaking maracas, holding up colourful storyboards - to keep the children stimulated and attentive. As the class bend over their books, she cruises around the room, coaxing any wavering attention-spans back to the page, and stopping errant pencil-jabbers in their tracks. She usually stays at school long after the children go home, marking exercise books and preparing classes for the next day. And then there are weekly staff and year-group meetings to attend.
"When I got to my first half-term, I was shattered. I was taking the register and I yawned, and the teaching assistant just laughed at me," she remembers. "The children are at an age where they need your attention a lot, and even between classes I don't have much time to rest during the day - I'm usually tidying up and getting things ready for the next session. I don't really feel that I have time to go and sit down."
On top of their mentor's support, NQTs get 10 per cent of their teaching timetable set aside for time away from the classroom. Sarah has one free afternoon a week, when she takes extra training courses to hone her teaching skills. These courses are optional, so she can choose which ones she attends. They are particularly helpful, she says, because as well as picking up new tips on classroom- and behaviour-management, "you can ask specific questions that are related to your class."
Of course, in order to have an induction period in the first place, NQTs need to find a teaching job. This can prove to be difficult, especially for would-be primary school teachers, and in certain areas of the country where there are fewer teaching posts available.
"I had three job interviews," Sarah remembers. "At the first interview I went to, there were 110 applicants for one post. I was very lucky as they only interviewed 12 people. I know people I went to university with who still don't have a job."
But new teachers need not despair. Helen Duggan points to a 2005 survey, which showed that of 24,000 final year trainees surveyed, 90 per cent were employed six months after completing their training.
And Sarah says that the rewards of teaching make it absolutely worth the effort. "I can't imagine enjoying anything else as much. No other profession can give you the opportunity to make a difference to so many young people's lives."
Judging from the rapt expressions and hands raised during her lesson on the Three Little Pigs, it looks as though the pupils agree with her.