AFTER the first week of the three-month teaching practicum which was part of their teacher education training, one of the teacher trainees looked a little worn out and said somewhat breathlessly, “I didn’t know teaching would be this challenging ... my four years of teacher education didn’t prepare me for this”.
“In fact,” she continued a little ruefully, “nothing I learnt in university can be applied to the set of students I am teaching now”.
It was admittedly a little dramatic but having been there ourselves, the more senior teachers tried to mask our smiles.
“Welcome to the real teaching world,” someone said.
“You have a long, long way to go,” said another teacher who had been teaching for 30 years and was near retirement.
The same thoughts would have gone through most of our heads but thankfully no one retorted: “If you at your age are exhausted after a mere one week of teaching with just two classes to handle and 10 teaching periods, what about we senior teachers who have been in the service for 20 years or longer with a much bigger workload, and having to balance both career and families?”
The sense of indignation that lingers around most staffrooms seemed to creep up once again to remind us of our “griping rights”.
What about us, when we first started out some 20 years ago?
We were not handed a complete manual of teaching with detailed instructions on how to deal with our students, school, colleagues, extra- curricular activities and all the other things pertaining to teaching.
We were not told what to do in classes where prescribed text-books or curriculums simply could not be used.
Along the way we learnt how to adapt, modify and adjust although at times extreme adaptations and major revisions needed to be done in order to reach the students we were responsible for.
This we did not learn during our own teacher training days. Perhaps we should have. Neither were we given pointers on how as novice teachers, we had to settle into a staffroom full of older and more experienced teachers.
They were not always sympathetic. Some were too busy worrying about their own duties to take time off and listen to a fresh teacher’s concerns and doubts.
We learnt it on our own, though at times it seemed as if we were groping in the dark.
We had our fair share of bruises and stumbles but we managed to pull ourselves up. There was no one to show us the way, to take us by the hand and lead us through the first tentative steps of teaching.
So why shouldn’t they, the new generation of teachers learn through the school of hard knocks as we did?
There’s no sense in mollycoddling them. After all, experience is the best teacher, even for teachers.
There is I suppose a fair amount of justification in the senior teachers’ reasons for their less than enthusiastic responses when it comes to helping novice teachers find their foothold in the teaching scene.
Their own workload by comparison is much heavier and they hardly have time to complete their own teaching duties let alone do voluntary “mentoring” work for new teachers.
While teacher education programmes in institutes of higher learning do expose their undergraduates or teacher trainees to the various teaching methods, pedagogy, education philosophies and classroom management among other things, they can never completely prepare you for the real world of teaching.
The truth is nothing actually prepares you for teaching but teaching itself.
They cannot for instance teach you how to deal with the student who cries every time you ask her why she hasn’t finished her homework assignment.
Nothing during teacher education prepares you to deal with students who sleep through your entire lesson despite your best attempts to wake them up, simply because they had spent the entire night working.
Nothing also prepares you to deal with situations where your best planned and prepared lessons don’t work due to situations beyond your control like technical glitches in the school resource room or simply because your students haven’t reached the minimum competency required for that level.
There are times when novice teachers have confessed they have actually shed a tear or two in private after a lesson which had been so carefully and painstakingly planned, had gone dreadfully wrong due to reasons not of their own.
These are times perhaps when experience really has to be the best teacher and novice teachers or teacher trainees can draw comfort from the fact that things like this happen frequently to most teachers.
This is why a teacher always needs to have Plan B at the back of her mind.
But even plan B comes with the knowledge that is acquired through experience, the “what to do if” situations that can never be entirely taught by theory or the best crafted teacher pedagogy courses.
It can only be acquired through the daily grind of teaching accompanied by the hits and misses.
It would of course not hurt at all, if senior teachers remember the situation of these younger teacher trainees even though they may be just temporary members of the teaching staff.
These few months or weeks of their practicum would actually be their first real taste of the school scene and a representation of what is in store for them once they qualify.
Nuggets of wisdom
And as it is with so many other things, they are indeed most vulnerable at this stage, eager to learn and probably would consider whatever words of advice or exhortation from a senior teacher as nuggets of wisdom from a “guru”, from one who has travelled the road before them.
There are of course less than pleasant stories that come from both sides.
We sometimes hear comments from the senior teachers that bear an almost accusatory tone, about these trainee teachers being either completely clueless or unable to manage the classes they have been allotted.
Another commonly heard concern from teachers whose classes are being temporarily taught by the trainees is about how they are “afraid to give their classes over to the trainees because they will not be able to teach them properly”.
On the other hand, there are teachers who think trainees are their own private property on loan to them for the entire duration of their practicum, and therefore they are entitled to get them to do every task or duty that they themselves are responsible for.
But what is usually the case is that we are more or less indifferent to their presence unless they are actually assigned to us to mentor or to co-teach in a particular class. If they belong to another subject option, the indifference is even more marked.
If you are a trainee teacher doing your practicum for the first time, chances are that launching out and testing your teaching wings may turn out to be a bit of a shock at times, when you realise that the real classroom hardly fits the image of what you had come to expect during your training day. Occasionally you may even return home with singed wings.
Many things may be strange and new to you and you may feel even more nervous and less sure of yourself than the students you have to teach.
The thing to remember is to be professional and be aware that there are behavioural expectations from you as a trainee teacher.
So be respectful of everyone including your colleagues, senior teachers, administrators and non-teaching staff.
Be organised, dress appropriately and always be punctual. Do not expect perfection either from yourself or from others.
There will be days when you feel like a failure and days when you feel like a champion and as the days proceed, the days that you feel like a champion will begin to outnumber the other not-so-great days.
Some senior teachers will be kind to you, some will just ignore you and others may for whatever private reason of their own, resent your presence.
But when it’s all said and done, you will find your own niche, experience your own joy in teaching and draw from it, the same kind of fulfilment that has spurred countless generations of teachers before you.