Optimistic, Observant and Open: What makes a successful PGCE/ ITE student?

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“Come on then, what makes someone a good PGCE student?”, I was asked by a friend during the summer break. The faces of those successful beginning teachers I’ve supported over the past few years flashed through my mind. How do you answer that question? All of those people successful, and yet so different.  Some seemingly ‘destined’ for the classroom from the start of the course, others taking a more doggedly persistent approach to acquiring and honing their craft.

This time last year I blogged about my hope that my new crop of beginning teachers would hold true to their idealistic aspirations for the year, espousing that:

“if they succeed in keeping the History at the centre and harness their own passion for the subject, then they will be well on their journey to inspire and engage and excite the young people they are fortunate enough to teach.”   

This year, I thought I would flesh out a little of the dispositions I see as ‘common threads’ running between those PGCE students who are ultimately successful in this endeavour. 

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Optimistic

I hope our beginning teachers can have an optimistic outlook and view education as an intrinsically important pursuit. 

Student teachers filled with optimism recognise the value education can bring both in terms of opening doors of opportunity for young people or in giving them the tools to understand themselves and their world more comprehensively.  They see their role in this endeavour as worthwhile and significant. They tend not to give up when the going gets tough, but to look for how it might help improve their understanding or approach.  They take ownership of their own development as teachers, seeking support and looking to their own future beyond the difficulties of now. They are able to recognise and celebrate their successes as they learn how to teach, and view their development points as a necessary route to improvement rather than a measure of their success.  They don’t write off tricky young people in their care, but strive to support them as best they can. They have ambition and a sense of possibility for who these children might become if supported effectively and holistically by the school.

Their optimism acts as a motivator.

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Observant

All beginning teachers need to be observant.  As discussed by my colleague John Perry, ‘At the University of Nottingham in the School of Education we find John Mason’s book, Researching Your Own Practice: The discipline of noticing (2001) to be particularly helpful when it comes to learning how to really notice and then make sense of the messy reality of schools’.

For the observant beginning teacher this will involve absorbing good practice and new ideas about teaching and learning.  It also means grasping what professionalism in teaching looks like through observation of colleagues modelling behaviour in the day to day.  For example, observing experienced teaching colleagues to understand tone, positioning, relationships with pupils, forms of questioning, ways of providing live feedback, provides a vivid context for the pedagogical and behaviour theory being explored in reading and university sessions.

Getting to grips with the culture and ethos of a school is another area of understanding which requires ‘observation skills’.  This comes through observing practice in that school, reading policy and reflecting, through observation, on how that works in practice.  It also involves engaging with the wider community to understand pupils and parents, a different kind of observation undertaken on the bus or whilst nipping to the corner shop. 

It also requires the student teacher to undertake observance of themselves; understanding how they change and develop through the year. Considered and purposeful reflection is a crucial part of the process. 

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Open

Finally, the common thread I observe in successful beginning teachers is openness; the willingness to have preconceptions and practice challenged and altered.

We all approach teaching with preconceptions born of our own experiences of education and the ideological perspectives inherent in our society.  PGCE students need to be prepared to approach the year with openness and humility.  They need to accept that their preconceptions and firmly held beliefs about their subject, teaching, and education at large, will be deconstructed and reassembled continually throughout their training year.  Similarly, they need to be open to receiving, listening to, and acting on feedback on their teaching practice and approaches from a range of colleagues, of differing levels of experience, in the school context (Mocklet 2011).

“Come on then, what makes someone a good PGCE student?”

Last year, one of my beginning history teachers commented that:

‘There’s no point in moaning or getting upset about [feedback given on a lesson].  I’ve just got to listen, think about what they’re saying, work out why it happened and think about what how I’ll do it differently next time’.

The answer to the question about what makes a ‘good PGCE student’ is complex – far more complex than I’ve been able to outline in this brief blog post.  Yet, if my friend were to ask me this question again, the dispositions of optimism, observance and openness would certainly frame part of my response.  These are ‘dispositions’ the quoted student had in abundance.  This is why he is now ‘well on [his] journey to inspire and engage and excite the young people [he is] fortunate enough to teach’.

References

Mason, J. (2001) Researching Your Own Practice: The discipline of noticing, Routledge.  

Mockler, N. (2011) Becoming and ‘being’ a teacher: Understanding teacher professional identity. In N. Mockler & J. Sachs (Eds.), Rethinking educational practice through reflexive inquiry (pp. 123–138). Dordrecht

Perry J. (2019) Becoming a Teacher of English Blog, https://uonenglishteachertraining.wordpress.com/2019/09/13/becoming-a-teacher-of-english/

Tait, M. (2008), Resilience as a Contributor to Novice Teacher Success, Commitment, and Retention, Teacher Education Quarterly, Fall 2008.

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