If you’re not already a teaching assistant or providing cover lessons, it can be quite difficult to get into a school, let alone experience what it’s like to be in a classroom. You’ll know, though, how crucial it is to gain this classroom experience prior to applying for Initial Teacher Education if you’ve been keeping up with the Hardly Hamilton blog. However, that advice only applies to normal times. If you’re reading this in 2020, don’t worry if you’ve not had any classroom experience. UK schools are closed to a huge chunk of students and the nation is in Lockdown, so you won’t be expected to rock up to interview having spent weeks in schools.
Besides, if you’ve secured an interview or position without experience, your provider must see mountains of potential within you.
If you’re reading this after schools have reopened and normality has resumed then, first off, hello from the past. How is the future doing? If you’re wondering how to go about getting experience in a classroom without committing to a paid position, like that of a TA, then you’ve come to the right blog post. Here’s how I did it:
Observe someone you know
Some people will tell you that it’s not about what you know; it’s about who you know. This has been the case for celebrities for a frustratingly long time and, unfortunately, can often be the case for us normies, too. It’s true for teaching, and it’s the easiest way to get experience observing a class.
I was lucky enough to have a cousin as the Head of History at a school local to my family home. All it took was a quick text or two and he’d arranged for me to come in for a week. If you follow this route, though, you’d be wise to get in touch with plenty of time to spare before applying for a PGCE. My cousin had to jump through hoops to ensure I was registered on their visitor’s system, and there were countless other admin issues that he didn’t bore me with, so the whole process wasn’t exactly instant.
Observe someone you don’t
Once you’ve exhausted all of your nepotistic options, your next course of action is to email every single school in your local area, requesting to observe a subject for 3 days or so. Any longer is unnecessary, unless you’re interested in getting more than just a feel for how this school operates.
It might also feel unwarranted emailing every school, since you really only need to spend time in 3 or 4 of them. Unfortunately, because of how busy schools can be, not everyone is going to reply to you; at least 3 of the ones I got in touch with never responded. Emailing every school will at least heighten your chances of getting in to observe a classroom.
Observe a school open day
Some schools won’t take anybody on to observe a subject, because, as I was told, ‘so many applicants don’t follow through with their applications’. Instead, they may offer so-called open days, where a limited number of potential ITE trainees are invited for a day to experience life in a school. I attended one of these and was put into a variety of situations. For example, I was able to observe multiple classes and planned and delivered a lesson to one Year 7 class alongside another applicant – this being in spite of our total lack of experience.
While on the one hand daunting, being thrown into the ring was also a terrific hands-on experience of school life. It may have only been for one half-day, but as an opportunity it was different enough to broaden my experiences. It gave me plenty to discuss in my personal statement and when I was called to interview.
I mentioned earlier that you should observe 3 or 4 schools but, in reality, this number is completely arbitrary. I observed at these schools because they were all totally different; put simply, two were just fine, one was a fantastic grammar and the final one was the typical ‘problematic’ school.
I learned a lot from all four experiences, but the most important one was that the problematic school wasn’t actually that problematic; quite the opposite, in fact. It wasn’t in a great area, for sure, and the behaviour and performances by the students, as well as the OFSTED facts and figures, were worse than in the other schools that I observed. But while I was expecting an awful experience, it was surprisingly pleasant. The kids whose behaviour was dreadful were few and far between, the facilities were fantastic and, from what I could tell, the teaching quality was superb.
This is why, when the UK isn’t in Lockdown, you should get as much experience as you can prior to joining the profession. As well as confirming that you definitely want to become a teacher, on top of all the other reasons that you can read here, observing a good variety of schools will do wonders for dispelling stereotypes that you may have picked up about the job from the news or from your own personal prior experience.