3 pieces of advice from the other side of the desk.
1. Get into schools
If there is one single piece of advice that I would give to any prospective teacher then it is this. We have all been to school and we all think we know what it is like but there is absolutely no substitute for a good stint of observation before you decide your future. By and large schools don’t change much, and teenagers don’t change much either but as a teacher you aren’t dealing with that bigger picture, you are dealing with the details of life from curricula to teenage angst.
How much school experience? Ideally at least 2 weeks. A one week block is particularly enlightening when it comes to the day to day grind of teaching, seeing the same class more than once and how they progress. Sustained observation of say an afternoon a week for a year (eg, during the final year of your degree) is also useful but a chunk of time is the best preparation. There may be opportunities through your university if you’re still studying (for example, the university college of interdisciplinary learning at the University of Manchester runs course credit placements in a module called ‘leadership of learning’).
What kind of schools? Preferably more than one and also not the one you attended yourself. A middle of the road community comprehensive is a good start as it will give a broad range of experience. Try to find out who the Head of Department is before emailing so the office doesn’t just hit the ‘delete’ button on your enquiry.
Be prepared to be surprised by what you see, your own experience of school will be unique and it is important to broaden your horizons. I went to a mixed state grammar school in the North of England, very socially mixed but with the common factor that everyone was bright and wanted to learn. Discipline issues were few and far between, hardly anyone smoked and it was a huge scandal when a girl got pregnant in the upper 6th. I trained on the GTP scheme in a community comprehensive school in the North West where you couldn’t count on parental support, a few girls a year returned in Year 10 pregnant and smokers’ corner was a break duty short straw. I didn’t send my first email or have a mobile phone until I started university, when I returned to school to teach the kids all had better phones than me and were adept at using them when they weren’t supposed to! I am glad that I had spent some time understanding different types of school before I applied for teacher training! School experience is as much about demonstrating that you know what you’re getting yourself into as it is providing experience to reflect upon.
2. Find out about the issues affecting teachers in general and teachers of chemistry in particular.
Take the initiative. If your school experience hasn’t highlighted particular issues then a quick Google search will bring up plenty. Buy a copy of the TES or browse the website. Look at the Guardian Teacher Network. Have a nosey through the Education in Chemistry and Association of Science Education websites. Interviewers are less than impressed with potential trainees who seem to have little idea of what is going on in the profession they hope to join.
Twitter is also an excellent source of information about teaching, teachers have embraced Twitter to discuss everything from government changes to curriculum to individual advice about lessons.
3. Acquaint yourself with current curricula
Even if you are a relatively young, recent graduate, it is likely something in the curriculum has changed since you were in school. It is also surprising what you will have forgotten whilst doing your degree, subject knowledge can be very much ‘use it or lose it’. My own A-level notes provided me with an excellent basis for many lessons when I first started teaching (I was very glad that they were neat and I hadn’t thrown them out!) A little bit of care and attention in this will stop you from making glaring errors in basic chemistry if you’re asked to demonstrate a sample lessons part of an interview process. The internet is full of resources, Learn Chemistry from the RSC, BBC bite size, chem revise, Knock Hardy notes…. You can probably pick up a fairly recent revision guide or textbook in your local charity book or a cheap CGP book will cover the basics for you. Most of the main exam boards have their syllabises and a range of past papers on their websites (Edexcel being the exception to this).
Of course following this advice doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get in the teacher training course. When I have interviewed potential trainees I have looked for what I describe as ‘oomph’! Unfortunately this is a kind of undefinable characteristic made up of probably 100 other characteristics.
And just to lighten the mood, here are some things said to me by potential applicants that didn’t really go down so well….
“Well I didn’t fancy teaching until I had kids myself. I mean it fits in so well with having a family.”
“I didn’t want to waste my degree.”
“I only really want to teach A-levels, because the kids have chosen to do chemistry so they’ll behave well and do all their homework.”