a blog about my placement experiences away from the mainstream.
When I first decided to pursue a career in teaching I saw myself at the front of my classroom, 30 children on the carpet, elaborate displays on the walls and my intricate notebooks on the interactive whiteboard. This was the classroom I had worked in. It was the classroom I’d been taught in. This was my comfort zone. This doesn’t mean I didn’t feel like a fraud at the front sometimes, but this was the classroom I knew. I didn’t imagine teaching a class of eight children with a range of needs and the support of three teaching assistants. I didn’t think about working in a class where the pupils had to empty their pockets when they arrived and eat lunch with the staff in the classroom. I didn’t think about joining in lessons with a group of grown men where the art equipment had to be counted in and out and some couldn’t use it at all. But these are the classrooms my degree has taken me to and I am so glad they did.
Although it encourages debate, challenges your values and informs your practice no amount of university teaching or reading can make up for what you experience on placement. In this blog, I talk about my placement experiences away from the mainstream. However, this is only a snapshot because as I’m sure my fellow trainees can agree I could write about my placements all day.
During my first year, I had a three-week non-assessed placement in year 2 mainstream and a six-week assessed placement in year 6.
Second year = special school. I had left my first year placement unsure what I wanted to do and this scared me. I had enrolled onto a four year teaching degree and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a teacher anymore. I had always been on the fence between mainstream and special school but this placement well and truly pushed me off the fence. I quickly knew I wanted to work in a special school (something my tutors had already figured out but chose not to tell me) and the worries about wanting to be a teacher soon faded. This doesn’t mean it was easy – it was an equally rewarding and challenging experience. I had such a supportive and brilliant class teacher who helped me find ways to teach creatively to meet the children’s diverse needs plus a dedicated mentor who was always happy to help. I adored my class and the support staff were fantastic! I had great opportunities like observing and speaking to the schools speech and language therapist. By the end of my seven weeks I found it hard to leave the children and staff I had worked with. Although I now know I want to work in a special school and for others this is not the case I would still certainly recommend visiting a special school as a trainee. You will certainly learn a lot. I took so much from this placement that has helped me during every placement since.
During my third year I had a six-week assessed placement again in year 6. An early finish to the year teaching allowed myself and my peers to go off to our experiential placements. These are self-sourced, they are not assessed and are an opportunity to explore a range of settings. I chose to visit a PRU, prison and early years department in a special school. Others visited a range of settings and some ventured abroad.
Finding out for myself. My first experiential placement was at a pupil referral unit (PRU) a type of alternative provision that supports children and young people who are unable to attend mainstream school for a number of reasons. Before visiting I didn’t know much about PRUs apart from the fact that a number of my high school peers were sent to them some because of behaviour, others because they were pregnant – some came back, others didn’t. The classes were small and the staff’s positivity was perpetual. A stand out moment during my week there was a simple game of monopoly with a group of boys. Teaching social skills, communication, patience as well as a chance for a good laugh I found myself thinking about the imbalance between the focus on academic achievement and everything else in our education system. I have heard lots of opinions on PRUs but put simply I met committed staff who have built meaningful relationships with their pupils and very honest children who are working hard to make better choices. These pupils and teachers taught me about the importance of a fresh start, whether that is in a new classroom, the next day or just the next lesson.
Last chance? Next, I visited a prison for three days, this time alongside my friend and colleague Naomi. When I told people they said I was brave, however, I never felt that I was at risk or unsafe in the classrooms. I spoke to a number of men over the few days and sometimes found it hard to believe they had been convicted of violent crimes, but, I was soon reminded when I had to go to the toilet alongside the teacher and she locked us inside. Talking to men the same age as me who haven’t been educated since primary really brought home the fact that the system often fails people. Talking to the teachers who had come from a range of backgrounds including mainstream, special and residential it was clear they were all determined to give their learners the best chance to turn their lives around. Don’t worry I’m not naive I know a number of these men will return to crime and prison and of course I did meet some who did not want to learn anything and found any excuse to leave. But, the important thing is their teachers will be there for them when they are ready to break the cycle. These teachers taught me alot about ongoing commitment and dedication.
Back to the early years. The early years felt familiar as I was a teaching assistant in the early years foundation stage (EYFS) before starting university. Here I experienced the usual continuous provision with structure where necessary alongside the seamless support of the teachers and support staff to meet the children’s additional needs. Due to there being both nursery age children and temporary travel arrangements I got to see a lot of interaction with parents. It allowed me to see how the staff had built relationships with them, found ways to support them and how they shared what was happening at school. Like all of the others settings I had visited, I left here with lots of practical advice and ideas that could be adapted and applied in a range of settings.
So what would I say to my fellow trainees? Be open to opportunities or find them for yourself! I am fortunate that my degree allows me the chance to have both mainstream and special school placements as well as experiential placements, but if your route into teaching doesn’t then why not find these experiences for yourself? When I was sourcing my experiential placements all of the settings were more than happy for me to visit and I have seen my assessed placement schools welcome ITT students to visit and observe. You won’t regret it – I promise!
Tomorrow I found out my final placement school and I will be taking what I have gained through each of these experiences with me. I can’t wait.