Surviving your first teaching placement: 10 golden rules

Author: Andy Sammons
Published: 21/10/2019

Confident training teacher

I remember it well, arriving in the reception of my first placement school, messenger bag draped over my shoulder and a sense of trepidation in the pit of my stomach. The truth is your first placement is often tough. Until then, you’ve often had the safety blanket of lecture halls and seminar rooms. In many cases, the last time you were in a school was when you were a student. Given the pace of change in schools, it’s likely that your placement school will feel completely alien to how you remember school.

Your experience in your placement school is overwhelmingly determined by the school itself. Some schools are fantastic: they take their role in developing trainees seriously, encouraging meaningful observation, reflection and induction programmes that result in a clear grounding into school life.

If you don’t have a clear understanding of your first placement school, you run the risk of internalising loads of stuff, which can be detrimental to your own teaching self-image. Schools that deal in threat, disorder and panic (albeit inadvertently) are unlikely to have the capacity to be nurturing to someone who is only going to be there for a short amount of time.

Keeping all this in mind, your first placement is – more than anything – an orientation into modern schools. It’s a chance for you to see how a school day works: from registration routines, to entry and leaving routines in classrooms. Note that you can reflect on classrooms where routines are more and less embedded and successful. Over the course of a week, try to look at how sequences of lessons tie together to promote learning.

Of course, your mentor should be the key source of all your information in terms of timetables, resources, etc. But don’t let this preclude you from asking questions and listening to the whole range of colleagues in the building. Schools are amazing places full of incredible people.

Try not to put too much pressure on yourself. My mentor once said that the first placement is the one where you can make all your mistakes. I see the merit in this because it’s inevitable that you’ll stumble more when you’re new to something. Use your brain power to orientate yourself on how schools work, not beat yourself up. As corny as it sounds, anyone worth their salt will never, ever stop making mistakes, because the ability to learn from one’s mistakes genuinely accelerates your learning.

Here are my top ten tips for surviving your first placement:

  1. Listen to your mentor. Your mentor is, in many ways, the gatekeeper to the department. Most of the time this will be fine. But if you sense you might be struggling with this, remember to respect and learn whatever you can from your mentor.

  2. Know the school day. Even if you have to write the timings down of each lesson and break, make sure you know the structure of the school day. If you don’t, you’ll never know if you’re coming or going. Trust me, I’ve been there.

  3. Find reprographics. Find the photocopier and make it your business to find out how it works. It doesn’t hurt to smile at the person running it either; they will almost certainly save your bacon when the department copier explodes two minutes before your observation!

  4. Know your learning. Be very clear when you are observed in terms of your areas for development. You should be under no illusion of what you are purposefully practising when you are being observed. Teaching is complex. I don’t think there is any doubt that you can only improve if you practise very specific aspects over a long period of time.

  5. Use your rookie status. You’ll have lots of free time on your timetable: see if you can use it to track a student as they make their way through the school day. See what a ‘day in the life’ of a student feels like. Try and be directed to other departments in the school to see how experienced teachers operate.

  6. Nail your basics. When you receive your timetable and class lists, make your seating plans, and run them past the class teacher in terms of combinations and placings. Think about when you have classes, in terms of when your sequences of learning can flow from one to the next.

  7. Plan ahead. Know the difference between short- and medium-term planning. Ultimately, the classes you teach will be underway with a scheme of work, so you need to ask where they are in their scheme, and where they need to get to. Have an idea of your lessons without being too prescriptive. Remember, learning is messy and class needs can change and evolve over time.

  8. Reflect. You don’t need to write 1000 words of reflection every day. However, do bullet point and be mindful of things that go well and do not go well. Mindful practice is extremely powerful.

  9. Remember you are a teacher and not an entertainer. I wanted to be an entertainer in my placement, and too often this got in the way of the learning. That was my own development, I think. Remember that you are the professional in the room, and what matters is that the students go from one place to another in their learning!

  10. Be honest. Ask questions and ask for help. If you are honest, but those around you do not respond in a supportive and kind way, it says more about them than it does about you.

Andy Sammons

Andy Sammons is a teacher, writer and head of department (@andy_samm), and author of The Compassionate Teacher.