Advice for student teachers and NQTs

In recent years our department has been asked to offer teaching placements to student teachers, and my colleagues and I have acted as mentors. Clearly, in the course of these placements advice and guidance have been offered and it struck me that it might be useful to commit that advice and guidance to paper (or some electronically accessible form of communication), so it can be more easily retained by both the student and the teacher! I do apologise for the rambling nature of these notes, and please remember they are not comprehensive!

Some general advice

I should start by stating the obvious. Your teaching style will depend very largely on your personality, and so, therefore, the advice contained herein will reflect my own experience, character and thoughts. You may find these thoughts acceptable and useful, but you may not - much will depend on your own start point, but I would say that most of the students who have passed through our department have found it beneficial at least to some degree.

The cornerstone or foundation of your career in teaching is the relationship you have with your pupils. I have encountered many pupils who, for one reason or another, were never going to make much of their study of French, but who were (at the time) compelled to continue. It was particularly with these pupils that I came to realise that the way I taught was at least as important as what I taught. I fairly quickly realised that these pupils (and others!) would respond more readily to a broader and more "human" approach to learning, rather than a grammatical approach focusing purely on language learning. Challenges were still set - pupils are unlikely to respond positively if they realise their work consists of mere time-filling exercises - but considerable help might be offered in the achievement of these challenges (which offered scope for some degree of initiative, personal input and often humour). However, I also came to recognise the value of the "social education" going on "behind the scenes" and supporting the more formal attempts at language teaching. Pupils should be reasoned with and not just barked at (though I have to admit there is a place for that!). By and large reasonable people are produced by being treated with reason and humanity.

This, then, is the first tenet of teaching, in my humble opinion (though it clearly applies to any number of professions) - care and humanity.

You will also require a willingness to recognise and learn from your mistakes, determination, a willingness to be open to the use of different techniques and materials in order to gain interest and enthusiasm, and of course be able to instil fair discipline. Above all, you need to be able to talk to your pupils and treat them like human beings who are intelligent and capable of reason. You should make them feel like you take a personal interest and you know your pupils.

Be prepared - know where your pupils have been, where they are now, and where they are going. Try to foresee connections to related topics within your own subject, but also to elements of other subjects, and try to foresee questions that your pupils may have. That said, you should be prepared to abandon the strict order of your lesson plan, according to the reaction of your pupils to what you are doing with them - you may have to pursue a different direction if pupils are having difficulty. On a similar theme it is probably advisable not to overplan a lesson - lessons work best if there is room for spontaneity and development of topics which arise in the course of the class.

State the aims of the class at the beginning of the period, so pupils have a clear idea of what is expected of them.

Remind them of what they already know and point out how that fits with what they are going to learn that period.

Break the work up into small manageable chunks, with a short exercise (done orally or in written form) to ensure they have followed each chunk. Prepare these exercises with the class - point out what needs to be done in each question, perhaps even giving them notes or vocabulary to help them.

After revisiting what they already know, add the next step. Provide a clear explanation and prepare an exercise. Start with relatively simple questions and build in difficulty. At the end of the exercise, pupils could create 2 or 3 of their own sentences/descriptions. There might also be room for humour or personal comment in the questions set.

Discipline and good relationships will frequently come from good organisation. Know what you are doing, tell your pupils how to do it, and then tell them to do it for themselves.

Respect will come from recognition that you know what you are doing, are organised and can make things clear. Pupils by and large want to learn and they will respect you if they feel that they can learn with you.

Set tasks that are "do-able", revising what they already know and building on that, increasing gradually the level of difficulty you expect them to be able to cope with.

Listen if the kids have problems and revise if necessary, though it is often enough to point out that they should simply apply what has just been revised.

Ensure equality of discipline and control minor infringements rather than allow them to escalate into major incidents. Stop people chatting early on and remind them they need to concentrate. This can be done nicely, perhaps with a little humour, without getting the "offence" out of proportion. Try to remain calm and controlled in spite of light provocation - a light-hearted approach will generally be more readily accepted than going in hard from the start.

After a few minutes you might want to go over the first couple of questions of an exercise, just in case pupils have made mistakes which would then be repeated. You might also consider doing the first question together. Set a time limit for the exercise and remind them of the passing time.

Remind individuals who are causing disruption that they have a responsibility to the class, as well as to themselves, to allow learning to take place. Sometimes pupils will feign ignorance when asked a question - this should be recognised and pupils should again be reminded of their responsibilities to themselves and to others in the class.

Be in control - set limits clearly. Be sure of yourself but be reasonable.

Don't be afraid to mention miscreants by name - again this can be done light-heartedly to begin with, but stepped up if pupils refuse to take advice.

If you make a mistake and are corrected by a pupil, or see the mistake later yourself, accept it, correct yourself, laugh about it and move on - we are all human and teachers are certainly not infallible. It would be a mistake to refuse to admit it, or to feel that you will lose face by accepting you have made an error, indeed pupils may even gain more respect for you if you recognise your error and they will feel pride if they have been able to correct you (which only means you have taught them well!).

Equally, if pupils make errors there is no reason not to see the funny side. This does not mean they should be mocked for making a mistake, but if what they say is funny, that can be shared with them and hopefully they will remember their error and learn from it without being anxious or uptight about answering again.

While it is clear that the purpose of a lesson is to educate, it should be remembered that this can be done in a variety of ways and it will be all the more effective if pupils enjoy the lesson while working. Exercises can be tedious and monotonous and this can lead to lack of concentration and attention. It does no harm to share amusing anecdotes or jokes in the course of the lesson. Sometimes these can refer to events from which something can be learned, or offer background information about French culture and life. They might even just break the monotony long enough to allow the class to continue more effectively afterward. It would also be a good idea to allow pupils to contribute their stories or reactions to what you say - thus building the feeling of working together.

Subject specific advice / thoughts - French or any modern language

When I was taught French at school, we listened to a tape and followed the text in a book, which we read and then translated. I have never understood this approach as it seems to me that understanding what you are hearing and reading will render it more meaningful, so you should only ask pupils to read or listen to a text after you have worked out what it means in their native language, or have prepared the necessary vocabulary.

When I do reading comprehension with a class I usually read a passage from the text and ask a member of the class to translate it, noting vocabulary as we go. I may then ask another member of the class to read it in French.

Before doing a listening exercise I will usually do some preparatory work, looking at questions and thinking about possible answers and providing them with vocabulary which will allow pupils to follow what is going on.

Writing and speaking tasks are frequently on the same topic. Clearly you must set the general context and task - say local area. Subdivide this into smaller and more manageable sections, e.g. geography, employment and tourism. There should be discussion with the class of what they would like to be able to say within each sub section and you should provide them with the vocabulary, structures and grammatical explanations (where necessary) to allow them to say what they want to say.

In short, tell them what the job is, provide them with the tools they need to do the job, then ask them to do the job while providing the odd bit of support where needed.

When doing an exercise based on a grammar point you have just explained, start with some relatively easy examples and build up the level of complexity in the course of the exercise, allowing them to provide a few sentences of their own at the end of the exercise.

It is a good idea to ask pupils to take note of vocabulary rather than provide a handout. Many pupils do not make the necessary effort to learn vocabulary, especially from prepared sheets (which are easily lost), but the words are more likely to stick if they have concentrated on noting the words in their jotters. Clearly exceptions can be made and handouts are useful for absentees.

At Higher level, it is useful to discuss topics or themes as they arise in the course of the year and invite pupils to produce a short piece of writing on each topic (having discussed the area and produced a list of vocabulary and structures they may find helpful). This is enormously helpful in the preparation of speaking assessments and short essay preparation.

Extended Reading and Viewing is the element pupils appear to enjoy the most, and this can be developed into something much broader than the mere preparation of a 180 word writing NAB. I regularly study "Les Miserables" with my pupils and they respond very favourably to it.

Usually we begin with an outline of the story and have a brief discussion of the characters and themes.

They then see a DVD, usually the 10th anniversary concert version of the musical and we then go on to discuss the main themes and characters in some detail. Clearly there are many themes in Les Mis, but pupils find them very engaging and are generally very willing to debate them.

They will go on to choose a theme and characters they found particularly involving and they are asked to produce a short essay about them (prepared in advance). To this they add an outline and personal reaction.

Their interest in this work has led to several theatre visits, personal purchase of CDs and DVDs, and even a mini concert of songs from the show sung in class (in French).

Their notes are often useful if they decide to continue to Advanced Higher level when they have to produce a folio of work on literature or background topics.

I thank you for taking the time to read these notes and I hope you have found them of some use.

Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", "The Prisoner" (1967 TV series), "Inherit the Wind" (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.