PGCE Survival Tips You Need to Know
So, you’re thinking of doing a PGCE, are you? That’s a big step! You’ll be starting on a path that helps you to give back to the community and shape the future. You should be proud of yourself! I’ve just finished my own PGCE with great grades on all of my assignments and wonderful feedback from my mentor. To be honest, I’m on cloud nine right now!
However, I’d be lying if I told you this year was easy. It absolutely wasn’t. There were times when I thought I’d burst into tears in front of the students. Other times, I was ready to throw my hands up in the air and quit.
I was so tired, but so determined to keep moving forward in my teaching journey. I had to take the time to re-evaluate who I am and what I care about. I’m not the same person I was back in September. So much has changed since then.
Now that I’m here at the end and waiting for my certificate, I’ve had the chance to reflect over the past year. There’s so much I wish I had known back then. There’s so much that I wish I could change. Then there are other things that I wouldn’t change, but I wish I had more warning about.
These things might not help me now, but they can absolutely help you. Here are some of my best tips on surviving your PGCE year, taken from personal experience.
Double-Check If You’ll Have a Bursary
So, English teachers don’t get a bursary anymore.
Well, they didn’t in September 2021 and they aren’t going to in 2022, either. It will be interesting to see if they reintroduce it next year when there are no new English teachers.
I’m a moron, though, and I looked at the 2019 bursaries before I started. I was happy with the £12k I’d get. It would help me to focus on my studies, right? Haha. I wish. Not a penny. I only got £3k in loan for the year, too. No one can live off £3k a year.
It just made me resent maths and science trainees. After all, they had £24k or £26k to play with – tax free. Plus, they get their maintenance loan on top of that!
One trainee maths teacher at my uni had the audacity to complain that it’s not fair that he’d take a “pay hit” next year when he doesn’t have his free money. He said this in front of all the English, history and other trainees who didn’t even get to dream about financial security! I’m not a violent person, but I almost was just then.
A fellow English trainee said she felt the same when she was caught in the rain on her way home one time. She was sopping wet and miserable, just to have a friend in the science department say “Just get an Uber. That’s what the bursary is for!” My teeth ground for her.
Now science teachers can claim back some of their student loan, too! I hate my life.
If you can’t afford to train out of pocket, I suggest you look at the bursary you’ll get. Your PGCE year is super expensive – more so than undergrad. So, the extra money really is needed.
Don’t Overdo It With Part-Time Work
Due to the bursary situation, I had to spend way too much of my time making money on the side. Doing your PGCE is a full-time job, so putting part-time on top of that wasn’t the best idea – for my mental or physical health.
There were times when I was working 60+ hours in a week! My time was taken up by:
- Lesson Planning
- Resource Making
- CPD and Department Time
- Reading for Uni Classes
- Uni Assignments
- Writing Blog Posts
If I could have afforded to save up the money before I started, found a higher-paying job or done a damn subject with a bursary, I wouldn’t have needed to do the things in bold. Those are the things I did to make sure I had money in the bank. They were necessary, but they made me so tired.
There were some days when I was walking around like a zombie. My tutor had already informed us that our PGCE year would be one of the hardest years in our lives, and he wasn’t wrong. Add so much work on top of that, and I felt like I would pass out at some points.
I was tutoring from Monday to Friday straight after school or uni. It would often be a rush to get through the door – or anywhere with a wifi connection (for tutoring online). The earliest I’d stop was 7:30pm. I’d do a full day of tutoring on Saturday. I had two sessions on Sunday morning. Then, I’d spend the rest of the day on lesson planning and paperwork. It was a nightmare.
If I weren’t so overworked, I’d probably have been a better teacher during the day. I’m surprised I got such good feedback, to be honest.
Please don’t do this to yourself.
Do Your PGCE Paperwork ASAP
With the time I spent on teaching, tutoring and planning lessons, I struggled to find time for my paperwork. At the beginning of the year, I didn’t upload lesson plans or mentor feedback to my portfolio when I should have. I’d take way too long to do my weekly reflections and forget about my attendance sheet completely.
Yes, most of that was because I was so short on time. I had to prioritise, and I put teaching and tutoring above all else. For me, it’s all about the students. My PGCE means nothing if I’m not making a difference.
However, there were still times when I could have absolutely completed my paperwork earlier. I can’t pretend I didn’t procrastinate at all, and I definitely could have managed the little time I had better. If I’d set aside time to do my paperwork every week, it wouldn’t have piled up on me once a month. I wouldn’t have felt as though I were drowning when my tutor checked my teaching portfolio and sent me a polite reminder.
The worst part of it all is that my tutor warned me about this. He told me not to let things pile up, but I did. That’s on me.
It’s not that I didn’t listen. I tried to. In fact, I was great at the start! Things just slowly slipped down after the first month or two.
If I had to do this whole thing again, I would take that into account. I’d make sure that I put a phone reminder on each week, so all of the work gets done. Maybe I’d book out some calendar time each week, so it wouldn’t clash with my student-booked tutoring sessions.
Always plan for paperwork.
Your Subject Knowledge Needs to Be Stellar
When it comes to teaching, subject knowledge is the key. You need to make sure you read around your subject. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it will show at some point.
The knowledge-rich curriculum is big with schools and Ofsted right now. That doesn’t mean students need to know a bunch of facts that they could use in a pub quiz. It’s about learning the information, thoughts and ideas that they need to grow and thrive in your subject. You ask yourself what a student needs to know if they want to do your subject at uni and work back. This knowledge has to be powerful and change the way they think about that subject.
How can you give students powerful knowledge if you don’t know enough about your subject?
Even without that, though, you need to know your stuff. You’ll rely on it to:
- Link different topics together.
- Help students understand what the “point” is.
- Answer questions.
- Make sure that your lessons build on one another.
- Create excellent resources.
My personal teaching bible for the year was Targeted Teaching, not just because one of the writers was my PGCE tutor. It’s also just a great starter guide and even better to go back to if you feel a little lost. In it, they talk about what’s called “metacognition” or a “cognitive apprenticeship”. You’re teaching students how to think like an expert. How can you do that if you’re not an expert yourself?
I’m lucky that my subject knowledge is good! There were times that I needed to research a grammar point or relearn how to use a semicolon, though. Doing that made me more effective.
Take the time to brush up on your subject this summer so you start on the right foot.
Own Up to Students if You Don’t Know an Answer
For me, there is nothing worse than seeing a teacher feed students the wrong information. I’ve seen it time and time again! One teacher didn’t know what a semantic field was. Another taught students the wrong definition of the word “gnarled”. They sound so confident! The thought of the next generation going around with these misconceptions? It makes me shudder.
As a trainee, though, there was little I could do. It would have been wildly inappropriate to undermine that teacher in front of their whole class. I didn’t feel like it was my place to correct an experienced English teacher after, either. I felt so bad and awkward.
There have been times when I didn’t know the answer to a question. I was tempted to answer it any old way just to look smart. In fact, I might have done it once or twice. I don’t know. If I have, I definitely corrected myself later and then removed the memory from my brain in shame.
I was just so worried that I would lose my reputation as an expert. Students would look down on me if I didn’t know, right? I’m supposed to know everything about my subject!
That’s not the case at all.
You need to make sure your subject knowledge is great, but that doesn’t mean you need to know everything. At some point, you are bound to be asked something you just don’t know.
When that happens, just own it. Tell students you don’t know. Look up a word in the dictionary. Tell them you’ll let them know later, or let them look it up themselves! This is good modelling. It teaches them what they should do if they don’t know the answer. It’s much more valuable to them than you looking like an encyclopaedia.
You Don’t Need to Do All Your PowerPoints
When I started my PGCE, I genuinely thought I had to do all my own PowerPoint presentations. I’d stay up til 1:30am some nights to make sure I could fit in tutoring and then create flashy slides for each class the next day. Was I overworking myself even more than I let on earlier? Probably. Apparently, I liked to torture myself.
I don’t know why, but for some reason, I thought I’d need to create everything from scratch for my portfolio. I had to give in lesson plans, right? Surely, that meant I had to create the whole lesson from the ground up?
No, you don’t have to do that at all. In the real world, teachers group together to make resources for their school. Each teacher will plan the lessons for one topic. Then, they will put those resources on the shared drive for everyone to use.
When I say “everyone”, I mean PGCE students and other trainees, too.
But if you’re using someone else’s lessons, how are you supposed to write a plan?
Well, you can’t just rock up to the lesson and read off a PowerPoint. You need to go through it beforehand and see if you want to tweak any of the tasks. Maybe you’d like to add a new slide or change some of the wording.
If you like it as it is, you still have to understand why you’re doing each activity and how that builds to reach the lesson objectives. You still have to take the time to work out what you’re doing when those slides are up on the screen. Teaching is much more than just reading from a PowerPoint.
That’s where the lesson plan comes in. It will keep you on track.
Some of the Best Teaching Strategies Also Cut Down Your Workload
When it comes to about March of your PGCE year, you’ll start looking for ways to cut down on your workload.
You’ll be doing all of the stuff you have had to do since the start of the year, but it will start to wear you down a little. You might have to hand in assignments or make your own scheme of work, too. I sure did. On top of that, all the jobs start coming out. You’ll take up your free time with applications and interviews. It’s a hectic time.
The good news is: you don’t have to give up being an effective teacher to reduce your workload! In fact, some of the best teaching strategies are also the best ways for students to learn.
Let me give you two examples:
- Live marking is often more effective than taking all the students’ books in to mark because it means the work is fresh in their mind and you can give them verbal feedback. Students can answer questions if they don’t understand what you mean.
- Live modelling cuts down your planning time so much because you are creating the resource in the class with the students. You don’t have to look for an example of a good essay. You can just make one right there and then. Plus, as long as you’re thinking out loud and explaining why the model is the way it is, you’re teaching the students how to think and write like an expert – step by step!
There’s no need for an extra PowerPoint slide for either of these things. You’ve just got to use a pen, a visualiser and your own expert mind. That means a lot less planning in advance!
Work smarter, not harder.
Speak Up Early if There’s a Problem
I don’t think I learnt a lot from my first PGCE mentor. She spent the first few weeks telling me my lessons were good and not giving me a great deal of feedback. Then, she randomly slapped an “area for concern” on my head for “behaviour management”. Luckily, my tutor stepped in and told her that the concern was too vague.
He also said that there needed to be a build-up of unachieved targets before you could use an area for concern. She had informed me by October that I should be experienced enough to self-reflect and write me own targets, so she wasn’t the one writing them. How could I have known that she expected me to write about behaviour? I had never heard her say such a thing. Basically, she had no leg to stand on.
How can I possibly learn from someone who doesn’t give me any strategies to improve and then shocks me with an official concern document out of the blue? I learnt more about behaviour management from other teachers I spoke to!
So, we’ve established that she wasn’t the best of mentors. Lucky for me, my second mentor was an absolute angel who pushed me so hard but held me accountable.
The problem with my first mentor was partially my fault, though. I should have spoken up sooner rather than suffering in silence. My tutor was alarmed when he found out I was writing my own targets so early! If he had known in October, he could have saved me from the stress.
Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help if you need it. Otherwise, issues will spiral out of control. They’re much easier to solve earlier on.
Students Aren’t Going to Learn Everything in a Lesson
When you are a teacher (or even a tutor), you will worry about whether you’re making a real difference to your students or not. I do it all the time. I spend a lesson doing a topic. We do lots of assessment for learning during the lesson. I sit with the students who don’t get it. Then, next lesson, I’ll do a Kahoot and it’s like I never taught them at all! It makes me feel like I’ve failed. Am I a bad teacher? Should I quit the PGCE?
That’s not fair, though. It’s not fair on me or my students.
I’m at a point in my career where I get things quite easily (when it comes to English and history, anyway). However, things weren’t always like that, though. There was a time when I’d need to learn the same thing over and over for me to truly get it. I’m only so quick at learning my subjects now because I’ve already covered the basics.
When I was at school, I remember feeling like I understood a topic fully. I was answering all the questions right and I felt ready to move on. Then, after a month or two, we’d go back to it and my knowledge was just a not-so-distant memory. That’s how our brains work. If you want to know more, read up on Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve.
No student is going to learn everything you need them to know after one lesson. Heck, they might not even learn everything in three or five! To teach well, you have to keep recalling old information and reinforcing it over and over again. The fact that they don’t remember everything for the next lesson isn’t a flaw in your teaching. It’s just how humans are.
You Will Experience Imposter Syndrome – And Not Just in Your PGCE!
On that same note, having students forget everything might lead to you getting imposter syndrome. Or, you might experience it because you don’t feel like your lesson is challenging enough. There are plenty of reasons why you might feel like that. It’s something that you will experience more than once ove your PGCE year.
For me, there’s always this little voice at the back of my head that seems to think I’m only an effective teacher if I’m always acting as the source of knowledge. It wants me to treat my class like a lecture where I speak for 1 hour and the students make notes.
That’s not going to teach them the skills they need, though, is it? It’s not going to help them to learn how to write independently. They might know everything they need to know about Macbeth’s ambition, but can they write about it? Probably not. That skill needs to be explicitly taught and reinforced.
Yes, being a lecturer works at uni. It might even work from time to time in a secondary school class – particularly if you’re teaching a very fact-heavy lesson. However, it works best at uni because students should have spent at least 7 years of their school life being taught how to use the information you give them. when they’re in year 8, though? They don’t have those skills yet. That’s what I have to keep tellung myself.
Plus, can I keep that going for the whole year? Can I prepare between 3 and 5 hours of content where I stand in front of the class and talk each day? No. I wouldn’t be an effective teacher. I’d burn out.
The lesson here is simple: we all feel imposter syndrome sometimes. Use logic to find out whether it’s justified or not.
Your PGCE is a Time to Take Risks
It can be very easy for our lessons to become samey. You find one thing that works and run with it until the students dread your lessons. It might seem like a safe bet to you, but it doesn’t help you to grow as a teacher. You’ve got to try new things because your single technique isn’t going to work for every skill students need to learn.
The good thing about your PGCE year is that it’s a chance for you to make mistakes. You aren’t going to be a perfect teacher by October. Either way, there’s going to be room for you to improve. You (should) have a mentor who will see those lessons and help you to grow. They’ll also help you to do damage control if the lesson was a failure.
With so many fail-safes in place, it would be naive not to take the opportunity to experiment with your practice. I was super nervous about experimenting at first. I’d tutored for 6 years by that point and had found some techniques that worked well. Why would I want to change them, right?
Well, in my second placement, the teacher who usually took my year 7 class gave me some tips. She prompted me to try new things that really worked for me. If I hadn’t had the courage to try, I would have never discovered the virtues of live marking.
I used the visualiser in my year 8 class. It was a little awkward, and the poem I was annotating was wonky, but it helped me to see how I could use live modelling! These two techniques are incredible.
I had a few failed experiments, too, but I was so lucky to learn from them!
Borrow Resources From Your Placement Schools For After You Leave
Teaching is collaborative. The best results come from when teachers get together and share the things they discovered in their own classes. They ask and answer questions, compare work, and make resources together.
Of course, there will be times when you have a vision that only you understand. You know your class better than anyone else, after all! But don’t underestimate the value of learning from other teachers.
That is true of using their resources, too.
As I said before, don’t feel shy about using the staff drive. It’s there for all the teachers in the department to use, including the PGCE students and other trainees. They should have been approved by the head of the department, so you know they’re up to the standards they expect.
But you might not have to give them up when you leave, either. If you’re lucky, you’ll be allowed to take it with you! Just make sure you ask before you take.
A friend of mine got a USB stick with the whole English drive on it when she left. Me? Well, the other teachers in the department told me to transfer it all to myself before I left. If they don’t say anything, just ask! The worst that can happen is they say no.
You might not even want to use the stuff in your new school. However, other teachers’ resources can be a great source of inspiration. You’re going to have at least two placements in your PGCE, which means two different insights on the same topic! It will help you in your own lesson planning in the future.
Make Friends in the Staff Room
If you want to do well in this field, you need to make friends with your colleagues.
Don’t just sit all alone on your laptop. Go to the department office or staff room. Chat to people. Ask them about their day and genuinely care about their lives. It will help to make a bond between you and your fellow teachers that will see you through the year.
During my two placements, I got so many nuggets of wisdom from the teachers around me. They shared their insight on difficult situations, helped me with behaviour management and introduced me to new theories.
Plus, they were also great for my mental health. I could go home and rant to my family about the kid who keeps acting up in class, but they wouldn’t get it like other people who taught him. Other teachers reassured me when I had imposter syndrome by sharing their own PGCE experiences. They gave me solutions on how to deal with difficult parents or unhappy students. It made my life easier.
It was nice to hear them rant and know I wasn’t alone. They spoke about situations with certain students, which helped me to depersonalise my own issues with the same kids. Like, that kid doesn’t hate me personally. They just aren’t so good at communicating. That’s good to know.
Plus, I’ll let you in on a little secret: students might not realise it, but they try to divide and conquer. If they know you’re alone with no support from other teachers, they pounce. On the other hand, if they know Mrs Smith has your back, their respect for Smith will trickle down to you.
If You Have Prior Experience, Negotiate Your Pay!
This is where I messed up. I didn’t negotiate my pay.
Don’t get me wrong! The Inner London starting salary isn’t bad at all, and I’m happy with my new school. If I had to choose between staying here or being paid an extra £2k a year, I’d choose this place every time.
When I start in September 2022, though, I will have tutored English and History for seven years. That’s more experience in the education sector than some higher-paid teachers! It’s more than quite a few of my PGCE friends who did manage to get on a higher pay band.
Not only that, but I have also taught English as a Foreign Language and almost all of my students have improved by 2 grades in their GCSEs or A-Levels. I could have tried.
Look. Teaching in the UK is not the worst job you could get. They have it much worse overseas in America, where I’ve heard stories of teachers doubling as delivery drivers to make ends meet and not being paid in the summer. We don’t do that here.
However, you will have to work many unpaid hours. You’ll have to plan lessons and mark in your own time. The periods you get off in your week just aren’t enough – you might be called to cover someone else’s lesson, too!
Plus, there’s the fact that houses just aren’t cheap anymore – or even affordable, for that matter. My next goal is to buy my own place. Get on the property ladder. When it comes to a goal like that, every little helps.
If you have any experience that makes you unique compared to other ECTs, negotiate your pay. Your experience is valuable.
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