School Experience – What are the benefits and how should you get it?
Nearly all of us have direct experience of being in a school – in fact we have spent a huge chunk of our lives at school. So why is it still incredibly useful to get some ‘school experience’ before you apply to become a teacher? Even if you are an undergraduate, and were at school in the last three or four years, then don’t underestimate the value of getting school experience.
Seeing school life from a teacher’s perspective.
When you visit a school as a prospective teacher, you will be seeing the classroom from a different perspective from when you were a pupil. You will usually be sat observing, or moving round the classroom and assisting pupils with their work. You will get your first taste of what it is like to be a teacher, and hopefully you will get to see some great teaching in practice. You will get to spend time in the staff room or workroom and to see what teachers really do behind the scenes. If you are changing career, then you might find that a lot has changed since you were at school, and it will be good to get a more up to date perspective.
Is teaching for you?
School experience should give you a better feel for teaching as a career, and help you decide whether you want to make your application. Teaching is a practical profession, and is learnt mostly by actually being in the classroom. This means that it can be really helpful to get some hands on experience – it can be harder to make your decision just by reading websites or even by talking to teachers you know.
How much school experience should I get?
There is no minimum requirement before you make your application – but try and get as much as is practically possible for you. The more time you spend in school, the more you will learn. This will help you in making your decision about becoming a teacher, but it will also give you more to talk about at your interview, and will also make the transition easier once you do start your teacher training. If you are changing careers then you have to be realistic – you may only be able to take a limited amount of annual leave while you visit a school. On the other hand some undergraduates can get more regular experience which they can fit in with their studies.
How should I go about getting school experience?
There are lots of different ways to organise experience in a school. Here a few to try depending on your situation:
- If you are a current student then make the most of structured opportunities organised by your university. Most universities/maths departments will be involved in secondary school experience programmes, often as part of an undergraduate module.
- If you are at university, whay not try the DfE's Teaching Internship in mathematics. A teaching internship gives you the opportunity to spend 3 weeks in a school and find out what teaching is really like. You’ll experience being in a classroom, gain new skills, and be paid £300 per week.
- Think about your contacts – do you have friends or family who work in a school? They could help put you in touch with the Head of Maths, even if they don’t teach maths themselves.
- Many people contact their old school, particularly if they still live close. This will have the added awe factor of going behind the scenes in your old stomping ground, and the school may also be more receptive to helping a former pupil. This option may not suit everyone.
- If you have to ‘cold call’ a school, then try and ring up rather than sending an e-mail to a generic address. Schools are busy places and the office staff will help direct your contact to the relevant person.
- Apply for the School Experience Programme run by the Department for Education.
- Other volunteering can be beneficial – for example helping with Scouts and Guides. This might not be school experience as such, however it will still be useful experience of working with young people.
- Some people choose to spend time employed in a school as a cover supervisor or teaching assistant, or in another supporting role. There is certainly no requirement for you to do this, however it suits some people depending on their circumstances, and can give an in-depth insight into working in a school. (Although working in these roles will be very different from working as a teacher.)
What should you do when you are in school?
Most Heads of Maths will give you a timetable for you to follow while you are in school. This could include observing maths teachers teach a range of abilities and age groups. If you are there longer you may also get to observe other subjects which could give you a feel for the school as a whole. There may also be chances to join a form time, assembly, or extra-curricular activity. It will also be helpful to spend some time in the staffroom chatting informally with other teachers. You may also be given an opportunity to sit down with the Head of Maths or an experienced teacher and ask any questions which you may have as a result of your visit.
Occasionally a school may be unable to accommodate a visit – depending on the pressures for the school at that particular point in time. Don’t be disheartened – look for another school to contact. Exam season can also be particularly busy, so be flexible with your availability.
Plan your visit well in advance. Many schools will need you to complete a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check which could take time. Planning ahead will also give your host teachers more time to arrange your timetable and speak to teachers in their department.
Double check the dress code before you arrive – even though you are only observing, it is really important that you dress appropriately. Another practicality is parking – make sure you ask about where you should park your car, as some schools are incredibly tight on space.
Don’t forget to say thank-you! Most teachers who arrange school experience do it because they love teaching and genuinely want to help the next generation of teachers. It is however an extra thing for them to think about in their week – respect the time commitment they have given you and don’t forget to say thanks. (All chocolate appreciated!)
And finally, don’t forget to enjoy your school experience. It is going to be completely different from your normal week, regardless of whether you are an undergraduate or career changer who works in an office. It should be an experience to remember, and hopefully will leave you wanting more!