Advice to those starting Initial Teacher Training

There is charming film called, ‘Lost in translation’ in which two well-informed Americans find themselves on an extended stay in the heart of Tokyo. The story explores their stuttering attempts to engage with Japanese culture, which – on the surface, mirrors the brash technological and commercial image of America, but beneath reflects a profoundly different sensibility, language, social order and pace.
This reflects my own experience of training to be a maths teacher at a local school in Hertfordshire. I thought I had a good understanding of what it means to teach and what it would take to explain maths to students having observed my own children at school and having been a student, albeit many years ago. In fact, any sense of familiarity was lost in the first few days in school as I realised that, like our Americans, the underlying nature of modern maths teaching and modern maths students is, in fact, a complex unfamiliar language.
I thought that the wording, and formal nature of maths, would provide a common framework for understanding. Not so. As I stumbled through my early lessons I peppered my explanations with terms like, ‘product’, ‘numerator’, ’expression’, ‘evaluate’, ‘simplify’, ‘sketch’ and ‘solve’, ‘real’, ‘turning point’ and added to the confusing by drawing implied arrows, three dotted ‘therefores’, compressing division onto one line and rounded it off with time-consuming PowerPoint animations. Needless to say, if I had used Japanese it might have been more useful. It took a term of sage, patient feedback from my mentor for me to learn to use the language of a maths teacher and not the language of maths.
The nature of teaching itself proved even more confusing. The University lectures explain ‘Behaviour for Learning’ and ‘Classroom Management’ and my own observations provided a sense of order and familiarity.  Naively I thought some element of this would translate into practice when I stood at the front as the teacher and began my lesson. Not so. Students respond to their teacher not a teacher. Their teacher has developed 32 individual relationships and one class relationship with a unique language for each time of day, each time in the term and each topic. This is the second language to learn and one I’m still working on.
And then, there is the most profound confusion of all. In initial teacher training, the students are teaching you as much as you are teaching them. You have 32 teachers each offering you advice, in parallel, out of synch, some helpful some not. It’s rather like learning Japanese by standing in a crowd on the Tokyo underground, maddening, but riotous good fun. 
My advice to those starting Initial Teacher Training is simple, watch ‘Lost in Translation’, learn your new languages quickly and extend your stay in this fascinating adventure. 

By John McAlister


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