When is a volunteer not a volunteer? When they are a PGCE student.

Someone asked me today if I get paid for my placement and I said no. They asked it I’m a volunteer and I said not technically no but then I thought well I guess I am essentially a very willing volunteer.

But it’s not really something I think about, or thought about until today. It made me reflect on how I see things and I came up with this (please read on to the end before jumping to an early conclusion on my take on this):

When I arrive for an 8am meeting and when I offer to cover a class and come in on a scheduled non teaching day, when I volunteer my time into the future (attending and helping out with the awards night in late June and helping with next year’s induction days in July long after my placement and PGCE will have finished) I forget that I’m under no obligation to do any of this, my teaching hours are in the bag, observations are done (bar the one I had to add on) and it’s all essentially arbitrary now. It’s costing me to attend the placement in terms of  travel and not being able to work in a paid job while I’m on placement. I would but there are just not enough hours in the week.

But I don’t even think of that because this is not a volunteer role. It is all excellent, valuable exposure and experience that is worth far more to me than the costs; hidden or obvious. It’s a priceless experience in the sense that money really couldn’t buy it and it’s far more than a volunteer role. If you view it as a volunteer job you are in the wrong mind set, it is far more than that, it’s not something you are doing out of the goodness of your heart it is something that will help build you as a professional and equip you for the career you have chosen. What you are getting is on the job training and support from a range of professional people often on a 1:1 basis. How much would that cost you if you wanted to put a price on it? I know we pay for the PGCE course but that about covers (if that) the tuition and other facilities we use to study. So rather than being a volunteer role it’s a trade off: the training and support and wealth of expertise to tap into for my time and willingness to participate in the experience.

It’s a unique insight into the world you want to spend the next how many years of your life working in, it’s an immersive experience which someone has kindly offered you to support you in meeting your career objectives. We know so many educational establishments are under pressure financially especially in FE and their staffing is cut back to the bone and so to offer this opportunity is something to be grateful for, it’s an add on to an already busy workload for someone or indeed for many people.

Besides that, it’s a real privilege that teachers are willing to hand over their classes to you. We know the bond that develops between student and teacher and letting go of what feels like a surrogate ‘brood’ is not easy, trusting an inexperienced stranger with the class you’ve shaped and moulded is a big step and we need to be mindful of that too. I can’t imagine (or rather I can) how I will feel one day when I repay the favour.

I sometimes have been frustrated by the pace of my placement but now looking back I think it’s been perfect. It’s eased me in, allowed me to digest the experience in small chunks and to build up the skills and understanding necessary to be where I am now: confident, equipped and prepared for the role.

Of course it’s also allowed me time to study too which is important when it comes to the qualification. I’m simultaneously working on finishing off my professionalism essay, writing up my specialist interview, writing up my ILP targets, writing my conference paper and presentation and at the same time keeping my ILP up to date as well as my teaching file and this blog. That’s no mean feat to be working on all of that academic work at a masters level while lesson planning, delivering teaching, reflecting on teaching and everything that goes with it all at the same time. That’s not to mention having a life still outside of the PGCE… although I think that is holding itself together by a thread.

I can’t imagine doing all of this while parenting small children or having a significant caring responsibility for an elderly or sick relative or being in poor health myself, it must be so tough. Seriously if you’re thinking of this for yourself for next year, give it some really good, long hard thought as it really isn’t an easy ride. Make sure that the PGCE is the right route into teaching for you and make sure that this is the right time for you to be making this career move, make sure you have the time and the energy, the support and the right level of commitment because it’s a hard intensive slog.

For people who have had high levels of teaching from early on in their placement and those who have taken on paid teaching jobs and have a higher level of responsibility with that it must be even harder and I can only applaud them for coping. But I do get it, the goal is to get a teaching job, if that opportunity presents itself while you are training then it would be a tough one to turn down.

I am a big fan of the PGCE or at least some pre-service teacher training to prepare for life as a teacher and I’ll blog about that towards the end but even though I’m a fan of it and would highly recommend it I am not willing to put anyone under any false illusion that it’s easy or the best route for everyone.

Think the process through, think your opportunities through and weigh them up before being eager to rush in. If someone had offered me a 30 hour teaching contract in November I would have jumped at it and it would have been a huge mistake for me because I know that I would be in serious trouble now trying to cope. I would have probably dropped a level for sure at least.

I probably would be second thinking the need to complete the course…”I’ve got a teaching job without it so what’s the point?” that logic might have crept in. But I’d be thousands of pounds in debt for something I bought but never took delivery of and that would be senseless so I’d be under pressure to continue and complete and probably down on myself for not giving it my all.

It’s not just the course and placement and work, there are things happening in my children’s lives which need attention and there are things in my own life which need attention and they are often on the back burner for a little longer than they should be. Fortunately the kids are old enough to understand but do consider if the people around you will be supportive and understanding and help you rather than hinder you through this big step. Think about a partner or spouse, kids, friends even who might not take too well to a year of trying to talk to someone with their head buried in a book or who might begin to tire of being guinea pigs for your latest fantastic lesson idea. You have to consider the impact of the commitment to study and the commitment to teaching and all that entails during and outside of working hours on the people who should be your support at home. Some relationships can falter simply because you’re learning something new, you’re speaking a different language you’re interested in and focused on something that might not be a common interest and that can sometimes cause unanticipated problems.

Know your limitations and set yourself realistic goals, keep organised, set tight deadlines and you’ll make it through but don’t expect it to be the walk in the park that you might have imagined. It might be easier for someone younger and more mentally fresh and physically alert but then on the other hand as an older person you might have more experience of working long hours, going without sleep, acting professionally on auto pilot and of good systems for self management which make life easier. There are pros and cons to all perspectives. Just be sure to really seriously give it some thought before you start on the path.

It’s not a volunteer job, it’s not easy study, a PGCE is demanding in many ways and it’s best to consider all of the possible implications now and make sure that you’re prepared for it. Don’t just do it because it’s something to do, don’t do it because it’s the only funded post grad course you can find, you have to want to be a teacher or you will sink under the demands of the role, you have to want to get the most out of it or you will sink under the paperwork.

It’s a great course and a fantastic experience just don’t take the decision lightly it’s tough in so many ways and you need to be prepared for that. Places on PGCE courses are in high demand, don’t take one up for the wrong reasons or if you don’t think you can see it through. Sometimes we have to be true to ourselves and exercise some social conscience too.


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