Helena Jane (2013 summer & 2014-2015 paid teaching programme). Career After China: Teach First

I remember thinking, ‘I could do that.’ Sitting in a lecture theatre listing to Arnold Vis enthuse about summer placements in China, my head was buzzing.

My parents are both teachers, making the route seem too obvious for me. I did creative subjects throughout school and ignored every comment that came my way about the inevitability of following in the footsteps of my Mum and Dad.

Skip forward five years and I’ve completed a journalism degree, taught in China twice, repped university ski trips and have finally signed on the dotted line to complete my two years with Teach First at a primary school in Grimsby. If you’d have told me that back in Freshers, during my final exams or even when I applied to work in China I’d have had a good old giggle.

My yearlong placement was in Jiading, a suburb in Shanghai with, by Chinese standards, a miniscule population of 1,471,100.  The majority of the students in my class came from extremely underprivileged back grounds with most families bringing in per week nothing close to an average UK wage. School is highly valued by both parents and students.

On my first day, I was handed a text book containing the topics they wanted me to cover and gave free reign to cover them in any way I fancied. Puppets, sing alongs and mocked up super markets became class favourites as well as rounds of ‘what’s in the box’ and fashion shows. The Chinese education system is rigorous and strict, meaning most of these activities were news to most students. I loved the challenge of coming up with something new and a little ‘out there’ every Sunday afternoon.

The word ‘challenge’ sums up my attitude to things rather well. I chose China because it was out of my comfort zone and even though I didn’t know how it would be, I knew it would bring so much good into my life.  I chose Teach First for the same reason.

Although it may have been a long and windy road leading up to the decision to apply, I knew what route I wanted to go down. The PGCE vs. Teach First decision wasn’t a difficult one for me as I was ready to put down some roots.  I can fully see why PGCEs are so popular but personally I was ready to be part of the same school for a couple of years and dive in at the deep end with as many hours in the classroom as possible. The part of Teach First that puts most people off is that you have no say in where or in which school you’ll be placed. But again, after applying to teach anywhere in China, one of the most populated countries in the world, I was ready and willing to take on any school in the comparatively teany tiny UK that would have me. It’s hard not to talk soley about teaching in Asia during the interview but it was by far the most valuable thing I had to say on the day and felt reassuring to talk about and base points on.

One of the most transferable lessons China will teach you to take along on the Teach First journey is to expect the unexpected. In China, be it in the classroom or walking through town, something will always stand out or surprise you. During a lesson your students will find something you do without thinking fascinating, for example, drinking cold water from a bottle (it’s far more common to drink hot water in China, be it with tea or just the water) This has come in useful during the Teach First process because there will always be another thing you didn’t see coming. Be it a piece of work landing unexpectedly on your desk or a usually angelic child deciding today is the day they’ll act up, being able to think on your feet and make light of a situation you didn’t see coming is a priceless skill.

Like in China, you are brought into Teach First for your creativity. If they wanted the same old same old in both Chinese and Teach First eligible schools, they would bring in a teacher with ten plus years of experience behind them. You are there for a reason – to be fresh faced, take risks with your creative lesson plans and generally be bright eyed and bushy tailed when it comes to striving in the face of adversity and never giving up. China is a wonderful dry run in seeing how students react to certain tasks, activities and rewards and so many of them are universal. For example, a huge learning curve I had was that I needed to be providing context to what I was teaching. Sure, teaching them how to sing ‘happy birthday’ is a good lesson, but getting them to sing it every time there’s a birthday in the class (cake and candles go down a storm) or showing them the Minions version adds another dimension not just to their understanding but also to their enjoyment.

Teaching often comes with a slogans or metaphors attached. It has hills of happiness with valleys of death, good days and bad days and my personal favourite, it’s a roller coaster. A large part of my Teach First interview, discussions I’ve had with people considering the program or even just reassuring chats over a glass of wine it the pub is the fact that you need to be aware that your first few years in teaching will be filled with the best days you’ve ever had – and the worst. Teach First drops you in at the deep end and just as at times things will descend into chaos, sometimes you will walk out of that classroom straight onto Cloud 9. It’s important not to be too hard on yourself when an activity or a whole lesson didn’t go the way you envisaged, just as it’s important to hold onto your successful games or breaking through to a child who didn’t understand something. In China something I’ll never let go of was one really cheeky little boy who sat at the front and turned his whole attitude to learning round within the first term because I spent some one on one time with him. In the end he just didn’t want to let me down and in my mind something like that is a victory that stands out and keeps me going on days when things don’t go to plan.

If I could pass on any words of wisdom they would be to be honest, aware and proactive in managing your flaws. I am a perfectionist, it’s often my way or the high way and I struggle to switch off or do things by halves. I know other colleagues struggled with coming straight from university and limiting their social lives, with not getting on with other members of staff or with staying on top of their marking. Going through the Teach First program you’ll learn very quickly what you need to work on and hopefully you can chip away at improving on it. For me, it was learning to say no to things I didn’t have time for, as well as giving myself time restraints to finish something and say ‘yep, that’s good enough.’ Again, whilst you’re on this roller coaster ride, some days you’ll feel like you’re mastering all of this, whilst other days you’ll want to run to the pub and bury your head in the sand (or in a pint, as the case may be) Know yourself and also know that your kids will adore you just as you are – they won’t notice when you put up the wrong Powerpoint slide or are feeling gloomy at the prospect of a weekend spent planning. At the end of the day you’re there for them.  Do the very best you can and utilise every experience and lesson you have learnt in China  – it will be your bubble wrap along the bumpy road to becoming a teacher.