a centenary
of Learning

  • 40
  • by Emma Hamilton
  • graduated 2007
  • studied PGCE English
  • from Vietnam, UK

From quite tentative beginnings, I have reflected, observed and worked my way up to Head of English in an International School in fewer than seven years. 

I completed my BA (Hons) in English at the University of Kent back in 2001, so I was definitely one of the few on my PGCE who didn't come from a Russell Group University and had also been out of education for a while. This in itself presented me with some challenges! Prior to university, I had been at a grammar school where the teaching, as I later discovered, bore no resemblance to how we teach these days.

I did the English PGCE and graduated in 2007. I decided to apply for the course after working as an Editorial Manager for a small non-fiction publishing house in London. I had quickly grown bored of sitting in an office and feeling as though I was doing a job that had little impact on other people. Teaching seemed to offer the chance to use my skills more effectively – to do something far more challenging and actually contribute to society.

I chose Bristol because it is well known for being one of the best universities, particularly for the English PGCE. I'm not surprised it has been awarded 'outstanding' recently. I always want to do a job well and decided that if I was going to become a teacher, I wanted to know how to do it properly! The English PGCE also promised to be a little more pioneering than other courses and that also appealed to me.

If I'm honest, I found studying for the PGCE very hard! Many of my fellow students were fresh out of university and had been taught in a similar style to that which we were expected to teach and seemed to pick everything up with ease. This was not the case for me! I finished my A Levels in 1998 and everything seemed to have changed beyond recognition. However, much as I found the course extremely challenging at times, I don't regret putting myself through it. The workload was indicative of the work I’ve since had to put in over the years and it forced me to really reflect on my teaching practice and to take note of the good teaching I observed. It helped me realise that you can do anything if you are determined to see it through.

I really enjoyed the fact that we were offered the chance to complete a City and Guilds qualification in Adult Learning Support. It was great to support adults with learning difficulties and the course was an interesting and useful contrast to what we were doing at University and in school. I vividly remember Jean Dourneen, now Senior Teaching Fellow on the English PGCE, joining us and giving advice on how best to teach language skills. I still make use of her resources, which involved a stuffed tiger cub image, with many of my classes today! Studying at the Graduate School of Education has made me a highly reflective and critical practitioner. I have learned new ways of thinking about how to teach various subjects and how to really aim for more original methods of pedagogy.

The knock backs and criticism I received during my Spring Placement helped drive me on to be a better teacher. I was incredibly shy and really did struggle to get my head around all the fancy new ways of doing things! I so badly wanted to teach but I found huge classes of teens intimidating and some days I really struggled to stand in front of them all and deliver a lesson. But, being a determined person, I didn't give up; I reflected, observed and, although I still lack confidence in a lot of areas, I know I can teach and do a good job. I wouldn't be Head of Department after 6 years if that wasn't the case.

After completing the PGCE, I decided to move back to London to be closer to friends and family. As much as that decision produced its own challenges in terms of English as an Additional Language (EAL) and behaviour management, it demonstrated how well I had been taught at Bristol. I worked as an English Teacher at Nower Hill High School in Harrow for two years before joining Haydon where I've been Key Stage 4 Co-ordinator for a number of years, looking after the attainment of 600 KS4 students (we currently have over 2000 students in our school). Apart from organising the team and ensuring everyone is covering the course outline correctly, I organise speaking and listening assessments, moderation and intervention (I've run parent/child workshops on a Saturday morning for some of our students). I'm constantly looking at our data spreadsheets, tracking those who aren’t attaining their target grades and putting in place opportunities to help those students get the grades they deserve. I also organise re-sits and provide resources for teachers. All this and more on top of a normal teaching timetable!

One of my proudest achievements was being asked to deliver a session on raising achievement in C/D borderline students to a group of external candidates for an SSAT (Specialist Schools and Academies Trust) meeting in London in 2008. I was asked because the school at which I was based at the time was in a very ethnically diverse area of Harrow and I had already had to adapt my teaching to suit the huge number of EAL students in the school. My results that year even took me by surprise – I had two mixed ability year 11 classes where over 90% reached or exceeded their target grades. The external candidates came to the school and I gave a talk on how to raise attainment as well as providing examples of what I had been doing in class - lots of interactive lesson plans, feedback, assessment for learning etc.

In August, I will be Head of English at an international school in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I applied for the job after hearing that another teacher at Haydon was offered a post as an English/ Drama teacher there. After an initial Skype interview and another with the Head teacher (at 5. 30 in the morning!), I was given the job on the spot. It was definitely a whirlwind experience! Some days I feel very excited and can’t wait to go and others I feel anxious, but I've learned over the years that with teaching, you just have to give things a try, reflect and work hard. Nothing worthwhile is ever that easy!

From quite tentative beginnings, I have reflected, observed and worked my way up to Head of English in an International School in fewer than seven years. 

I would advise potential PGCE students to do their preparation before joining the course; I would thoroughly recommend spending as much time in schools as you can. I wished fervently when I started my PGCE that I had been a Teaching Assistant as I would have learned so much about how teaching practice has changed since I was at school and would have saved myself a lot of hardship and difficulty. Be prepared for some harsh criticism but know that this is because your teachers want you to be the best.