Trepidation, tears, and triumph: what my year teaching at a secondary school taught me

Written by Flo Wadey, 22.

Industrial years, placement years, sandwich degrees – whatever you call them – were, for a long time, mainly associated with those majoring in Business, Engineering, or maybe the Sciences. However, in recent times, placements have taken off, with many universities offering the opportunity for students in Languages, Humanities, and beyond to go into work as part of their degree. As a recent graduate, I’ve realised that placement year was one of the most integral parts both of my university experience and my development as a young-adult-person. While the obvious benefits of a work placement are incredibly valuable (increased employability, transferable skills, and much-needed work experience), I found that placement offered the even greater opportunity to learn things that aren’t really taught in a classroom: lessons in vigilance, self-confidence, and empathy.

School had been hard for me and, being an “unpopular” kid, I didn’t look back on those years fondly

If you don’t already know, “sandwich” courses are usually structured so that you undertake your placement in third year, returning back to university afterwards for a final year of study. Second year is placement hunting year and I went into it with no idea what I wanted to do. As an English student, teaching is usually the first career that most assume you’ll go into, and for that reason and others I was hesitant about it. School had been hard for me and, being an “unpopular” kid, I didn’t look back on those years fondly. I’d faced a lot of issues with bullying, anxiety, and low self-esteem, so the idea of returning to that setting filled me with the kind of dread that only years of spots, name-calling, and being shit at sports can muster.

Nevertheless, in part desperation and part feeling like I may actually be kind of good at teaching, I emailed a bunch of schools in my hometown of Brighton, asking if they’d take me on. In a bizarre twist of fate (or not, the headmaster remembered who I was) I landed a voluntary position at my own high school – the very place where a girl had “accidentally” pinged a volleyball net in my face after I failed to score a point. There began my journey, working for nothing (not the school’s fault, state schools are ridiculously underfunded) and sleeping in my childhood box-room.

Beginning my placement in the English Department was terrifying. Have you ever tried talking to a group of people who really don’t want to hear what you have to say? Imagine that situation. Now, trade all of the people for 14 year olds and trade the room for a stuffy library on a beautiful late-summer’s day, and you’ll get the idea of what my first month was like. There were more than a few times when I wanted to give up. I wasn’t leading lessons, I was mostly acting as a Teaching Assistant in small groups or supporting whole classes alongside the main teacher. All the same, I felt uncomfortable and out of place. Being only 4 years older than the year 11s, I knew that they didn’t take me seriously. I disappointedly realised how little I believed I’d changed since I was their age, still feeling like the awkward, high school Flo who shook when she had to answer a question in class and was deathly afraid of responding to the register.

I saw my colleagues in a way that I’d never experienced before. I looked up to them like parents

On my second week, after a particular incident with a year 11 boy left me crying in the staff toilets, my confidence was shot. My supervisor – a wonderful woman and exceptional teacher who I cannot praise enough – found me there and talked me down. She shared stories of her own bathroom-crying-sessions, we re-thought my workload, we hugged and laughed, and realised how ridiculous the whole situation was (as a lot of situations are in the world of secondary education). This was the first important thing I learned on my placement year: the value of workplace community. I saw my colleagues in a way that I’d never experienced before. I looked up to them like parents. I watched them handle difficult situations with confidence, quick wit, and strength and tried to copy them. I began to emanate their teacher-y mannerisms. One day, a few months later, my supervisor came to me after her class and told me she liked the way I handled XYZ, and she would try it herself in the future. That’s one of the brilliant things about teaching, you’re constantly learning from each other, laughing with each other, and building each other up.

As time passed, things got easier. Getting a response out of my kids became less like pulling teeth and more bearable. I got used to being “annoying” – asking questions once, twice, three times and explaining things even more times than that. I even became accustomed to the snide remarks that teenagers are so good at making. A turning point was when, one day, I was asked to work with a different group of students in one of my regular classes. Instead of the relief I expected from my usual group, I got protestations. “What? Miss, you’re supposed to help us!” It was then that I realised, at work, I’d never felt needed before, that what I did actually made a real difference to anyone’s life, unless that difference was bagging their shopping slightly quicker than usual, or finding something they wanted in the stock room (things that made up my life in my previous jobs at Sainsburys and Matalan.) Of course, these victories are important, retail is essential work. Its admirable work. But to have someone look at me and tell me that they wanted my help, that what I was doing was worth something, was amazing.

I learned to be a mentor and an advocate, to deeply empathise with others whenever possible

Things improved from there. I began Coaching, approaching my head of department and offering to deliver extra sessions to the kids I worked with to prepare them for their GCSEs. In January, I got a paid position at the school, splitting my time between volunteering in English and being a Learning Support Assistant for the Special Educational Needs department. I learned a lot of practical skills, like how to make a register on excel; to plan lessons; to create accessible, differentiated revision materials; to mark work and give grades; and to make timetables and development plans. These practical skills were not the only thing that placement taught me, though.

My year in industry opened my eyes to lots of realities. I was lucky enough to be educated on disabilities and learning difficulties, learning about “stimming” and sensory differences, hyperactivity and oppositional defiance. I learned to observe and to listen, to communicate in unconventional ways. I learned to be a mentor and an advocate, to deeply empathise with others whenever possible, to help identify their problems, and to work to find solutions.

I also learned some harsher realities: that life is certainly not “easy” for young people, that kids as young as 11 were experiencing the unimaginable, things that I – 10 years their senior – wouldn’t be able to reconcile, and still, despite this, had to come to school every day to learn about Macbeth or the water cycle or long division. The young people I worked with taught me so much without even meaning to. Watching them, I learned more about vigilance and strength than any self-help book could offer.

It was an invaluable lesson in empathy, one that I’m constantly applying to every new person I meet

I also realised that no story is ever one-dimensional. As a teenager, it was easier to think that the kids who sometimes made my life difficult were just dicks than to question their motives, but working at the school allowed me a secret door into people’s lives. I saw that nobody had it easy, that our actions often speak for something far more complex. It was an invaluable lesson in empathy, one that I’m constantly applying to every new person I meet and difficult situation I find myself in.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, the kids I worked with also taught me a lot about Pokemon and Five Nights at Freddies and Fortnite, Tik Tok dances and Billie Eilish and beauty guru Youtube drama – so I don’t want it to seem like I’m placing them on a pedestal as the ultimate bearers of philosophical wisdom. Kids are kids, sometimes they floor you with their insight and strength, and other times they floor you for totally the opposite reason.

Placement year was a journey of incredible personal growth. It’s corny to say, but I definitely think that the nervous, sometimes immature, often self-centred girl that went into my year in industry was definitely not the same one that came out. I was able to find strength in myself, to grow, and to have confidence in my abilities. I also learned to laugh at myself and at life, to open my heart up to others, and to make really bad dad jokes and purposely misquote memes to cringe out teenagers (I still maintain that it endeared them to me, though).

That’s not to say I’m not still learning. Since my placement, I’ve been lucky enough to continue doing what I can now say I love, teaching at a summer school and going on to do play-work at a wonderful charity for disabled children and young people. One thing’s for sure, I’m excited to keep on growing and learning, and I’m eternally grateful for the personal and professional foundations that my placement year gave me.

This contribution was written by Flo Wadey, 22. Visit her profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.