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The school

When you go into the school you are adopting a different role from your normal everyday life as a student and it is important that you behave accordingly. The ethos and atmosphere of each school is
different and you will soon learn to assimilate this and be able to fit in.

Talk about the school where you will be going with the co-ordinator, link teacher and/or any volunteers who have been there before. You may be able to read more on the school's website, which may include their prospectus. Generally it is fine to dress as you normally do; you do not have to look like a teacher. It is important to remember to let the school know if you are unable to go one week.

Schools have to be very security conscious these days and you should expect to report to the school office when you arrive each time, and probably to wear an official badge while in school.

If the school has a Link Teacher s/he will be your support within the school. If you have any difficulties or concerns then consult the class teacher, the link teacher or the co-ordinator. Use the forum to share experiences with other volunteers, and talk about issues of interest.

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Working in the classroom

Always remember that you are a visitor in the classroom. Teachers will vary on how much direction they give you; if they don't tell you where to sit or stand at the start, do ask. Often the lesson will begin with a "starter" activity and some explanation of the main task, and it may be that there is little to do at this point. Use the time to absorb the way in which the teacher is presenting the work, and also to observe the pupils. You may well identify some "characters" and it is useful to see how the teacher deals with them.

Once work is underway, the teacher may ask you to work with a particular pupil or group, or they may expect you to use your initiative. Look around for anyone with their hand up. If there is anyone off-task, you may be able to focus them back onto their work by asking them about it. Occasionally pupils play up when there is a visitor; if an individual is doing this, it may be best to move on and help somebody else, and leave them to the teacher!

Often the real bonus of having a volunteer in the classroom is that they are able to spend a few minutes with a pupil or group at a time, rather than the few seconds the teacher usually manages. That time can often make a significant difference to a pupil, giving them confidence. However, keep an eye out, and if there are lots of hands in the air, try to move on.

As you move around, use praise wherever you can. This will give the children more confidence, and then you may be able to ask questions to probe their understanding. If you just ask "Why did you put that?" about a question, they may assume it's wrong, and feel threatened. If you tell them you agree with the answer first, they'll be more willing to say why.

You may find that your subject knowledge is greater than the teacher's, particularly if they are a non-specialist. Although they may welcome your input, be tactful and positive. Remember that the teacher is the professional and you are there to help them to do their job; never try to upstage or correct the teacher in front of pupils. If you have any concerns about the work discuss these with the class teacher.

Working in schools is largely about building relationships with the pupils, and you have the huge of advantage of being nearer their age than the staff. Usually volunteers are introduced by their first names, which means you are immediately in a different role to the teachers. By all means exchange friendly comments with pupils, but beware of those who will seek to avoid work by engaging you in lengthy conversation.

If pupils misbehave or are rude to you, please let the teacher know; they are responsible for discipline. It may be that you can get them back on task without any help, but tell the teacher afterwards if anyone was out of order. If you take a small group out of the room, and somebody does not behave, warn them that they will be sent back to their teacher if they do not cooperate, and carry out the threat if necessary. (This is unlikely to happen, as teachers will be careful about who they ask you to work with.)

You may have ideas relating to the work which you could suggest to the teacher. Sometimes volunteers have been able to take things in which relate to the work in progress. You may be able to relate what they are doing to the outside world.

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Some tips on helping pupils learn

Aim to:

  • encourage pupils and give them praise;
  • use questioning techniques that help pupils to express their ideas;
  • listen to pupils to find out what they understand and feel about the topic;
  • help pupils to think for themselves;
  • help pupils to develop oral skills;
  • communicate with pupils in a language they understand;
  • avoid telling pupils the answer, or what they should find from an experiment;
  • build on what the pupil already knows and understands;
  • help pupils to use their own methods successfully;
  • help pupils to develop their powers of reasoning;
  • help pupils to develop practical skills;
  • and perhaps most of all encourage pupils to enjoy their subject.

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