To PGCE or not to PGCE?
by Dylan Rudling and Giuseppe ‘Joey’ Ficocelli, with advice from Caolain Cleary and Lawrence McNally
Congrats! You have just finished your undergrad in Classics and all those wonderful (and not so wonderful) days and nights reading Homer, studying for a Greek or Latin exam, and learning about Caesar’s escapades have finally paid off! You are proud of your accomplishments and feel great about your dive into the wonders of antiquity. But what happens next? There are various options! Many join the workforce in both the private and public sectors, while others pursue a master’s degree or a PGCE. The most important thing to remember when choosing your next step is to take time to reflect on our choices. Rushing into something can lead to future disappointment, putting yourself in a challenging position, mental health wise. As the saying goes, ‘listen to your gut’! If your gut is telling you to pursue teaching and a PGCE, you are in luck! Current student, Caolain Cleary (CC), and current teacher, Lawrence McNally (LM) have provided here some valuable advice on the PGCE programme.
Section 1 – Applying for the course.
Finding a course that's right for you
One of the first questions on every applicant’s mind must surely be: ‘where shall I study?’. To study specifically for a Classics PGCE in the UK there are three main universities to choose from: Cambridge University, Kings College London (KCL), or the University of Sussex.
Importantly – you don’t always need a Classics PGCE to teach Classics! The PGCE courses are designed to train you as teachers first, and specialists second. You may train to do a PGCE in a similar subject, such as history or Modern Foreign Languages (for the Latin teaching), but a PGCE does not bind you to that subject alone. If indeed a Classics PGCE is exactly what you want, Cambridge, KCL, or Sussex are the choices for you.
We all have our own personal preferences and vices that sway us from one city to another, all sorts of things that might move our decision – you may have loved ones living closer to Cambridge, you may feel at home in the hustle and bustle of London life, or you may just enjoy the gorgeous views of coastal Sussex.
The feel of a city is powerful indeed, so if you have the chance go and visit the cities for yourself! Visit the campus, walk the streets, take it all in. A course may have high entry levels or prominent alumni, but courses often run smoother when you feel in tune with the atmosphere of the city you will be spending times in. With COVID restrictions, this is obviously more difficult to do nowadays, but some universities do offer virtual Open Days for any keen applicants who want a taster of what the course has to offer.
‘For a Classics or Ancient History PGCE in particular, I would focus less on your prior knowledge of the subject topics … and more on your capacity to learn important skills and conduct relevant research within the field - particularly what it is about you or your experiences which gives you something unique to offer the profession. That is not to say that you have to have studied ancient languages extensively prior to undertaking your degree, especially since the study of Latin at school level is a privilege too few schools can claim’ – CC
‘The course is very Latin-centric, but it is ‘Latin with Classics’ not ‘Latin and Classics’ so that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. But most schools will be accommodating if you want to teach a specific topic or would prefer to teach more Class Civ rather than Latin. … While the uni side does tend to be Latin focused, there’s scope within your placement schools to make it a more personalised experience’ – LM
What do you need to do?:
This is done through the UCAS Teacher Training website. Although many courses have different application processes, there are a few things you need to do for every course you apply for. Most of these are key documents to serve as evidence, but some are slightly different. The following are minimum requirements for UK applicants, as International applicants follow a slightly different process.
1. Degree-level qualification – you must have either a Bachelor’s degree (usually a 2:2 grade as a minimum) or other level of higher education in a relevant subject, such as Master’s degree (MA) or a Doctorate (PhD, MPhil).
2. GCSE English and Mathematics at grade C (or equivalent). You will need to provide evidence for this.
3. DBS form. This is essential for any position in the field of education – you cannot work in a school without one.
4. Curriculum Vitae (CV). The pride and joy of every higher education applicant. Your chance to present your professional profile, boasting your achievements, skills, and relevant accomplishments.
5. References. You will usually need at least two professional referees, either from a previous university course, or previous occupations, to write letters of recommendation as to why you would be a worthy applicant.
Finally, make sure you apply! Whether it’s a simple online-only process, or via letter and emails, the main thing you need to do as an applicant is show your interest in your chosen course. This is all done through UCAS, with the website giving you all the steps needed on your applicant journey.
Desirable skills and subject knowledge:
In terms of skills and knowledge, applicants are usually expected to have clear interest and ability in the field of Classics, including ability from cross-curricular subjects such as History, Archaeology, or Languages. You may be fresh out of a BA in Classics or Ancient History, which is certainly desirable, however it often comes down to what YOU can bring to the field of teaching and Classics – your uniqueness is often your greatest strength, and it is something you should hold in confidence going ahead in the process.
Knowledge of ancient languages – such as Latin or Ancient Greek – are also key skills that are expected for all Classics applicants. Latin in particular is very desirable, as many courses are ‘Latin and Classics’ courses or teaching positions. Often the PGCE courses train the subject to an A-Level standard, so intermediate or advanced knowledge of the ancient language will be an essential tool in an applicant’s arsenal.
Do you need teaching experience?:
Ideally yes, but not as much as you may think! There are multiple ways of gaining experience, whether you have experience as a Teaching Assistant (TA), have tried 1-on-1 tutoring sessions, or have been involved in short teaching placements for previous university courses.
PGCE courses are looking for people comfortable in the classroom environment and passionate about educating. Having relevant teaching experience should reflect this about yourself, but vigour for education is not just reflected in your opportunities alone – you must express it verbally too in interviews and when communicating with the course contacts. Desirable PGCE applicants would be familiar with the educational system, be confident enough in their subject to teach it, and have a keen awareness of educational responsibility, pastoral care, and safeguarding.
The point of the course is to get you Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), so they aren’t expecting you to be a flawless teacher and educator before you even start the course! This is teacher training.
‘I had little to no experience of teaching before being offered a place on the course! I followed the Faculty’s recommendation of spending a week in a local state-maintained school offering Classics, which formed a significant part of my discussions about the current circumstances surrounding Classics in the classroom during my interview.’ - CC
‘I had no teaching experience prior to the course and I came straight into it from my undergrad. I don’t think this was an issue at all. The course isn’t set up to expect you to have a lot of teaching experience, but rather treats it as a benefit if you do. I would however recommend observing some lessons – particularly outside of your subject – before applying.’ - LM
‘More than anything else, I would imagine an open mind and a willingness to learn is what is most sought after by those assessing potential PGCE trainees.’ - CC
Congratulations on making it this far! You have been successfully chosen for an interview with your chosen course. This is usually done with a course leader or your chosen subject’s specific mentor, and may take place as a virtual interview (via Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, Google Meet) so it would be best to prepare an account for at least two of those options.
This is a formal interview, so dress up smart and professionally. Wear some pre-prepared teacher clothes if you have them - it’ll feel like you’re already in the role! Make sure you have all the relevant documents ready if the interviewer asks for them beforehand, and that you have completed any tasks they have asked you to prepare.
You may be asked a number of things in the interview. It may be to do with prior positions and experience with teaching. It may be about subject knowledge, making sure you know the basics of your topic. It may be about your personality and ethos: are you actually a nice person to work with? Are you a welcome addition to the teaching working environment?
There are plenty of useful interview tips to be found online, but one key thing would be to not worry! You aren’t a teacher yet, and they aren’t expecting you to be on the same level as a qualified teacher. This is the beginning of the course, not the end of it. They want to hear your enthusiasm, your knowledge, and your experiences that make you an ideal selection for the course you’ve chosen.
Section 2 – On the course. Caolain Cleary, PGCE Latin and Classics trainee, University of Cambridge; and Lawrence McNally, Teacher at Impington Village College and Mander Portman Wooward, Cambridge.
How are you enjoying the course so far Caolain?
‘I had anticipated the pressures of the PGCE course, such as balancing our academic assignments with full-time in-school teaching and lesson planning, however there was certainly a level of adjustment required from me within the first few weeks given that I am training immediately following the completion of my Undergraduate degree!’
How did you find the experience Lawrence? Was the course what you expected?
‘The course at Cambridge was fantastic. [The course tutors] managed to make each session interesting and useful. We had sessions on the history of Latin education, using VR technology in the classroom, and current Classics research taking place. The course structure is nice and eases you into teaching rather than throwing you in the deep end. … I wasn’t really sure what to expect before starting, but the course was very enjoyable, and the essays didn’t seem like a hassle to do as they were actually linked to our teaching experiences.’
How does it feel to teach at the front of the classroom?
‘The nerves went instantly for me. Standing in front of a class for the first time – being in charge of their learning – gives you a real buzz. There are of course some occasions where things don’t exactly go to plan, but the dynamism of the experience makes it really fun and rewarding.’ - LM
‘Under normal circumstances, teaching in front of a class of young people is daunting enough as a prospect. In the wake of the current pandemic, however, the notion of teaching was a particularly frightening one. I was pleasantly surprised to find that those fears quickly disappeared once I finally taught my first class, a Year 7 lesson focusing on Roman women and slavery, which I attribute largely to the invaluable advice offered by my Mentor.’ – CC
Why is teaching important for you?
‘What happens in a classroom can shape students for the rest of their lives. Being the arbiter of that is incredibly rewarding. Classics is also viewed as elitist and out of touch, and so I think it’s nice for students to be able to have a teacher who reflects them, and represents Classics being open to all. I’m a northern, working-class teacher of Latin and Classics, from an area where Classics hardly exists as a discipline. Teaching is important for me because I want to show that Classics is so much more than what it’s frequently advertised as, i.e. for the elite and wealthy.’ - LN
Would you recommend others to take a PGCE? What advice would you give them?
‘Absolutely! The PGCE has been a truly enlightening experience - there is something particularly special about putting down the textbook and actively engaging in the subject you are so passionate about with students who are willing to listen to you! My advice for those wishing to pursue a PGCE in Latin and/or Classics is that they ought to consider thoroughly whether their passion for the subject is strong enough for them to strive for a career in teaching. For many the answer will be yes, but holding on to that conviction will work wonders when the course’s pressures threaten to shake your determination. Should this happen, do not let it consume you - instead, discuss those anxieties with your mentors and peers! The PGCE course is not an easy one, but it is certainly made easier when you make use of the support networks made available for those pursuing it.’ - CC
And finally, some invaluable teaching advice from Lawrence!
‘Let your Head of Department know how things are going, especially when they aren’t going well, otherwise they aren’t able to help or support you, which is why they’re there. Even if it’s just to have a quick moan or get some things off your chest, I’ve found it incredibly helpful to air my thoughts with someone else and get their perspective, rather than bottling it up and hoping it fixes itself.’
Caolain Cleary is a current PGCE trainee in Latin & Classics at the University of Cambridge. Prior to enrolling on the course, he completed an undergraduate degree in Classical Studies at King’s College London, taking special interest in the depiction of women and femininity within Early-Imperial Roman literature. Beyond the classroom, Caolain holds a passion for theatre, and is hopeful for its return in the coming year!
Lawrence McNally completed his undergraduate degree in Ancient History at King’s College London in 2019, before undertaking a PGCE in Latin with Classics at the University of Cambridge. He now teaches Latin at Impington Village College and Classical Civilisation at Mander Portman Wooward in Cambridge. He is particularly interested in Tacitean studies and the history of memory in antiquity.