The Definite Article interviews Rachel White, former YA editor and agony aunt, about life after Durham and studying for a PGCE in Modern Foreign Languages...
First things first, how has life been after Durham? What have you been doing since graduating in 2014?
Life after Durham has certainly been surprising! I’ve gone in a few directions that I definitely hadn’t expected to. As I graduated with no clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do, I ended up moving back home to Lancashire, moving back in with my parents and looking for a job! I spent the summer straight after graduation working as a youth worker for a council-run holiday scheme, which was a lot of fun. You can’t complain about being paid to finger-paint for six weeks! After that, I got a temporary job working in customer services for a catalogue company, in the lost parcels and heavy items department, and I worked there for 9 months. It wasn’t my dream job by any means, but I definitely learnt a lot from it. I think dealing with angry customers on the phone prepared me well for managing difficult pupils in the classroom! I moved to Nottingham in September, and I started my secondary PGCE, specialising in German and French.
Why did you decide to study for a PGCE? Did your time at Durham prepare you for the challenges of PGCE? Do you have any advice to undergrads interested in pursuing a career in teaching?
I decided to study for my PGCE after volunteering in the languages department at my old secondary school for a couple of weeks. I’d loved working with young people at the holiday scheme, and everything else seemed to click into place when I was sitting in the classroom – I suddenly thought ‘I could do this, and I could do this well!’ So here we are! I think my time at Durham did prepare me for the PGCE in terms of my subject knowledge – in languages at Durham we get a really solid grounding in grammar, as well as in culture and literature, all of which are really important for the new GCSE and A-Level syllabuses. Unfortunately, I don’t think anything can really prepare you for the other difficult elements of the course – it’s definitely a bit of an eye-opener when you start! In terms of advice to undergrads, I think you really do need to be aware of the challenges the course places on you, and also how important what you are doing really is. A lot of the course is spent in schools, teaching your subject, acting as a form tutor and supporting pupils – you’re working with real children, with real issues, who really need to get through the year and are relying on you to help them do it! I think you really have to understand the gravity of this before you start the course – you can’t go into it thinking it will be a continuation of undergrad, it really isn’t.
Is there anything you miss about being a languages undergrad? Have you discovered a new found appreciation and respect for MFL teachers?
I miss so much about being a languages undergrad! I really wish that I still had the time that I did as an undergrad – I can’t believe I used to have the time to take an afternoon nap! I also wish I still had the time to read for pleasure, because I don’t have much of that at the moment. I absolutely have a new found respect for MFL teachers! Learning a language, as I’m sure all the readers know, is really difficult – it’s even more difficult to make pupils learn them if they don’t want to be there and would rather be doing anything else than listening to you! It’s rewarding, though, when pupils are able to string a sentence together and answer your questions in French – perfectly or not!
What are the best and worst things so far about studying for a PGCE in Modern Languages?
The best thing is by far the people I have met – other trainee teachers, the teachers who lead the course, the teachers in schools and of course the pupils. You learn a lot from all of them! I also got to go on a school trip to Düsseldorf and Cologne Christmas markets, which was also a highlight. The worst thing is how exhausted I am – the course is relentless, but it is rewarding if you manage to fight through it.
As our former agony aunt, do you have any words of wisdom for finalists still uncertain about what they want to do in the future?
My advice would be to just go with it. I had a lot of crises of confidence, a lot of confusion and a lot of negative feelings when I graduated with no job and no idea what to do next. The best piece of advice I received was: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’re not competing against your friends or the other people on your course, your parents or Beyoncé – you just have to do whatever you want to, give different things a try and see what happens when it happens!
Any advice for undergraduates at Durham?
Enjoy literally every minute of it. Go to every formal, every bop and ball; hang out with your friends in every coffee shop and bar, go to all of your lectures and even go to extra-curricular ones too. Also, a shameless plug for something I loved in my final year, read every issue of and contribute to The Definite Article! Just take in the atmosphere of the beautiful place, because a matter of months after you graduate it will start to feel like a dream and real life will kick in!