How Studying Science Prepared Me to Teach in Nursery Schools


Becoming a schoolteacher was no easy ride for me. Not only was the standard to be met very high, but also, I must admit, I did not feel much like leaving science.

My studies had always focused on science because I was very interested in biology. Still, I chose a career in teaching after 5 years in the faculty of sciences. Why? Because jobs in the scientific field are hard to come by. For about 900 applicants, we can only expect approximately 20 positions. I preferred to have a successful career in teaching--once you've got there, you have a position--rather than being unemployed a few years down the line. Moreover, the standard I had to meet if I were to continue studying in science after my master's degree only became higher, and I did not feel able to go any further. I thus decided to prepare for the entrance examination for becoming a schoolteacher in Grenoble, France. Looking back, I do not have any regrets. Children must learn mathematics, biology, and technology, and after all, I am still in a science-related field.

I've realised now that I wasn't meant to work in a research consultancy, nor in a lab, but that I like being with children and get a great deal of satisfaction from instilling all my knowledge into them. Teaching is such a varied and fascinating job that you never get bored. Being a schoolteacher means being versatile. This is a very exciting job, as you have to be interested in everything and challenge the unknown, so you learn more and more every day. Teaching allows you to train yourself intellectually and psychologically as well. You constantly have to question yourself.

But to get there, I had to get a fair number of qualifications. Indeed, to get into the French University Institute for the Training of Teachers [L' Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres ( IUFM)], the French equivalent to a B.Sc. is a minimum requirement. After passing a "Baccalaureat" with biology as my main subject (school leaving exams are taken at the age of 18), I went for a 2-year degree in the same field and then studied for another year to obtain a B.Sc. in organism biology. I then tried to get into IUFM, but the marks I had received in the past years were not good enough, so I spent the following year studying for a master's degree in the biology of populations and ecosystems. It was only after that year that I could get into IUFM.

Whether you want to teach in primary or secondary school, the training takes 2 years. To get a place in second year, you have to succeed in a competitive examination. Only 400 places are offered for 2500 candidates. Although the first year is dedicated to preparing for the competitive examination, in the second year we became trainee teachers and were paid. The appointment to a permanent post is finally granted once the student has demonstrated his or her abilities in a classroom during the last training period. And from this moment you can find yourself in charge of a class for the rest of your life, if everything goes well.

Of course you are not allowed to "enter the arena" without preparation. During the first year, you have to spend three 2-week training periods in a classroom, in pairs and always in the presence of the schoolteacher normally in charge of the class. In your second year, you get to be totally responsible for the class. These training periods allow the budding schoolteacher not only to learn how to teach but also to prepare psychologically. It is only once you are standing in front of a classroom that you can get to know whether you've got what it takes for the job. What shocked me the first time is how important it is to have prepared for your class beforehand; it doesn't take long before pupils realise it if you haven't! And whether you are in front of 3-year-old nippers or 11-year-old kids, the fear is the same, because at the end of the day you find yourself sole master on a ship, and steering the boat is tough.

My first year as a teacher I was given a position of supply teacher (that is, I substituted for other teachers on leave) over short periods. I learned a lot from this, as it allowed me to witness different educational methods and to finally build up my own. What was rather difficult, though, about this position was always having to turn up at the most awkward moment. You surely do not feel at ease to start with, but eventually, you get used to it.

Nursery school is the level I prefer. Children are so spontaneous and unaffected at this age. Older children are more self-sufficient, but I am not so keen on the way class for older students is organised. A day at the elementary school is less varied, less flexible--the teacher must strictly follow the curriculum--and there is less time to be spent doing things together. Also, you have to dedicate more time to marking exercises and preparing classes. But most important, at nursery school you can have very funny episodes! Young children find it extremely difficult to stay focused on the subject. You can be discussing the cake you are going to bake for Paul's birthday, and suddenly Caroline is telling the class that she went roller-skating in the park yesterday. And the worst of it all is that each of them will then start telling their own little story, and your session is done for!

Sciences are present in nursery as they are in primary school. Of course, the level of expectation is not the same. At nursery school, it is more about initiating children into the world. There, children discover that our world is made of living things and objects. They learn to know it and respect it. They ask questions and look for answers. They learn to take action, predict the consequences, and explain them through speech. At elementary school, the pupils, by using some aspects of the scientific approach, learn to phrase questions and suggest answers that are reasoned from observations, measurements, the processing of data, and the use of documents.

I sympathise with students who want to become teachers now, as the standard of the competitive examination has increased considerably. Each year there are more and more applicants, while the number of positions is at a standstill. And yet, each academic year classrooms are crowded with an average of 30 pupils and the teacher doesn't get a chance to look after the children individually, which is a great shame!

A scientific background is very useful in a classroom, as you often need to acquire multiple skills to supervise an exercise. If on top of that, the schoolteacher has only the slightest of scientific leanings, it can only benefit the children, as the schoolteacher is the person who is going to inspire them and help them get a global approach as well as a logic that they need all through their lives.

At school, children gain knowledge and abilities that will allow them to gradually understand the world they live in, act upon it, and respect it. And science plays a very important role in this learning process.

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