1. Get some support and advice
As you prepare to take your diploma, get some help along the way. This might be from your own teacher, from someone you know who’s already sat a diploma, or from someone like myself who provides specialist diploma mentoring. Although you might have many years of teaching experience, knowing how to best approach the inevitably artificial situation of a diploma exam is a skill in itself.
2. Take time to choose which diploma suits you best
The diplomas offered by each board are quite different in their emphases. For example the DipABRSM is largely focussed on a viva voce exam, whilst the ATCL is focussed more on reflecting on your own and others’ teaching. Think about your own strengths, and think about what you want to get out of taking a diploma, then decide which of these qualifications would fit best with that. I am always happy to advice on which might be best-suited, and indeed, you can find a blog post about that very subject here.
3. Get some teaching experience
This may sound really obvious, and indeed, at the first level of diploma, the exam boards don’t necessarily require any evidence of teaching, but I believe you’ll get far more out of the exam if you’ve got some experience to draw on. It means that you can test out your ideas and methods before hand, and in the exam you can make reference to specific situations. If you’re not already teaching, try and take the opportunity to observe other teachers in action; some may even be willing to let you do some ‘work experience’ with them.
4. Be clear about your teaching philosophy
What matters most to you about your teaching? What do you see as the main reason for teaching? What do you most want your pupils to get out of their lessons? These are fundamental things which begin to define your own teaching style. Whilst at the first level of diploma you don’t need to be absolutely clear about this, it’s a useful thing to be able to demonstrate. It shows that you’ve reflected on how you see your teaching, and it contributes to an overall opinion of you as a ‘professional’.
5. Be prepared to discuss your teaching approach
All the teaching diplomas have an element of discussion (often referred to as the ‘viva voce’). One of the most common misunderstandings is that people expect this to be a question and answer session. A discussion, or ‘viva’ is very different. You are likely to be asked relatively broad questions and you’ll be expected not only to answer these, but to extend the discussion further. Part of the assessment is in your ability to communicate your ideas – a candidate who provides short answers to the examiners’ questions is unlikely, in my experience, to do as well as one who can demonstrate real leadership of the conversation.
6. Be prepared to defend what you say
You need, as far as is possible, to be able to defend what you say in the discussion element. Sometimes, you can draw on specific examples from your own experience, and sometimes you might be able to refer to resources you’ve brought with you. Occasionally, you may be able to refer to a theory or piece of academic research too. The candidates who come away most disappointed are often those who feel that they haven’t had the chance to get their point across. They usually feel this is because the examiners have talked too much, but often, the reverse is the case: they’ve talked too little. There is a subtle difference.
7. Remember, the examiners aren’t trying to catch you out
Contrary to popular opinion, the examiners want you to pass! They aren’t trying to catch you out in their questioning, rather they’re trying to establish what you know and whether you can explain and defend it confidently. If you give very short answers, the examiners are likely to have to ask more questions, quite often to help you clarify what you’ve said. That’s why it’s vitally important that you take some responsibility for leading the discussions. The questioning can be challenging, but your ability to respond with confidence is an important skill.
8. Play to your strengths
Whatever questions the examiners ask, play to your strengths. If the examiner asks “Would this piece be good for developing good breathing habits?” you are free to answer “yes” or “no”, but make sure you extend this. If you say “no”, then follow this by saying not only why you don’t think so, but go on to highlight another piece which you think would be more suitable. This is a good way of showing that you’re able to think quickly on your toes – an enormous advantage for any teacher!
9. Be enthusiastic
I know it’s hard in an exam, but make sure you’re enthusiastic about your teaching. There’s a lot to be said for giving the impression that you are a committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic teacher. If you can show that you take a professional a business-like approach, this is a big advantage.
10. “Is there anything else you want to say?”
Nearly all the diplomas conclude by the examiners asking this question. Sadly, a good number of candidates just say “no”, but this is your golden opportunity to say something you haven’t said already. Tell them that little extra bit of information which will make you stand out from the crowd. When I sat the DipABRSM I wanted to highlight the value of organising performances for pupils – I only had a minute at the end, but a quick explanation, a link back to something I’d said earlier, and a couple of programmes and photos was all that was needed. Surprisingly, it got a very big ‘thumbs up’ in the comments, despite it being such a tiny part of the overall discussion. Don’t waste this opportunity to leave your mark.
Above all, enjoy the experience. We are ready and waiting to help you too! Always make sure you thoroughly read the syllabus to start with – if necessary make some bullet point checklists to get you started.