Essential skills for secondary school teachers

Emma Knowles, Editor
July, 2018

Secondary school teaching is more than just marking books and setting tests. You'll need to be ambitious, approachable and knowledgeable to engage with your pupils

One of the biggest attractions of teaching at secondary level is the variety of work involved. During a typical day you'll teach a number of different classes made up of different year groups, with classes containing pupils of various abilities, attitudes and experiences.

Another appealing factor is the opportunity to teach a specific subject reflecting your area of interest. Teaching a subject that you enjoy, and helping pupils find enjoyment in it too, can be extremely satisfying.

'A great secondary school teacher is primarily interested in working with young learners. Such a teacher shows a genuine interest in individuals and in finding out what makes those individuals 'tick',' says Dr Judith Kneen, programme leader of PGCE secondary English at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

'He or she is creative and works hard to find ways to make learning exciting, enriching and accessible. This is a job where you need to be on your mettle as you are working with young people who can be funny, demanding, inspiring and absorbing.'

Skills for success

An effective secondary school teacher can have a huge impact on a pupil's life, but to leave a lasting impression and deal with the daily challenges of managing a classroom of 11 to 16 year olds you'll need a mix of soft and specific skills. These include:

The ability to build strong relationships

'This is a crucial teaching skill,' says Dr Kneen. Good teaching practice is built on the working relationships developed between teacher and pupil. 'It is important to treat each learner in a class as though they are significant. This is more likely to lead to pupils being engaged and honest about what they know or do not know and can lead to them sharing ideas and asking questions.'

Aspiring teachers can develop their relationship-building skills by asking questions, listening to answers, finding out about individual interests and remembering names in group settings.

Building strong relationships is a key component of successfully managing classroom behaviour.

Excellent communication skills

Dr Jo Anna Reed Johnson, senior lecturer and head of PGCE secondary at the University of Leicester, believes that the ability to communicate positively and effectively is essential. 'When you're teaching, you need to learn to moderate your speech and tone of voice. Pupils at secondary age are good at reading a teacher by observing their facial expressions, so keep your body language positive.'

'When communicating with pupils use encouraging language and remember that warm smiles are contagious.'

When it comes to communicating with your students Dr Kneen points out the difference between knowing something and being able to explain it effectively. 'Being able to explain with clarity is a vital communication tool. You need to be able to explain things to classes that consist of pupils of different experiences and abilities. This involves breaking a topic down into its constituent parts and then sequencing these parts in an accessible way.'

The ability to model

As well as being adept at explaining, teachers also need to be able to demonstrate how to do something. 'Teachers learn how to teach better by doing things themselves, whether it be writing a poem or preparing for an exam question,' says Dr Kneen.

'Modelling is an important skill, as it fully demonstrates a process and enables a teacher to talk through their actions and decisions in order to benefit the learners' understanding.'

Subject knowledge

'Having strong subject knowledge is really important,' stresses Dr Reed Johnson, 'so assess your weaknesses and be prepared to fill any gaps.'

'Nobody appreciates a teacher who is lukewarm about an area,' agrees Dr Kneen. A teacher leads by example, so in order to engage pupils and drive their learning you will need to explore the subject fully yourself.

'A good example is this: in order to promote reading for pleasure a teacher will need to find out what fiction/non-fiction is currently being published, read and share prize-winning texts with learners, explore useful websites and liaise with the school librarian.'

A good sense of humour

It is not strictly a skill, but a sense of humour is a useful tool to all teachers. 'Being able to laugh with students is important. You're not there to be their friend but making lessons fun when possible will leave a positive impression on pupils. Happy students are more open to learning,' says Dr Reed Johnson.

Developing your abilities

Skills such as these can be developed in a number of ways. While academic courses such as the PGCE will give you the opportunity to learn and develop desirable skill sets, practical school experience is invaluable. Try to gain as much experience as possible, either through a paid placement or by volunteering in schools.

'There are plenty of jobs available in schools, such as cover supervisor, teaching assistant and invigilator, which can provide you with very valuable experience as well as an insight into the secondary school environment,' say Dr Kneen.

Observing teachers also provides you with a good sense of the skills needed in the profession. To get the most out of this kind of experience, aim to observe a range of teachers in a variety of subjects in different key stages.

Dr Reed Johnson also highlights the importance of staying up to date with current educational issues. You can keep track of developments in the education sector by reading the news and visiting government and educational websites such as:

Find out more about how to get a teaching job, and search for PGCE courses.

Stand out from the competition

Educating young minds and managing the safety of a classroom is an important job and unsurprisingly, secondary teachers are in high demand. So what sets top graduates apart for these roles?

Dr Reed Johnson says that graduates need to be 'career driven, resilient and excellent time managers.'

Dr Kneen agrees that as well as possessing an in-depth knowledge of your subject area, possessing the right combination of soft skills is important too. 'Teaching requires graduates who are motivated and able to inspire. Graduates should be able to work well under pressure - collaboratively or autonomously, as the situation requires.'

'Ensuring that future generations are well educated needs the top graduates of today.'

Career progression

Within secondary education your career can progress in a number of ways. 'Opportunities for progression usually fall into two categories: subject and pastoral,' explains Dr Kneen.

Your first year will be spent as a newly qualified teacher (NQT). You'll then move on to become a recently qualified teacher (RQT), and during this time you may take on additional, unpaid responsibilities within your department such as organising trips and running clubs. After demonstrating your skills and enthusiasm in this way you may gain a more formal promotion by taking responsibility for a particular key stage.

'Many departments have a deputy head, as well as a head so this could be the next step up,' adds Dr Kneen. 'The pastoral route may involve being a deputy head of year, head of house or head of the school. Both subject and pastoral roles may then lead on to being included as part of the leadership team of a school, which often consists of assistant head teachers, deputy head teachers and head teachers.'

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