Life as a primary school teacher

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
August, 2016

Currently studying or recently graduated from teacher training? Here's what you can expect from your first year working in a primary school…

School timetable and working hours

Schools don't operate by the same timetables - and they usually vary by year group within an individual institution. However, most follow a routine similar to the following, with the school day beginning at 9am and finishing at 3.30pm:

  • morning registration;
  • assembly;
  • literacy, including phonics for earlier years;
  • morning break;
  • numeracy;
  • lunch break;
  • afternoon registration;
  • handwriting and guided reading, particularly for earlier years;
  • other subjects;
  • afternoon break;
  • other subjects;
  • class story, particularly for earlier years.

Despite this seemingly short working day, teachers actually work much longer hours. They typically arrive at school at around 8am to prepare work resources, and leave at around 6pm, after tidying up, evaluating lessons and marking books. Other after school duties may include hosting clubs, and attending staff meetings, parent meetings and training events. In addition, teachers spend many hours planning lessons in evenings and at weekends.

Term structure

The academic year runs from September to July and is divided into three terms: autumn, spring and summer. There's a two-week break after the autumn and spring terms (for Christmas and Easter respectively), and a six-week break after the summer term ahead of the next academic year. An additional one-week break is built into the middle of each term.

This may sound fantastic, but teachers must do plenty of planning during these holidays. Tasks in the summer break include:

  • creating detailed lesson plans for the autumn term;
  • preparing the classroom for the new cohort of students, by writing class lists, sorting the children into ability groups and tables, devising reward systems and creating signs and displays;
  • setting up special support for children with special educational needs (SENs);
  • writing long-term plans for the academic year ahead.

Changes to the national curriculum

The new national curriculum was introduced in schools in 2015 - and this has significantly raised the expectations of every year group.

'This has increased the pressure on teachers to cover the huge gaps that have been created in their students' learning,' explains Charlotte Whiteside, who works as a year 2 teacher at a school in Preston, and completed her Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in 2014. 'Assessment has also been difficult to adapt to because levels have been abolished, with schools now devising and using their own systems.

'This has created much confusion as they're not comparable to previous years, and it's now even more difficult for children's parents to understand how their child is doing throughout their school journey.'

For more information on the national curriculum, see how to become a teacher.

First-year rewards and challenges

Despite primary school teaching being an incredibly demanding career, it's also an extremely rewarding one.

Charlotte says that the most notable benefits include the varied workload, seeing children achieve and enjoy their learning, and developing working relationships with a wide range of pupils to support their all-round development.

However, Charlotte concedes that NQTs also face significant challenges - most notably learning to effectively manage the huge workload, especially in terms of lesson planning.

This is closely followed by the need to manage classroom behaviour, ensure all learners' needs are being met in every lesson through differentiation (which impacts hugely upon the amount of time spent planning), and dealing with the wide range of SEN children.

Since NQTs have a designated induction tutor who oversees their development and observes several of their lessons, they must also be able to handle criticism. However, they can also expect much praise for their efforts too.

Opportunities for promotion

Career development opportunities depend on the size of the school. For example, Charlotte was offered curriculum subject leader for PE in just her second year, and such additional roles result in an extra teaching and learning responsibility payment. Promotion can also come in the form of moving into management, and it’s possible to become a headteacher within ten years.

Training opportunities are widely available, and take place either in-house on teacher training days or at regional training centres run by local authorities. Topics often covered include:

  • curriculum issues;
  • new initiatives;
  • pastoral care;
  • special needs;
  • subject leadership;
  • target setting and assessment;
  • technology.

For information on how a primary school teacher's salary rises incrementally, see the primary school teacher job profile.