What it's like to be a secondary school teacher

Emma Knowles, Editor
December, 2017

Discover the most surprising things about becoming a secondary school teacher, how to prepare for and handle the pressure of inspections, and more

Katherine Hawke is a Year 7-11 geography teacher at Bristol Brunel Academy, head of the academy's Kielburger House and a specialist leader in education (SLE) for geography, leading geography across nine academies in the Cabot Learning Federation.

How did you get into teaching?

I studied a BA Joint Hons in Business Management and Geography at Oxford Brookes University, graduating in 2014, before completing my PGCE in Secondary Geography via the Cabot Learning Federation Schools Direct route in partnership with the University of the West of England (UWE).

What's a typical working day like for a secondary school teacher?

My typical Monday looks like this:

  • 8am: I arrive in school. I ensure my classroom is ready for the day, which it usually is as I tend to prepare the night before, check I have all the resources I need for my lessons and set up IT equipment.
  • 8:20am: a staff briefing informs us of a focused theme for the week and any upcoming events.
  • 8:40am: lessons start. I teach two lessons of 50 minutes each in the morning.
  • 10:20am: break time. If I'm not on break duty, I'll clear up the lessons I've just taught and prepare for the next two. If I'm lucky, I have enough time to go to the toilet and have a drink.
  • 10:40am: lessons restart. I teach another two lessons of 50 minutes each.
  • 12:20pm: I use lunch time to catch up with a couple of students, reply to emails and do some marking if I can. I then make sure I'm ready for my afternoon lessons and have something to eat and drink.
  • 1pm: afternoon lessons start. I then teach another two lessons of 50 minutes each.
  • 2:40pm: tutor time. As I'm a head of house, I run inter-house competitions during this time.
  • 3pm: the bell signifies the end of the school day. I have to be on duty until 3:15pm, overseeing students leaving the building.
  • 3:15pm: I'll usually go to a meeting which can last up to an hour. Sometimes, the meeting will instead run from 4-5:30, depending on what else is happening that week.
  • 4pm: I'm usually back in the classroom, clearing up from the day and doing whatever is needed to prepare for the next day. This includes planning, marking and printing resources.
  • 6pm: My school shuts, so I leave to go home. I often have to work from home in the evenings, whether that's finishing my marking, inputting data, replying to emails, planning lessons or doing head of house or SLE-related work.

I give myself Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday off, but I'll often work on a Sunday evening to ensure I'm ready for the week ahead.

How did you balance classroom time and studying while you were qualifying?

I found this difficult. When I was in taught lessons at UWE, I often had to work further into the evenings to ensure I was ready for my days in the classroom. My assignments were mainly written at weekends - I would make sure I didn't have any plans to give myself time to complete them.

My tips for balancing classroom time and studying:

  • Set aside time to work. It's difficult to write 2500 words of an assignment to a high standard, or plan a whole week's lessons, in one weekend. Set aside time to plan effectively and research and write in the run up to a deadline so your work isn't rushed.
  • Be realistic with yourself. If you're going away for the weekend, don't feel you need to take your laptop with you. As long as you've set aside time to work, enjoy your down time and don't think about assignments or planning.
  • Ask for help. Your tutor will have lots of experience mentoring many students in your position. Make the most of their advice and guidance.

What's the secret to preparing for inspections?

There are two secrets to a great inspection. The first is not to panic, and if your school is in a good place it shouldn't feel panicked.

The second secret is to keep on top of things. The result of an inspection is a reflection of years of hard work so be strict with yourself and form good habits from the start. If you do this, your practice will already naturally be of a high standard and you won't be trying to create one-off lessons or mark six sets of books overnight.

I had an inspection recently. Preparing for it was relatively easy - we all stayed late the night before to make sure all lessons were well planned and thought out, our students' books were up to scratch and information packs were ready. There was a lot of anticipation throughout the academy but I can truly say the inspection felt like a normal school day.

What are the highlights of your career so far?

Building relationships with students and getting to know them is great, especially when it comes to results day and your Year 11s personally thank you.

Organising Year 7 camp was also pretty special. This was another case of building good relationships with students but also provided them with opportunities they wouldn't usually have, like going in the sea for the first time.

What's been the hardest part of secondary teaching?

The hardest part is maintaining a positive work/life balance. It can be frustrating at times to think 'that will have to be good enough', if you want to or know you can do more.

There is never enough time in teaching, even when you're working 60 to 70-hour weeks and this can often have an effect on your life. Simple things, such as getting enough sleep and having time to catch up with friends and family, can often add pressure to the job. I don't think teachers ever completely master a good work/life balance.

What's one thing that has surprised you about becoming a teacher?

There's an idealistic picture painted that teachers work 9-3, Monday to Friday, with 12 weeks' holiday every year to jet off around the world. This is really not the case. Teachers work incredibly hard and are constantly spinning plates, trying not to drop any. Teachers never really have a complete break and while I'm incredibly grateful for the time off, school holidays are often spent planning, running revision sessions or marking. I think it's important to allocate yourself a few days of each break to truly relax.

What are three things you wish you'd known before becoming a secondary teacher?

  1. 'Don't smile until Christmas' - rubbish. Show your students you're human and don't be afraid to have a laugh with them. They need to enjoy your classes, and there's a chance you'll see them almost every day for the next five years. Secondary school is an important time in your students' lives, and it's about so much more than just developing them academically.
  2. Be firm but fair. I remember feeling anxious about telling students off when I first started teaching, as I was worried they would hate me. I've actually often found the complete opposite. By setting clear boundaries with students, they knew what is expected of them and this helps me build better relationships with them.
  3. When attending an interview, the school is trying to impress you as much as you're trying to impress them. I felt I had to do everything I could to get my interviewers to like me when applying for jobs. But what if the school is not right for you? Make sure you can see yourself fitting into the school, with both the staff and the pupils. You could be there a while and you'll want to enjoy it.

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