What it's like to be a secondary school teacher

Jemma Smith, Editor
November, 2021

Laura Prime is an art and design teacher at The Bulmershe School in Reading. Discover how she got into teaching

How did you get into teaching?

I never saw myself becoming a teacher. I was working as a freelance curator having graduated from the Royal College of Art, but I was looking to find something more consistent. My mum asked if I had considered teaching. I was a little resistant to the idea but I like to think I have an open mind, so I went to shadow the head of art at my old middle school for ten days to see what it might be like.

I surprised myself, as I immediately and genuinely loved being in a school environment and making art with the students. Within a few days I was leading demonstrations and playing an active part in lessons. In my short time at the school I helped out with a production of The Lion King by making props and masks with the children.

I put in a fairly last minute application to the University of Reading's Institute of Education, which had been highly recommended and was delighted to be accepted as a returning student.

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

You wouldn't believe the things that can affect your class, even how windy it is outside impacts the children's behaviour. I will say that I am always busy, I spend very little time at my desk or at my computer and I love that the majority of my day is spent on my feet, interacting with students and continuing to learn alongside them in my favourite subject.

Coffee is needed of course to keep me going but I am truly never bored.

How did you balance classroom time and studying while qualifying?

I honestly didn't find it a struggle to balance studying with classroom time. I think a lot of people see them as separate entities, with the former just being a box to tick but one should really inform the other - I certainly found this to be the case and when you realise this both sides of your practice are thoroughly beneficial to one another and neither feels hard to fit into your schedule.

The key, I think, is reflection. When you are reading or in a lecture regarding pedagogy, think about something you may have observed in the classroom and vice versa. This way you are getting more from both the academic and practical side of your practice, as well as using your time efficiently.

What are the highlights of your career so far?

There have been so many highlights in my teaching career and sometimes it's the smallest things that remind you why the job is so worth doing.

It's one of your naughtiest students asking if they can take a picture of their work so they can show someone at home and telling you how proud they are of what they've achieved. It's the sheer excitement of your students when letting them know where they have come in a national competition. It's hearing one of the most insightful and profound contributions you ever imagined from a student who would never have had the confidence to join in a few weeks previously.

What's been the hardest part of secondary teaching?

Developing the patience, resilience and perseverance that are required, but I can see myself improving in these areas all the time. The thing that makes these things hard is how much you care about and invest in your students - how important it becomes to you that they are achieving their full potential and leading happy and curious lives.

Your students will test you and make it difficult to help them some days and they can be their own worst enemy, but it’s this that can make every little success satisfying.

What has surprised you the most about becoming a teacher?

How much I genuinely enjoyed spending time with my students and how much I have learned from them about my subject, about human behaviour and about myself. It's a cliché but I am still learning constantly and that is why I love my job.

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

I'd like to have better understood the teenage/developing brain. You think you know and understand things because we were all teenagers once, but actually understanding the cognitive science of what’s going on in there really helps. For example, the parts of the brain that allow for empathy aren't so developed yet and the parts dedicated to forming strong opinions and a firmer sense of self are building rapidly - knowing this helps you to take things less personally and be a better coach to your students, so this would have saved me time on the learning curve.

One thing that I'm glad I didn't know was what to expect of children of different age groups because this allowed me to always be surprised and very often impressed. I didn't set low expectations of my youngest students just because they were only 11, which I think could be easy to do, but setting the bar high made for outcomes, progress, insights and discussions with an intellectual and emotional maturity that we could all be proud of.

Finally, I would have liked to have better realised how different all schools are, as much as each child within them. This can be a lot to navigate when you’re new to teaching and you can find yourself pulled in lots of different directions, with lots of different advice and varying school focuses. My feeling is that, while you need to look to more experienced practitioners around you and take on board their wisdom, education is changing all the time and our young people need new and different things from us. So find your own way of teaching, make your own priorities and create your own opportunities to show what you can offer your students and your school. They are our future societies, inventors and visionaries and we’ll always underestimate what a huge part we play in carving that future.

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