Primary teaching as a profession is becoming more and more popular. According to the latest school census carried out by the Department of Education, the total number of full-time equivalent teachers in nurseries and primary schools increased by 2.4 thousand between 2015 and 2016, from 220 thousand to 222.4 thousand. Similarly, the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) census reported 12,905 new primary postgraduate trainees in the academic year 2017-2018, which surpassed the Teacher Supply Model (TSM) target by 6% – showing 1,615 more new entrants to primary than in the previous academic year.
Despite this rising interest in the sector, you will only properly develop the skills needed in primary education once you are thrown into the deep end of vocational, face-to-face experience. To some, it may seem easier and even more trivial than higher level teaching. But the role of the primary school teacher demands a lot more than to simply ‘teach’. Primary school children can be unpredictable: they are still growing, discovering who they are, and learning how to interact with one another. To them you also become a role model – for some you might be the only one they have.
For most people in the role, they have always known they wanted to be a primary teacher. Many give the reason that they wanted to have a direct impact on children’s lives – educationally, yes, but also in social and emotional development. In a 2015 study by The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), 75% of the 858 respondents said they pursued teaching because they wanted to make a difference.
We caught up with Mary Gordon-Taylor, who completed a Primary PGCE from Durham University in 2017. She is now a full-time equivalent (FTE) primary teacher and shares her experience of the workplace. It was actually through the study of English Language, a long-standing interest for Mary, that she was drawn to a career in primary education.
In sixth form we studied child language acquisition – theories on how children learn to speak and write – and I found this fascinating. My initial pull to primary teaching was that by working with children, I would be able to both see this process in a real setting and have an impact on it.
According to UCAS, the academic requirements to train as a primary teacher in England are as follows: to hold an undergraduate degree awarded by a HE institution in England or Wales; to have achieved a standard equivalent to grade C/4 or above in GCSE English, Maths, and at least one Science; and to have completed professional skills tests in numeracy and literacy before you start your training.
The degree requirements depend on where you are, but it’s usually a 2:1. I did an English Literature degree so I knew it would be considered appropriate, but having a core subject isn’t a requirement as long as you know how to link it to the National Curriculum in your interview. Some people on my PGCE course had degrees in History, Psychology, Chemistry, and even Early Childhood Studies.
Although Mary chose postgraduate study, there are alternative routes to entering primary education. If you’re already committed to pursuing it from undergraduate level, many universities offer Primary Education as a first degree. An alternative postgraduate route is School Centered Initial Teacher Training (SCITT), during which trainees are attached to a school – or a group of schools – rather than a university. SCITT offers a lot more practical and hands-on experience, provided by experienced staff. However, trainees will still attend the lectures, tutorials and seminars, covering the same material as universities or colleges. TeachFirst is another option: a 2-year practical course starting with ‘an intensive five-week immersion into the theory and practice of teaching.
Each route has basically the same expectations, but they are provided in a slightly different structure and style,” Mary explains. “For example, each has varying levels of school-based versus university-based training.
Whichever route you pick, every one of them will award you with Qualified Teacher Status (a QTS) and you will be known as a Newly Qualified Teacher (an NQT) for the first twelve months of work.
UCAS is the hub for applying to any one of these routes. If you’re applying for a postgraduate programme, the process is fairly similar to undergraduate applications – personal statement, references, and relevant experience. The main difference found in a teacher training application is the choice of three universities instead of the usual five. Regarding the personal statement, UCAS has guidelines for exactly what to include here.
When you think of the day-to-day duties of a primary teacher, it’s difficult to imagine them doing much other than standing in front of a class or marking work. But there is so much to the role under the surface, the prominence of which trainees might not fully realise.
One of the areas that takes up the most of my time is managing the relationships between my pupils, teaching them social skills, and helping them to regulate their emotions,” says Mary. “For me, this aspect of the job often takes precedence over other duties, because some children need this more than others.
Teachers are also given Planning, Preparation and Assessment (PPA) time set aside from their timetabled teaching hours. This is normally one morning or one afternoon. For example, Mary during PPA time, often assesses what pupils can do and use it to inform future lessons.
When you’re an NQT, you have 10% more PPA time. This translates to one extra session a week for catching up on things and undertaking professional development, such as observing lessons.
Here’s a breakdown of what it really takes to be a great primary school teacher.
One of the essential skills needed in primary education is being a team player. You have to be open to receiving advice from everybody, which also requires you to have good listening skills. If people don’t listen to each other in such an unpredictable workplace as a primary school, there is chaos! After this, ability to reflect on situations is pretty important to ensure things run smoother in the future.
Another important skill is flexibility. Be prepared for situations to change – adopt an ‘anything could happen’ approach. As Mary mentions;
When I was a student, I didn’t have this flexible skill and found it hard to deal with sudden change. If I couldn’t be flexible in this job, I would become frustrated because it would feel like everything was going wrong. Sometimes my lessons have been cut short, or I have had to deal with a friendship problem, which disrupts the ideal routine. When you learn to be flexible to these kinds of changes, you’re more equipped for the job. You also have to be approachable. Especially as a teacher, you have to talk to many different types of people – professionals, parents, teachers of very different subjects.
One of the biggest challenges of the job is that you have very high expectations for how the children will behave and treat each other. When you are working with children who haven’t experienced as much appropriate behaviour outside of school, it can be very emotionally draining as the teacher to see children not getting along and trying to remedy this. In the start you might find the hardest aspect is getting points for improvement when I was being observed, and feeling scrutinised because of it. Even with this being the case, taking advantage of criticism is important.
It can be very rewarding to see children who find it especially hard to regulate their own emotions begin to manage them in a more mature way, with each other and themselves. When you model positive behaviour you may think it’s not going to make a difference, but when you see small bits mirrored back to you it can be extremely rewarding because you’re helping them learn how to be with each other.
Moving up the career ladder in primary education is fairly easy with each year of experience, but more senior roles are harder to reach. You can become a coordinator of a subject in your second year of teaching. You might start with a subject leadership in History or Geography because they’re not core subjects, depending on what positions are already filled. You could also expect to gain a school-wide position, which depends on what your school does. For example, you might be given responsibility for a school-wide reward scheme. In your second year you might also be asked to start mentoring trainees, which obviously gives you more responsibility.
For some positions you will need a few years of experience. For example, in larger schools, positions you might come to before management roles could be leading key stage 1 or key stage 2, or the ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ levels of these groups. You might also be able to become Child Protection Officer, also known as the Designated Safeguarding Person. A few years experience, at the very least, is needed to become a deputy headteacher. If you get to this level, you have the option to be a deputy who still teaches, or a deputy who does not teach. As for becoming headteacher, this role is completely different to the others. You have to be completely driven and sure of your own ideas because you are completely in charge. This means you will need extra experience in managerial roles.
Do as much research as possible about the profession and what it will be like to do your teacher training, even if this is a simple Google or YouTube search. If you’re able, you should talk to as many experienced people as you can. I didn’t do a lot of this and it led me to feel stressed and out of my depth. Be resilient in the face of criticism during training, because often the people who are giving the criticism usually do not enjoy criticising trainees – it’s just a requirement of the profession. Remember that everyone was in your position once.