This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…”, check out this article by writer Chris Harvey on being a Teacher.
Teacher (in the UK)
by Chris Harvey
“Teaching is a great job because you get all the holidays off and loads of free time,” said no teacher ever.
It is true that teachers love their job, despite the constant jibes it is a part-time job, we can’t do a real job so chose teaching (those who can do, those who can’t teach apparently!) and that we are not very skilled in our subject areas, teachers get immense joy out of interacting with children and seeing them do well.
Although you might not know that when talking to a teacher, as most of us just moan about the job, before realising we don’t want to do anything else.
In films and books, teachers are generally portrayed as either far too happy people who are married to their job or extremely depressed and only care about getting to the holidays.
They can also be seen as failures that did not get into the career of their choice so have to teach. The truth is far different, teachers love their job but can get down about it, in fact, we are real people! More scary that this, teachers actually choose to be teachers.
You find out pretty quickly if you can hack it or not. Personally, I worked for a company before becoming a teacher, I worked hard, did my shift and move up the company. Since becoming a teacher I work more hours, have more stress and get paid less.
But I would not change that to go back to an office job. So hopefully this article will give you some great tips when writing about teachers.
Before I go on, I want to be clear that I am a secondary trained teacher who has working in both state and private schools in England. Things may be different in other countries, as well as in primary education, but the general ideas will apply.
How to become a teacher
So teachers are untrained failures are they?
Well actually in the UK you need to have a degree and teaching qualification before you are allowed to teach. There are many routes to becoming a teacher but the main ones are…
Subject Degree then PGCE
Doing a degree in a subject you want to teach in then completing a Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE). In the PGCE you learn educational theory, how to teach and assess, subject specific knowledge and complete a range of teaching placements.
In these placements you need to teacher a certain number of lessons and produce a portfolio of evidence. Your tutor then decides whether or not you pass. It takes three years to gain a degree and a further one year for your PGCE.
You can also do the degree and the PGCE all in one by doing an education degree that leads to qualifying to be a teacher. You major in your chosen subject and minor in education The university terms are longer as you have to fit in placements as well.
You can do a three or four year course but the assessment at the end is the same as a PGCE with a tutor deciding if you pass or fail.
The other main way is called teaching first, here you do your degree at university then do the teaching part at a school.
You are employed by the school and are given time off (usually once a week) to attend lectures about education and how to teach. You still have assignments to do and need to show you have met teacher standards, but the main focus is on teaching.
You have both a tutor and mentor in this scenario. The tutor you do not see often, they are a member of whichever university you are linked Your mentor is a teacher at the school that guides you, often your head of department.
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To fully qualify as a teacher you need to have passed a set of teacher standards as set out by the UK Government. These cover behaviour management, subject knowledge, assessment and extra-curricular activities.
This is what a tutor will base their final judgements on. The tutor will weigh up what they have seen in your portfolio as well as observing you teach.
Once you have your degree and have passed the teaching standards you need to find a job. Your first year is as a Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT). In this year you have a mentor and a cut down timetable.
You also have to pass the year by showing that you are keeping up with the teaching standards, usually by having folders full of evidence!
Every teacher wants to be in front of children, making a difference, but in truth a large part of our time is spent planning and creating resources. We have short-term plans (individual lessons), medium-term plans (each topic) and long-term plans (what we cover over the year).
Lesson plans are important for the first few years of teaching but we stop doing them after a while as they take up a lot of time (unless of course we are being observed!). You need to put down what you want to do, timings, any pupil’s special needs, how you will assess them etc.
Most teachers know that information from teaching the pupils so tend to focus on creating resources and noting down a few bullet points. Personally, I create a presentation for each lesson then follow that through when in front of the children.
The big issue with planning is that it can sometimes take two hours to plan a one hour lesson. In fact, we often spend more time planning than teaching.
As soon as a lesson is finished, we evaluate what went right and how we could improve it. The idea is to get to a point where you only need to tweak lessons each year, if you start from scratch each year you will spend all your life planning.
Just as you think you have a lesson nailed, the curriculum will change or you will get a new student with a specific need that means you have to create more resources to scaffold their learning (called differentiation in teaching).
In a lesson
Before going into a lesson most teachers will not want to be there, or be nervous.
But teaching is like acting, as soon as you stand up in front of a class you become a different person, someone who is teaching, making sure pupils are challenged, picking up disruptive behaviours (even small ones – low level talking and banging are the worst but usually you won’t have to deal with anything else), making sure you don’t talk too much (teachers tend to go on a bit and bore students!), moving around the class helping, making sure everyone is on task and assessing what they are doing so you can feedback to them later.
It is hard work, but in a lesson teachers tend to just hit the zone and get on with it. The more experienced the teacher the easier they find it to walk into a lesson and teach. Also, teachers have a plan for every lesson but rarely stick to it.
Timings change, if something is too hard the teacher might change the way they teach on the fly, we even sometimes abandon whole lessons because something more interesting has come up.
It is really about what is best for the students. Unless they are taking exams, then it’s heads down and plough through. Most teachers prefer teaching lessons not linked to exams as you can be more creative and take lessons in new directions.
The hours spent making question cards, differentiated worksheets and mocking up examples really comes into its own then.
Outside a lesson
One of the best parts of the job is outside of lessons. It may sound painful taking fifty pupils around a museum or putting on an art club where everything can go wrong, but it is these points when you get to know the pupils.
You can talk to them about their lives, what they like, what they want to be when they grow up. We even joke with them (and not always sarcasm which we use in lessons, we are told not to, but it is one of a teacher’s coping strategies).
I have learnt so much information about pupils from trips, I can then use this to help engage them in lessons or, more importantly, connect with them as a person, not just a learning vessel.
We are also on duty at all times, even when outside of a lesson. Walking down a corridor we are on the lookout for bad behaviour, or worse, untucked shirts!
The dreaded Ofsted
If you are not from the UK, you may have never heard of Ofsted, they are part of the Government that come around schools and check they are performing. Every teacher fills with dread when their name is mentioned.
They come into schools usually once every four years, that means a frantic few days of a teacher’s life when they are catching up with marking, writing lesson plans, making sure data is up to date and creating new displays. It is pure stress.
Most teachers will have twenty minutes of one lesson observed and then be given feedback. That is it, but it is the most stressful thing in a teachers life. We are not told which lessons they will come in so it could be anytime in the two days they are in school, you just need to be ready all the time.
Ofsted will have meetings with the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) and panels of students and staff that are picked beforehand. Along with evidence from lessons, they will judge a school as…
4 – Special measures – requires assistance from a better school, Ofsted will monitor and be back in regularly
3 – Unsatisfactory – some areas really need improving, you’ve got a year then Ofsted will be back
2 – Good – a decent school, some areas for improvement but you’re off the hook for four years
1 – Outstanding – an amazing school, that you are outstanding is going to be plastered over every bit of marketing you do
Data, Data, Data
That brings me to my next point, data! Teaching is driven by data, comparing what pupils are supposed to get with what they do get. Every piece of work is marked, and a mark noted down, every test is placed in a central spreadsheet.
Predictions are made on final outcome, and if these do not meet what the child’s target grade is we have to give details of how we will raise their achievement.
90% of data is about proving we are doing our job, most is not needed by the teacher as they can tell you exactly who is under and over performing and what they are doing about it.
Basically most of the data is about accountability. It is the bane of a teacher’s life and takes hours to input and analyse.
Most literature makes out that teachers dislike parents. In the most part that is untrue. 99.9% of parents are lovely, supportive and understanding. Teachers often have friendly chats with them at the start of the day.
The ones that are an issue are the pushy parents, the ones who think you are doing a bad job no matter what you do, the ones who tell you how to do your job as if they are more qualified that you.
We usually have multiple emails pinging backwards and forwards with these parents, often a couple a week. However, you only get one or two of these parents per school year, not class.
In my whole time of teaching, 11 years now, I have never encountered a parent that was truly horrible, they just want the best for their children after all. If you ask a teacher what is the worst part of their job, parents don’t even come close.
The holidays are great as a teacher but the day-to-day hours are horrible. I get into work to set up my lessons for the day at about 7am, I then have lessons, lunch duty and possible meetings.
Most days I leave work between 5pm and 6pm. Most teachers tend to work through their lunch so only get about thirty minutes off per day. That means an average day is about ten hours, on top of that we take work home.
I do not work every night but do at least two hours more at home per week. When you add that up it becomes clear that the holidays are just what we are owed for the overtime we have done.
We even come into work in the holidays to get stuff done; usually displays, catching up on marking and answering the plethora of emails we have been sent out-of-school hours. It is quite sad that we signed up to teach and actual teaching is probably less than half the time we work.
I spend more time planning, marking and sorting data than I do teaching, and I am on a pretty full timetable of lessons per week.
One thing about being a teacher is that you are a role model, therefore you have to be careful with your social life.
Teachers have lost jobs for simply posting images of themselves online with an alcoholic drink. It is amazing how parents find these images and videos.
I even know of a teacher who lost her job for posting a silly answer to a mock exam question, she was making a joke about how she could not believe what the child had put.
The teacher had no friends that were parents, did not have the school’s name in any of her social media and was somehow still found out. Friends of friends, eh.
So yeah, we have to be squeaky clean. As a writer I am really careful about what I write about, if ever I wrote a book with swearing or lots of gore I would do it under a pen name.
The worst part of being social when you are a teacher is not actually when you are online. It is when you are out and about and bump into a pupil.
Usually the pupil will react in two ways; the better is trying to hide, the worst is shouting your name whilst waving in an exaggerated manner.
There is a reason so many teachers live outside the catchment of their school, taking arduous journeys of over an hour to get to work so they don’t bump into kids in their free time.
Tools of the trade
There are no specific tools of the trade when it comes to teaching, each teacher has their own preferences on what they want.
However, most teachers will teach using a computer with presentation software that is projected onto an interactive whiteboard. This means that the whiteboard can be used to move items on the computer and you can use the built in pens to write over slides and annotate work.
The two main boards used in the UK are SmartBoard and Promethean. Away from the computer we tend to use worksheets a lot and spend lots of time creating them, or if we are desperate then gathering them from the Internet.
There are many teacher sites that have hordes of worksheets you can just download and use or change. If anything is going to be used again, then we tend to laminate it. This is usually for displays, card sorts and board games. Basically, if it can be laminated, we will laminate it!
When using a computer room, we have our own specific applications, there are some good maths ones such as mathletics and MyMaths as well as lots of spelling ones including Word Shark and Spelling Eggs.
The Internet is used a lot for research but there is the general consensus that wikipedia is bad, although pupils tend to go straight there and just copy information. Teachers get fed up of telling pupils to write in their own words when on a computer.
If we are getting pupils to present information they often want to use PowerPoint as it is easy and you can make things spin around.
If you are writing about a teacher and they are teaching in a computer room, then it is a good idea to search for the top applications for that subject.
As a computing teacher I use Scratch, Flowol, Python and PhotoShop a lot but I don’t think many other teachers use them.
Social media is often used by teachers as well, but for promotion purposes. Twitter is favoured, but after that Facebook and Instagram. We set up accounts with our school email address and post pictures and tag in other professionals.
There is even something called a teachmeet where teachers meet and share good ideas. These are online a lot and involve a twitter hashtag. Often if we need a good idea we head on to twitter, it is also a way to promote the school or the individual teacher.
Right, onto the main thing teachers love, stationery. We have everything from pens and pencils to glue sticks, hole punchers, staplers and every sort of pin and tag there is going.
The one rule is that we buy the cheap stuff for the kids, if we got them cool pencils with pictures of dragons on then they would go missing. Only teachers have the good stuff, my Star Wars pen is the envy of every class I teach.
Why do we do it then?
It might seem like teaching is a hard job, it is, very hard. You do not go into it light-heartedly. Due to pressures and budget cuts recently, more and more teachers in the UK are dropping out of the profession.
However, it is very rewarding, sharing great ideas with others, seeing children engaged and having an impact on their future.
Often children come back when they are older, it is great to see them and then hear what an impact you had, I had some students who said IT is rubbish only to came back five years later and be in a computing career thanks to my teaching.
For all the hours and stresses outside the classroom, inside and on trips is well worth it. For me personally, I had an office job beforehand and would make excuses to go to the toilet or make a cup of tea, all to break up the day.
As a teacher no two days are the same, if you have a bad lesson there is always another round the corner. If it is the end of the day, you just crack out the wine or beer when you get home, but not more than one glass on a school night!
What we do in the holidays
Often the holidays are the only extended time that teachers get to do mundane things.
We catch up on all the housework or home improvements we have not been able to do during term time, do some gardening, read a book, binge on box sets or, if you are like me, spend countless hours with the family, making up for not seeing them for two months.
It is like a switch, we turn on school mode during term time and turn if off when a holiday hits. Saying that, although we try to forget about school we can’t.
Most teachers will spend at least one day a week whilst on holiday working, often going back into work. There is so much to do that we need that time to catch up.
We try to get planned, sort the displays and catch up on the piles of marking, but it is never ending. Teacher’s never catch up, they are always treading water.
The main thing we do though is go on holiday. Somewhere far away from work. We try to get the best deals, but as it is school holidays prices are hiked up.
It is a bit annoying that many children take a week off school to get a cheap holiday but teachers just have to put up with high prices.
Towards the end of the holiday we get twitchy and worry about school work. My Wife often tells me there is a dramatic switch in my mood in the last few days of a school holiday, I become withdrawn and keep heading to my laptop.
The major thing we do in the holidays though, is get ill. As soon as we stop and take a break all the colds and bugs we have not had time to catch make their move. It is amazing how you can stop yourself getting ill when you are working non-stop.
In fact, I did not have a cold during the whole of the last half term I taught, when it got to the holiday I succumbed. Three weeks later and I still have it, but can’t rest as there are children to teach. It just lingers there waiting to get worse for the Christmas break.
If you are writing about a teacher, you need to remember one thing, teachers are real people. We are not over enthusiastic superheroes or depressed bums, we are real people with real problems, just ordinary people who decided that we wanted to spend all our time with children.
OK, maybe we are all a little mad! Teachers work their hours in chunks of time, we do not really have adventures and hobbies during term time, all that happens in the holidays.
It is stressful and government piles the pressure on, but we wouldn’t stop teaching because we know we are making a difference. No amount of promotions, perks or holidays stop us from realising that we do it for children.
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About Chris Harvey
Chris Harvey is a teacher trained in secondary education.
He currently works in a private middle school as the Head of ICT and computing, but has also worked in state secondary schools, all in the UK.
In his spare time he likes to write children’s and young adult fiction.
He writes on a budget, so his stories are not perfectly written, but he does feel they are exciting and interesting.
Chris has many short stories and books available to read, both free and for a small price.
He hopes that one day he may be professionally published, but for now is happy being an indie author. You can learn more about him and his stories from these links…
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I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any questions for Chris, please drop them in the comments below.