By Dr. Catherine Armstrong
Why Teach at School?
Because of their similar liberal ethos and skills base, many people who have completed postgraduate work in an academic department decide to go into school teaching as a profession. Although the qualifications required are different and the pedagogy of teaching school children is separate to that of teaching adults over the age of 18 at university, it is still easy to see why the school teaching profession would be attractive to someone with postgraduate qualifications. It is a vibrant, exciting profession that is also incredibly rewarding because you are guiding the development of young people.
Paul Whitehouse, who has recently completed a MA in English Literature and is about to embark on a PGCE, believes that the challenges of teaching a younger audience are incredibly attractive. He is anticipating how to convey complex material and also make it a relevant learning experience. His own broad learning history will stand him in good stead for this, as he has attended community colleges, universities, done overseas youth work and undertaken apprenticeship training. Being able to build on your own past experiences and develop different teaching strategies for different scenarios is vital if you are to become a flexible and influential teacher.
The job security of the teaching profession is also attractive to applicants. Unlike many careers in the twenty-first century, school teaching has a well-defined career-progression path with regulated salary increments and structured working days, weeks and years. It is a job that will be recognised around the country and abroad, so it can open doors wherever you are based. Teachers do have a degree of autonomy over their working lives too, being able to control what happens in their classroom and design lessons within the prescribed curriculum. They also have the opportunity to pursue personal interests in their subject, some schoolteachers publish research on their topic and attend academic conferences. Despite the well-publicized disillusionment within the profession, created in part by disciplinary problems and by overloading of government initiatives on attainment and quotas, many teachers still enjoy their work and would actively encourage others to go down that route. While the stress of teaching puts some people off, others know that they thrive in that sort of environment.
Which route should be taken?
There are various options on offer to those who would like to enter school teaching; Paul attended a series of seminars covering the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP), Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) pathways, and a national ‘get into teaching event' held at the Millennium Point in Birmingham, aimed at helping prospective teachers navigate their way through the morass of material that surrounds the profession. Initially he gave serious thought to taking the GTP option, the benefits of this include being paid to train, and immediate access to classroom experience. However, before taking this decision, it is important to consult those who are already in the profession. In the end, although the GTP was an excellent option and will be right for some people, Paul decided on the Secondary PGCE route. His reasons for this were:
1) While GTP gives you good classroom experience, this very much depends upon the kind of school and personal mentor you are teamed with. It is very important to approach schools which offer GTP placements with these factors in mind.
2) While you are paid to train, you are taxed on your earnings, meaning from a financial point of view you are no better off than had you taken the PGCE - bursary / loan route, although this very much depends upon your personal financial situation and your subject, as the PGCE bursary varies between subjects, with maths and science currently taking precedent, and is due to change again in 2008.
3) GTP is not currently recognised in Scotland, and in certain foreign countries.
4) GTP graduates tend to remain at the school where they were trained, and in this sense it is better suited to people who intend to live in the local area for some time. In fact, the GTP route is ideal for those who have chosen to opt for a new career path.
5) Despite being reassured by many different teachers that in an interview situation a PGCE student would be no better off than a GTP all grades considered, the fact that the vast majority of teachers choose a PGCE told me that the qualification was at least more recognised.
6) A secondary PGCE also allows you teach primary, enhancing employment options, although some further training might be required.
7) A PGCE also offers you a more gradual introduction to the classroom with some lecturing to aid your assimilation.
8) A PGCE is also recognised as an academic qualification and can count towards an MA in education.
9) He was also offered a place at a prestigious university, which is valuable in its own right and will look great on his CV, whatever the future holds.
How to get onto a teacher training course
Paul spent a long time working out the best way to approach his chosen career path, and he shares some of that knowledge here. It is vital to do your research as far in advance as possible. The amount of material offering advice to would-be teachers is overwhelming. Also, talk to the educational department at your university to get the basics from someone working within the system. Don't be afraid to telephone schools and get some classroom observation time, in fact many universities require this for interview.
Research on the internet is a great way to start; Google ‘why I like to teach', ‘why teach?' and similar statements to see what others have written. There is a huge amount of material about why people like to teach / hate to teach / dislike teachers / admire their teacher(s), along with a plethora of articles about interview technique and what to put / not to put in your application statements.
When it comes to application forms, make sure you emphasise your own ‘teaching' experiences, even if this is just teaching your little brother to tie his shoelaces, or volunteering at the local scout hut. If you don't have any ‘teaching experience', get some. Find some time to volunteer in your local community or at your university. Most universities and colleges have a mentor programme, which is a great way to get involved. You also need some relevant referees, so try to identify someone who could help with your application. An unpleasant and at times stressful task is completing the loan request forms. Do these as soon as possible, although you will already need to know which institution you will be attending. Your Local Education Authority can offer you some assistance with this, so get in touch with them if you need any support. The LEA sometimes run workshops at local schools during various times of the year and are a great resource.
The Interview Process
If you get to interview, prepare handouts, think about your philosophy of teaching and try to avoid obvious statements like ‘I've always wanted to teach'. Also look at the national curriculum online, and familiarise yourself with the general gist, as you might get a few questions about what you would change, or what you think the limitations are. You might also be interviewed as a group, so think about what you will do to make yourself stand out, the key is to present yourself as a teacher in the making - prepare a handout if you are asked to make a presentation, summarise what you have said. Try to address everyone in the group rather than just staring at the interviewer. There is advice on interview presentations elsewhere on this site, but Paul recommends delivering your presentation while standing up, differentiating yourself from others who sit behind the desk and read from a sheet of paper. You should consider everything you say and do from the moment of your arrival to be part of the interview process. Make an effort to be gregarious, speak to the other applicants, introduce yourself - if anything this will help you feel more relaxed and in control of your situation.
In conclusion, embarking on a career in school teaching should not be taken lightly, make sure you do your research about what is involved and consider the implications carefully. If you do feel strongly drawn towards teaching then explore the various routes into the profession, there will almost certainly be one that suits your circumstances and needs. Teaching is also a career that could open up all sorts of unforeseen possibilities including the option of working abroad.