Teaching as a Career - An interview with Christina, who has a BA (Hons) Politics and a PGCE in English and Citizenship, and is now a Head-Teacher
Top tips from Christina: 'A lot of people go into teaching because it's a steady salary and they like the idea of the holidays, or because they can't get the job that they wanted. These are shocking reasons! People drop out after the NQT year because they hadn't really thought about what it would mean to be a teacher. Children are looking for role models.'
Deborah: Tell me about your experience of being an undergraduate...
Christina: I studied for a BA (Hons) in Politics. I was a mature student with a daughter, so I lived in my own house rather than in a hall of residence. It was quite daunting being a mature student, as the majority of students had come straight from college. But I found the support provided by my university to be excellent. I had a very positive experience of university. Everything was very well-organised; tutors had a genuine interest in what you were doing - they wanted to you to consider what your next step would be right from the start of the course.
D: How did you decide that you wanted to train to be a teacher once you'd graduated?
C: In my final year, I'd decided that I'd apply to be a tax inspector - I'd seen that it would bring a £50k salary. But it wasn't really me. A tutor said to me that he thought I'd make a good teacher. I hadn't thought about it; I hadn't been a fan of school! Tutors really encouraged me to apply. I finally applied late; 100 people had applied and there were only 3 places left, but I got one - subject to completing a crash course in Maths (because I hadn't got a Maths GCSE at grade C). I found out that I'd passed the crash course 2 weeks before the PGCE started!
D: Tell me about doing a PGCE...
C: I did my Secondary PGCE in Citizenship and English. Doing a PGCE is very intense and very tiring. A degree doesn't prepare you for it. The workload isn't vast, but it all takes place in a short time, so it's very hard work. Lots of students dropped out because they hadn't realised what was involved. People would fall asleep in class because they were so tired. I'd worked part-time when I was doing my degree, but I don't think you could work part-time while doing a PGCE. People who were 21 also found it difficult to do behaviour management - 16 or 18 year olds at school don't want to be told what to do by a 21 year old. On the course, you have lectures and two school placements - one is in a tough city school and another in a county school which is in a leafier area. We learnt how to do lesson plans and about behaviour management. You gain a lot of confidence and get a lot of satisfaction when you're on placement and a lesson goes well, or a child has suddenly understood something, or when students are protesting because they don't want you to leave at the end of your placement!
D: What was it like going into your first job as a teacher?
C: I chose the toughest school I could find. It was close to the bottom of the league tables. People I knew outside of teaching said to me: 'Don't go there!'. I'd been advised that in terms of developing a career, one year in a tough school is worth five in another school; if you want to progress quickly, you need to go to a tough school. The Newly-Qualified Teacher (NQT) year was harder than doing the PGCE. You've got a mentor, but people haven't got lots of time to keep asking if you are OK; you get your timetable and off you go. Your first school really is make or break. Fourteen NQTs started at the same time as I did and 4 of us were left at the end of the year. The school gave me a lot in terms of behaviour management; and it gave me a lot of responsibility early on. It was an inspiring place.
D: I know that you are now a Headteacher. Tell me about your journey from your first job to your current role...
C: It's taken six years for me to progress from NQT to headteacher. It's because of the choice of first job that I made. It was the right decision to go to a tough school. I stayed there three years. Within six months at the first school I was in a middle-management position. When I left I was Head of the Business Enterprise Department (I'd started as a History teacher). I'd had lots of different roles and responsibilities in those three years. There are so many different titles and areas available in schools that you can end up being the manager of 10 different things. So, after three years, I moved on to an emotional and behavioural disorders day school. I'd been told I would make Assistant Head at my first school if I stayed, but I wanted to see if I could work with children with emotional and behavioural issues. Other people thought I'd made a mistake in moving, but I felt that it would be useful experience to go in a different direction. Next, I was asked to open a pupil referral unit. These are schools that are concerned with stopping pupils being excluded permanently. It was very successful - for instance one pupil who could only cope with half a day at school when she started was attending school full-time within 2 months. Then I was headhunted to the headship I have now.
D: What's it like being a Headteacher?
C: I'm from the inner city; I'm the only member of my family to have any high level qualifications - so it's a bit surreal! It's hard work being a headteacher. It can be daunting, because if anything goes wrong, it is your fault, no matter who did it. But it's very rewarding when parents ring up and people visit the school and they say it's fantastic. I wanted to be a headteacher so I could make a difference. It's almost about power - as a teacher you can make a difference to a certain extent, but as a headteacher you have significant opportunities to make a difference.
D: How do you ensure you have a work-life balance?
C: I wanted to secure the future for my daughter, so at university I worked and had no life. As my career has progressed, I've learnt how to delegate and I know how to manage my time. But teaching isn't just a job; it's a way of life. I'm on 24 hour call. I don't switch off. You can't take your eye off the ball at the level I'm at. I tend to socialise with people who do the same sort of thing.
D: What advice would you give current undergraduates thinking of going into teaching?
C: A lot of people go into teaching because it's a steady salary and they like the idea of the holidays, or because they can't get the job that they wanted. These are shocking reasons! People drop out after the NQT year because they hadn't really thought about what it would mean to be a teacher. Children are looking for role models. Fifty per cent of the job is about sorting out problems with children, parents and colleagues, and doing paperwork. In fact paperwork can take up as much time as teaching. If undergraduates are looking at going into secondary school teaching, I'd say that if they are 21 they aren't old enough. That may be controversial, but in the time I've been teaching I've only seen one person of 21 do it well; I think there should be a minimum age of 25 for secondary school teaching, so that entrants have had some life experience, so they've got something to offer beyond knowledge. (Primary teaching will be different, of course.) I think that people entering teaching should cut their teeth in a tough school. They'll then move through the ranks more quickly. You need to decide what you want from teaching. You need to plan for what you want. Don't be scared to move on; I spent 1 year in each of my last two schools - I'd got the experience I wanted from them so I moved on. (As a head, the bare minimum to spend in a school is three years; the maximum would be five years, or so I'm told!) While at university, I'd suggest people get experience of working with young people. I'd suggest that it should be within a community, like volunteering at a youth club. You'd then get a feel for what the children are like. And when you look for jobs, go on visits to schools, make sure that a school you apply to fits your personality - some can be quite rigid and expect you to go in wearing in a suit; others are more relaxed - choose what suits you; schools are very different from each other.