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Science Teaching (and Tutoring)

September 13, 2013

Moving into teaching is a subject that we consider at regular intervals as part of the CABS programme. In the past we have had presentations from alumni at various stages of their careers (including Science teaching: In the classroom and beyond and Teaching biology overseas).

In 2013, we asked three former students – Hajra Kali, Nailah Sattar, Mital Thanki – all of whom had graduated in 2010, to come and share some advice based on their experiences during qualification and their early days of classroom practice. Rather than formal presentations, the format on this occasion was a Q&A session. The main points emerging from the conversation are summarised below.


At the time of the event, Hajra was working at Soar Valley Community College and Nailah was at Wyggeston and Queen Elizabeth I Sixth Form College (known locally as “QE”). Mital was teaching at Longslade Community College, as well as running a Tutorial business in her spare time. Since then, however, she has expanded the Tutorial work, a role she has now taken on full-time.

Thank you for sparing time this afternoon to come and discuss teaching with us. I wonder if I might start by asking you to say a bit about the context in which you are teaching at the moment, and what training route you went through.

Nailah: I did a PGCE at the School of Education, here in Leicester. I trained to teach secondary science, so that Year 7 (age 11) upwards. I knew that I wanted to focus on the high year groups, particularly A level, but it’s pretty rare for jobs to come up for newly qualified teachers which are that specific. However, a post was advertised at QE, the sixth form college next door, so I applied and I got the job.

Hajra: Like Nailah, I did the PGCE in Leicester. After that, I got a temporary maternity cover job at Rushey Mead School to the North of the city. Whilst I was doing that, a permanent role came up at Soar Valley Community College, in a very similar area to Rushey Mead, and that’s the job I’m doing now. It’s an 11 to 16 school, we don’t have a sixth form, so I teach Year 7 to 11, Key Stage 3&4.

Mital: My route into teaching was slightly different. I took a year out after my second year at Uni, and I decided to do cover supervising in a school. I’d been toying with the idea of becoming a teacher for ages, but I thought this would give me a chance to see if I liked it. Honestly, it was the best experience of my life because it brought things into reality. Schools aren’t as nice as we remember them. We have our own ideas of schools. The fact that you are here, doing a degree means you were probably good students in good classes. When I went back I was freaked out with what I saw. I was terrified. Having kids chuck things in class, call you all sorts of names. To be honest it was a challenge, and I loved it!

After I finished my degree I got a place on the Graduate Teacher Programme, GTP. The government have just changed this now though, it’s been replaced by something called the School Direct Training Programme, but I think it works in roughly the same way.

Perhaps you could tell us a bit more about your experience of the PGCE and GTP schemes.

Nailah: The PGCE is *really* tough! You do blocks. 6 weeks at Uni trying to prepare you for the classroom, trust me no way can they prepare you for classrooms, for when you walk in and you have 20 kids staring at you thinking “fresh meat”. And then you do six weeks in a school, then you go back to Uni for 4 weeks and they say “are you alright?” And then you go back for 8 weeks to another school. If you like being at Uni, then working, then Uni again, then working, then the PGCE may be for you. But you’ll have sleepless nights, I promise. I don’t care how tough you are, the pupils will break you – just don’t cry in front of them!

Hajra: I agree, the PGCE year is hard. Even though I had placements at two really good schools, I cried, I nearly died! I’d say doing the university degree was hard, especially third year. But the PGCE year was really busy and the fact that you have all these crazy kids that you have to deal with, and all their issues made it really tough. I remember one Thursday, I had six weeks left to finish my PGCE and I just packed my bags. I texted my co tutor, not even went to him, I said “I’m going, I’m never coming back, goodbye”. And I got a text back saying “I’m teaching, give me ten minutes. Just wait” and I’m glad that I did.  He said “give it until tomorrow, Friday, last lesson and after that if you want I’ll sign the papers”. I’m so glad that I listened to him because I wouldn’t change what I’m doing now for the world.

Mital: I went through the GTP at the University of Nottingham. I wish I’d been able to do the GTP via Leicester, but they don’t offer it. It’s a different pattern to the PGCE. Monday to Thursday working in the school as a normal teacher, Fridays are spent in the University being a student. The main difference from the PGCE, is that you get thrown into the deep end right from day 1. So I was lesson planning as I went along. I really enjoyed the process. If you are the sort of person who enjoys learning on the job then I’d highly recommend the GTP. I was learning the PGCE aspect of the course whilst I was at Uni, so by the end of the year I got a GTP but got my PGCE qualification as well, with credits towards a Masters as well But it’s slightly different.

Hajra: I think if I’d done GTP I would probably have died! At the end of my first placement I couldn’t wait to get back to Uni and just be a student again. The kids can completely drain you! In some senses, the Uni bits of the PGCE are like a break, whereas the on the GTP scheme you are constantly on the go. Where I worked for my PGCE placement we also had a guy doing the GTP route. He was constantly on it, whereas we were a bit more relaxed.

Mital: It is possible to do a version of the GTP without a PGCE component, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Do a course that has both elements. I’m not sure I could have cope in school 5 days a week, and having the PGCE also looks better when you are applying for jobs.

Hajra: You do get paid for doing a PGCE too. We got about 6 grand for doing the year. But, be warned the number of biology PGCE places has been severely cut back in the last couple of years. They are pushing people much more towards the Teach First scheme. You need 2i or above to do that program. aAnd you go to a training camp where they teach you how to teach. But it seems like most of the graduates from Teach First go on to management roles, and not even in teaching, but for top five businesses. Those that stay on in schools do get better roles.

Nailah: Don’t think just because you got a first you can teach, or that just because you got a 2ii that you can’t. The key thing is how good you are with people and can you teach. It’s not how bright you are. A lot of bright people really struggle to bring it down to the right level to pass on their understanding to kids. Can you break it down into a simpler level? You don’t need to be super bright to be a good teachers.

So what’s work like for you now?

Mital: A typical day will see you going to bed very late, I feel like I’m constantly marking even now. But there’s rewards too; at the end of the day you get your nice summer holiday, loads of holiday in fact.

Nailah: It was quite tough to start with, but once you know what you are doing, once you’re set up, it’s a really good job. I absolutely love it, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. Even if I’m teaching the same topic to a different class, it’s never the same lesson. The dynamic of the classroom is always different. Sometimes you’ll explain it one way and one class will get it, but the other doesn’t get it straight way, so you have to try a different approach. And it’s always a challenge to make them understand it. If I see something really difficult and I think “how am I going to explain that?” It’s a challenge to me to explain it to them. Otherwise I feel I’ve failed. I really like it, every day is different.

Hajra: Last year I used to finish really late, you know 6 o’clock would be my standard day, but this year I’m trying to do all of my marking in school and get away more promptly. My planning is a lot easier as I’ve got everything from last year. As it’s my second year of teaching I only have to change a few things around. But aside from that it’s true that after PGCE and NQT [newly qualified teacher] years it does get a lot easier.

Nailah: my “free periods” are never spent chilling and I’m always working during my lunch. But I’m trying really hard not take any work home. There are the odd days when I have 150 papers to mark in three days or whatever, but that’s not all the time. This was the first Christmas I’ve had since GCSEs in year 10 that I haven’t had to work. Not a thing, actually having a Christmas holiday! It was weird.

Hajra: The kids said to me “what are you going to do this Christmas?”  And I said “I’m going to do what I’ve wanted to do for the last ten years”. And they were all “what is it Miss?” And I said “I’m going to sit and watch Christmas movies”. And they sat and laughed at me, and I said “You take it for granted these little things, but it’s true, that’s what I’m going to do”.

Nailah: it certainly gets easier once you’ve been through the PGCE and the NQT year. I personally think the PGCE was tougher than the NQT year. On the PGCE you are going into someone else’s classroom and, depending on the teacher, they may dump you with the stuff they don’t want to teach themselves. They’re not your kids, so you don’t feel that same attachment with them as you do when you get your own classes. Also, during the PGCE it’s obvious you are new to teaching. Once you are an NQT the kids don’t know that it’s your first year. If a lesson doesn’t go so well you can make a note to change it next time, whereas on the PGCE you are constantly being observed – it’s very stressful! When you’ve got your own space it is so much better.

Mital, you mentioned that you’ve been involved in doing some tutoring, do you want to say a bit more about that?

Mital: As I said, whilst I was doing my degree I was a bit silly and I bought a little car which was costing me a lot to run. I needed to get some money, so I produced a leaflet using PowerPoint. I walked round delivering it to houses near to where I lived, and through that I got two clients, two students who wanted tutoring. So I was tutoring them science. Then those two turned into 10, this was still while I was doing my degree. Then the 10 turned into 15 and I had to cut it off there as I couldn’t do any more, and still keep up with Uni work. I was running these tutorials 1-2-1.

Then when I was in my final year at Uni, I saw an advert on one of those electronic news screens in the library. It was for a catalyst award. It’s basically a business award, and you can get a grant for up to 5000 pounds to set up your own business. I thought “that’s what I need”. So I set up a social enterprise, a tutoring service called Spark Academy.

My main aim is to make private tuition affordable for everybody because a lot of the time some school students are struggling but can’t afford to pay for tuition. So I’ve set up an Academy in Oadby, and I’m going to be opening another one on Melton Road. I’m basically offering small group tutorials to kids in all the core subjects: We do GCSE Science, Maths and English and we do A level Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths and English I don’t tutor the Maths or English, I’ve got other tutors now who do that. I’m so enthusiastic. I think it will make a difference to people’s grades and lives and hopefully get them into things they really want to do.

[As mentioned earlier, Mital has now quit her job at Longslade and taken up running the Spark Academy full time. An article on the development was carried in the Leicester Mercury].

What are the general routes for progressing within teaching?

Hajra: you start out as a normal classroom teacher, but then you can take on extra responsibilities. In some schools they call it advanced skills teachers, ASTs, but this is just being changed as well into something called Leading Practitioner. In some schools they give you “TLRs” [teaching and learning responsibility payments], it means you are a person who has got extra responsibility of some kind for which you get some extra payment, maybe 2 or 3 thousand pounds.

Examples of TLRs would be, Heads of Dept, although they tend to get a bigger pay rise. In some schools you would get Heads of House, Heads of Division, Second in Dept, those type of roles. Other posts might include Key Stage 4 Director, Head of Pastoral Services, those who sort out the programme for form time or tutor time in the mornings. Those are the types of extra responsibility you could have. Head of Dept is really middle management, then if you wanted to you could progress to Assistant Principal and then Principal. They are on lovely money, but they don’t really have a life!

Mital: There’s the payoff – you can get extra money for these roles, but you don’t have a life, so it really depends what it is you want. If money is everything for you then go for Head of Dept.

Nailah: In my setting, if I wanted to progress from class teacher, I’d become a tutor, that means I’d have 40 or 50 students and teachers would moan to me about them and you’d need to pick up the issues with the students and sort it out. So you’ve got to deal with the pastoral side, with the caring, their wellbeing. Then you could move on to further responsibility, Head of Department, say, but trust me that issues a tough job! It’s not really relevant for us to think about yet though as you need to get more experience before you can do that role properly.

Mital: One good thing about teaching is that your pay initially goes up every year. The starting salary isn’t bad either; you get about 21 grand initially and your mates working in a lab are not earning that kind of money. Then each year for the first few years, your pay goes up by a thousand pounds or so.

Two years into life as a teacher, are there any things you wished you’d known when you set out?

Mital: I would love to have had a vocabulary list of the rude things kids might say to you! In the early days I’d sometimes end up going to the staff room at break and saying “what does [such and such] mean?” More seriously, if someone took you aside at the outset and said “look, there are going to be good days in school and there are going to be tough days”, and gave you strategies for of how to cope on a bad day, that would be good.

Nailah: People tell you doing a PGCE is going to be tough, but it would have been nice to have some way of knowing how tough. I mean in comparison to your last year of the degree – which is pretty hard.

Hajra: I thought the PGCE would basically be a recap of science knowledge, but it wasn’t. All of our assignments were based on more English-style essays, and because I’m so used to writing science type essays I found it really difficult to write in a different way.

Getting into teacher training (for biology) is increasingly difficult. What can current undergraduates be doing now to improve their chances of getting a place?

Hajra: Nailah and I both did the Student Associate Scheme [now part of the Leicester Award for Employability: Tomorrow’s Teachers programme]. You work in a school for two or three weeks after your exams in June, usually during the second year of Uni. We worked at Riverside, but that’s closed down no. It was a real eye opener. I’d been to an all girls school and then to sixth form college, so I had a civilised education. This experience gave me a better idea of what to expect when I did a PGCE, that there are kids who will swear at you or start a fight or throw things.

Nailah: Like Hajra said, it was so good for us to experience these things. I grew up in a really nice area, where if you swore at a teacher you would be in serious trouble, and then we had kids f-ing and blinding in the classroom, as an everyday thing, ripping down posters, throwing chairs, etc. I think they deliberately expose you to some of the worst places, cause if you can handle that you can handle anything!

Even if you don’t do the Student Associate Scheme, you need to do some volunteering, to build up your contacts, because teaching is a big network. Ask if you can shadow a teacher or watch some lessons. Lots of schools are happy to oblige, just don’t come in the run up to exam time. You will need to have had a CRB [DBS] check though.

Hajra: Rushey Mead do this all the time as they are now what’s called a Teaching School. They invite people who are interested in teaching to come in for various weeks, and they’ve always got something or other going on. Just call them up. A couple of friends and me went on a one week course at Rushey Mead. It was then I thought “I’d love to work at this school”.

Mital: there are quite a few people who’ve come to my school doing a PGCE and then partway through they’ve decided it wasn’t for them and have just stopped.  That’s quite heart-breaking. If you really want to do teaching, trying to sort out some voluntary experience will really help you. The worst thing would be to go into a school, work so hard and then halfway through decide that’s not what you want to do. And it’s a waste of a PGCE place that somebody else might have benefitted from.

Do try and keep in touch with children in other ways too. Help running kids clubs, or different voluntary organisations or during the summer holidays. Work at play schemes, that sort of thing. That will really help you as well.

If you’re serious about going into teaching, the other thing you can do is to pick the UAS project in your final year [now called the Education Research Project]. Rather than doing a lab project or a library project, you get to go out into a local school and do education-based research of some sort there. Often it involves designing new teaching resources and seeing if they are effective. My project was on “assessment for learning”, it was all about measuring progress. It wasn’t easy. As you start practicing teaching more you these things will come more naturally, but i do really recommend the project.

Like the others said, writing PGCE assignments is very different from writing science essays. But doing the UAS really helped me to start looking at education based journals, so that gives you a head start doing a PGCE and even possibly a Masters in Education. But you don’t have to have done an education research project to go into teaching, Nailah and Hajra both did library projects.

Thanks again to all of you for taking time to come and answer our questions. You certainly haven’t painted a rosy picture of going into teaching, but at the same time I do get the impression from all of you that you’ve had a tricky phase that you’ve now got beyond.

Hajra: it’s definitely a rewarding profession, it’s a profession in which there will be days when you feel on top of the world, when you think “this thing that I’m doing here, I’m actually changing people’s lives”. And you do. One thing that’s always stuck with me is this, you never ever forget a good teacher. It’s true. That’s what gets me through.

Nailah: it’s really encouraging when they say “oh Miss, you’re the best teacher, I love your lessons”. Some of the kids are coming from really difficult home settings and the fact you’ve spoken to them nicely and giving them some hope really does change them. When students come and say “thank you”, when they give you presents and stuff, that’s when you know it’s all paid off.

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