Learning to teach: Advice from a career changer

It is important that you go into teacher training with your eyes wide open. It isn’t for everyone but has the potential to be an incredibly rewarding career.

Newly qualified teacher, Greg Baldwin, who made the change after two decades in the print industry, shares his thoughts on switching careers.

There was pure disbelief in my wife’s voice when I told her that I no longer had a job. She was in the playground waiting to collect my five-year-old son from school. The news was totally unexpected, so it's fair to say that we were both in a state of shock.

When we began to recover our senses, we realised that – far from being the worst thing that had ever happened to us – this could be the fresh start that we'd been considering for a long time.

I'd been working in the print industry for around 20 years and had gradually taken on more responsibility and was earning more than I thought I ever would. However, I often felt unfulfilled and the thought of all my hard work simply lining someone else’s pockets was intensely frustrating.

Family and friends had been telling me that I would make a good teacher for years. Although I potentially agreed with them, I found the concept of changing career and taking a large drop in salary too overwhelming to consider. However, after researching the possibility on the internet, it became clear that there's plenty of support available.

With the recent slew of COVID-related redundancies, there must be a huge number of people in a similar position. If you're one of them – or just someone that feels that a career in teaching would be more rewarding than what you're doing currently – here are some things I’ve learnt that could help you get started.

Do your research

Subject to your location, there is plenty of expert advice available for people interested in teaching in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If you're in England, the Department for Education Get into Teaching service can even assign you one-to-one support from an experienced teacher who can answer any questions you might have and give you personalised advice on what to do to get you on your way.

You’ll also find a wealth of resources to help you kickstart your career in teaching including information on eligibility. In England, you need a degree and a GCSE grade C/4 in English and maths (plus science if you want to teach primary). The requirements are similar for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

I was unsure whether my degree in Psychology would be suitable for secondary teaching, but my advisor explained that – subject to the potential completion of a Knowledge Enhancement Course – my degree would be suitable for teaching biology.

Get some first-hand experience

It is important that you go into teacher training with your eyes wide open. It isn’t for everyone but has the potential to be an incredibly rewarding career. If you're unsure, you can contact local schools to volunteer or just spend a day or two observing what goes on in a school.

If you’re based in England, the Get school experience service can help you arrange school experience with a local school. This will give you an opportunity to talk to teachers about day-to-day school life, observe teaching and pastoral work and watch a range of lessons and age groups being taught. In Scotland, you can contact Teach in Scotland who can help arrange experience in a school and the relevant bodies in Wales and Northern Ireland currently suggest that you contact local schools and youth organisation directly.

To begin with, I was undecided on whether I wanted to teach primary or secondary, but this experience allowed me to put some behaviour fears to rest about secondary school and realise that primary school wasn't the ‘sunshine and roses’ experience I expected it to be either. Far from it just being hours of cutting and sticking every day, primary schoolteachers constantly provide evidence for the children in their classes. It also gave me the first glimpse into realising that teachers were a bunch of genuinely passionate, interesting, supportive, and like-minded people that I would enjoy spending the rest of my career working alongside.

As well as experience in schools, you can attend events that allow you to meet training providers, speak one-to-one with advisors and chat with experienced teachers to find out what life as a teacher is like. Previously taking place in hotels and exhibition centres, events are now being held online in England and Scotland.

I cannot think of another career that would provide so much support for me to join and provides such a fulfilling aspect to my life.

Explore your options

If you decide that teaching is for you, there are several different routes available for career changers that depend on where you’d like to teach and how you’d like to be trained.

All options include a mix of university-based learning and on-the-job training, and depending on where you train, these might take different forms. In England, there are two main options, a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) – training split between university-led learning and ‘on the job’ training in a school setting – and School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) – this option also includes university led learning but is usually more focused in the ‘on the job’ training within a school setting. You typically spend more time in schools and there is even an option for being paid whilst you train. Both courses take one year to complete and are supported by a school-based mentor – with a university-based mentor if you follow the PGCE route.

For me, the current bursaries (up to £26,000 tax-free) for Science subjects were what made teacher training possible. The requirements change subtly every year, but you can check the funding options available via the UCAS website.

The options in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are largely similar although you will be unable to teach in Scotland without a Professional Graduate Diploma in Education (PGDE). There are a few other subtle differences between different parts of the UK so the Teacher Training section of the UCAS website is a good place to look for more specific information.

I decided on a one-year PGCE with a local university for my training. Most SCITT courses require some experience in schools to ensure you are ready to 'hit the ground running' and I hadn’t had the opportunity to do this first. Some people keen on the SCITT route seek employment as a Cover Supervisor (essentially an unqualified teacher that works at a school providing cover for lessons when a teacher is absent). Salaries for a Cover Supervisor are lower than that for a qualified teacher, but this might be an option for you if you need to earn an income whilst you're preparing to train.

Know what to expect

I’m currently in my NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) year and, although it’s been incredibly hard work at times, I am still enjoying teaching immensely.

The benefits, for me, include:

School holidays – there is no denying that 13 weeks not working in school each year makes teaching a tempting career (although read on, because there is a flip side to this!)

Working with young people is incredibly refreshing, and the ‘lightbulb’ moments when you see an idea take shape in a student’s mind for the first time are exhilarating.

Working with like-minded people has been an unexpected bonus for me. You get to work with people who share your interests and passions rather than being purely motivated by a wage or ticking each day towards retirement off the calendar.

My previous work and life experience have proved invaluable to my teacher training. Skills that I take for granted (like time management and organisational skills) made the rest of training infinitely easier. Younger trainees tend to lack this experience and so have had to learn about this whilst honing their teaching skills.

On the flip side:

Although teachers aren’t ‘teaching’ for 13 weeks a year, they do work long hours and some spend time on school work during weekends and the school holidays too. A recent study found that:

  • a quarter of teachers work more than 59 hours a week
  • 10% work over 65 hours per week.

However, as a career changer, I've found it easier to manage my work-life balance and believe that my organisational skills have helped me to work more efficiently. Although I work long hours some weeks, I'm expecting my working hours to reduce as I become more efficient at planning and build a store of my own ready-made resources to rely on in future.

I regularly worked evenings and weekends in my previous job but, if this isn’t for you, then you may need to consider how you'll make this work for you. That said, I know some teachers who are vehement about not taking work home, so they work at school until 5pm every day to avoid this. Most schools give you the flexibility to manage your own workload.

You'll have some students with difficult behaviour to manage. However, I remind myself that these students often have difficult lives and that our approach to them can make a big difference.

Having worked for companies before with swanky offices, healthcare plans and, for the right client, seemingly unlimited resources, teaching tends to be a bit more down-to-earth. I regularly buy stationery and classroom resources that aren’t in the school budget.

Many teachers I spoke to when considering training and those I now work with refer to teaching as ‘the greatest job in the world’. Although beer tester or restaurant critic might still seem appealing, I cannot think of another career that would provide so much support for me to join and provides such a fulfilling aspect to my life. Pupils will always keep you on your toes and you'll be asked questions that you couldn’t have imagined in a million years.

To me, that’s worth a few late nights here and there.

Greg is a 42-year-old science NQT with a specialism in biology, and teaches Years 7 to 10 in Sheffield. Find out more about his story.

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