What are some of the differences between primary and secondary teaching?
Over the past 6 months I have had the privilege of visiting and working with primary schools in Bristol, Dubai and London, as well as training thousands of primary teachers across several multi academy trusts and local authorities – including Berkshire, Birmingham, Gwynedd in North Wales, Hampshire, Essex and West Sussex.
The main focus of my work has been teaching and learning, supporting teachers and schools to be better – to reduce teacher workload and increase impact. Underpinning this headline, my work has been to challenge the status quo, break habits and support school leaders to challenge external evidence gatherers. Much of the work has aligned with Mark Plan Teach research and its psychology, but the most fascinating aspect of my work has been working alongside teachers using a supportive coaching model.
Typically, observers learn more than the actual teacher during a lesson observation, which is why frequent coaching sessions where the teacher is in control of their teaching development is crucial. With this in mind, where I have worked regularly with teachers in a primary setting, placing teaching and personal foci at the heart of the learning process, I have guaranteed the teacher takes the learning back into the classroom.
Outside of these visits and these coaching sessions, this is what I have learnt about the primary setting.
Over the past 6 months, not one classroom or lesson I have visited have I seen children sitting in rows. Despite the SATs pressure in year 6, or any evidence to support ‘sitting in rows’ may lead to better outcomes, teaching and learning is disciplined and regardless of teacher or seating plan, the quality of teaching and learning is underpinned by routines, high expectations and development of knowledge AND skills. The is evident in primary classrooms where teachers who differentiate on their feet, targeting students through effective questioning.
Displays are vibrant and they are everywhere. Coloured pen assessment is obvious and I have mixed views – whether designed to help students self-assess easier or for external purposes – I have yet to evaluate …
Teaching is exhausting regardless of setting, but one clear difference between primary and secondary is the contact ratio for teachers. In a secondary setting, teachers typically have 3 or 4 hours per week non-contact time for planning and assessment. In primary, this is significantly lower – sometimes just 30 minutes per week. This is made tougher for teachers who have to teach a wide variety of subjects outside of their specialism.
Secondary teachers: imagine having to teach across the curriculum, every day? And to a good level of knowledge? Once a teacher embraces the depth and breath of one subject specialism, they lose touch with other fundamental areas e.g. maths and English. I actually believe many secondary teachers would struggle with the knowledge taught across all subjects in primary schools.
Lesson plans are not expected in most schools, but plans do exist and are shared every week between 2 or more teachers who are teaching the same year group. I am assuming these are created to reduce workload and shared expectations, rather than a forced process, but I am not denying that exists. In a variety of schools and in some of the conversations I have had, teachers are happier and more effective when they have the autonomy to adapt plans for their classrooms …
School assemblies are a joy to watch and genuinely celebrate personal learning skills and community efforts. Much of this is lost at secondary level because assemblies shift focus on different matters, such as discipline and examination preparation. If only we could get this ‘joy’ back into secondary assemblies rather than just at the end of term.
When coaching began, it was a remedial intervention that occurred within a deficit-focused framework. Now it is seen as a methodology for growth and development, framed for developing teachers so that you one can optimise their performance and potential. In a meta-analysis of research relating to coaching effectiveness, Theeboom et al (2014) emphasise that coaching adds value. It has a positive impact on self-efficacy, personal well-being, goal-orientation and performance. (Dr. Tim O’Brien).
I believe the sooner all schools move to a coaching model to support teachers, not only will teachers become more effective, but we will slowly begin to remove the fear from peer-to-peer observations and in tandem, start to alleviate the retention crisis we are experiencing.
I used to be fearful of working in the primary classroom, but I’d be very tempted to work in this setting.