There’s no typical day for a teacher, and for many that’s the beauty of the job. Kids and colleagues are as unpredictable as the weather at sea. That said, teachers cling to certain constants to help them navigate stormy waters. It’s never a dull ride.
We hope this blog gives you an overview of what you’re likely to encounter if you’re considering teaching as a career or are new to the profession.
(This is a typical day without the constraints of Coronavirus restrictions which are currently in force.)
The early bird
Teachers are early birds and a conscientious bunch by nature. Schools will contractually stipulate that staff are required to be on the premises by a certain time, but many teachers like to come in early, with the staff car park filling up between 7:20 and 8:00. With only the background music of birdsong and perhaps a classroom clock, school is wonderfully quiet at this time, offering the perfect opportunity to mark, answer emails, or organise resources for the day’s lessons, uninterrupted.
This moment of serenity is, however, fleeting. You may have breakfast club duty, and corridors are soon replete with pupils and their ricocheting echoes, as bodies rush to and fro in anticipation of registration at roughly 8:30am.
Morning and afternoon registrations are a legal requirement; consequently, most teachers are responsible for registering a form. Registration is also essential for the dissemination of information: team news, clubs, last-minute cancellations, trips, and activities.
There is also the provision of Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE), which can cover anything from protecting the environment to exploring puberty, depending on the age group.
Some teachers let their form get on with chat or quiet reading before the main business of the day. Others like to host quizzes, share snippets of newspaper articles, show short video clips, or spark debates.
Schools will have at least one assembly a week, most often in the morning, after registration or at mid-morning break.
This allows time for the further dissemination of information, prayers, and a celebration of whatever’s going on in the school community. Music, drama, sport, and outdoor activities will feature, as will talks from staff and pupils alike.
Lessons, in most schools, range from 30 minutes to 1 hour in length, although there are exceptions. Some subjects opt for doubles (back-to-back lessons), which is imperative if science practicals or art projects or games of netball are to run their course.
Each lesson has its own rhythms. Kids need time to settle, unpack, and arrange equipment. Then there’s the customary rapport talk that begins every lesson and oils the wheels of learning in the classroom. Teaching is all about building relationships with young people. That’s what makes the job so enjoyable and so challenging.
Many teachers follow the three-part lesson structure:
- Starter activity or hook
- Main activity
They may commence proceedings by simply recapping the previous lesson or handing out recently marked work.
Each lesson is a mix of teacher-led instruction, whole-class discussion, and kids doing stuff, in small groups, pairs, or alone. We learn by doing.
Teachers will also work with pupils one-to-one, as time allows.
Note that class sizes vary enormously. Someone who teaches a less mainstream subject at A Level may have the occasional luxury of only seven or fewer pupils in a class, though this is rare. Fee-paying schools tend to offer smaller class sizes, ranging from 20 – 25 pupils in secondary school. State schools have larger class sizes, with many groups consisting of 30 – 35 pupils.
A school timetable may work around 5 1-hour lessons a day, with full-time staff teaching 20 of those 25 lessons. This leaves free periods for planning, marking, ad hoc meetings, calling parents or, heck, perhaps even having a breather. Teachers may also have to cover lessons for absent staff, although many schools hire supply teachers to do this.
Breaks can be a busy time for many teachers. Sure, there’s coffee, tea, and sometimes sweet treats on offer, but schools squeeze a lot into the day, and breaktimes are often the time when clubs meet.
There are also corridor, playground, or wet weather duties. (What is it about kids and windy weather? This phenomenon has to be seen to be believed.)
Lunches are also busy, with sports practices and more club meetings. Pupils busy completing coursework may want to use laboratories or workshops, or want one-to-one time with their teacher.
Staff who stay the course and enjoy long careers in the profession swear by having a bolthole. We all need some sanctuary during the day. That may be the staff room, or departmental office, or the local park if it’s within walking distance.
Adults and adolescents alike suffer from the afternoon slump. With younger classes, teachers will break things up with more active or discussion-based tasks. Due to the demands of examinations and coursework, older pupils may not enjoy this luxury.
The school day ends earlier for primary, anywhere between roughly 3:00 – 3:40. For secondary, it’s closer to 3:30 – 3:50.
Some teachers will be assigned, on a rota system, to shepherding kids onto buses at the end of the day. There may also be detention duties at lunch or after school.
Teaching is emotionally draining. A teacher’s first response to the last bell may be to slump in their chair, or do some mindful meditation. (Tidying away resources, ticking off tasks completed on the day’s to-do list, or deleting emails are also surprisingly therapeutic.)
Planning and marking
Last year, the BBC reported on a University College London study, saying: “Teachers in England have worked long hours – an average of 46 to 49 hours a week – for many years, research finds.”
In other words, each hour in the classroom comes with at least another hour’s commitment outside. Lesson planning and marking take up the lion’s share of non-contact (ie. non-teaching) time. And some subjects produce a lot of marking: English and other essay subjects are notorious. Teachers approach this challenge in several ways: early starts, working in the evening, or ringfencing time at the weekend. Many teachers with young children return to planning and marking as soon as the last bedtime story is told. Others swear by rising early on Sunday mornings while the rest of the house is in bed.
Departmental meetings tend to be weekly. These are essential for admin, discussing course commitments, seeing where colleagues are with internal and external examination requirements, and sharing resources and best practice, among many other things.
Whole staff meetings may be weekly, although some schools have daily briefings, albeit for only ten or so minutes, perhaps just before registration or during mid-morning break.
Every year, there will be one parents’ evening for each year group.
Open events are essential to market the school to prospective pupils and parents. These take place evenings or mornings, sometimes on a Saturday. Independent schools may have as many as three open events a year.
Weekend extracurricular commitments
Saturday mornings, especially in the independent sector, may involve sports fixtures, home or away. For sports staff this is a weekly commitment throughout the year, with only occasional free weekends. Teachers outside the Games Department will often muck in, helping coach a team one term a year.
Other weekend commitments include occasional residentials, charity walks, Model United Nations, debating competitions, Duke of Edinburgh (DofE), or Combined Cadet Force (CCF).
One old-school teacher joke goes like this: “I’m in teaching for three reasons: the Christmas holidays, the Easter holidays, and the summer holidays.” Teachers enjoy far longer holidays than most, but then, as we’ve made clear, it’s far from a 9 – 5 commitment. Holidays will allow time, however, for recharging your batteries and warding off burnout.
Teachers work 170 days, leaving 195 non-teaching days. Holidays tend to be longer in the independent sector: their school days are longer, with more extracurricular commitments.
Holidays may include:
- 1 week half-term in October
- 2 weeks for Christmas
- 1 week for half-term in February
- 2 weeks for Easter
- 1 week for half-term, May / June
- 6 weeks for summer
Note that many schools provide a range of residential trips in the holidays.
All this isn’t to put you off, but rather to be realistic. Teaching is hard work, but then it’s also massively rewarding. If you like being around young people and have a passion for learning, it really is the best job in the world.
There’s also a deep pleasure in the way that teaching – more than many jobs, arguably – follows the seasons, bringing a deepening intimacy with the year’s ebb and flow. The academic calendar gives the year shape and meaning. School plays and concerts bring Christmas to life. (Everyone loves a Junior School nativity play when they know the kids.) The wet mud of the sports field, or early morning frost, conjure thoughts of winter. Freshly cut grass ushers in spring. Staff socials at the end of each term punctuate the passing of time.