By Emily Weston @primaryteachew (and with contributions from Adam Smith, Adam Lewis and Rose Edmunson)

Have you ever wondered whether you should have trained to teach “the other” phase? Some teachers have tried both. This is what they had to say about it.

For most teachers, primary and secondary teaching seem worlds apart. Although the key component of each classroom is the same (the children!) the way of working is often very different with each providing their own rewards and challenges. Throughout this piece there are stories from teachers who have worked across both these phases of education. It is important to remember that these are individual experiences and, should you want to make the transition yourself, it’s worth doing your own research into the process as well as the differences between the schools.

Having now taught in both primary and secondary myself, I believe teaching is teaching. When in front of a class, it is the same techniques, skills and pedagogy which you are applying to the lesson in both settings. Each time you stand in front of children and impart knowledge you are doing so with the same intentions which makes the process much more similar than I could have imagined it. The main differences are, in fact, outside of the learning.

Firstly, and most obviously, is that in primary you have to be much more of a generalist. Unlike in secondary where you tend to have one key subject you are an expert in, primary demands that you have knowledge across the curriculum, with some subjects you are more confident in than others. I know for me, computing is always a challenging subject for me to teach! In order to be a generalist you have to have a broad range of knowledge across a broad spread of subjects, some which you won’t have encountered prior to the unit of work you’re now creating.

AJ Smith (@MrSmithRE) – a primary teacher and RE specialist in Southwark – tells us of his own experience with this particular difference:

When I decided to leave my secondary teaching position in October 2019 I thought I was doing so to find another job in a secondary school. When my current headteacher reached out to me with the prospect of coming to her school to work as a cover teacher and help with their RE curriculum I initially turned it down, I did not see myself as a primary teacher. It was only after visiting the school and sitting back and thinking about the idea of working in primary more that I decided to give it a try. I started in January and by March I had applied to become a full-time class teacher there.

I currently teach a Year 6 class and, even in spite of lockdown, I have never been happier as a teacher. There is no doubt that the transition is a daunting one; I went from being a specialist who taught nearly 300 students to being a generalist with (almost) sole responsibility for 18 students. At first it was the idea of teaching Maths that filled me with dread but, thanks to our centrally planned curriculum and high quality textbooks, that has been better than expected. The most difficult subject to pick up was actually English, and in particular guided reading and grammar which I had given little thought to before moving to primary. Having a good coaching relationship and a supportive year team has really helped me improve my practice in that area.

There is no doubt that my career prospects have changed as a primary teacher. I actually feel like my subject specialism is more valued and I have had some great opportunities to work on the RE curriculum at my school and, increasingly, across other schools. The management structure in primary schools tends to be flatter so, as well as having a closer relationship with SLT, the movement up the ladder, if that’s what you’re aiming for, feels like a more immediate prospect than in secondary.

Without resorting to clichés I think primary is more suited to the energetic generalist but Ive found teaching upper KS2 to be the best of both worlds with kids who can hold a decent conversation and enjoy a joke but who still have some of that earnest sense of fun and enjoyment of their learning that the teenage years can sometimes dampen.

I think this is something I have struggled with too, during the transition. I love teaching English and have always had more of a passion for it than other subjects, but I miss the variety of the primary classroom where each day really did feel completely different.

However, with the experience of teaching across both phases, I now feel as though my pedagogy and in-depth understanding of teaching has been greatly improved. I not only see the start of their journey, but I now see more clearly where they are going and the challenges children face throughout their school life. Having always had a passion for transition, it has now enabled me to really identify what more can and needs to be done in order to help children through this process, something I’d not have understood in the same way without my own transition to secondary. It is a career move I am thankful I made as it has really broadened my expertise, experience and teaching and learning skills.

For Adam Lewis @MrAALewis, there was a similar experience and realisation:

While completing my primary PGCE, I noticed a few secondary posts advertised for which the person spec didn’t mention the need for secondary experience. It was at that point that I thought I might as well apply and see what would happen. To my surprise (I must be more convincing than I give myself credit for!), I was offered the job for the first interview I had, teaching French and German in a secondary. Part of me was interested in the idea of teaching my degree subject at a higher level and being able to focus on one or two subjects; this way I can focus all my CPD on pedagogy and classroom management rather than worry about subject knowledge.

I’ve found the transition to be easier than I thought it would be. As I said in my interview, teaching is teaching; the same principles apply regardless of how old the learners are. I did initially think going from my main PGCE placement school where there were 21 on roll to my current school where we have over 900 would prove to be quite a culture shock but the SLT and my department have been very supportive and friendly, helping me to settle in straight away. However, I do miss teaching all of the subjects and experiencing the unbridled enthusiasm that primary children often have.

I have a job lined up for next academic year teaching primary in an all-through international school. In the interview, my new head teacher (himself secondary trained) seemed quite excited by my range of experience so I do think for my career this has been a good move. It has allowed me to appreciate what primary children need to be made ready for and it has made me a more confident teacher.

Another key difference between the settings is the amount of time you spend with the children. In secondary, you see them for a few hours each timetabled week or fortnight, which is drastically different to primary when you have almost sole responsibility for your class. I found it much more challenging to develop the rapport and relationships as quickly. When you teach 240 children compared to 30, this is bound to be something that is much harder to do; knowing each child is so important and takes much more time in secondary. It does, however, make those ‘lightbulb moments’ and development of trust incredibly meaningful when they happen.

For Rose Edmunson (@Snotlady5), this was part of the reason she originally chose to move:

For me the motivation to move from secondary science teaching to primary stemmed from building relationships with the children and wanting to be responsible for developing the whole child. In secondary school you might see a group of children for 3 hours a week so although you get to know them briefly it’s not going to have the same impact as teaching them for 5 hours every day. 

The transition for me was a difficult one, trying to get advice from Universities, schools and other training providers to find out if I would need to complete further qualifications or if I could simply try and make the move. In the end I joined #edutwitter which was exceptionally welcoming and supportive and I started to attend conferences and training after school and during weekends. 

I absolutely loved teaching Year 1. It was a steep learning curve and I found out so much about pedagogy, how children build learning in terms of writing and mathematics but most importantly I enjoyed seeing children making connections, being enthused by what they were learning. I began to understand that actually as teachers we need to embrace our local communities and make those connections with parents because education doesn’t just happen at school.

In terms of my career this is where, for me, and I appreciate it might be different in different parts of the country, the tale turns a little bit sour. As someone who had taught in secondary for 17 years and being on the upper pay scale I felt like what I could offer in terms of science knowledge and transition would be exceptionally valuable. The reality was not the same. In primary teaching, English and Maths teaching are valued most, which I made me very difficult to employ from a pay point of view. Consequently, when I tried to secure another post in primary I was told on several occasions I would only be considered for the post if I were to take a pay cut. I now have the best of both worlds, teaching at a secondary school which values my skill set. I teach science to KS3 but also work with local primary schools and in the wider school community.

Having made the move from primary and secondary (and, as of September, back to primary again!) I could tell you my personal pros and cons of both. I do, however, feel that these are subjective not only to you, but to the school you have experience working in.

One thing I think it is vital to avoid is thinking one setting of teaching is in any way ‘superior’ to the other. If I had a pound for every time I was called ‘just’ a primary teacher, or was told that ‘primary teaching is easier’ I’d be able to pay off my lunch bill in the cafeteria. As well as this, I often hear it murmured that secondary teachers don’t do marking and therefore don’t have as much to do. Although these opinions are in the minority, they definitely do still exist.

As a primary teacher at heart, I value the experience and knowledge of secondary colleagues in areas of the curriculum I am less confident in. Science is an area of weakness and having a CPD session on this from a secondary colleague last year was invaluable. As a secondary teacher, it is so important to value the knowledge primary teachers have of their children and the early teaching pedagogy they can pass on.

By working together, we can create a stronger education system that values skills of colleagues in all settings; by working together we can give the children we teach the best educational experience possible.

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