Should more teachers try switching between primary and secondary?

Taking the choice to move between primary and secondary can bring new skills and a fresh perspective to any school, says David Cocks – as long as leaders provide the right support for teachers who make the jump

David Cocks

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It’s the start of a new school year here in the Northern Territory of Australia and I am standing in front of my colleagues, ready to deliver an inset session. There are plenty of new faces in the audience and I know that it is once again time for me to share my deep, dark secret.

I have worked in primary education since 2010, but I did not train to teach primary. I am, on paper, a secondary science teacher. I trained in secondary education at the University of Birmingham in the UK, taught successfully across the 11-18 age range in Worcestershire and Devon and I loved it. Yet, here I am now, teaching primary.

Colleagues usually assume that I made the change to escape the behaviour at secondary level, but the truth is far simpler: when I emigrated to Australia, I was offered a job in primary science teaching and I took it.

Now, seven years later, I am a well-established senior leader in a primary school, but I have not forgotten my secondary roots. In fact, I think that being secondary-trained has helped me in many ways. Having spoken to other teachers who have also made the switch to working with an age group they did not train to teach, I know that I am not alone.

So, the question is: should we be helping more teachers move between age groups?

And if the answer is yes, how might we do it?

In answer to the first question, I sought out some teachers who, like me, had made the switch.

Dan Smith trained in secondary history, but once he was teaching, found that there was so little opportunity to connect with students in a secondary timetable that his reason for becoming a teacher was stifled.

“It was about the subject, not the kids,” he says.

After moving to teach primary in 2011, Smith felt reinvigorated. He was more able to work with educating the whole child and loved being able to connect different subject areas. For example, he could see how the skills he taught in his numeracy hour were also being used in design and technology.

Great, you might think, but what did the school get out of it? Well, having worked in secondary, where such connections are far less evident, Smith was able to appreciate them all the more and this helped him to take a more explicit approach to teaching skills across subjects. He became the model to follow because of his secondary foundations, not despite them.

Moving challenges

Another colleague, Barbara Philips, moved the other way. She took a job teaching high school science in 2015, having previously trained in and taught primary. Moving to secondary brought its challenges, particularly when it came to behaviour. Compared to primary students, the 14-year-old boys she was working with were “a constant challenge, as they are very vocal about their rights but forgetful about their responsibilities”.

Yet Philips found that the hands-on style of pedagogy she had grown used to in primary set her apart in a department where the direction was to have a PowerPoint presentation for every lesson. The students responded to her way of doing things and this helped her to engage them in her science lessons.

She ended up loving her new role and the school got a burst of fresh thinking and proof that another way of approaching things might work.

Anecdotally, you can find numerous experiences such as this. For the most part, they are very positive for both the school and the teacher. It also seems to be becoming more common, with secondary nurture groups now regularly employing primary-trained teachers.

But it does not always go well. Felicity Meyer, a secondary English teacher who moved to teach primary, found that the parents of her new pupils were put off by the fact that she had previously taught high school and only recently made the switch.

“They assumed I was not able to teach the maths correctly. This filtered down into challenging behaviours in the classroom for our daily maths hour,” she says.

Ultimately, Meyer switched back to secondary because she felt that leaders in her primary school did not do enough to challenge parents’ concerns.

How common is Meyer’s experience? How common are the more positive experiences? Is there a secret as to how a switch becomes the former or the latter?

I found myself wondering what the research says about moving stages. Do teachers who make a switch add value to the diversity of the school system? Or do they hinder the improvement agenda if they initially need more support?

The truth is that there is currently very little research in this space. I hunted unsuccessfully for statistics on how many teachers make the switch between stages and chatted to a few university admission tutors, who told me that a teacher who is able to deliver the curriculum and has Qualified Teacher Status can apply for any role. The old conversion courses that enabled teachers to retrain from secondary to primary – or vice versa – appear to have been universally retired.

We need to look more closely at switchers – to do the research and find out what works.

But in the absence of any official guidance, I would like to offer my own.

I think it is almost certainly a good thing to switch phases if you do it for the right reason – and I think it should be encouraged and made easier.

Making it easier

How do you make it easier? I think that all ITT should give prospective teachers a thorough understanding of teaching across the age ranges. This would not only mean teachers can make the switch more easily, but that teachers would have a better understanding of the experience of their colleagues above or below them.

Is that likely to happen? I think not. So instead, I think school leaders need to do more to make the transition work.

For example, my secondary training gave me a toolkit of behaviour management strategies that did not work with primary students. Children in Year 1 and 2 are likely to cry if you raise your voice, but will do anything for a coloured clothes peg on a behaviour chart.

And while great teaching is great teaching – explicit instructions and modelling are important at all levels – secondary teaching definitely requires more open-ended tasks that enable students to show what they are capable of. Primary planning, on the other hand, can go askew if you assume that 28 children will be able to take the lid off a glue stick and use scissors competently by age 6.

Leaders need to be sensitive to these challenges – and put in place plans to help. Chat to the teacher, find out their motivation for switching and assess where any weaknesses might sit. Encourage the sharing of resources, teaching styles and behaviour management tips. Assign them a buddy, even.

I promise it would be worth it and it would not take much of a shift. The willingness of leaders to judge an application from outside the school’s phase, a planned transition if that candidate is the best candidate – and ongoing support when that teacher starts.

The benefits of that teacher will outweigh the extra time needed to support them. Do this and deep, dark secrets such as mine will soon become something to shout about.

David Cocks is assistant principal at Bakewell Primary School in Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory. He tweets @davidjohncocks

*Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect teachers’ anonymity

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