I thought this job would be easy - I was wrong

30th April 2010 at 01:00

I have always enjoyed helping others "notice" science, but never thought that teaching science would be for me.

I had been curious, but I feared it would be stressful, and that schools were like battlegrounds with teachers at the front line, dodging projectiles from teenagers. The pay was, and still is, low compared with other professions. Why would anyone want to do this?

So teaching wasn't at the top of my list of job ideas when I graduated in 2002. Instead I became a consultant engineer for an international firm and specialised in structural integrity - analysing vibrations in structures like buildings, bridges and vehicles, looking for ways to prevent failure. I then moved into design to work as a building services engineer. I've worked with architects, contractors and clients to design mechanical engineering systems for large buildings like offices, leisure centres and schools. I particularly enjoyed designing the engineering systems required to turn a regular building into a low-energy one.

I've been aware for a long time about the shortage of young people taking up the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths. So after doing energy efficiency surveys in London schools, I signed up as a STEM ambassador. It is a scheme where people with jobs in those fields offer their time to help inspire young people into science and engineering. In Wales, the scheme is co-ordinated by the Techniquest science centre in Cardiff.

Ironically, while I was promoting the benefits of engineering, the construction industry was hit by a downturn and I was made redundant. Licking my wounds, I revisited my earlier curiosities about changing career.

Having now spent several hours helping 15-year-olds build bridges with plastic tubes, I had a different perspective on what a switch to teaching might be like. And if I didn't do it now, then when? Like most career-changers I've met, I decided to raid my savings, put off any long-term plans and just take the pay cut with a smile.

Other teachers and PGCE students will know that it's not easy. During my first term at Swansea and my first placement at Pontarddulais Comprehensive, I thought I might not be able to cope. Teaching, particularly training, can be intensive, sometimes with ten to 12 hour days, often with work in the evenings. Luckily I've been blessed with excellent mentors, wonderful tutors and sage advice.

There is so much more to teaching than I had thought and nothing quite prepared me for the intensity and responsibility of the work. I naively thought it would be easy, simply delivering knowledge in child-size chunks. I'm the adult, they're children - what could be easier? If the pupils mess about, I just keep shouting at them, surely? How wrong those assumptions were.

I didn't expect that teaching would require me to be so self-reflective, and that I would find myself asking questions such as "How is my behaviour affecting pupils' behaviour?" and "How can I tell if these children have learned effectively?"

On top of that, I had to learn to make the best of feedback from other teachers, mentors, PGCE tutors - in fact anyone (including pupils) with any involvement in helping you become an effective teacher. The amount of feedback you get as a trainee teacher is immense, but also essential. I've quickly realised that teaching can be a hard, thankless, painful job if you can't take constructive criticism, but it becomes a true, fulfilling profession if you can.

I'm training to teach science up to the age of 16 and physics up to 18, and although I've been working as a professional engineer for many years I didn't expect that I would need to go over basic concepts again. I may know my subject, but I've had to learn more about it, in order to be able to explain it well enough for a secondary pupil to understand.

I've been struck by the strong sense of professional pride and responsibility among teachers, and it is refreshing. Unfortunately, science and engineering in the UK doesn't have the awareness and recognition among the public that it does in the rest of Europe. I suspect that is a major reason why children don't take up STEM subjects. It's something the Engineering Council, STEMNET and other professional institutions are working to change. I like to think that I and other science teachers are sowing the seeds of interest in young people to help them reverse that trend.

When I worked in the private sector, my salary reflected how much those companies valued me, and my potential to earn them money. In private companies, it's that simple.

I think the teaching profession needs to become more valued in the future. It will probably take time, but I think it is possible and vitally important so that young people realise that society values those who teach them and therefore values them and their potential too.

Chris Remigio, Trainee teacher on his final placement at Queen Elizabeth High School, Carmarthen, and a STEM ambassador.

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