So you want to be a teacher? Do you like children? Can you cope working long hours? Do you have any other string to your bow apart from your work in the classroom? Are you prepared to go the extra mile so that children improve, whatever they are doing? Will you happily take children away on visits, take part in weekend activities or holiday trips? There are just come of the questions which you may be asked at interview should you wish to teach at one of the 550 prep schools in the UK.
The type of school you can work at varies enormously: from all boys to mixed; from nursery age up to eleven, boarding or day or a mixture of both, rural or town, from seven to thirteen, a stand alone independent school or a junior school to a senior school. The list is endless as increasingly discerning parents take their children’s very costly education extremely seriously; the days of parents dropping their children off at the beginning of term and not seeing them again for three months are long gone and the old Jesuit maxim of “giving me the child…..and I will show you the man” is definitely a thing of the past.
Parents want to be involved, be it helping with times tables and spellings, supporting on the touchline or else organizing parents’ socials and charity coffee mornings. The key to being a good teacher is how best to manage this involvement, and with parents of children at prep school age, managing their often unrealistic expectations is crucial.
Teaching at a prep school can be one of the most rewarding vocations imaginable, when you spend from 7am through to 10pm seven days a week nurturing eager and enthusiastic young boys and girls, helping them cope with triumph and disaster and trying to get them to treat them both the same. The best teaching is often done outside the classroom at this age, where good academic teaching should really be a given. PGCEs are not mandatory, although doing one “on the job” is often a good idea as private education begins to conform with increasingly dictatorial government ideology.
With the recession affecting all private schools, Heads are looking at younger teachers who will be cheaper and have less family baggage to get in the way of committing wholeheartedly to working at school; however, married couples can offer much if they come as a team and both work at the school. Ex army or city refugees are less common at prep schools it has to be said, but if you cant stand spotty, adolescent children, then teaching at a prep school is a very good alternative to senior schools. You need to offer much more than simply being good in the classroom – having musical talent, drama expertise, a passion for sport – all these tick boxes and make Headmasters look more closely at your CV. It also means you have a greater rapport with the children, seeing them succeed in a different sphere of school life.
Life during term time is busy. At boarding preps, the day could start at 7am and not finish until 10pm. There are emails to be dealt with from parents, other schools, from the office, all requiring your attention; there are risk assessments to be completed for the latest kayaking trip or the 1stXV rugby tour; there are reports to be written and books to be marked; assessments to be done; appointments with parents. On top of all that, you have the positive reward of working in a close knit community, where everyone involved has the best interest of the children at heart, and everyone is keen to succeed.
You have that close contact with children, seeing them grow and develop outside the classroom, playing matches, doing activities, taking part in concerts and plays, doing charitable work. Living under the same roof for a lot of the time, the relationship you have with children is different and special and very rewarding indeed. Throughout all this, the fun and laughter of the staff common room can give a welcome perspective on real life, and the camaraderie between staff working in a small environment where everybody knows every child intimately is terrific.
Obviously, few prep schools have the top of the range facilities of senior schools; however, in an increasingly competitive world, all prep schools are having to invest in buildings, in technology and to take part in trips, tours, evening lectures, visits to galleries which enrich the lives of the children. If you have your own children, it also means that they can be educated very well with a considerable discount on the fees, which is a real perk of the job.
The pay scale for each prep school varies, and Heads will reward a good teacher, who is willing to contribute to the life of the school in addition to classroom teaching. Some schools offer extra pay for working at weekends, or taking trips. If you do decide to re-train as a teacher however, be prepared that your salary is unlikely to match that of a lawyer.
Whatever the age of the child, they are experts at spotting weaknesses. They will find chinks in your armour and look to exploit poor discipline. You need to be strong and firm, yet also offer a sympathetic ear when required. It is a careful balancing act, but the best teachers manage to do just that and gain the respect of children, their parents, and other staff much more quickly. Children do respect teachers who are firm, who make them work, who have high standards themselves and who are good role models for them. In Prep Schools with 24 hour a day contact, this is more important than ever, and parents want their impressionable young children to have positive role models looking after their offspring.
In the past prep schools have often been places where staff have to be forced to retire else they would start to wither away in the arm chair in the corner of the common room. However, these days, there is much more opportunity for a career, be it a Head of Department, a Head of Year; maybe Head of Boarding or else a Housemaster in junior boarding house; you can also join the Senior Management Team, becoming Director of Studies of else Deputy Head……all are possible with an encouraging Headmaster to follow your Continual Professional development. IAPS, the body which looks after all good prep schools in the UK, have lots of courses for CPD, and someone on the staff should push you to make sure you go on at least one course each year which will help promotion prospects; you should also receive annual reviews or appraisals, looking at your contribution to school life and giving you feedback on how you can improve as a teacher. There are inspections to be got through, and these can be stressful for school management and staff alike, but good prep schools inspect themselves the whole time and teachers have open door policies and go and visit colleagues they admire to see how they teach. That is what teaching is all about though, looking to improve and finding better ways at getting things across.
Working at a prep school is a hugely rewarding place to be and one which does allow you to stray away from government tests and Key Stages; instead, you can pursue your own interests and try to enthuse and inspire eager young children as they start off on their education journey. It is tiring, but you do get over 5 months holiday a year – the real recompense is the chance to light the fire, to see the penny drop, and the satisfaction is incomparable.