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Advice on a move from university lecturer to teaching at independent school

Discussion in 'Independent' started by Tea_drinker, Sep 2, 2020.

  1. Tea_drinker

    Tea_drinker New commenter


    I'm considering a career change, having been a university lecturer in a science department in Cambridge for 7 years (16 years experience in science / technology related employment total, and I've been involved in university admissions). I've reached the conclusion that I don't want to spend the rest of my career in university, where I do not enjoy dealing with grant applications, research project management, struggling to hire excellent graduate researchers with the generally-poor contracts that are on offer in my area, and similar reasons. I do, however, very much enjoy lecturing and supervising at undergraduate and graduate level, and I've had fun making short youtube videos on topics in statistics, e.g. Simpson's paradox. I have a first in physics and a PhD in chemistry.

    I happened to discuss this with some independent school teachers recently, and they suggested I'd surely be able to find employment as a Physics (or Maths) teacher in an independent senior school, and they felt that I'd enjoy it. I am quite keen on the idea. I have a few questions, if I may...

    1. Will I be better off circulating my CV through a recruitment agency (e.g. Harris Hill), or writing to selected schools where I might definitely like to work? I don't really have any contacts in schools.

    2. I believe January is the main recruitment time. I was planning to write around in advance of this to see if I can make any contacts - will I simply be ignored because people are too busy when they are not in the main recruitment period, or is this worthwhile?

    3. I believe Cambridge has some good independent schools. Suppose I wrote to 3 fairly large independent senior schools - is that too few to expect that one would consider recruiting me at some point in the next 1-3 years (given that I'm mid-career; applying to teach Physics / Maths; but would be moving into teaching and would need support to obtain QTS or similar). Should I cast a much wider net, and, if so, what areas of the country (preferably in the South or East ish) should I search in?

    4. Any other comments? Anyone moved from university research + lecturing to teaching, and able to tell me if it is a good / bad idea?

    Thanks in advance!
  2. Boardingmaster

    Boardingmaster Occasional commenter

    A few teachers at my school are ex university lecturers and seem to be thriving here. As you say, none of the rat race of academia but whilst still maintaining a sense of the ivory towers!

    I honestly don’t think there would be much benefit in writing to schools, the letter almost certainly wouldn’t make it past HR/ the headmaster’s secretary. If you want to apply, wait for a vacancy to be advertised and apply then.

    Also, don’t go via an agency. As someone who has been involved in recruitment, in my experience agency candidates tended to get ignored as they would cost the school extra money to hire and we always had a strong enough field without having to resort to them.

    as for how many schools to apply for, it’s hard to say. As a physicist you have the advantage of being a fairly rare commodity, but at the same time independent schools are becoming increasingly risk averse with recruitment, and a qualified teacher is always less risky than an unproven quantity straight from university. With your CV you will almost certainly make the interview shortlist, but then your job is to convince the Head of Department, who will be thinking “ex don, will be excellent for oxbridge preparation and extending and inspiring the students, but will they be a liability in the classroom and take up all my time?” The interview lesson will therefore be very important for you, and it might be worth getting some experience shadowing in a school beforehand to get an idea of how to plan a secondary school. You also have to bear in mind that there is usually only one job available, so no matter how good you are it also comes down to the competition. Whenever my department does an recruitment round I play the game of “would I get my job this time”, and I reckon I’m on about 50% success rate..

    overall its definitely a doable career move and one that many others have done successfully. I hope that helps, do ask if you have any further questions!
  3. frustum

    frustum Star commenter

    As well as the big private schools, there are also some private sixth forms in Cambridge, which might also be worth considering. I don't know how they've been affected by covid, as they have a lot of overseas students. They'd like your university and admissions experience. They may also have more timetabling flexibility - for instance you might be able to keep an afternoon free if you wanted to carry on supervising alongside.
    Tea_drinker and jarndyce like this.
  4. Tea_drinker

    Tea_drinker New commenter

    These are very helpful, thanks! Especially Boardingmaster's advice on applications. I'll see if I can find some good videos of GSCE / A level physics lessons, and try to find a science teacher to discuss lesson planning with, before I commit to anything. All the best!
  5. jarndyce

    jarndyce Occasional commenter

    Yes, this! I can also guarantee the interview would be with (in the context of the school) a mixed or lower-ability younger class.

    You also need to ask the question - do you actually like being around children? It's unlikely you'd solely teach A Level; indeed, 16-year-old Lower Sixth students can be surprisingly immature. Arguably this is more the case in independent schools, as they are given so much support.

    Without wishing to put a dampener on things, though, I've taught in (by exam results), one top 100 school and one top 50. Academically, to me, they're fine (I'm ex-Oxbridge), but I can get through most lessons without having to engage my brain. The top school in Cambridge, beginning with P, is top 15 - that's great. Next one down, though, is similar to what I've worked in. The oldest one, beginning with L - really, really lovely school (I had an interview there) but I don't consider it 'academic'. I should point that they are all very good schools - but that's because of the quality of teaching, progress made by the students, and quality of pastoral care, not necessarily the raw ability of the students.

    So the trouble is, really, that at most schools only a minority of students will be at the level you're used to. If you're happy with that, then that's great - however, you need to be realistic.
  6. Dave0301

    Dave0301 New commenter

    Along with boardingmaster's points, the above is also important. Unless it is a highly acdemically selective school, most independents will have a range of pupils. Depending on how the timetable is done, they may not be setted for A Level, so again, could be a wide range sitting in front of you.

    A school I was at interviewed a candidate with a similar background to you and was given a Year 10 lower set, and although the lesson was pitched at too high a standard, they adapted and were offered the role.

    They turned it down as they thought it would not be a good match for them.
    jarndyce and phlogiston like this.
  7. phlogiston

    phlogiston Star commenter

    Lots of good points above. Teenagers are not university students, and some of them will not want to be in your lessons. You have to be willing and able to work with all sorts and types of youngsters.
    School teaching is not like lecturing!
  8. Corvuscorax20

    Corvuscorax20 Lead commenter

    Have you thought of doing a PGCE?
    jarndyce likes this.
  9. asnac

    asnac Lead commenter

    As part of its safeguarding policy, my school disregards unsolicited applications. I don't know how common this is.
  10. Corvuscorax20

    Corvuscorax20 Lead commenter

    I don't think we actually have a policy for disregarding unsolicited applications, but we are just bombarded with them daily, so they are automatically deleted without opening
  11. caterpillartobutterfly

    caterpillartobutterfly Star commenter

    Safer recruitment guidelines suggest schools should have a policy to advertise all roles and use a standard form for applications. Any school who still happily accepts unsolicited applications is possibly one where safeguarding isn't as robust as it should be and you'd want to think twice about working there.
    TheoGriff and Tea_drinker like this.
  12. pennyh.

    pennyh. Occasional commenter

    You may have to network sort of with some of your targeted schools i.e. get known by offering something free if that does not contradict your university contract. A lecture on something- which might have to be on line, a qu. and answer session. in return could you observe a lesson if you never have. Although perhaps Covid not the time right now. I can't see it does any harm to write to a Headteacher perhaps the old way on paper. I have known some give career advice.
    Mind you if you have never taught teenagers you might find the pressures, the lack of seniority etc. and in fact the style of hands on teaching makes the grass not so green compared with the 'brain's' you are with..
    At present I would hang on where you are- a bird in the hand........
    Tea_drinker and willcott like this.
  13. bishbashbosh3

    bishbashbosh3 New commenter

    I have a econ PhD obtained after 10 years of policy work. My PhD provided me with teaching reviews to put in my covering letter. I applied for a position and worked an 80% role which allowed them to pay me (100%) whilst doing my QTS. As I only teach Sixth form it's a little easier for me. But my school hired a maths lecturer last year. As Penny suggests, all the experience you can get to show you know you are getting into is good.

    Most would lap you up, particularly if you could show good lecturer feedback. That should get you in the door, then it's all about the trial lesson!

    It's good that you can wait, vacancies will pop up. Most likely around Jan/Feb time. Apply direct to an actual vacancy.

    Best career move I ever made.
  14. charlieeh

    charlieeh New commenter

    You'd get a good tax free bursary for doing a pgce in case you're not aware!

    One of the country's "top" schools is hiring for a physics teacher for January. Take a look at the TES jobs pages. Yes Jan is a peak time for recruitment but lots of jobs get advertised this side of Christmas too. My current job I secured in a November for starting the following September! Good luck. Physics teachers are in demand.
    Tea_drinker likes this.
  15. Tea_drinker

    Tea_drinker New commenter

    Thanks for all of your extra comments. They are very welcome.

    You might be amused to know that some undergraduate courses at my place do suffer from low audience enthusiasm - and, actually, I enjoyed enlivening a couple of those courses after I inherited them. But I'm sure you're right that this, as well as dealing with much younger students, is a major difference from university. I think I could probably handle that, and I'm used to teaching somewhat mixed ability levels (though I'm sure there's a striking difference in what "mixed" means, so I'll have to find out more about what this is like in practice, before I reach a decision).
  16. Doncaster17

    Doncaster17 New commenter

    I went from working at the University level to SE thinking that all of my previous University experience was an invaluable asset.

    When I started working as a GCSE science teacher, it took me two terms of headaches to understand that being a GCSE teacher is a very different role to working at the university level. Beyond having an excellent subject knowledge and research background, this is what the day to day role is more about: Book marking, more book marking, meeting lovely people but also trying to make difficult parents happy, differentiation, behaviour management, detentions, merits and demerits, chasing some pupils' books and home work not handed in...

    Once I understood that this is a very different job to what I had expected, I started enjoying my time teaching and understanding what I was doing. It takes time. At first the reality did not match the expectations and that was a shock.

    It may be for you, but I would take my time to think about it.
  17. rhoomba

    rhoomba New commenter

    I started at an independent boarding school four years ago, teaching Maths, after I had finished my PhD and worked worked outside of teaching for a few years, without completing a PGCE. It helped that the Head of Department (20 years in now) also had a similar route into teaching, and so wasn’t too nervous about employing me, but we have also had a small number of others with similar backgrounds join other departments, although the vast majority do have formal training.

    I really enjoy the teaching part and would definitely recommend it, but the boarding duties and co-curricular commitments that come as part and parcel of a boarding school environment can be onerous, so would advise you to research the school well and know what you are getting into beforehand in terms of duties and Saturday commitments. If you are looking at boarding schools, the co-curricular and pastoral elements should not be overlooked as these can be a significant part of your role, and it helps if you can offer something in terms of these, when it comes to your interview. I play and coach a sport offered by my school to a high level and this is definitely something that helped when my application was being considered, as the contribution I could make in this regard was definitely seen as a positive for the school.

    The major element that I found very different when teaching in a school environment to teaching in a University is the constant chasing of students and the documenting of which prep hasn’t been done and firing off emails to tutors and Housemasters/Housemistresses to cover yourself, in addition to using the schools sanction system, which is a pretty constant element and can take some getting used to when you are more used to students taking responsibility for their own learning. I hope this doesn’t sound too negative, as I do really enjoy teaching, but just wanted to make sure you were aware of some of the other elements of the job outside of the actual teaching part which can be significant drain on your time.

    As has been said, it is better to wait for a position to come up and then apply rather than sending an unsolicited application, but it may be worth making contact with a few schools and asking about whether it is possible to come and observe for a day as we have previously hosted others doing similar previously (although with the current situation, this may be more difficult for schools to accommodate this than it has been). Good luck.

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