How to become a teacher - what you need to know

Katie Russell
Thinking of becoming a teacher? Read our guide to qualifications, salary and insights from real teachers  - Getty Images

If we have learnt anything from Matilda’s Miss Honey or Mr Keating from Dead Poets Society, it’s that teachers can have a big impact on their students’ lives. Whether you are heading to university or tired of your desk job, you can train to become a teacher and pursue a more fulfilling and active career.  

Before sending off your UCAS application, though, make sure this is the right career for you. Shadow classes in a variety of schools or volunteer as a classroom assistant.

If you thrive in the buzz of the classroom, you may want to (re)train to be a teacher. There are numerous paths available, depending on your existing experience and qualifications, so we have created a guide on everything you need to know - including comment from those in the field.

How to become a primary school teacher

Teaching children to read and write is no small feat. For that reason, you need both a degree and a teaching qualification to teach at a primary school.

One of the most common routes is the Initial Teacher Education or Training (ITET) programme, which is an undergraduate degree (often the Bachelor of Education degree for primary school teachers) that takes 3-4 years.

If you already have an undergraduate degree in an unrelated course, you can take a postgraduate teaching qualification - either the Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) or the Professional Graduate Diploma in Education (PGDE), both of which take nine months.

On top of these qualifications, there are certain key qualities you need to be a good primary school teacher. “The first thing you’ve got to be is kind,” says Aimee Tinkler, primary school teacher at Carsington and Hopton in Derbyshire. “You’ve got to love the children and you’ve also got to be really organised.”

How to become a secondary school teacher

The most common route is to do an undergraduate degree in the subject you want to teach (or one that’s closely related), then either the PGCE or PGDE.

However, you can teach a subject that you did not study at university, providing that you studied it for A-Level and take a 8-28 week Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) course on it, alongside your studies.

If you don’t want to do a postgraduate degree, you can do the ITET programme with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BSc) undergraduate course, which has the Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) built into the degree.

On top of these qualifications, you need to have patience, enthusiasm and empathy, according to Rebecca Nobes, head of Spanish at Boswells Academy in Chelmsford. “The students aren’t always going to just ‘get it’. Just because you have a degree in the subject and you understand it, doesn’t mean that they will.”

Qualifications: Do I need a degree?

To become a certified teacher, you need a degree and two teaching qualifications: the QTS and NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher certification).

For the QTS, you take courses on how to teach and spend at least 24 weeks in schools. The NQT is a one-year induction in teaching that needs to be completed within five years of teacher training, or your QTS expires. This will be a two-year induction from 2021.

Most courses combine the QTS and NQT, but be sure to check before applying. Some of the most common routes of getting into teaching are:

  • Initial Teacher Education or Training (ITET). An undergraduate degree combined with the QTS qualification. Most primary school teachers do the Bachelor of Education degree, while secondary school teachers often opt for a BA or BSc. The course includes 24 weeks of school experience and takes between three and four years.

  • Teach First. A two-year grad scheme, where you achieve your QTS in the first year and the NTQ in the second. After a five-week training programme, you start working in a school and receive further training at the school and partnering university. There are no fees for Teach First and you earn a salary while you train.

Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). A nine-month that course combines theory and practical experience in the classroom. School Direct is a popular course that puts prospective teachers in the classroom from day one. The PGCE can be led by schools or universities and most result in QTS - but not all, so be sure to check. To qualify for a PGCE place, you need an undergraduate degree, as well as a GCSE grade of C or 4 in English, Maths and, if you want to teach primary, a science subject.

Funding

Tuition fee and maintenance loans are available, even if you already have an undergraduate loan. You could also receive a £26,000 bursary to train as a teacher - depending on the subject.

Extra financial support is available if you are a parent, have an adult dependent or if you have a disability.

Teaching salaries

Once you have qualified, you can find teaching jobs advertised in newspapers, on school websites or at tes.com/jobs.

Newly qualified teachers (both primary and secondary) have a starting salary of around £23,700, but this can be up to £29,600 in central London. More experienced teachers can earn approximately £35,000 in the UK (and over £40,00 in inner London) but teachers in leadership positions earn more - headteachers can earn as much as £118,000.  

Life as a teacher

In the past few years, the teaching profession has been in trouble, with more teachers leaving the profession than joining in every subject in 2017, except for mathematics and physics. This is largely due to “the perception and reality of the workload associated with the job,” according to Mark Lehain, founder of Bedford Free School.

To see if this perception has any truth behind it, we talked to three teachers about the profession and the work/life balance.

Working hours

On a typical working day, primary school teacher Amy Tinkler gets to work at 7.30am and leaves by 4.30pm/5pm. She gets most of her marking and planning done within the school day, but does an hour every evening and on the occasional Sunday night. She also plans and prepares classes during the school holidays.

Deputy headteacher, Joshua Fisher, works from 7.30am to 5pm, and says he does not work evenings and rarely works weekends. “For teachers to flourish, a work/life balance is critically important,” he explains. Rebecca Nobes, head of Spanish in a secondary school, agrees - after spending between 9-10 hours in school (usually 7.45am-5pm), she tries not to take her work home. “I consciously take care of my own wellbeing,” she says, “so I don’t work late in the evenings, and I keep weekends to myself.”

Challenges of the job

The work/life balance is the hardest part of the job for Nobes. “There’s always more you could be doing,” she says. “But prioritise and do what has to be done. Don’t run yourself into the ground.”

Your quality of life can depend on the school itself, Fisher adds. “An overly bureaucratic, Ofsted-obsessed approach by some school leaders has undermined teacher happiness.” He cites countless admin tasks and marking policies as examples. “These challenges detract from a teacher’s core responsibility - obsessing over subject knowledge and delivering it effectively to pupils.”

Other obstacles include cuts to funding, according to Tinkler. As a result, she teaches children of mixed abilities and feels she needs extra assistance. “I’ve got children with special needs who I want to support but it’s really hard for me to find any additional access from a specialist, and that’s really frustrating,” she explains. Free courses on Future Learn and talking to teachers at the Chartered College of Teaching have helped, she says.

Perks of the job (and not just the 13-week holidays)

She acknowledges it's a "cliché", but Nobes says she loves teaching because “you go into work and every day is going to be different”. The best part of the job, however, is helping the students. “You have to be in it because you want to work with the young people,” she says. “They are what makes the difference.”

Tinkler says she enjoys primary education because she keeps her class for a whole year and gets to know them better. “If you’re a teacher, you are helping those children every day,” she says. “You really are a key person in their life for the time that they’re in your classroom. It’s a scary responsibility but also a massive privilege.”