Getting A Day Job: Teaching & Tutoring, Part 1.
As most of you probably know, when I’m not working on writing-related stuff, I work as a teacher. Sadly, very few writers can rely on their art to pay the bills, so most of us need some kind of day job, and teaching is mine. To be precise, right now I am a Lecturer in Literature and Communications. I’ve been teaching in some form or another for several years now and I absolutely love it — I’m aware that I talk about it a lot here on ONS, so I wasn’t surprised when I received an email about it from a long-time ONS reader (they shall remain nameless!). Said reader asked me:
When did you initially get into tutoring? Was it before you started master’s study? Do you have a professional qualification or is it totally experience based?
I’m trying desperately to find some sort of tutoring work but I’m not getting very far!
This email couldn’t have come at a better time. I’d been deliberating whether or not to write a post or two on the topic, but I was unsure how interested you’d all be in hearing about it. However, it seems that at least some of you out there are considering teaching as a possible career option… and I know how hard it is for creative people to reconcile themselves to a 9-5. So if you’re thinking about teaching, here’s a bit more about what I do, and how I ended up doing it. Hopefully it’ll help you make up your mind, and maybe get started!
How did you get into teaching?
There are a lot of ways to get into teaching, but my personal trajectory so far goes thus. I spent the first three years of my four-year undergrad degree supporting myself through a series of terrible office jobs — legal secretary, market research telephonist, envelope-stuffer, social care support worker (sounds like more responsiblity than it is. I mostly filed confidential medical documents and took phone calls from angry GPs). I responded to these jobs the way most creative people do when they’re put behind a desk and told to get on with it: I hated, loathed and detested pretty much every waking second. I was constantly on the lookout for any new job that sounded even remotely more interesting than the last one, and one day I happened across an agency ad for one-to-one tutors. For years I’d avoided stuff like this, as ever since I decided to study English at Uni (I was about 12 at the time), I’d been taunted by adults who loved to tell me how “people who study English only ever become English teachers!” I had been determined to prove them all wrong, but boredom and desperation drove me to apply — plus, the pay was nearly twice what I earned per hour typing and filing.
I had some childcare experience: I’d worked as a nanny for a year, done some babysitting, volunteered as a Young Leader with Girl Guiding UK and set up a drama group at my high school, which I ran for two full academic years. This, along with my in-progress degree, got me the job. I started out with just one student — a severely dyslexic public schoolboy in desperate need of help with his writing skills, which felt like being chucked in the deep end in itself. But then as the academic year progressed, I ended up with more and more students on my books. By the time the exams rolled around a year later, I was teaching ten kids, two one-hour sessions each per week. I taught English, English Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, and was totally responsible for planning the lessons and doing all the marking in my spare time; spare time not covered by my £9-per-session fee (less than a third what the agency charged the parents, naturally). It was loads of work and loads of responsibility and all still very new… but I freaking loved doing it.
Next, I had a bit of luck. I took about six months out to write my undergrad dissertation and by the time I started looking for jobs again the recession was beginning to really heat up and I was dreading the thought of ending up with another office job. Fortunately, Boy was working at Edinburgh’s Telford College, and spotted that they had an open supply list — you could just go online, stick your name on it, and if a job came up they might well get in touch. I didn’t reckon my one-to-one experience gave me much of a chance, but I stuck my name on the list and got ready to forget about it. Shockingly, the English & Communications Curriculum Manager called me the very next day, and asked me to get on a bus and go for an interview right then. They needed cover for a lecturer who was on long-term sick, and I was the first to get there. Four days later I taught my first class — a room full of 25 English students. Having never taught a class before, it scared me half to death… but I only had to teach five hours per week and it was always the same class, who thankfully turned out to be a really sweet group. A year later and I’m back for more, and I’ve upped my game — I’m now teaching Literature and Communications rather than English, which has meant learning a new subject, and teaching six different classes over fourteen hours per week — that doesn’t include marking or prep. I’m also soliciting private students at present who might be in need of one-to-one tuition. Suffice to say, all my detractors were correct: it seems I was destined to become an English teacher.
Do you have a professional qualification or is it totally experience based?
At present, I don’t have any kind of teaching certificate — it’s not a total necessity unless you want to become the typical primary or secondary school kind of teacher, though it always helps! I’ve got all my teaching jobs based on the fact that I have a degree in English Literature, and now an MSc in Creative Writing and a PhD in the works. I also have experience — running a drama group and supervising a crazy pack of Girl Guides showed I could hack the pressure when I applied for my first job; having taught students of all ages and abilities on a one-to-one basis — plus a knowledge of the curriculum — helped get me a place at Telford. Basically, when I started out, I was more interested in becoming an academic than a high school teacher — otherwise I’d have done a PGDE qualification. Now, however, a big ambition is to become a Head Teacher, so a PGDE may be in the offing once the PhD is out of the way (what’s a bit more student debt, eh?). In terms of qualifications, you need to think about what kind of teacher you want to be and what kind of institution you want to teach at (you don’t need Qualified Teacher Status to be a self-employed tutor for example, but it helps), and then act accordingly — if you fancy the traditional school teacher role, get a degree in Primary or Secondary Teaching, or specialise in a core subject (English, Maths, or a science or modern language) at degree level and then get a PGDE. If you fancy the academic route, my advice is to concentrate on gaining academic qualifications and working your way up. If the idea of qualifications scares the crap out of you generally, you can always start out working self-employed as a private tutor or as a classroom assistant, and work your way up based solely on experience — just bear in mind, it’ll be harder and probably take longer. But it is do-able. Technically the only piece of paper you absolutely need to have is a CRB or Advanced Disclosure check. If you’re safe to work with kids, you’re good to go.
I’m trying desperately to find some sort of tutoring work but I’m not getting very far!
I have a friend of a friend who’s just finished her Primary Teaching degree — she’s completed her probationary year and now she’s been looking for a job all summer… without any success. She’s been told that there are 300 applicants for every primary school post that comes up. This may be an exaggeration, but even so — times are a little bit bleak for teachers right now.
What to do? Well, firstly: live in a city. Sorry country-dwellers… cities have more schools, more kids in need of tutoring, more tutoring agencies and organisations and more opportunities. Sure, there’s also more competition, but I think the pros outweigh the cons here. Secondly: widen your search. Childcare and education jobs are advertised in a weird and wonderful way, and word of mouth is a big deal among parents, teachers and kids alike. If you’re currently only looking for jobs online, in your student careers office or in the education papers, you need to cast your net wider. Go round schools and check out their public noticeboards — make a note of the names of tutoring agencies and call them up to offer your services (yes, whether they say they’re hiring or not!). Make flyers to advertise your tutoring services and pin them to these aforementioned noticeboards. If you’re freelancing out of your own home (make sure you have a CRB or Disclosure check, though!), advertise in your local area, particularly around schools. Write to schools and inform them you’re seeking students. Go on supply lists. Make yourself visible.
Thirdly: If this doesn’t work, try getting some more experience, if you can. Find a way you can work with children through volunteering, or maybe doing something non-academic like working in a creche or babysitting. Yes, this seems a far cry from teaching, but by working with kids you’re getting to know parents and making contacts (word of mouth, remember). The little kids in your creche might have older siblings in desperate need of a tutor — their parents might have friends who are looking for someone who comes recommended. And fourthly: know the curriculum. As well as you can. This isn’t easy if you don’t work in education already, but check out the Scottish Qualification Authority — or your local equivalent — and find as many curriculum support materials and sample documents you can get your hands on. Knowing the curriculum means you’re equipped to start tomorrow (this can be a very attractive quality), and that you don’t just expect to rock up and get a teaching job — you know what’s involved.
Are you a teacher, or have you ever taught? If so, how did you get started, and what job-hunting tips do you have? Are you looking to start teaching but feeling lost — do you have questions? Get thee to the comments box!
Part II… coming soon!