Why did secondary PGCE students choose teaching as a career?

Why did secondary PGCE students choose teaching as a career?

Reid, Ivan

In some contrast to primary the recruitment of secondary school teachers, particularly in the sciences and mathematics, has been and is a problem in England.Yet remarkably little is known about the reasons why people choose teaching as their career. This may seem surprising in what the Teacher Training Agency (TTA), responsible for recruitment and training (TTA,1996), hopes to see as a research-based profession. But as any scan through a library catalogue reveals there is a dearth of material and almost nothing on any scale and up-to-date. The situation may be viewed as alarming, given the recent difficulties in recruiting for the major entry route for secondary teachers – the thirty-six-week Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) courses — which, together with the projected substantial required increase of secondarytrained new teachers by the year 2000, appears to herald a teacher shortage. A better understanding of the reasons for becoming a secondary school teacher might well enhance recruitment strategies. This article reports on a recent study which sheds some light on the subject.

We could find only two publications in the last decade which investigated secondary PGCE students’ attitudes to their course or to a career in teaching, although the reasons young people gave for not considering teaching were explored for the Department of Education in 1985 (OPCS, 1987). Stewart and Perrin (1986) conducted a survey into physics graduates’ and PGCE students’ reasons for, attraction to, and perceptions of the major problems of choosing teaching as a career. Sands (1993) looked at the reasons for PGCE students’ withdrawal from courses, concluding that the major reason was unsatisfactory experience of teaching practice. Neither of these studies, unlike the present one, assessed in depth the reasons for PGCE students, across a range of subjects and institutions, choosing teaching as a career.

THE STUDY

Semi-structured interviews were held with twenty-eight volunteer secondary PGCE students part-way through their course, in order to explore: their reasons for choosing teaching as a career, why they did not want a job other than teaching, why they wanted to be a secondary and not a primary school teacher, and what factors had been important in the decision to embark on their PGCE course. These interviews provided a range of factors and considerations seen as important by the students in respect of each of the areas and were used as the basis for the construction of a questionnaire. The items included in the questions (reproduced below in Figs. 1-6) arose directly from the students’ responses during interview and were expressed in their language wherever possible within the confines of producing a short (two-page) multiple-choice instrument. The questionnaire asked students to indicate whether and to what extent they thought the factors listed had been important to them (very important, important, not important or not considered), offered them the chance to identify further reasons and collected face data on gender, age, degree and Advanced Level General Certificate of Education (A-level GCE) subjects. Completed questionnaires were received from 453 secondary PGCE students who were half-way or more through courses in five universities in 1996, 60 per cent of whom were female, 49 per cent were aged between 21 and 23 years, and 24 per cent were science or mathematics graduates. Since the recruitment of the latter has been a continuing major difficulty, they were analysed separately, but unfortunately, because of the size of the sample, as a single group rather than by discipline.

FINDINGS

Reasons for wanting to become a teacher

The questionnaire offered twenty-one reasons for choosing teaching, and initial analysis was done by using the percentage choosing each as being `very important’. Using this together with ‘important’ resulted in a similar pattern with a few exceptions (see Figs. 1-6). It is clear that the vast majority of PGCE students had positive and professionally sound rather than negative and questionable reasons for wanting to teach. The most outstanding and most popular two reasons, seen as important or very important by 96 per cent of students and as very important by more than three out of five, were `enjoying working with children’ and `feeling that teaching would bring high job satisfaction’. In contrast, reasons to do with holidays, working hours, salaries, security, wanting a change of career, having few other opportunities or nothing better to do were viewed as very important/important by less than 50 per cent and as very important by 15 per cent or less (see Fig. 1 ) . The remaining reasons between these extremes fall into three categories. The first has to do with students wanting to sustain, share and use their knowledge; the second, with aspects of teaching as a career – that it would be good, challenging, bring responsibility and have an enjoyable atmosphere.The third category contains the profound wish to improve children’s life chances and being inspired by one’s own teachers, which may well be related. All three categories were chosen as very important or important by between two-thirds and nine out of ten students and as very important by 20-45 per cent.

Surprisingly enough, analysis by gender, age group and science and mathematics or arts first degrees revealed a relatively small number of differences of any great size. The nature of the data commends descriptive rather than statistical treatment and hence here we limited analysis to those differences in which there was a 5 per cent, or more, difference between groups choosing a reason or factor as `very important’.

More female than male students chose as very important the reasons why they felt they would enjoy the working atmosphere (48/37 per cent), that teaching would be a challenge (42/37 per cent), that they wanted to continue their interest in their studies (40/28 per cent), that they had been inspired by their teachers (31/22 per cent) and, not surprisingly perhaps, that the hours would fit in with parenthood ( 12/7 per cent). More males than females indicated that they felt that teaching would bring a lot of responsibility (23/18 per cent), that the holidays were longer (18/21 per cent) and that they had wanted a change of career (16/11 per cent).

More students aged 24 and over than aged 23 years or younger saw as very important: wanting to share their knowledge (49/42 per cent), to use their academic knowledge (44/35 per cent), to continue their interest in their studies (39/27 per cent) or to improve children’s life chances (37/27 per cent), and obviously, wanting a change of career (24/2 per cent). The younger age group of students were more likely to choose having enjoyed working with children (72/66 per cent) and to having been inspired by their teachers (35/20 per cent).

More arts than science and mathematics graduates chose as very important: wanting to share their knowledge (48/39 per cent), to continue their interest in their studies (40/17 per cent), to improve children’s life chances (32/28 per cent), having had good experience of teaching (32/23 per cent), or feeling that a PGCE could be used in other fields (16/10 per cent). More science and mathematics graduates chose that they felt that teaching was a good career (43/37 per cent) and that they had been inspired by their teachers (31/26 per cent).

Analysis combining gender and degree type, while limited by the relatively small number of science and mathematics graduates, revealed a few clear differences, mainly by gender. More female than male science and mathematics graduates saw as very important that teaching would bring high job satisfaction (69/48 per cent), a lot of responsibility (25/15 per cent), would be a challenge (48/28 per cent) or had been inspired by their teachers (37/25 per cent). More female arts than female science and mathematics graduates chose as very important that they wanted to share their knowledge (50/34 per cent).

Why not a job other than teaching?

The simple, straightforward answer to this question was that they wished to teach, 64 per cent saw this reason as very important and a further 24 per cent saw it as important. As Fig. 2 shows, the next most popular reasons were both positive and negative: a preference for the working atmosphere in teaching and the wish to avoid an office job – reasons almost certainly related to each other. The least popular reasons, with the exception of greater job security, were also somewhat negative: had done another job and wanted a change, could not get another job and had few other job opportunities.

More female than male students saw wanting to teach as very important (68/60 per cent) and preferred the working atmosphere in teaching (42/31 per cent). Obviously, students of 24 years or over were more likely to have done another job and to want a change (27/5 per cent). More arts than science and mathematics graduates chose that they preferred the working atmosphere (41/26 per cent) or did not want an office job (33/22 per cent).

Why secondary school teaching?

Choice of secondary rather than primary school teaching appears closely related to what may be termed students’ academic concerns — wanting to specialise, maintain interest in their degrees and teach at a higher academic level (see Fig. 3). Also important were aspects of secondary schools and pupils — wanting to teach more than one class, feeling that secondary pupils were more responsive, a preference for such pupils’ verbal and intellectual skills, and that they had enjoyed their own secondary schooling. The findings also show that between 5 per cent and 1 1 per cent of students may have preferred to teach in primary schools. While this response may appear surprising, it is obviously related to the over-subscription to Primary PGCE courses and the consequently greater difficulty of securing a place on them compared with secondary ones.

As can be seen in Fig. 4, this question, unlike the others, produced a range of gender, age and degree subject differences. A higher percentage of female than of male students and of arts than science and mathematics graduates indicated as very important each of the first seven items in Fig. 4.The most marked gender differences were in wanting to teach at a higher academic level (51/40 per cent) and wanting to teach more than one class (44/30 per cent). Arts and science and mathematics graduates differed even more markedly on one-class teaching (43/23 per cent) and markedly on wanting to specialise (54/40 per cent), maintaining interest in their degree subject (48/34 per cent) and having enjoyed their personal experience of secondary school (31/21 per cent). There were fewer differences between the age groups, though more of the younger saw as very important their secondary school experience perhaps simply a function of age and/or memory- (34/24 per cent) and wanting to specialise (55/46 per cent). Although the numbers are small, it is interesting to note, since it is contrary to common belief, that the percentage who would have preferred to teach in primary schools was around twice as great for male, younger and science and mathematics students.

Why not primary school teaching?

Reasons reflecting personal concerns rather than concerns directly related to primary schools and pupils appeared uppermost (Fig. 5). Over two-thirds of students saw as important the reasons why they did not want to teach or would be frustrated with this age group, or did not want to generalise. Around one in five saw as very important that they felt that they did not want to teach the same children all day, could not teach at that academic level, or that primary school teachers acted too much like nurses.

Other reasons in this group again reflected students’ academic interests – not wanting to waste their academic knowledge, and being insufficiently creative. Perhaps surprisingly, a minority, 6 per cent, saw as very important the reasons that pupils in the primary age group were both less disciplined and not responsible.

There were only two gender differences: more male than female students chose as very important not wanting to work with the age group (51/44 per cent) and more female than male students did not want to generalise (42/36 per cent). The only student age group difference was that fewer students under the age of 24 saw as very important the reason that they felt the primary teacher acted too much like a nurse (15/20 per cent). There were more differences between degree subjects. More arts than science and mathematics graduates indicated that they would have been frustrated with primary teaching and did not want to generalise as very important – 45 and 39 per cent and 45 and 26 per cent respectively. On the other hand, more science and mathematics graduates chose `did not want to work with the age group’ (50/45 per cent), `felt insufficiently creative for primary teaching’ (20/15 per cent) and, markedly more, that they felt the primary teacher acted too much like a nurse (23/6 per cent).

What was important in deciding to enter upon a PGCE course?

As can be seen in Fig. 6, experience of schools and children, rather than advice (other than that from teachers) was more significant as a factor in deciding to enter upon a PGCE course. Smaller percentages of students found advice from friends, lecturers and family to have been very important, though these were higher than evaluating prospectuses and assessing universities and their surrounding area – which were very important for just over one in ten students. Some 5 per cent did not gain information, advice or experience, the same percentage as those who found financial advice very important, while 2 per cent more found careers service advice to be similarly important. It may be seen as surprising that only 3 per cent of students found advice from those official agencies associated with teaching – the TA, the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE), local education authorities (LEAs) and unions – to have been very important.

The percentage of students’ choice of reasons as very important varied by 5 or more per cent in only four cases by gender, in none by age group and in a single case by degree type. More female than male students saw as very important: gaining experience in school(s) (64/55 per cent), advice from teachers, lecturers and the careers service (28/20 per cent, 17/9 per cent and 9/4 per cent. More arts than science and mathematics graduates indicated that gaining experience in school(s) was very important (63/55 per cent).

CONCLUSIONS

The findings indicate that, overall, secondary PGCE students have clear, positive and professionally sound reasons for choosing teaching as a career-having enjoyed working with children and feeling that teaching would bring high job satisfaction being at least ‘important’ reasons for 96 per cent. Reasons concerned with seeing a career in teaching as good, challenging, bringing responsibility and having an enjoyable atmosphere together with wanting to sustain, share and use their knowledge and to improve children’s life chances were similarly viewed by between two-thirds and four-fifths. Only a small minority saw reasons to do with holidays, hours, salaries or security as being important and an even smaller one that they lacked other opportunities. Reasons identified for not considering another job clearly reinforce this positive view; almost two-thirds saw ‘I wanted to teach’ as very important and nearly a quarter more saw it as important. It is encouraging that incipient teachers hold such positive reasons for joining the profession and it well belies the somewhat commonly held adages that `those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ and that teaching is a second or fall-back career choice. Further, there were fewer differences than might have been expected between the gender, age and degree type of the students in the importance of these positive reasons. Nor were there any noticeable differences between the students of the five universities involved. The findings suggest that graduates who choose teaching and enter upon training do so for straightforward and common reasons. Given the recent and sustained criticism of the teaching profession in England – amounting in some people’s minds to a hate campaign – it is refreshing and gratifying that some graduates hold such clear and positive attitudes in setting out to join the profession. Teaching is a vocation as well as a profession, and the students in this study demonstrated in their answers a very positive sense of vocation.

It is also clear that, for the majority of students, choosing secondary school teaching rested strongly on reasons for preferring it to primary school teaching. These are related both to students’ academic concerns — wanting to specialise, maintain interest in their degree or teach at a higher academic level (more than 80 per cent saw this as at least ‘important’) – and to aspects of secondary schools and their pupils wanting to teach more than one class, preference for such pupils’ ability and responsiveness (65-75 per cent saw this as at least ‘important’). There were, though, more differences here between groups of students (see Fig. 4). A larger percentage of female than of male students indicated that both these groups of reasons were very important. Again the reasons were mirrored by those for not wanting to teach in primary schools, though more related to aspects of such schools and their pupils. Not wanting to work with the age group, or to generalise, and feeling that they would be frustrated, being seen as at least ‘important’ by around seven in ten. Between a third and half indicated that they felt: it would be a waste of their academic knowledge, they could not teach at that level or were insufficiently creative, and that primary teachers acted too much like a nurse. It is worth noting that a relatively small proportion (5-11 per cent) might have preferred to teach in primary schools. Given their known underrepresentation in such schools, it is interesting that around twice as many male as female and twice as many science and mathematics as arts graduates were in this group.

Experiential factors are by far the most important factors in students’ decisions to enter the teaching profession. Gaining experience in schools and with children are seen as at least ‘important’ by 87 per cent and 70 per cent respectively. Advice is of second importance – that from teachers, friends, family and lecturers ranging from 55 per cent to 37 per cent – and university prospectuses were similarly viewed. Only 25 per cent so saw advice from careers services, while that from TA, DfEE, LEAs or unions ranked lowest of all, on a par with the percentage of students saying that they did not gain information, advice or experience.

The findings suggest that the most effective strategies for recruiting into teaching are likely to be those that involve experience of schools and advice from teachers rather than those based on the written word or advertising, or even the information hot line set up by Hills and Knowlton for the TTA. Where the latter strategies are used they would be best focused on those aspects identified above as being very important to the successfully recruited rather than on, say, conditions of service or information about courses and institutions. Imaginative schemes which directly involved potential recruits in school experience and advice from practising teachers could well prove most effective. Such schemes, like much in education, would not be new. One of the authors remembers being given two weeks’ teaching experience whilst a sixthformer in the 1950s – an experience which greatly reinforced his commitment to a career in teaching. Schools and their teachers could have as important a role in recruitment to the profession as they have in training student teachers and inducting new entrants.

Finally, the study indicates a number of further avenues to be investigated in order to improve the recruitment, in terms of both numbers and quality, to teaching. Largerscale inquiries would enable fuller exploration of differences between sub-groups of students, such as discipline, age and gender in combination. More in-depth studies would obviously enhance and perhaps extend our understanding of the reasons for and attitudes to entering teaching. A longitudinal study of the attitudes and motivations of persons before and at recruitment, through training and into the profession would be particularly revealing and might well have implications for a range of aspects of improving not only recruitment and retention but even classroom performance. Research should be conducted into students using other modes of entry into the profession — particularly four-year degree courses and School-centred Initial Training Schemes (SCITTS). Some on-going linked research into the effectiveness of recruitment campaigns and strategies is clearly necessary to ensure success. Such researches are urgently called for if, as a society, we are to meet the challenge of ensuring an adequate supply of suitable teachers for our secondary schools in the future.

REFERENCES

Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (1987), Young People’s Intentions to enter Higher Education, London: HMSO.

Sands, M. (1993), `Student withdrawals from teacher training’, New Era in Education 74 (2), 58-64.

Stewart, M. F., and Perrin, P. (1989), ‘A comparison of physics undergraduates’ and PGCE students’ attitudes to a career in teaching’, Physics Education 24, 252-3.

Teacher Training Agency (1996), Corporate Plan, 1996, London: Central Office of Information for the TTA.

Address for correspondence

Professor Ivan Reid, Department of Education, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leicestershire LEl 3TU.

Copyright Manchester University Press Nov 1997

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