Life in the classroom 

If you’re thinking about teaching, here’s what life in the classroom is really like.
  
We consulted with teachers across Scotland to make our courses as relevant as possible for the job today. Here's Dr Paul Murray from Kirkcaldy High School on the highs and lows of the job, and preparing students for the big bad world. 

When did you decide you wanted to be a teacher?

I decided I wanted to be a teacher when I was 13 years old. I have quite a vivid memory of one of my first chemistry experiments: there were two solutions (they would have been lead nitrate and potassium iodite) and when you mixed these two clear and colourless solutions, what you got was this cloudy yellow stuff that looked a bit like that banana antibiotic that we all used to get when we were wee. And this, to me, was the coolest thing in the world. 

I decided that chemistry was my subject, and I actually quite enjoyed being at school. I enjoyed the environment, I enjoyed learning, and so I think at that point I decided that I was going to be a teacher, and specifically, I was going to be a chemistry teacher.


What does a typical teaching day look like for you?

A day involves getting up in the morning, having my breakfast and going for a swim. I arrive at school, we have registration, and we have a seven-period day. I have a mixture of years at the moment. 

I think a lot of people assume that you would enjoy your senior classes more than your junior classes because obviously junior classes can be a bit crazier, but actually I enjoy them all for totally different reasons. I love the enthusiasm that a lot of the juniors walk in with, and I love the forming of adult opinions and that kind of business that you get from the seniors. There is loads to keep you entertained over the course of a day. 


What have been the most challenging aspects of being a teacher?

Everybody assumes that behaviour will be challenging, but it's only challenging if you don't have the support of those around you, like your teacher pals. In this school I'm really lucky that there's a great support network and we all look after each other quite a lot when behaviour is getting you down, and it can get you down, no matter how professional you try to be. I can just walk into my colleagues’ rooms and I can talk to them and try and understand what's happened.
 

What are the most rewarding parts?

The most rewarding part is just the fun. You get to work with the most interesting, the most enthusiastic people it's possible to work with. 

The thing that every teacher craves is that spark of realisation, that bit where somebody's gone 'Oh this thing about grand formula masses, Dr Murray, it's just doing my head in' and then the next lesson is 'Oh I totally get it! I see it! Brilliant! Right.' That's the bit that all teachers crave. 

I love the enthusiasm that a lot of the juniors walk in with, and I love the forming of adult opinions that you get from the seniors. There is loads to keep you entertained over the course of a day.

Is there a particular moment or a student or a class that you remember?

I've had a couple of cases where a student has come to me before they leave or has found a way to contact me after they leave saying 'Something you said had a big impact on me.' I've had that happen a couple of times and that's lovely, that's a 'mascara moment' when that happens. 

To me, watching somebody walk in in first year as a little person and see them become a teenager and try to help them through that, which obviously can be a pretty tricky time, and then see them walk out the door again as an adult is a real pleasure. 
 

Do you think you're a different teacher to what you thought you'd be when you set out?

I think I was arrogant enough to believe that I'd be able to walk in and just do it with the skills that I already had. I've been standing up on stage since I was very young, and I’d had lots of experience teaching individual classes before that as well. But in terms of the routines and the management of a classroom, it was not what I expected and I had to learn that. A lot of the work I’d done teaching kids before had been one-off stuff - so they see me for 45 minutes and then I'm away again. So I was a bit of a novelty, and nowadays, my classes see me every day, so the novelty wears off after a while. So I have to think how to keep it interesting and exciting for kids, which was not something I expected.

In terms of the sort of teacher that I am, I expected that I'd be quite a jolly teacher, and I am; I expected that I wouldn't be that strict, but I am. I think that often surprises the kids – they see me and they think 'Oh Dr Murray, he'll be quite lax about the rules,' but I'm actually more stringent about the rules than a lot of people are, and I'm almost stricter than I expected. 


Are there particular things about your own teacher training that stuck with you?

I really enjoyed being able to talk to the people who were training at the same time, being able to share the experience. And there are resources from my teacher training days that I still use - I was actually contacting one of my placement schools the other day because I remembered a resource that they had that I wanted to get my hands on. 

But really, I got a heck of a lot from being with my pals, and I was quite lucky that the tutor that I had was good at facilitating discussions, and I got a heck of a lot from being in placement as well. 

Are there things that you wish you'd been taught?

There could have been a lot more about behaviour and behaviour management in the course that I did. The expectation is obviously that you would get that on placement, and you do, but I think it would have been good to have slightly more structured lessons. 

I think a great thing to have included would have been about mental health and how to deal with things that are happening in your classroom that are really not very nice, and sometimes having to do something as a teacher that you don't really want to do. You don't want to send someone out of the room, you don't want to put someone in a different place, you don't want to do any of these things. And learning how to deal with that, so you can actually go home and sleep at night. So more to do with the mental health of teachers, mental health of kids as well, because that's a big deal too. But actually specifically your own mental health because it can be quite overwhelming sometimes. 




I got a heck of a lot from being with my pals, and I was quite lucky that the tutor that I had was good at facilitating discussions, and I got a heck of a lot from being in placement as well.

What do you wish people knew about being a teacher, or what do you wish you could tell people who are put off by the negative news headlines?

I would say that, yes there are negative aspects. There are negative aspects to any job. But the reality is that it's a huge amount of fun and you get to work with these fantastic people, and if you get the right school the support will be there to help you through anything negative. 

Another nice thing is that if things are going badly, there's always tomorrow. Kids are surprisingly forgetful: every day is kind of a new day to them. So if you've made a mess of it the day before (you are a human being, you are going to make a mess of it sometimes), you can walk back in, stand up and say 'right guys, I made a mess of that yesterday. So let's just start again.' And they'll say 'Fine!' 

I find if you're honest with them, they’ll see you as human, so if you do make mistakes you can come back from them.


Do you think teachers have the power to make a positive impact on kids' lives?

100% we do. We see kids coming in here who are really struggling and a couple of years on we're getting them going 'Right, this business of National 5 Chemistry, I've decided I really want that.' We absolutely can make a difference.


Do you think you can be a good teacher without passion?

Definitely not. I think you do have to have a certain amount of passion for your subject, but the main passion you have to have is about doing the best for the kids and giving them the best experience, one that's going to prepare them for the big bad world. 

I think back to inspirational teachers that I had at school - what made them inspirational? Was it their fantastically structured lessons? Did they do loads of cooperative learning? And the answer is no. Actually I can't remember a single lesson any of them ever did. It was just about how they treated me – they actually treated me as if I was a human and I was an adult. That's to me where the magic lies. It's about your relationship with another person. And respect.


Could you touch on how every day is different?

Every day is different because you have a different group of classes coming your way. Whatever's happened that morning will have an effect on what walks in your door, and you have to deal with that. The more experience you get, the more you know what to prepare for. But at the same time, you can be 30 years into teaching and something will happen that's never happened before. And you just have to deal with it. 

You are never not learning. You are never thinking 'right I'm the perfect teacher now, that's me done.' That's just not a thing. You're always finding out more and you're always encountering interesting new situations.