Becoming a teacher

Our teaching courses are made by teachers, for teachers. 

Phil Wootton is a chemistry teacher at The Royal High School, and also one of the teachers we consulted about our courses. Hear about what attracted him to the job and the skills you need to succeed in teaching. 

Can you talk a bit about how you became a teacher?

I was a semiconductor engineer working for a company in East Kilbride that was closing down in Scotland. I had skills in engineering and analysing tools and data, but I knew that what I really enjoyed was working with people. And I love science. And looking around at the options available, it seemed like Chemistry Teacher ticked both those boxes. 

It was a big switch. I'll be honest, it's a harder job that I thought it was originally going to be. But that's where the rewards come. If things are easy you don't get the same achievement factor. 


Could you describe a typical day for you?

The first word that would come to mind is 'fast'. A day is fast in my job. No sooner is it eight o'clock than its half-past-three. And it doesn't end at half-past three. You normally do supported study or clubs or a student comes back with problems, so it goes on, but it goes so fast. You're walking to your car thinking ‘was it not just two minutes ago I was walking into the building?’

Every day is different. And every year is different. I used to think before I did the job, ‘surely you're teaching the same thing every year - there must a point where you're just going around doing that same thing.’ And the big thing I didn't realise at the time is that you're teaching it to 20 different people. And every time someone else comes in the classroom there's a different dynamic, there's a different relationship, there's a different rapport. And it makes the job different. And every student that comes in here will learn in a different way. 


How do you prepare for the unexpected things that a day can bring?


If it's unexpected you have to go with the flow. Someone said once there are two good analogies of teachers. One is the duck: the feet are going a hundred miles an hour under the water and yet the students see a nice, calm person in front of them. 

The other is that you're a bit like a surfer. If you're on the wave and the students are listening, they understand, you just take that board right into the beach and it's a great surf. But sometimes you miss the timing, and the water just comes down and soaks you. And you'll get lessons that feel like that as well.

As an engineer I supervised people, my job was to get the best out of people. That is what your job is in teaching. I learned over 25 years that managers sometimes think that they manage the people, and they don't really. The people only do as much and as little work as they want to do. The real trick in managing is getting them on board with you so they want to work for you. That's where I came into this job. My team are my class. 


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

In a nutshell, it’s just being a teacher! It's a very rewarding job because it is difficult. It's a job where you've got to be thinking on your feet and you've got to be thinking ahead. It's like spinning plates and making sure you don't drop any. 
I came into this job thinking I would get 20 As in every class I took. But it's not really about As. It's not the students that have got the As that I remember the most, it's the students that just really tried and really worked and almost got it. They're the ones that still stick in my mind. 


I knew that what I really enjoyed was working with people. And I love science. And looking around at the options available, it seemed like Chemistry Teacher ticked both those boxes.

What are the most rewarding parts of being a teacher?

A lot of times you can get led by the grades, you can get led by the pressure and the parents. And really it's just about doing the best for each child that comes in, and that might not necessarily always be getting them an A. That might just be getting them a better outlook on how they lead their life. 

Three or four years ago I had a couple of lads in my Higher class who came from rough areas. I picked them up in Nat 4 and they passed their Nat 4, and I was lucky enough they were back in my class for Nat 5 and they passed that too. So in their last year, they went for the Higher. Now, in 4th year they would not have said they were going to be sitting a higher in two years' time. Not because of their lack of ability, but just because of their lack of belief. And by the end of the sixth year, they had belief in themselves. The only Higher they were doing was Higher chemistry and I know I'm singing my own tune a wee bit, but they were in the class because I believed in them and they then believed it was possible. 


Do you think you're a different kind of teacher than you thought you'd be when you started out?


In the beginning I thought 'If I teach it well and they understand it, they should all get As'. I do still start lessons by saying to the class ‘My aim is 20 As - we'll see where we go’. I need them to expect to get an A as well, because we need to be on the same sheet.

The education they get for the next few months is down to me. Whether it takes 3, 4, or 5 times, I just need to explain it until they get it, and if they're not getting it, I need to try again from another approach. 


Was there a moment when you realised that you were proud or happy with the teacher you'd become?


I once asked a teacher, 'when do you know that you're fully a teacher?' And people give you different answers to that question. I think the answer is 'never', in truth. You're always learning, you'll always make mistakes. There are always things you could do differently and improve on. And that's one of the good things about the job as well. 


Are there particular things that you remember from your teacher training?


Well my mentor and professor at the University of Edinburgh was Douglas Buchanan, who is a fantastic mentor. He emphasised the importance of motivation and told me that your teaching is a journey that never ends. I remember that was his one message. It's a journey that will never end. And I've always kept that. 


You're always learning, you'll always make mistakes. There are always things you could do differently and improve on. And that's one of the good things about the job.

Are there things you wish you'd been taught?

You’re not just dealing with the children, you're dealing with parents as well. I've been a parent longer than I've been a teacher, and I totally sympathise with parents. It's really difficult and frustrating when you come into a school and you're hearing not-so-great news about your child - this is a person you love and care and worry about. But most of my experience with parents has been the same as with pupils - I've been really lucky. But handling bad news is something I think the universities and colleges don't teach. They teach you how to teach your subject, they teach you how to hold a restorative conversation with a child, but they don’t teach a person how to give out bad news. And sometimes it's just the nature of the job - you will have to give out bad news. 


Are there things you think can't be taught?

Yes. I think that's one of the most important aspects about being a teacher - that what you do is you stand up in front of 20 students and you open up who you are. You have to be honest, you can't come in every day and do the job and pretend to be something you're not. And you might get observed and a teacher might say 'well you need to be harder, you need to be firmer, and you need to be patrolling the length of the classroom.' But if you're not that type of person and you try and be that type of person, and you're going to find the job a lot tougher to do. 

But equally, when you're open and honest with students, they'll let you know exactly what kind of person you are. And you hope that what you're seeing back is someone that cares, someone that worries about them, someone that wants them to do well. 


What do you wish people knew people knew about being a teacher?

It's a challenging job and it's not for everyone and you go through emotional rollercoasters because it's a very mentally draining job, but when I hit those highs, I'm so glad I came into the profession. There are so many things I've done in the last nine years of being a teacher. You can ski with students, you can go to football grounds, you can assist in rugby. 

You won't find another job with so much diversity available to you. And so much personal pride at the end of it as well. I don't think you'll find another job that can give you that at the end of it.