Primary and secondary teaching – is it the same job?

Posted on 29th October 2016 by Stephen
A file of papers and a pot of pens

This guest blog post is written by Stephen. Stephen is a secondary teacher whose wife is a primary teacher. In this post he draws on their experiences to explore whether the demands on primary and secondary teachers are the same.

My wife and I began teaching at the same time. After slogging through our respective PGCE years we both were fortunate enough to get a job offer from the first schools who interviewed us. I started my NQT year teaching maths and science in a large (10 form entry) inner-city secondary school, my wife teaching Year 3 in a smaller suburban primary school. Despite being at technically the same stage in our teaching careers there was an obvious difference between our jobs both in workload and in the actual work we had to do day to day.

The first year of proper teaching for us both was very hard work almost all the time! We were told “It gets easier”, and it did as we learned the systems at our new schools and got used to the reality of teaching a full timetable. Once ‘settled in’ though, the main sources of work and stress were totally different.


For me in secondary the main difficulty I faced was the lessons themselves. Working in a large school meant a large variety in terms of the ability and behaviour of the students I was attempting to teach. I had some classes which were always a struggle, even after several years’ experience, and with the help of more experienced colleagues. Classes that I could never ‘crack’, who didn’t seem to respond to any of the different strategies I tried.

This made the lessons stressful but also created extra work in ‘following up’ on things that went wrong – detentions, meetings with Heads of Department/Year, contacting parents. My wife on the other hand has had some difficult students each year but generally behaviour in lessons is not a problem beyond occasional fussing, chatting and falling out!


As far as planning goes, our experiences have been completely different. I had a timetable with free periods built into it. Although I regularly lost some of those periods covering members of staff who were off sick (something my wife has never had to do in primary school) I generally was able to use them effectively.

Both the maths and science departments in which I worked had very large banks of lesson resources available to use. The schemes of work were very clear and had standard assessments prepared for each unit. Our personal timetables were often structured with ease of planning in mind – you might be teaching classes in different years but the schemes of work could often be the same depending on ability. I eventually got to a stage where I had minimal planning work outside of school hours.

In my wife’s primary school instead of free periods they have full days of teaching and one entire day off timetable each fortnight for planning. The planning is often done as a team within her year group which can sometimes lead to wasted time. I think she feels as though if she had more time to herself for planning she would be able to work more efficiently.

Being in secondary teaching also means that (hopefully!) you are teaching a subject you are specialised in. This definitely aids planning because the actual topics should be second nature. Other than some of the trickier A-level topics, I never felt like I had to spend much time on my own subject knowledge.

In primary you have to be able to teach everything – literacy, maths, geography, PE… there are topics which some teachers haven’t thought about since before they did their GCSEs or that are entirely new! This necessitates much more background reading to ensure not being caught out by the inevitable ‘good question’!


Despite good intentions each year to keep up with marking, I very rarely did any at all. The exceptions to this were formal assessments and science coursework. For general classwork I definitely relied more on ‘verbal feedback’…!

Yes, there was a policy – my school’s was that marking should be done every two weeks per class with written comments, responses from students etc. But I used various ‘work arounds’ to satisfy this policy without having to take home buckets of books to mark. Fortunately my colleagues were more concerned with the quality of my lessons than the quantity of my marking.

My wife, on the other hand, is expected to mark every piece of work and spends plenty of time on this. Perhaps this is because of the catchment area for her school, where parents are known to be more ‘involved’ in their child’s education than average. They have come to expect this level of attention from the staff.

Similarly with homework – it was not a priority in my department so I didn’t focus much on it. ‘Homework night’ for my wife is one of the worst of the week – due to perceived parental expectations, each homework activity is carefully crafted for many hours until suitable for public viewing.

Work in the evenings

Anecdotally, one hears about all the work teachers do outside of ‘contact hours’ – work during evenings, weekends and holidays that can push the average working week beyond the 55 plus hour mark. My wife regularly works most evenings after school and either one or both days at the weekend. She also spends days in the summer holidays going into school to prepare for the new school year.

Over the years I was able more and more to cut down on the out-of-school work. I never worked in the holidays. I got to the point after a few years where I could leave about ten minutes after the final period and take little or no work home with me. There would be times when I would have to work outside of school hours but generally I wasn’t working anywhere close to the number of hours my wife was.

After-school or extra-curricular activities are something that we have both experienced. None of this was compulsory for staff at my secondary school but it was generally seen as something that you ‘should’ do. The school had a culture of ‘raising your profile’ and seeking extra responsibilities.

Generally I would offer extra revision for an hour or two after school for classes in the weeks leading up to GCSEs and A-levels. I gave up a lunchtime a week to run a Playstation club in my classroom. I helped out with a STEM club for local primary school students.

My wife, whilst not having the same atmosphere of ‘ladder climbing’ at her school, has compulsory extra responsibilities due to each teacher ‘coordinating’ a subject area. Some subjects require much more work than others and, unlike a secondary Head of Department, the teachers are not allocated extra time or pay for doing it.

Primary schools do also seem to be much more focussed on their local communities. Teachers all attend and are involved with concerts and other events outside of school hours. In my secondary school, attending or helping to organise these sorts of events were entirely optional.

The differences go on…

The differences I’ve described don’t just stem from working in either primary or secondary. The respective sizes, management and ethos of the schools also contribute, as do our respective ways of working. I spent my entire time during the school day working through breaks, lunch and free periods to minimise the work taken home.

I never set foot in the staff room other than for meetings. At my wife’s school the staffroom is much more of a social place and most teachers eat their lunch there rather than at the computer in their classroom, planning.

As a secondary teacher I was teaching a large number of different students for a few hours a week, rather than focussing entirely on a much smaller number for the majority of their lessons. I feel like I had a better work/life balance as a secondary teacher than my wife does in her job.

She is however much more likely than I was to come home feeling as though she’s had a good day. And at the end of each term, it wasn’t me who was coming home with huge numbers of bottles of wines and boxes of chocolates…

Stephen is a pseudonym. The views in this post are not necessarily shared by Happy Teacher.

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