Different Worlds

Ten Contrasts between Primary and Secondary Teaching

ALL teaching is very demanding & time-consuming, but the challenges of a primary teacher and a secondary teacher are very different. This tongue-in-cheek article celebrating the different cultures of primary and secondary schools, and celebrates the different worlds that teachers inhabit.

1. The build-up to Christmas

Hark! The build-up to Christmas is stressful to many primary and secondary teachers, but usually for contrasting reasons. The haggard primary teacher will be driven to mulled alcohol if they hear “Little Donkey” once more as they prepare for the video-captured judgement of parents during the annual nativity or Christmas production celebration! Angels, sheep and wise men costumes clutter every free corner of the school – there are tears and tantrums that abound… sometimes from the children too. However, balance is restored in the knowledge that you will soon use your weight in glitter in a panic-stricken two day Christmas card making fest!

The contrast in the secondary school could not be more distinct. Mock Exams. The knowledge that Christmas lunch will be eaten with the accompaniment of that pile of marking in the corner, that just insists on watching you tuck into your sprouts. The worry of too many ‘D’s from pupils who should be aiming for an A! There’s still a while to go, but ….argh!

2. 30 Pupils versus 250 pupils

The list of pupil names that usually arrives on your desk in June or July can either inspire or discourage a teacher when they note they have ‘that Samantha’ or ‘that Daniel’ coming into their class. For the primary teacher, this can lead to a challenging year, as they have the company of the same individuals every day for the next three terms.

Only PPA time and weekends can save them! Even then, there is the chance of an awkward encounter during the weekly shop.
For secondary teachers, those similar pupils will only appear in their classroom at the same tear-soaked places in the timetable, perhaps for only 50 minutes at a time, but every minute can feel like an hour. Yes, each class will have similar challenges, but there usually is a ‘treasured’ class of pupils to which you can look forward to. The dream group.

3. Same subject, day after day after day…

This could be a blessing, or a curse, depending on how much you endure repeating the same message week after week, but even though primary colleagues need to teach all the curriculum the diversity of topics mean that there is so much creative freedom.

Secondary teachers are seemingly restricted to a mono-path of repetitiveness. If you can’t dig wide, you’ll have to dig down and secondary teachers cover topics to a much deeper depth compared to the shallow paddling and toe-dipping of primary teachers.

4. Parents Evening

There are clear similarities between primary and secondary school teachers here, as you know when the school bell rings that you have another four hours of carefully tempered talking, but this time trying to enthuse your pupils and, once again, justify your existence to their parents. Naturally, there is only one hiding place… behind the data, and hope for mercy that they don’t understand it either.

At primary schools, parent consultations are often conducted in the familiar surrounding of the classroom, so items can quickly be grabbed in answer to queries. In Secondary schools, the teachers usually gather in the emotional, tactical and factual no-mans-land of the school hall, perfectly designed to smother the soft tones of praise and echo the slightly raised voice of passive-aggressive criticism for all to hear.

5. Respect and behaviour

At primary school, the children adore you until sometime early in their school career they realise that the classroom moves to the enigmatic moods of the class computer. After that their faith is shaken and their loyalty is divided, and their true education in the fallibility of humanity, with you as the case study, continues until the final scarring evidence – the traditionally humiliating, but ‘feels so right at the time’ teacher dance at the year six leavers party.
Secondary teachers have it no better. With the teacher jiggles still only 6 weeks ago and still fresh in their minds, the new year seven pupils will remain at their most quiet for any point in their schooling until they realise they are safe – dancing is not endemic in schools from year six and that the worst is behind them. However, they have harks and capers to catch up on, and in the absence of the promise of a shiny sticker, the chat, pushing boundaries and the growing (always growing!) will continue until the day they hit twenty.

6. Shampoo (nits)

At primary school learning and need are not the main drivers of classroom management and differentiation. The comparative wriggliness of the head biodiversity is and teachers count their blessings that they have a TA to direct to work with the scratching children. The only issue is making sure you can fake a surprised face when the TA informs you about the problem – “Oh really, I had no idea!”. The smell of the anti-nit shampoo is quite inimitable, and one which is recognised quickly by primary school teachers. You know which child is being treated from 10 metres away!
Secondary teachers… you have no idea… there are simply no words…

7. Tissues

For the primary teacher, this is an important part of the classroom furniture as runny noses and ‘productive’ sneezes, (also known as ‘sinuses stalactites’) are a daily occurrence that needs clearing up promptly before the demon sleeve swipes away the slime in a translucent frothy frenzy.
At secondary school, the teacher’s tissues are a behaviour management tool. The main purpose of tissues in secondary school is for pupils to spit out the chewing gum, which they have been told countless times not to bring into school. Where do they get this endless supply of gum from? “Here’s a tissue. Spit it out and put it in the bin!”

8. Free Lessons

Usually the course of much contention between many teachers, and being able to catch up on marking, planning and assessments within school time is treasured among colleagues in all levels of schooling. So who does better? Let’s compare…

Primary school teachers usually get their PPA time (or should we rename that APP time?) for a morning or afternoon each week – if they’re lucky enough to find a hiding place that no one has yet thought of – and that’s it! There are only two only other modes of free lessons open to primary teachers – The much-anticipated course and the always expected illness.

Meanwhile, secondary teachers should get their PPA time, which could also include ‘free’ periods where the timetable has enabled them to have a free session. The problem with this is that they could suddenly be used to cover an absence of a colleague – therefore, that free time is thwarted and not guaranteed. Then, at the end of the school year, the Year 11’s leave, and those gaps are not filled until the new school year. Freedom!

9. Assessments / Progress

The difference here is stark and understandable. Summative tests are part of the course in secondary schools, where data is key in showing progress. This is understandable when teachers have so many pupils to look after and assess – there simply isn’t a chance to take a holistic view of the child. This is more achievable to the primary school teacher, who can take a more whole-child approach to pupils across all the subjects covered.

Who has the easier task? Well, technology can help with summative assessments, producing pretty charts (but don’t use the colour ink!) and clearly showing trends, but the constant pressure to improve progress and get the best results possible is never-ending. This is the same for primary teachers, but covering many curriculum areas is a challenge itself, and supporting pupils to improve gaps in their knowledge is an ongoing task.

10. Technical Issues

Rows and rows of shiny tablet devices and the equally shiny eyes of the students eager to use them are an inspiring sight. but sometimes educational technology does its level best to ensure that no learning will take place. Secondary schools are slowly getting their act together, with a dedicated team of technicians to ‘turn it off and then on again’ for the teachers. At primary schools, the teachers usually have to flick the on/off switch all by themselves.

At all levels of schooling, teachers have to deal with a special set of personalities that they never mentioned during teacher training – the tech. Wifi that enjoys playing hide and seek, photocopiers and printers with more jams than a great aunt, and anti-social projects who refuse to ‘talk’ to our computer.


Overall, primary and secondary teachers have much more in common than we have differences. We are linked together in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding for our pupils and ourselves, we are united in the worship of the unwavering perfection of the class planner, but most of all we do our best in the ridiculous system in which we all work.

This article was originally published in the December 2015 Edition of our UKEdMagazine

You need to or Register to bookmark/favorite this content.

About @ICTmagic 780 Articles
Martin Burrett is the editor of our popular UKEdMagazine, along with curating resources in the ICTMagic section, and free resources for teachers on UKEd.Directory

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.