Ben Breen teaches science and mathematics at Dartford Grammar School. In his second year of teaching, he took on the role of Head of Physics. Three years later he became Assistant Head of Mathematics. He shares his career progression story here.
Becoming a teacher
While I was doing my physics degree, I looked into various internships and other opportunities but none of them really appealed to me. By chance, I saw a poster advertising a physics teaching internship and thought I’d give it a go. As I was filling out the application form, I realised I had a lot of the skills they were looking for.
I wasn’t always sure what career I’d like to pursue. A physics degree appealed to me because the questions physics deals with seem so much bigger and more open than in other subjects. I had very knowledgeable physics teachers who shared their passion for the subject beyond the syllabus, and that’s something I try to do with my students now.
One of the great things about teaching is that pupils are often asking questions that I don’t know the answer to. I find their perspectives so interesting and challenging. I like to bring the research I did during my degree into the classroom, and when students ask me why I decided to teach rather than pursue research I tell them that teaching is so much more interesting and fun!
My teacher training year was definitely a learning curve. I have vivid memories of my first lesson, where a task that I had thought would take five minutes ended up lasting the entire hour! I found the training really interesting because as well as practising the skills of teaching, you’re also learning the theory behind why certain approaches work. It’s what I had felt was missing from my research work — in teaching I really got to see the application of what I was doing. More recently I have continued to pursue this through an MA in Science Education at the UCL Institute of Education.
When students ask me why I decided to teach rather than pursue research I tell them that teaching is so much more interesting and fun!
I applied for the Head of Physics role during my first year of teaching and was successful. This was a big jump for me and essentially allowed me to have a bigger impact beyond the walls of my classroom, improving provision for all students studying key stage 5 physics and the staff that taught them.
As I became more experienced and developed my leadership skills, I realised I wanted to continue to progress in leadership so that I could affect decisions at a higher level and have a wider impact on students. I enjoyed the challenge of not just coming up with something that would work in my classroom, but that would work for other teachers and their students.
I’ve also found the more informal mentoring opportunities, like having a coffee and a chat with a colleague, useful for exploring my leadership ambitions.
Increased responsibility and support
I had a great mentor in senior leadership who talked through how they made their decisions and gave me an idea of how to fulfil that leadership role. It’s been great to be able to go to someone who can give me their perspective. I’ve also found the more informal mentoring opportunities, like having a coffee and a chat with a colleague, useful for exploring my leadership ambitions.
I’ve really enjoyed the additional responsibility that Head of Physics and now Assistant Head of Mathematics brings. In my department we have great policies that allow us to play to our strengths, and we have a very organised leadership team. The enhanced responsibility has allowed me to see not just the difference we can make to our students, but also to our staff, who have faced a challenging year with the pandemic.
There are of course challenges to the job. I was 21 when I began teaching and 22 when I became head of department. Managing colleagues that were older and more experienced than me was difficult to begin with, but I can say now, after having stayed at the same school for six years and developed my reputation, that it’s not so much of a challenge anymore. I found the best approach was to acknowledge other people’s experience and seek their advice, while still driving forward with a clear vision. When I moved over to the maths department, I had to develop a new management style, but fortunately I already knew the staff well.
My students are enthusiastic and they push me to understand more about physics and maths too.
The best things about teaching
What I particularly love about my school is the excitement and energy I can feel in the corridors. My students are enthusiastic and they push me to understand more about physics and maths too. It also helps that my colleagues are really friendly and supportive. I know that everyone is pulling in the same direction and we have a good joke in the office.
I like that I’m able to bring myself into the classroom. I have a love of meaningless facts and I like to start my lessons with a ‘fact of the day’. It’s usually completely unrelated to the lesson, but it sparks some really interesting conversations with students, especially ones that might be struggling to connect with the subject.
One of the most rewarding moments of this year was when a student chose to come to me when they were struggling with their home schooling. It meant a lot to me that they trusted me with that information, and I was able to help them with strategies to manage their situation.
One of the most gratifying things about being a teacher is when a student, who at 11 years old was asking you what would happen if there was no gravity, leaves school at 18 to do a physics, maths or engineering degree. You know you’ve shaped their life by making them passionate about your subject. I’ve also had cards at the end of one school year from students not going on to study anything to do with physics, but saying they would continue to read about and engage with it for the rest of their lives.
If you’ve been inspired by Ben’s story, find out more about how you can start your teaching career on the Get Into Teaching website.