Case study

Jenny has a degree in physiology. She trained as a biology teacher and has been teaching for 17 years.

For the first 12 years, she mainly taught her specialism, but more recent positions have required her to teach across the science curriculum. She explains how her ability and confidence to teach physics have developed.

“I’ve always been honest with schools, asking not to be given triple science physics groups. Whilst I can do the chemistry, teaching physics has always given me lots of anxiety. It involves me sitting down doing basic revision or learning principles afresh.

But the hard work I put in has paid off. This year, I am solo teaching my first Key Stage 4 higher tier (including physics) group. In August I will know how it has gone! My next goal is to teach triple award physics.

I was taught physics at GCSE by a newly qualified teacher (ironically called Mr Newton) and he simply didn’t cover the whole syllabus. So even though I got As for all my other subjects, I got a B for physics and did not carry it on to A-level.

In my first job, the LEA employed specialist teachers so I concentrated on biology. I was teaching A-level by my second year and, later, taught chemistry to GCSE. But I tried to avoid physics, leaving the things I was most shaky on, particularly forces and electricity, to specialists.

My next job was different. I moved south and the local schools employed ‘science’ teachers as some schools had no physics specialists at all.

It was hard going. Teaching physics made me feel like a newly qualified teacher all over again, with lots of background reading and anxiety that I was asking colleagues too many questions.

Fortunately, there was a great team in the science department, and they supported me by co-teaching as I got to grips with Year 9 physics. The hardest part was watching someone else teach my class digital and analogue, AM/FM because I simply didn’t get it. But I did learn from the experience.

At my next job interview, I made it clear that physics was a weakness and that I wanted to improve. Having already taken a four-day chemistry for non-specialists course, I did a similar short course in physics. It was hugely helpful:

  • Introducing me to many of the resources I needed: in particular, I’ve found the TalkPhysics website very useful and I often look up discussions or search for resources on a particular topic
  • Giving me some great tips: for example, drawing out circuits on sugar paper and getting the students to literally build their circuits by putting the components on the paper
  • Revealing misconceptions that we all shared: for example, there are no forces except gravity and a bit of air resistance acting on a ball as it travels through the air
  • Showing us a variety of models for explaining things: for example, for current you have the sweets model, a rope model, the delivery van model. And to think I didn’t even know what a coulomb was!

Now I am really pleased at how I am teaching physics and feel a great sense of achievement. The great thing about physics is that it does work – if you set up your experiment well, it will work whereas in chemistry or biology particularly, there are so many anomalies which might make it go wrong.

Electricity has been one of my big worries. I used to roll my eyes each time it came up at Key Stage 3 thinking, “How on earth am I going to remember those laws about current and voltage from one year to the next??” But coming back year after year, I now feel like I get it – and not just by the skin of my teeth. Even current, voltage and resistance are obvious to me now.

When I have a new topic to learn, I go back to my notes from the course, or I pick up textbooks, ask colleagues or visit revision sites such as BBC Bitesize. I find resources aimed at the pupils particularly useful, firstly because I then approach it from their point of view but also because I often don’t have time to plough through teacher-focussed resources. I’m also lucky in my school in that all resources are shared – I know that some teachers can get very protective.

I enjoy feeling more confident, and for someone who is very conscientious, this is important. When I look back to when I was a newly qualified teacher, I realise I have come such a long way.”