Teaching A-level physics
The thought of teaching A-level physics can feel daunting. But teaching at this level can be hugely satisfying and also boost your career.
Are you hesitating to teach A-level physics?
There are real and valid reasons why teachers shy away from teaching A-level physics. It could be because:
- of a lack of self-confidence in subject knowledge
- of a concern about a lack of support
- simply that teaching at this level feels like a huge responsibility
But for many physics teachers, A-level classes are the highlight of their week:
- behaviour issues melt away and classroom management is less of a challenge. These kids have chosen to be in your class and you can concentrate on teaching physics
- the material you get to teach is interesting and challenging
- you have the satisfaction of being part of the chain that connects one generation of physicists to the next
IOP coach Niloufar Wijetunge recommends new teachers get stuck into teaching A-level as soon as possible. She started in her first year of teaching and whilst it was a challenge, she feels the experience contributed to her rapid development as a physics teacher.
She explains: “The truth is, that no matter what year into your career you begin A-level teaching, you will be in the same boat – that is, lack the confidence (to varying degrees depending on the person) to teach at that level. I have worked with experienced teachers who take on A-level teaching and I believe they face the same challenges.”
Richard Bonella, former IOP teaching and learning coach, had the following advice: “As trainees, new physics teachers should ask for opportunities to sit in on, and then team-teach, A-level classes if the school runs them. They should acquire at least an overview of available resources such as TAP and TalkPhysics, which has a dedicated Teaching Physics 16-19 group. If interviewed for an NQT post that could include A-level teaching, they should quiz the school about provision of external training, specialist mentoring and so on.”
In addition, he saw great career opportunities for specialist physics teachers. “I think an NQT who preferred to specialise in physics could push for being given a substantial A-level load, and not be burdened with chemistry or biology, especially if willing to help chemist/biologist colleagues (diplomatically, of course) with subject knowledge."
Why teach A-level?
- Many teachers report that their A-level classes are the most satisfying.
- Teaching A-level will have a positive impact on your teaching of earlier Key Stages.
- You will revisit the topics that inspired you at school and which led you to study physics further at university.
- There will be intellectual challenges – the mathematical calculations are not trivial. And like teaching at any level, each time you teach a topic, your own understanding deepens and becomes richer.
- You will boost your employability as there is an ongoing shortage of good A-level physics teachers.
- If you want to minimise teaching outside of your specialism, offering to teach A-level instead is a strong negotiating tool.
- You are doing your bit for Queen and country! More teachers and students of physics at A-level not only strengthens UK physics but is also good news for public understanding of science.
Common concerns – and how we can help
Practical work: lack of kit, lack of familiarity with kit
- IOPSpark's practical physics section has lots of advice and suggested demonstrations.
- Talk online to other teachers (and ask for advice with identifying and using equipment). There is a group for teaching 16-19-year-olds.
- Benchmark tools for practical work in science detail what kit should you have and give help in planning your lab.
New separate assessment at A-level
Resources to support the Level 3 Extended Project Qualification in physics.
- IOPSpark's teaching advanced physics section has lots of A-level teaching ideas and resources.
- Look out for CPD days run by the IOP education team. Also, Physics Education, our journal for teachers, reflects the needs and interests of secondary school teachers, teacher trainers and those involved with courses up to introductory undergraduate level.
- Being the only physicist in the science department – contact your local IOP representative to connect with physics teachers in neighbouring schools.
- Being a non-specialist – contact your local IOP representative to see if there are any current projects or programmes in your area that can support you.
Exam results pressure
There's no easy answer to the pressure felt when it comes to exam results, apart from do your best. The sooner you start teaching A-level, the sooner you’ll be good at it. Many teachers try sitting the exam papers themselves then use their results to see where their weaknesses lie and what they need to work on.
Mathematics – performing calculations in public and students’ lack of knowledge
- Make sure you're friends with your colleagues in the maths department so you know what your students covered in their maths lessons and can find out how they approach techniques. Run revision classes if you need to, ideally in conjunction with your maths colleagues.
- Practise any calculations you are planning to work through on the board before the lesson, but as you get more experienced, asking your students to help and working through examples together is a great way to teach.
Schemes of work (SoW)
It can be time consuming having to write SoWs from scratch or frustrating when they're too prescriptive or unclear. There are no short cuts, but there are plenty of people out there who can help:
- join our teachers’ discussion forum and ask for ideas
- use our Physics Teaching News and Comment email list to run your thoughts past other teachers
Getting your head round your school’s SoW – or indeed writing your own – can be a powerful learning experience for you.
Just one in five A-level candidates is female. A-level teachers need to stay gender aware and keep their teaching inclusive, staying particularly sensitive to the fact that often in mixed schools, there may be only one or two girls in the A-level group. As an A-level teacher, the place where you can make a real difference is between GCSE and A-level. You will be in a better position to encourage girls to continue to study physics as you can tell them how great it really is.
Suggestions for preparing yourself to teach A-level
- As trainees, ask for opportunities to sit in on, and then team-teach, A-level classes if the school runs them.
- If interviewed for an NQT post that could include A-level teaching, quiz the school about provision of external training, specialist mentoring and so on.
- Don’t forget that you have at least 3 years' more physics experience than your students.
- If you think you would like to teach A-level, jump in there immediately. Don’t leave it as it can end up being one of those mental blocks which get scarier and scarier.
- If you are the only specialist in your school, explore the possibilities for working with other local schools’ sixth forms and sharing the teaching and SoWs.
James – an early career teacher
"I found the prospect of teaching A-level physics terrifying!
I was an astrophysicist, so during my degree there was a huge focus on space, but not much quantum physics and so on. I had to put a lot of work into preparing lessons and revision programmes. There were questions I didn’t know the answers to. But the next year, they were the same questions.
Now I feel very comfortable with my A-level knowledge. If the kids ask me to do a calculation, doing it in front of a crowd with the whiteboard is challenging, now if I get stuck, we can work on it collaboratively.
Every physics teacher should be told you have three to four years on them. You have a degree. You know more than these kids. Get stuck in as soon as possible. If you leave it, it grows scarier than it is. You won’t be challenged by GCSE content. As a teacher, your educational journey hasn’t finished either. The kids help you on that journey and it keeps you on the cutting edge."
How you feel about teaching A-level is an important consideration when applying for jobs. For example, if you teach in a school where you're the only physics specialist, you will almost certainly be expected to teach A-level – and probably act as a physics consultant to other science teachers.
If you teach in a school without a sixth form, there won’t be opportunities to teach A-level. Is that what you want long term?