I have made the move from mainstream education into a Pupil Referral Unit and I must say that it has been THE best decision that I have ever made regarding my career. My work/ life balance has improved, I am happier going to work and I enjoy my job immensely.
Saying that though, working in a PRU is not a walk in the park. It is not for the faint hearted, the sensitive, the easily offended and most importantly, easily scared, because it really can be scary at times. You are dealing with children who cannot be taught in a mainstream school- they have been permanently excluded and nearly most of the time, they have been excluded for bad behaviour.
So what can you really expect to encounter on a daily basis in a PRU?
Well the first thing you should expect to experience is bad language. I am told ‘I’m not fu*king doing maths today?’ ‘This work is sh*t.’ ‘ Miss, I’m not fu*king working with that tw*t’. I had never heard such shocking language from school children before, and I’ve worked in some rough places. I could not believe what I was hearing and couldn’t believe how the rest of the teachers didn’t even bat an eye lid. After day three, I wasn’t batting an eye lid either.
You should also expect personal insults. Deep personal insults. When the children get angry, they will say anything in their heightened emotions. You need to have a thick skin- or grow one fast. They will be racist, sexist, homophobic, mention your wife/ husband, kids, dress sense. Anything. During my time at my job I’ve heard, amongst other things, all aimed at the teaching staff, ‘you f*cking immigrant’, ‘you f*cking fat slag’, ‘f*ck off you heroin fa*got’…. and much, much more. The staff have dealt with the personal insults amazingly well, like water off a duck’s back. They remain calm, let the insults wash over them, but at the end of the day after incessant personal insults you can see the strain on their faces. All the staff are definitely ready for half term when it comes.
Expect small class sizes that are treble the work of a class of 30. I have a class of 5 KS2 children but they are more physically and mentally demanding than my class of 30 year 2s. They sometimes need to be restrained by two adults and taken out of the room, they will sometimes rip up the work set in front of them, they will sometimes be the best model students then turn into aggressive monsters the next day. You are on edge when you have a lesson that involves scissors. Cooking lessons are always a nerve wracking experience, especially when the fires are lit on the gas stoves. Break times will always involve arguments, tension and some cases fights. 5 children really is enough for a class in a PRU.
Expect to think on your feet and be more flexible with your creativity. You will spend time creating an exciting lesson only for the children to not understand it at all (a lot of PRU children are behind academically or have an additional SEN need), this will then cause then to ‘kick off’ out of frustration and your entire lesson is useless. You then have to switch up the lesson and think of something there and then that will engage them before any more disruption is caused.
Expect to not have a break or guaranteed PPA time. You are more personally involved in your class so you go out on all play ground duties with them, a morning break is unheard of. They also don’t have assemblies so you don’t even get 10 minutes to yourself in the mornings. You have lunch with them as they need to be supervised. At times you can dismiss the class at hometime and realise that you haven’t actually had 5minutes to yourself- you’ve not even had time to go to the toilet (just the same as mainstream really). You will have a PPA slot but then one of your pupils will have a melt down in the cover lesson and you’ll spend your ppa trying to calm them down.
Expect to not socialise as much with your colleagues. You will have a chat to them in the morning and at the end of the day, but there will be no early morning talks in each other’s classrooms or popping in for a chat at break or saving a seat for your work bff at lunchtimes. There is just no time for that. You are on the ball constantly regarding your children, talking about what you did at the weekend with your workmate is the last thing on your mind when one of your pupils is eyeing the door preparing to do a runner.
Expect your children to run. Run out of the classroom on a daily basis, run out of the school, run away on trips. They will run. And if they can’t run then they will climb. I haven’t worn heels since I started my new job. I wear shoes that I can run in.
Expect to take your work home at times and I don’t mean marking or paperwork. There are always reasons why a child is displaying negative behaviour and not always, but a lot of the times, it is to do with homelife. Most of the children in my care have outside agencies involved with them, be it social services, the police, health care workers. Sometimes you will read harrowing reports from social services regarding the children’s homelife or they will say something that makes your heart bleed. At times you will be thinking about what has happened or is happening to certain children long after they have left your classroom and that can be difficult.
However….. as I have said before, I like to keep my glass half full, so now on to the good bit.
Expect less paperwork. Your classes will range from 2-6 pupils so marking literally takes seconds and can be done during the class times. Planning is also less intense as the school understands how things can change and that the needs of the children come first, not a fancy proforma. I do not envisage taking any marking home for the foreseeable future.
Expect to create a close bond with your class. In mainstream school I just did not have the time to give each child my full attention. I couldn’t ask 30 children how their weekend was and did they enjoy that shopping trip that they mentioned last week. With the children in a PRU you can give them quality time and really get to know them. They will cling on to you and you really can make a difference to their lives.
Expect to have more freedom. The children in a PRU would find it difficult to follow the national curriculum, so this means that you are free to be creative and tailor lessons that are all about their needs and what will excite them the most. I have loved doing my long term plan- I’ve chosen subjects that not only the children want to learn about but I want to teach. We’ve got The Vikings, The Victorians and even the David Wallims books! I’m excited about teaching about. I have also been able to say no maths when the sun is out and instead go outside to look for wildlife or decide to take them out for the morning because someone in class mentioned that they had never been to such a place.
Expect to finish the day earlier. The children in a PRU cannot cope with a ‘normal’ school day. Lessons are 45mins each and they go home at 2.30pm. It has been amazing getting home at a time when I still would have been teaching in mainstream.
Expect less pressure. My management is amazing. They are so supportive. They understand that yes, targets need to be met and children need to make progress but they know that children in a PRU make progress in different ways. There are no monthly book scrutinies, medium term planning feedback, informal lesson observations that were always followed by criticism about what didn’t go well. I am no longer pressurised to teach to test.
All in all, like any job there are pros and cons to working anywhere. I hope this post gives you an honest view of what life could be like in a pupil referral unit. Remember, every place is different and not all PRUs follow the same format, but I think this gives you a little idea of the good points and the bad points.