I used to be a hard hearted teacher. Not the sort that never cracked a smile, or ever told a joke, or even never let the children in my care see the soft-centred me, but what was I thinking when I gave kids a hard time for turning up too early in the morning? How was it that I didn’t realise that children have no power over what time they are dropped off or picked up?
I am so thankful that I always gave the children in my class the chance to practice their spellings while I was doing the register. I am glad that I figured out that some children don’t get the chance to do things like spellings, or times tables at home. It might be because they don’t have a quiet space, or, as I know now, because mummy has to cook the tea, or there is a new baby, or visitors came round, or that there is Brownies that night, or that, like my children, once they step beyond the school gates, everything that has gone on in there all day is wiped from their memories, because they have much more important things to be doing.
I understand so much more now about the priorities of children. These days the children I teach look at me with amazement when I refer to a TV programme they might have watched, or a cool toy or a comic. It’s as if I have suddenly popped out of this grey ‘teacher-world’ where everything is dull and difficult, into the real world, where I am a ‘real’ person, someone they can relate to, someone who understands that when they say they know what a healthy meal is, they have absolutely no intention of ever eating one.
Back before I had my own kids, I bemoaned the fact that homework added extra to my classroom responsibilities, and piously declared that children these days ought to be playing out and getting exercise. But I had no concept of the impact of homework in the life of the family. I didn’t know then that visits to relatives would need to be cut short, or playtime would be missed because the school work was waiting. And I certainly didn’t appreciate the difficulties of getting three children to do their homework, each of whom can’t do it on their own.
Before I was a mother I would have wondered how on earth this state of affairs could come to be. After all, I had been successfully managing groups of up to thirty-five of them, all working away, all at the same time. What I didn’t understand was that there is a huge difference between what children can do in the heightened atmosphere of the classroom, and what they can do at home, when there is all the temptation of all the things they would rather be doing right there, in the next room.
And how do I give them the kind of support they need when there are three of them? I don’t know if it is down to the Down’s Syndrome, but my children seem incapable of doing homework independently. The vision of the children working away at the table while I make the tea simply doesn’t exist in my house. Each child wants my undivided attention. Each child demands my undivided support. It would be easier if I could cut myself into three pieces. As it is, I have opted for helping them out, one after the other, and doing my best to swallow my resentment. Like them, there are thousands of other things that interest me more, and after a week spent cajoling the most reluctant of small people into hard-won feats of learning, the very last thing I feel like doing is repeating the act all over again at home.
I hate the fact that homework has been one of the biggest cause of fights between me and them. It feels to me as if the hand of the state has reached into my home, given us a sound telling off, and set us into generational opposition. What was it I used to say to parents when they came to me, worried about their children’s reading? Don’t make it into an argument, said I. Don’t force them, if they don’t want to. It’s supposed to be a joy, a pleasure, an entry into worlds unseen, as well as our own. Cuddle up on the sofa together. You read your book while they read theirs. Let them read what they want to; joke books, comics, how to do magic tricks, whatever. Take the pressure off. I hate the way that, under the threat of lost playtimes, I fell into the very same trap myself.
Back then, I didn’t understand that the child belongs to a set of family circumstances. They are not an individual at home in the same way they are at school. I didn’t have the first inkling of the complexity of needs and abilities at play in the family, let alone when one of the children has significant special needs. I never appreciated the fact that, if I give my children everything the school asks of me in terms of support for homework, then there is very little energy left for me.
I hope that today, or next week, or next month, when a parent comes to see me because their child is having difficulty with their work or problems in the playground, or any of a myriad of concerns, I will be able to see beyond the label ‘fussy parent’, or ‘pushy parent’, especially if that parent has a child with Special Educational Needs. I hope that I won’t take it personally if that parent is abrupt, emotional, or even aggressive, because I understand what it has cost them to come in to school in the first place. I know how difficult it is to have a conversation with a teacher at the end of the day when there are three clamouring children in tow. And I know the depth of feeling in the heart of the parent who has made the effort to come in, to make an inroad into the precious time of their child’s teacher.
This is not to say that only teachers with their own children understand the lives of the children they teach. It’s just that I didn’t. I didn’t see that family lives really matter. I didn’t know quite what a difference they make. I was guilty of saying all the right things, but not seeing the child in context, only the face they presented in the classroom. Would I have understood that the little boy in my class was tired because his brother had woken him at the crack of dawn for the fourth week in a row? Would I have seen that the little girl was finding it hard because the other children were asking her why her big brother was allowed to get away with such strange behaviour, when she didn’t understand it herself? Would I have understood that the child with Down’s Syndrome had already scaled a metaphorical Everest before they even set foot through my classroom door?
And this is not to say that teachers who don’t have children can’t be great, sensitive and inspiring teachers. They, unlike me, don’t have divided loyalties. They don’t need to rush out of work in the same way that I do, because they have small people who rely on them to transform themselves back into mummy on the way home. They are free to pursue far greater knowledge and understanding than I because they have far more time. They are far freer to discover through research and professional discourse the thing that I found out through pain and tears and confusion. That the parents matter.
That these people, these tired, divided, imperfect people hold the keys to their children’s success, and that when we set homework, or send letters home or ask if the children can come in fancy dress tomorrow we need to take them into account. We need to see not just the child, but the whole web of connections within which they sit.