I occasionally read articles in the newspapers where famous persons (I hate the term ‘celebrity’, as if being famous is somehow to be celebrated) write/talk about the teachers who made a difference to them in their formative years, and I, as a teacher, always feel slightly guilty. The thing is, I don’t remember any one teacher having an enormous effect on my life; indeed, I can’t remember many of them at all.
Actually, that’s not true. I can remember the ones I didn’t like, and those who taught the lessons I didn’t enjoy. Oh, how I hated Spanish! I worked really hard in Geography because I didn’t want to attract the attention of the teacher, because he smoked cigars and I hated the smell and the way he breathed all over me when he came to my desk to answer my question. I remember the primary teacher me and my friend Kay detested, because he had favourites, and made it clear we weren’t. And I remember the Deputy Head at my secondary school, the one we were all terrified of, because he was renowned for giving the cane with a run and a jump. We would fall into silence as he strutted around the school, a small man in a brown nylon suit, a man who I can’t remember ever teaching me. Most of them, though, have disappeared out of my memory, never to return.
But I know, as an adult, a parent and a teacher, how important this person can become in the life of a child. Take my daughter, for example. She has taken the line of least resistance at school so far. She is there because she has to be, tolerates the working side of it because she has no choice, and has actively aimed to keep herself below the level of notice-of-the-teacher. Until this year, that is. This year, all is different.
This year she is actually trying hard at school. She wants to get a pen license (good luck with that, kiddo!). She wants to answer questions. She wants her teacher to know who she is. I know this, because she talks about her a lot, and makes her gifts. I don’t for one minute think that she has changed in her attitude towards school because she has better targets, or knows what her next steps to learning are or how she can improve. I don’t think she gives a monkey’s about any of that. She wants to do well for this young teacher because she likes her. Likes with a great, big, capital L.
And what has this young woman done to inspire such devotion in my daughter? She hasn’t given her a single sticker. L hasn’t come home with any prizes. She got a bit excited about the end of term party thanks to there being enough marbles in the jar, but the little girl’s heart was won way before that. L loves the fact that she knows that her teacher’s favourite animal is the giraffe. She is knowledgeable about Cornwall because Miss comes from there. She thinks she knows her first name. As well as being kind, with a gentle voice (these are top teacher qualities according to my daughter), this teacher has been prepared to share something of herself with her class. She isn’t afraid to show the children her soft centre. And L thinks she is wonderful.
Sam always found it hard to have a relationship with his primary school teachers. Of course, it was difficult to tell what he thought because it is only recently that he has been able to express his feelings about them (his form tutor is his ‘darling’ apparently – cue much smirking and blushing!). It was partly down to having a TA – much easier for a teacher to engage with the TA rather than Sam, partly down to the number of different groups he went to. Different sets for Maths, English, time out for ‘fizzy’ or horse riding at the local RDA. Having only worked in single entry primaries or smaller schools, I had no idea quite how much setting there would be.
And I am not convinced that this is entirely a good thing. I can see it in my daughter, I can see it in my eldest son, I can see it not happening (again) for my middle child, and I knew it when I was standing at the front myself. The reason they want to try, to do well, to behave, is because they care about their teacher. They love them, and are loved in return. What their teacher thinks, of them, and their work, matters to them. Yes, some children are motivated by being top of the class and wanting to do well academically, knowing where they stand in the class pecking order, but I don’t believe that these are in the majority, and my children certainly don’t belong in this group. It cracks my heart that A, my little line of jam in the family sandwich, has yet to find a teacher he really cares for. Why should he bother to try if his teacher’s opinion, either good or bad, doesn’t matter to him?
Sometimes I feel as if my children have stepped into a world I know nothing about. I used to think that the primary school was the one place where certain things never changed. I used to read ‘Please Mrs Butler’ to my classes, and we would chuckle in appreciation of our shared experience. I used to think that when they entered the school system, they were entering ‘my’ world. But I don’t recognise the world they inhabit. Theirs is a world where playtime has been reduced, where lunch is stuffed in(or not) in less than an hour. Where silent reading doesn’t happen much because it’s much more important to be getting on with the questions rather than simply enjoying the story. I know that my sons are somewhat introverted, but I never thought it would be almost eight years before one of my children fell for their teacher in a big way.
I’ve never been any good at keeping the children I teach at arm’s length. When I was expecting Sam I pinned up his scan picture on the door and whenever my class lined up they would discuss whether or not it was going to be a boy or a girl. I never went back to that school, other than to visit, because we moved away (and I’m not sure I would have coped, anyway), but I know that I mattered to them, that particular class.
I know this because years later I went on a weekend away to the city we used to live in, and I happened to pop into my old local Tesco. There I was, minding my own business at the check-yourself-out and this young woman, as tall as me, no less, asked me if I used to be a teacher. When I nodded, she asked me if I used to be her Miss. When I nodded again she introduced herself, and I could just about make out the little girl she had been, one of the ones I was constantly sorting out after a playground spat. And then she did a wonderful thing. She asked me how Sam was. By name. And she told me all about what she was hoping to do at uni, and how the rest of the class were (I was to feel alright, because nobody had had a baby), and what they were doing. She assumed that I would be interested, and she was right.
For me, being a good teacher isn’t about checklists for this, that and the other. It isn’t about fantastic resources or differentiation or planning-to-the-correct-format. It’s about the relationship that makes funny little boys with SEN come dancing down the corridor to tell you that they were right about the next installment of the story. It’s about drawings, and letters, Christmas cards and notes from parents in school reports that tell you how happy their child has been in your class. It’s about the ‘yessssss’ when you start the story and the ‘ooohhhhhh’ when you stop (on the biggest cliff-hanger point possible). It’s not just about knowledge, and it’s not just about skills. For me, it’s about that immeasurable something that you can’t put on a clip-board.
I look at my son, and I think that without love, where would he be? Would he have stayed in mainstream primary school in his chronological year group? Would he be riding a bike, or reading the credits for ‘Strictly’? Would he still be wearing a nappy at night? Or a bib? Would he have written his own Christmas cards? Would he be able to call me mummy?
In my book, if you haven’t got love, you haven’t got much at all.
- Do Primary Schools Do It Better? (teachling.wordpress.com)
- A Reminder: “The Children Do Notice” (radicalscholarship.wordpress.com)