I don’t often pick Sam up from school in the afternoons. Actually, that’s not strictly true, I do it most of the time, what I mean is, I don’t often fetch him on my bike. More often than not, when I meet him from school, I am festooned with other, younger children or I’m in a hurry to meet said younger children and I, rather to my shame, choose to travel via the car, squeezing the bike into the boot for the journey home.
Last Monday, however, I decided against the internal combustion engine. The sun was shining, I felt the need for a bit of exercise, so I saddled up my trusty steed and pedalled up the road. Of course, it is at this point that I should point out the main reason for my riding reluctance. While Sam has been riding for some years, he has never been what one might call speedy. There have been occasions when it was faster to walk. And when you have just over a mile to negotiate between two schools, and fifteen minutes (less, if you factor in late out of class, handover to parent time) with which to do it, the faster option tends to be the one I go for.
There I was, fully prepared for the mummy-chivvy, the constant monologue of encouragement that goes, ‘a little bit quicker than that, Sam; keep pedalling; if you go any slower you’ll roll to a stop; get a wriggle on’; and what did he do? He zoomed off and I had to catch up. A turn around for the books if ever there was one. I wasn’t late. I didn’t make it to the primary school by the skin of my teeth. I was actually a bit early to collect L from the playground. I was impressed.
And what had we done to effect this cycling transformation? Had we taken him on training runs? Did we practice with him in the evenings? Take him to a cycling club? Buy him a yellow jersey or show him video footage of Bradley Wiggins? Not a bit of it. He hasn’t been doing anything other than tootling up the path to school, almost every day, rain or shine, in the company of J, the lovely sixth former we pay babysitting rates to do the job.
Sam is terribly impressed by J. Four years older, he is tall, dark and cool and kind. He zooms up the road, standing on his pedals, his windswept hair standing up (possibly by design), and off they go. Sam adores him. J talks to him in the way boys do; short, clipped sentences that have grown out of the grunting way they communicate when they are little and they mean, ‘pass the Lego,’ or, ‘it’s my turn with the scooter now’. Sam sees him as someone to aspire to. He looks up to him, and zooms along as well.
He has learned far more about cycling from J than I could ever teach him. I mean let’s face it, he is 13 years old and I’m mummy. I insist on things like bed time and bath time and cleaning teeth and washing hair and manners and less of that fighting and picking on your little sister. I remind him to stop, look and listen, to mind his step, to take care. I’m cool, but I’m not cool.
I don’t know why I’m surprised by this, I watch children do it all the time. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like setting for ability, especially in primary school. Back in the days before Sam was born and I was the full time class teacher in a one form entry primary school, the chance of a set would have been a fine thing. We all learned together. Our English lessons were enriched by the children whose noses were never out of a book. Those who had their mental maths nailed led the way, and showed the ones who weren’t quite so sure how to do it.
Partner teaching is all the rage nowadays, the theory being that what you teach to someone else you learn well yourself, and, by dint of being with a partner, and being forced to explain yourself to them, no one is allowed to coast. Way back then I had never heard of such things; I was just happy to encourage children to cooperate, to work together if they wished, to discuss their work with the others at their table.
OK, so setting may be easier in terms of the planning. When you teach one subject, the same(ish) lesson the second time round is immeasurably easier. You can refine your explanations, reflect on what well and do more of that, and what went badly and try to avoid doing that next time, but, to be completely honest, it’s not really about me, is it? Teaching top set is great. The ideas whizz around the room, bouncing like tennis balls in a delightful volley of conscious thought.
And the rest? What about the rest? All the children with behaviour problems are concentrated in one big sin bin. If you ask whether they have any wider contextual knowledge about, say, Robin Hood, you are met with a sea of blank looks. And the ones at the top of the bottom heap, the ones who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, the ones who maybe lack the confidence of the high achievers, they fall further and further behind while they wait patiently for the rest to catch up or sit down. Or for you to hustle them along, anyway.
It’s not a one way street, though. I look at Sam and J together and I think how much they learn from each other. How, as much as Sam learns about bike riding, J learns softness, caring and consideration. I watch the children I teach and I see prejudice and misunderstanding come tumbling down when those who wouldn’t normally work with each other find themselves together. A school, like a town, is a community, a family. We rise and fall together.
Vive le Tour.