When Sam was little, and starting out in a mainstream primary school I worried a lot continuity; about consistency. At first, there seemed to be a bit of difficulty in appointing someone to work with him, and various combinations were cobbled together until a team of two were settled upon…at which point one of them left to have a baby and we started all over again. At the time I was at home having babies myself, so I drew heavily on my pre-baby teaching-in-a-classroom experience to inform my hopes and dreams for his school life.
I make no apology. I am a creature of routine, and I think one teacher-one class in primary is much the best way to organise things, for primary aged children and their teachers. I like my planning and I like adhering to my timetables. I like knowing when things are going to happen and where. I like having my own space and I assume that the children do too. As far as I was concerned, Sam needed continuity. Of expectations. Of people. Of all sorts of things.
Take routines. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no member of the Contented Brigade. I never set my watch and timed the feeds, or ruled the family with the rod of baby sleeps. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have them. Once I got the hang of it, we pretty much did the same things in the same order every day. Bed times were easy because it went tea, bath, story, bed for years, without fail. The school run, my most challenging of the parenting hurdles, is made easier by its predictability (once we have got used to the new one each September).
At school, when I ran my own class, I set up certain ways of doing things straight away. Spelling practice first thing. Reading after lunch. Art on a Wednesday afternoon and hand your books in at the page that needs marking. Keep the desk tidies tidy and please can we have a yoghurt pot from home so that you don’t have to be out of your seat sharpening pencils every ten minutes? It didn’t take long to do certain things because once the routine was up and running we settled into it quite happily. We were comfortable in its familiarity.
This is not to say that I lost the plot whenever the unexpected occurred. Now, this may be down to my inability to listen carefully in staff meetings where other people filled in their diaries and I (probably) gazed with longing at the biscuits, but over the years I got quite good at improvising when necessary. Animal visitors always seemed to catch me out. The day the police horses came and cantered up and down the field outside my classroom window was memorable, but not as much as the Day of the Lively Python.
I was assured by the capable looking lady, as she proceeded to unravel the most enormous snake I have ever seen, that, thanks to the cold temperature of a winter morning, it would remain calm and docile. I was glad that there were thirty children between me and it as she sat beside the storage heater, and it woke up properly over the course of an impromptu question and answer session. Coping with change is an important skill.
But when I think about my son, and I think about the children I have taught over the years, and the difficulty they have when there is a change, to the timetable, to the staff, to the group of children they are expected to work with, I wonder if we couldn’t make it a bit easier for them.
Oh, I don’t mean having them work with the same people for the majority of their primary years, especially not in the way my son learned to be so helpless, or to rely too much on the presence of one particular person, for that way lies danger. And I don’t mean that they must be in the same space all of the time. After all, they too need to learn to get on with different people throughout the day, to learn to be flexible when it matters.
No, I mean a continuity, a consistency in approaches to children. I remember the best transition he ever made to the next class. From being an unhappy boy, who dragged his feet to school and refused to get dressed in the morning, he turned into to the boy at the front of assembly, receiving congratulations and a silver cup for ‘progress’. This teacher waved no magic wand. Sam made no sudden leaps in understanding. What this teacher did was have a straight talking, no nonsense attitude that left no room for misunderstanding.
No longer was he allowed his own way one minute and expected to conform, no questions asked, the next. His visits to the head teacher were no longer a confusing mix between shiny stickers and tellings off so gentle they left no impression. He changed. He grew under a regime of continual consistency.
It seems so easy, when we see it written on a page in a teaching or parenting manual. It seems such a simple thing to do. But when we are confronted with real, live children, the sort who have disabilities or home lives that make us feel sorry for them, all of a sudden it’s not such a little deal. But if we really mean it, if what we really want to do is make a difference in the lives of children, to play a proper part in helping them to grow into the decent adults of tomorrow, with half a chance of having a decent life of their own, then we need to.
It doesn’t work if I am the only one doing it, and daddy isn’t, or any number of other relatives aren’t. It will work a bit, but not as well as it should if it only happens in one class, but not in the corridors or out in the playground. All it will do is leave the children in a swamp of misunderstanding, the most dangerous of which being the idea that they, and not us, are the ones in charge.
We need to say what we mean and mean what we say and stick to it. All of us. That’s consistency. Anything less is asking for trouble.