The Secret Teacher

I usually quite like reading The Guardian’s Secret Teacher series.  Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t; but if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, or even if today is your first visit, you’ll soon know that I’m all for hearing the voices of the unheard.  And sadly, in today’s climate of anxiety, despite how they are when you meet them in real life, with their loud voices and commanding personalities, teachers’ views in public spaces are muted at the very least.  But this one, with a title guaranteed to catch my interest, being as it’s about inclusion and all, touches me a little too close, and not in a good way.

Oh, I understand the difficulties of teaching children with challenging needs in a mainstream classroom.  I’ve done it, and it is indeed challenging, even when you have another adult in the room to lighten the load.  Children lying down on the floor at the front of the room, or breaking out into fights while you are trying to teach them what a noun is, or a fronted adverbial, is not an easy thing.  Planning activities that get everyone thinking but avoiding panic (and therefore stropping and not thinking) isn’t easy either.  When behaviour gets extreme, and plans get abandoned for whatever reason, be it a change of staff, or unrealistic expectations, or a lack of communication and/or support, or because at first it seems to make no difference, it’s hard.  Very hard.  And, honestly, some children just don’t fit into mainstream schooling – I know because my son is one of them.

Feeling powerless, caught in a riptide of other people’s expectations, or immovable policy is never an easy feeling.  Get any group of teachers in a room, be it classroom, staffroom, training room, pub, wherever; throw in the word OFSTED and watch what happens.  It won’t be long before ranting and railing and wailing and gnashing of teeth and generally despairing at the state of statistics and one-sized-fits-all classrooms, teachers and children takes over, and anything else you wanted to discuss falls by the wayside, never to be taken up again.

And there’s that other thing about teachers that isn’t apparent until you are one – the feeling that you are never doing a good enough job.  Oh, I don’t mean the pressure of inspections or observations, although that certainly has a part to play; I mean the desire we all have to do our best for the children we serve.  Teachers often complain of those times when the domination of one child, for whatever reason, means that they have less time to spend with the others, who need them too.  We are always walking a tightrope line, balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of the class.  And for those of us with children at home, it’s exactly the same there too.

And the pressure.  Oh, the pressure.  We must not only do our best for them all, but we must make sure that they are making at least acceptable progress in their school work, learning about their verbs and spellings and times tables, and how to do long division before they leave us, and all from their very different starting points.  Little Jonny, with his happily married parents with university degrees and books covering every wall in his big house, must do as well as Jade, who lives in a one bed bedsit with an alcoholic (or more) relative and no breakfast.  Or tea.  Or supper.  It’s a hard, hard job.  We wish that someone would come along and make it easier for us.

Oh, there’s a lot wrong in our educational system, with its standardised demands over a diverse population.  The inspection system is groaning before our very eyes with the knowledge of its own inadequacy.  The statistics are stuttering under an onslaught from teachers who actually know what they are talking about.  Educational funding is being cut and cut (don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t) and the axe is falling on specialist provision because it’s just so expensive, as well as everywhere else.  On the one hand we are told ‘RESULTS!   RESULTS!  RESULTS!’ and on the other, ‘INCLUDE!  INCLUDE!  INCLUDE!  AND ADD IN FLUFFY BUNNIES!’  We, conflicted and confused, are struggling with the strain.

And our society is no better, with its expectations of perfect mothers, with their beach-ready bodies, nano-seconds after giving birth, and perfect babies, checked for acceptability before they are born, before they have even taken their first breath.  We must have perfect families with perfect children who never squabble in the supermarket or throw a tantrum because they wanted to wear the red shoes, not the blue ones.  Our education system, with its issues of increasing control, over teachers and over children, is merely a reflection of the wider world we live in.  We are all looking for something, somebody to blame when the going gets tough, when it doesn’t turn out to be quite so picture perfect as we were led to believe.

We think we have the answers.  We think there is a magic pill to make the kids behave; a quick and easy solution to doing as they are damn well told.  We think that somehow a label will wash all our troubles away.  We think that shutting the special schools and moving the children to a mainstream one, with a helpful adult in tow, one who has experience in working in care, or who has intimate knowledge of the local population is the answer.  We think that somehow, after we’ve spent the money on the equipment that somehow everything will be OK.  The nice little disabled kid, the one who is so loving, and always happy, never sad or cross or a pain in the neck with their constant getting up too early in the summer mornings will fit in just fine.  We don’t like it when we find out that nothing is ever easy, that children, with or without disabilities, never stick to our unexamined rules, and we look for someone to blame.  Someone who is not us.

But let me tell you a story.  Let me tell you a story about the man who has been the love of my life since I was eighteen years old; the father of my children.  Let me tell you of the day we were told that our firstborn son had Down’s syndrome. We didn’t cry together.  We didn’t even say very much.  We each went on a super-fast readjustment journey we told each other about later with glasses of wine and talked over telly.  ‘I just thought to myself,’ he said, as he told me of his dark drive home, leaving the wife and child in their hospital beds, ‘that it’s not me who has to live his life.  It’s him.’

So the next time you feel like a moan; the next time you feel like telling the world how it is, how our school system fails those with additional needs when it forces them to fit into an inflexible and ill-trained system, the next time you want to stand up for the needs of the many over the needs of the few, the next time you want to point out how hard teachers’ lives are and the difficulty they have in providing an education for a child with complex special needs you think about that.  The next time you think it’s acceptable to give voice to the attitude that says ‘if that child is in my child’s class, I’m moving mine out,’ you think long and hard about what you are saying.

You think about the real lives that people with Down’s syndrome live, the confusion, the prejudice, the bullying and the abuse, and you turn the blame to where it properly lies.  You don’t turn it on their parents, whose job it is to stand up for their child’s rights.  And you don’t turn it on the child.  You don’t ever centre it there.  Your job is to break down barriers, not create them.


26 thoughts on “The Secret Teacher

  1. Son had a lad in his class, a lad no-one wanted, a lad thrown out of every school he’d attended pre this school, the school he was sent to at 11.

    The lad knew full-well that no-one wanted him and no-one liked him, an acute awareness that everyone, and I mean everyone (maybe except his family) actually hated him, hated him with a passion. The hate included all the adults too. Adults – the ones who are supposed to nurture and protect. His crime? His crime was to have ASD, ADHD and the most severe form of Tourette’s. His language was quite blue, exaggerated by his ASD anxieties and his ADHD boldness. His ticks were quite violent.

    How does society justify such vilification of such a young boy?

    Don’t get me wrong, the lad was a total pain-in-the-ass, but exactly who can act as judge and jury to remove this child from education? Who has the right to say ‘sorry, we won’t educate this one as he’s too extreme’?

    As I said to my son, just be grateful that isn’t you and treat him with the respect you deserve. When he ‘borrows’ your pens and puts them up his nose or down his pants remember, this school is the school that should support everyone, including him. No child ever deserves to be thrown out with the rubbish.

    1. Thanks Jules. Yes, I felt that very strongly this morning. I know there are problems with the system, and I’m glad they are getting some airing – but not if it means blaming children, or, worse, going back to the days of exclusion, full stop.

      1. Quite; we know so much about good inclusion practices which we need to keep raising – this felt a little ‘I’m into inclusion but….’ which is not inclusive at all….

      2. Yes. The language was very divisive. It tapped into many people’s concerns – which to an extent I share – but it left a nasty taste in the mouth, as blame was centred firmly in the laps of parents and their disabled children. And to start with the quote it did! I was shocked, to be honest.

  2. was talking to my daughter about all this in the park this afternoon (we have a 4 year old with DS) as she has a couple of children with SN in her year plus a couple of boys with fairly serious behavioural issues, which she’s been on the end of. She’s 8. I told her what the crux of the article was and she looked at me totally horrified and said ‘well that’s totally wrong. How will people learn about people with special abilities (note the absence of dis-) if they don’t spend time with them? I asked her if she felt that their behaviour affected her ability to learn. She looked totally perplexed and said ‘no, everyone learns in a different way, or has things that are different about them and we all just have to learn about them.’

    Then she asked me to ask her another question about it so I asked her how she felt about having a younger brother with DS. She looked at me again and said ‘that’s an easy one, you know about that. I think he’s so cute and so funny and so clever but I wish people didn’t treat him like a baby because actually he can do more things than they think.’

  3. I was chatting to a teacher who worked in a special school one time, and she said something that has really stuck with me. To paraphrase: “You have to include people at some point, and if we can’t do it when they’re children then what does that say about us as a society?” Great blog, Nancy.

  4. Only in a setting where every individual feels included and valued will everyone achieve their best. A real teacher teaches attitudes as well as literacy to the next generation.

  5. Superb post Nancy, very well put. I didn’t see the Guardian article, I shall dig it out, but what you have voiced is what we all feel.

    1. Thanks Hayley. It really got my goat – it wasn’t saying anything we don’t know, but the negativity towards children with disabilities was a distinct undertone. Grrrrr

  6. Thanks Nancy, I really enjoyed your blog. I have thought long and hard about adding a comment, (I don’t often raise my head above the parapet) but I felt so strongly about this, I have decided to risk it.

    For the past 5 years I have worked in a school (primary, mainstream) that is often the place where these “dispossessed” children arrive. Usually they have been bounced around the LA, failing each time (note- it is children who have failed). It is not easy to help each child, in fact it is very hard for everyone (child, staff, and parents). But we have developed great skill at supporting them. We do everything we can to ensure that each child finds a community with us where they can flourish. In recent times we have (with heavy hearts) supported 2 children to move to other forms of provision because we could not (and still cannot) provide the level of psychotheraputic care they deserved. But generally, we are pretty good at it.

    In order to do this, we have learnt to adapt to the wonderful idiosyncratic “messiness” of each child as a learner. We look at what they bring and adjust to suit them. We take the child to the curriculum, not impose the curriculum on the child. But this means we have to be flexible in our approaches. We do what works for the child and that might not be the “right” way. We might not always use synthetic phonics. Or teach the times tables. We might have specialist staff who might design bespoke teaching and learning programmes that haven’t been approved. We are very careful to evaluate the impact of the decisions we make. I remind myself that as long as it works and our results are OK (100% L4+ Eng and Maths), no-one will notice. Fingers crossed.

    With each child, we learn more about learning, about teaching and about ourselves. By thinking hard, with an open mind, we find out more about what we can achieve. It is the best form of CPD you could imagine. I wouldn’t change it for the world!

    There! I’ve said it. Please don’t tell anyone.

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