When I look back over my teaching years, there are a whole load of children who have influenced me, in one way or another. If I was asked to choose one to tell you about, it would be very difficult. Take ‘Jessica’. I met her on my very first teaching practice (yes, I am that old, old enough not to call it a placement, which, to me, always reminds me of something you would put on a table, but I think that’s just me); she was in Year 5 and she wasn’t very good at reading and had what we teachers call an Attitude.
I was told to go and do some reading with her, getting some experience, like, and she taught me a very valuable lesson. She picked out a book, it was a book of bible stories I remember, and it was well above the level of text that she was supposed to be able to read. She told me that she had wanted to read it for ages, and, thinking ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’, I agreed. And she read it. Not without stumbles or mistakes, but she read it.
Lesson 1: motivation.
And then there was ‘Jack’. I met Jack after I had been teaching for about five years, and he was in my class when he was in Year 4. He was dyslexic, with memory problems and colour blindness. I liked him a lot, he was good at art and he worked really, really hard. I gave him the starring role in our assembly and he rewarded me, when he left in Year 6, by telling everyone that that was his best memory of primary school.
Lesson 2: someone believing in you can make more of a difference than you thought.
That class was an interesting one. ‘Daniel’ was in it, and he had dyspraxia. He was a bright boy, but he was always in a muddle; always covered in splodges of dinner and his handwriting was, well, put it this way, it wasn’t as bad as A’s. His parents had sought outside advice and got him a writing slope. The thing is, though, that the slope spent the vast majority of its time under his desk because he hated it. He hated being marked out as different and would rather make a different sort of effort.
Lesson 3: feelings about yourself matter.
During that time, there was a lot of investment in schools, there was the National Strategies (oh, how I hated the Literacy Hour, I didn’t wear a watch for YEARS afterwards), and I was sent on the training for additional literacy support. We got it up and running in my class, and I learned a whole load about how to teach phonics and that the children messed about a lot less when I was the one who was teaching them rather than the TA (who was lovely).
Lesson 3: it’s not just the method, it’s the who.
And then there was Sam. Along came my own child, and he brought with him a whole load of other lessons to add to the ones I had already learned. I learned about child development from the very earliest of stages, from smiling, to laughing, to sitting, crawling, communicating, riding a bike. I learned about blending activities together, so that every moment mattered; there was never a Time for Doing Portage. We just lived. I invested everything we did with meaning.
I learned about targets and breaking them down, I saw spiky profiles grow before my eyes, and that there are some things you can see (like low muscle tone) and some you can’t, like understanding. I learned that the foundations for learning in school need to be long and wide and deep and strong and that even when they are, some children will still find the reading and the writing and the maths hard going.
I learned that labels are powerful. That some people see them and think they describe everything there is to know about a person. I learned that some labels are misunderstood and limiting. I learned that some people use labels to help them get help, some people use labels to explain situations they don’t understand and give them peace and some people use them to get them off hooks. I learned that sometimes, the weight of that label leaves people feeling powerless to do anything and other times it makes people roll up their sleeves and thumb their nose at fate.
I learned that parents matter; that they know things, that they have invaluable experience and insights and that the vast majority of them want to work with the people who are paid to work with their children. I learned that some of them are angry or afraid or confused. That every single one of the people who works with a child, with or without SEND is emotionally invested and involved. I learned that behaviour is never just that. I’ve even learned a bit about the law. That SEND can bring us together as well as it can split us apart.
And now Sam is fourteen years old and I’ve been teaching a long time and I’m still at it. I’m still learning. And the one thing I can be absolutely sure of, without a shadow of a doubt, is that I don’t know it all, and just because you can’t see it, or you can’t take a blood test or a pill, or because those labels are used in all sorts of strange ways, ways in which I don’t approve or understand, that like pain, it’s invisibility doesn’t mean that SEND isn’t real.
It’s way more complicated than that.