Tag Archives: Primary school

Blood, Sweat and Tears

I sent out a tweet the other day.  It was a little, innocuous retweet of a picture of a little girl, trying on her school uniform for the first time.  In it, she is clapping her hands, as pleased as punch to be wearing a blue checked dress, her hair in a ponytail, shiny black shoes as neat as a pin.  Clearly, her parents were pleased as punch too because they sent it out to some big hitters in the Down’s syndrome tweeterverse.  I saw it and I was glad to share it with the many teachers with whom I am connected in a virtual sense.

It had a surprisingly large effect.  To date, it has had 32 retweets (which is a lot for me), 90 people have saved it with little love-heart likes, there have been 8,672 impressions and 148 total engagements (whatever they are).  I’m pleased, because I thought at the time, and I still think it this morning, that it is an important little tweet for people to see – and to notice the three, innocent sounding hashtags that follow. #inclusion #acceptance #school

You see, I too have been in the place of this mother.  When my son was standing there, all togged up in his little school uniform, ready to take his first big steps away from my side (I don’t count the little ones at nursery, it was only two and a half hours anyway, hardly enough time to get there and back again and make a cup of tea in between) (if I was the sort to drink tea), I, too, was filled up with a sense of importance of what his entrance into mainstream school would mean.

You see, what I don’t think that many people understand, and why should they after all, is quite what it is like to be told that your child, the baby you hold in your arms, the one you have waited for, anticipated with such joy, is somehow less; a cause for concern.  It’s a shock, I can tell you, and not a pleasant one, either.  People who have not had this experience don’t know how it knocks you sideways, how long it takes to recover, to rebuild the life you thought you had lost.

And, again, what I think many people, many teachers, don’t understand is what an important role they play in regaining, reclaiming that stolen joy, in denying the less than and turning it on its head; the way that they can turn the role of the state from destroyer of dreams to healer and hope.  They don’t understand, and there is no reason that they should, the importance of their symbolic role in the life of another.

But, and here’s the thing; what will happen when inclusion turns out to be less warm and fuzzy and more blood, sweat and tears?  Will we blame the parents, for not telling the truth about their children, for carrying on in an irresponsible manner? Will we blame the children, for being too disabled, too needy, too naughty, dangerous, even?  Will we, instead of examining a system that fails to put in place proper and adequate support, for teachers, for families, for children, blame everyone but ourselves and throw inclusion out of the window?

I do not wish to peddle a kind of warm and fuzzy inspiration that has little effect and no lasting value, for, while the smiling faces of cute little children with Down’s syndrome and tales of inclusion might make us feel good in the moment, will they help when the going gets tough?  It might be enough for me, because I am driven by more than a moral imperative, but will it be enough for you?

 

Public Property

 

It’s not as tidy as this.
 There is a stack of paper that grows, unbidden, on my worktop in the kitchen.  Every time I take a picture of a cake, I have to shove it to one side, for fear that the audience to my culinary successes will judge me for my disorganisation in the admin department.  Most of the papers that regularly flutter to the floor, be-spattered with tomato ketchup or other, unidentified splodges, come from school.  Not mine, you understand; theirs.  With three children at three different schools, and regular bills pertaining to them, the pile does nothing but increase.

I have come to operate what my husband tells me is the Push Down Stack System.  As they come in, the letters, bills, permission slips and appointments, they join the stack, only to leave as their urgency demands.  Anything still there at the end of term/end of the year is filed.  Into the bin.  It does mean that I am always a bit, what you might call, rushed, but, there you go.  It works for me.

There are some letters, though, that sink, almost unbidden, to the bottom of the pile.  Quietly, without protesting their presence, they slip, from urgent to almost forgotten, my reluctance to deal with them hastening their journey. Nine times out of ten these are letters about Sam.

The latest was a curious one.  The school actually took to texting to remind me to send it back (ah, after two-and-a-half-years they know me so well), I had delayed so long.  It made me uncomfortable, you see, more uncomfortable than I had thought it would, to sign so I put it off; giving other people permission to get involved with the life of my son.

When I first read about the replacements to statements, EHC plans, I thought ‘what a good idea’.  Children like mine, with complex needs, more often than you might think, have medical needs too. Often, these needs have a bearing on education, on schools and the decisions they make.  It makes sense for the trinity of education, health and social care to work together, because so often, children like mine have needs that span them all.  But when it came down to it, when I held those forms in my hand, granting other people, other people who had nothing to do with me, my son or my family, who know nothing about what we believe, about what we hold to be true and right and decent, the right to get involved with decisions regarding my firstborn son, I paused.

There is this funny thing about having a child with disabilities, you see, that is distinctly different to having an ordinary baby, or an ordinary child, or an ordinary teenager (should such a thing exist).  From the moment they arrive, squalling and bloody, placed into your jellied arms, it can feel as if they are not quite yours.  There are tests that must be performed, observations that must be made, help and advice that must be sought; other people who must be involved.  You may not have realised it, but from the moment you get that diagnosis, you are no longer on your own.  Public, not private.

For a long time I held them off.  I got on well with everyone, I felt that I was in control.  But then came school.  A while ago, in the course of looking back in order to write something or another, I came across the original paperwork for Sam’s statement application.  In there were foreshadowings of the problem of overweening help he experienced, sentences that didn’t jump out at me back then, but leap out now, possessing a power to make me sad and angry at the same time, even after all these years.  A whole team of people got together to make pronouncements on how he was going to get/was getting on in school.  And that, I thought back then, was that.

Only now, though, since September 2014, it’s not.  And while with my teacher hat on I might nod and agree and say what a good idea seeking the voice and the opinions of the child is, my parent heart quivers.

I think about how Sam’s mainstream education was dominated by the involvement of other people, of other people’s opinions, of him and how and what he should be learning.  Every moment of every working day time tabled and activitied, supervised, 1-1 attention given.  The day I mentioned him having the chance to stare out of the window, distracted from his Maths by the clouds or the birds or nothing in particular, the day I suggested that he, too, might pick his nose in a moment of introspection, I was met with horrified stares.  The day they suggested taking him shopping for ‘life skills’, I was confused.  Wasn’t that my job?  He was only a primary school child, after all.

When we were making the decision about secondary school, the decision was ours and ours alone.  Did we take his preferences into account? Yes.  Judging by the way that he thought one school was all about computer play and the other was a proper school (boo), we did. (We went for the proper school, in case you’re wondering.)  But when he hits sixteen, will this still be the case?

Thanks to the new SEN Code of Practice, I’m not so sure.  Those other people will be there again.  Those other people, with their opinions and their observations, their questions to my child will be there, ensuring that his voice is heard.  I’m very much afraid that I am not going to take this invasion into our private life, our personal space, our decisions made with knowledge of our child, very well.

Team around the child?  Perhaps we could all think a little about some space around the child too.

The Primary Lie

Or, things ain’t what they used to be.

I went to a parents’ evening the other night.  It’s not usually something I look forward to, seeing as there is too much hanging around sitting on too-small chairs for my liking, but I was keen to go to this one.  This one was my first as the parent of a mainstream secondary school child.  And I was impressed.

The chairs were the right size, there were plenty of people shuttling around who I knew from toddler group days (oh, my, haven’t they grown), the heating was on nice and high (a little too high in one room) and, joy of joys, not every teacher was younger than me.  (When we went to have a look round it was rather disconcerting to find myself a good fifteen years older than some of the young whippersnappers who have the temerity to work there.)  And there, sat in the corner, demonstrating a refreshing lack of respect for the data, was a Proper Teacher.  A proper teacher with a proper tweedy jacket and a proper beardy beard (none of this bushy business the young folk seem so inexplicably fond of for this gentleman) who taught a proper subject.  Mine.

The conversation between us dashed about, leaving my younger son somewhat squirmy and my elder nonplussed and I got up from the table feeling like I had reconnected with my tribe.  Here was the sort of teacher I recognised.  His enthusiasm for his subject, and his love of teaching children, in particular ones, like my son, who got his jokes (although he sees nothing funny in calling him Mr T), fizzed from him.  Here, thought I, here was the Real Deal.  This man would carry my son, and other children like him, on a journey into academic study on the coat tails of his infectious enthusiasm.  They would be inspired.

But it was more than that.  Every single teacher gave me the strongest impression that they knew my son.  Not only did they know who he was, he wasn’t a faceless speck amongst the many floating through their classrooms on a weekly basis; to them, he was a person with strengths and weaknesses that they knew and cared about.  It was both a pleasure and a relief.

You see, those big secondaries are just so different to Primary.  Sometimes I feel as if A has stepped onto another planet.  There, he shuttles from room to room, here, in my world, they are based in one, with little to no chance that they will lose their pen or their ruler, or anything else they need for learning.  There he has access to specialist classrooms and teachers with in-depth knowledge of their subjects that we just don’t.  Our modes of operation and our specialisms are, well, different.

In primary it doesn’t take til half way through the school year before we have the evening that lets the parents know how they are getting on, whether there’s anything we ought to be communicating between us.  We get to know them so much quicker, so much better in primary.  I mean, as Teachers of Everything, we see the children in a much more holistic way.  We’re the ones who sort out the playtime squabbles, make sure they’ve eaten their lunch, direct lessons on ‘how to be good friends’.  We make connections with their learning across the curriculum, from Maths to Science to Music to English; we see it all, we are in charge of it all; we can comment on it all.

Well, apart from PE.  We might not teach that if it falls in our PPA time.  Or Science, or D&T.  Or French.  Any of those defined subjects it’s easy for an unqualified teacher, but specialist nevertheless to take.  Like Music, if we have a dedicated music teacher, because playing an instrument doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite of a primary life any more, what with all that you can do with the internet and an interactive whiteboard these days.

Oh, and those children who go to another set for English and Maths.  We can’t really talk about them because they aren’t in our set.  What with sorting our own groups out, we haven’t time to go chasing round the school finding out what they’re doing for other people and what they think of them, no.  Or the children who go out for an intervention with the TA.  It’s a pity that we don’t get much time to talk about what she’s doing out there all that time, but, after all, she’s not paid to be here before or after the children, even though she does, and what can you do about that?  What matters is that the children are getting the support, doesn’t it?

Oh, and there’s those ones who go out to work with her where it’s quieter and they can get more attention, it’s so easy to overlook them, you know the ones with SEN.  I mean they spend so much time out there and the TA is so capable, so experienced (she was here years before we were, back in the days when a classroom assistant washed the pots and put displays up), she knows them so well, she always gets such lovely work out of them and it leaves us classroom teachers more time to devote to the rest of the class, to give the others the attention they, too, deserve.  The classroom is so nice and quiet when they are out with her, I sometimes forget they are there, the rest of us are so busy.

But still.  We still know them better than they do.  Don’t we?

Asking for Trouble

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.

IMG_0428No 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.

Dislocation

It is back to school tomorrow and I sit here tonight, knowing that upstairs three children are sleeping, or rather, two of them are sleeping and one of them is nervously tossing and turning, probably picking at scabs, preparing themselves, if one can do such a thing during one’s slumbers, for the beginning of a new era in the morning.  For tomorrow, not one, but two of my children will be at secondary school, and, for the first time, I will have three children in three different schools.

L seems to be OK about going back.  She is looking forward to seeing her friends (she does tend to see school as a social experience), and has reconciled herself (I think) to the loss of her favourite teacher, like, EVER, and is cautiously anticipating the new one.  Sam is relieved, frankly, that the holidays are eventually over, and will no doubt be up far too early in the morning (although whether he is in uniform is anyone’s guess).  No, it is A, my little ball of anxiety, who is upstairs worrying, he who is taking up the most of my worrying.

Tomorrow, you see, he leaves the world of the primary school entirely behind and takes his first, uncertain steps towards Growing Up and I’m full of bittersweet because he’s only just got the hang of it.  He enjoyed the responsibility of doing the powerpoint for assembly (not as much fun as the OHP if you ask me, but I doubt he’d even know what that was), the sitting at the back of assembly on PE benches, the cachet of being top of the tree.  He’d finally found a teacher he liked.

But now he’s moving on and he’s bothered about detentions and discipline, I’m bothered by his dreaminess and his stubborn streak.  We’re both bothered by different classrooms and different teachers.  He, well, he’s a small 11 and sees the new school as a labyrinth into which he may disappear, never to return, no ball of string to guide him to the way out, me, well, I have a whole other kind of anxieties.

I make no apology.  I’m a primary school teacher and I like one-teacher-one-class.  Teaching is essentially about a special kind of relationship, and, when you teach the same few children, day in day out, you have the best possible environment for it to grow.  You get to know each other.  They know when not to overstep the mark, you know when they are finding things hard, when they are swinging the lead.  And, as the year passes, everyone involved takes ownership.

I remember being aware that I belonged to them at an early stage of my career.  They would enter my room, suspiciously, cautiously, all of them in a bit of trepidation, and I would breathe with satisfaction. My class.  My children.  Same time, same place, all through the year.  Except when I was ill, or on a course, in which case I would be met by accusing looks upon my return, tales of horrid supply teachers, and offers to wash up the paint pots left in the sink, to tidy up the desk.  But it wasn’t really the case.  The first time one of them called me ‘mummy’ I knew it had happened; I was theirs, not they mine.

I was never very good at moving the classroom around.  I like routines and I reckon they do too.  I like calm and orderly. Well, I like the children to be calm and orderly; the one who gets to be bouncy is me.  Actually, I tell a lie.  I like a quiet, purposeful hubbub.  Stop when I say stop, go when I say go, that sort of thing.  I like belonging to them; being their teacher.

A is about to enter a world where your teacher flits in and out of your life.  With regularity, yes, but they aren’t there all the time.  The foundation stone of a good teacher, one who belongs to him, is something to be rationed now, because he won’t feel the same about all of them.  It’s not like Sam, who gets the majority of his lessons with his class tutor.  Every 45 minutes A will be off, shuttling to and fro, bounced from one to another.

It’s a terrible circle to square really.  My own personal theory is that we humans like territory.  We like to work in set spaces, set places, to settle down, make it our own.  One of teh first things I used to get my new class to do, before we got on with the real stuff, for about half an hour or so at the beginning of the year was to make and decorate a label for their tray.  I measured and cut the paper, the rest was up to them.  Free reign in terms of design.  A marker with which to denote their territory within the class.  I used to make them tidy it up every so often, but, being a bit of a glory-hole person myself, I wasn’t particularly strict about it.

R, who until last year worked in an office where ‘hot desking’ was the thing, hated it, the transient working life.  No place to put a picture of adored wife and family.  Nowhere to put your bag, or your snacks, your pen or pencil.  Nowhere, even, to keep a mouldy old coffee cup.  No small group of people, clustered around a couple of desks, with whom to make friends, to build a bit of loyalty towards.  At primary school it isn’t hard (well, it shouldn’t be) to give everyone their own space, but at secondary?  Someone has to move about, be it teacher or pupil.

I reckon TAs, and those of us teachers who travel from class to class, room to room, from corridor space to cubby hole to anywhere where we might get a bit of peace and quiet in which to work our teaching magic, trundling our bags and trolleys, always leaving something behind, a trail of bits and pieces scattering behind us, leading us back to our cupboards in case we get lost, nowhere to call our own, no place to personalise, know how they feel, these children, dragging their enormous bags full of everything they might possibly need behind them.  Dislocated.

I hope he finds his place soon.

IMG_0964
Not even a gingerbread house to call your own.