Tag Archives: Secondary school

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?



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.

Not even a gingerbread house to call your own.


Peace, Love and Understanding

This week has been one of form filling and rushing about from meeting to assembly to appointment to parent evening to book sale.  In my kitchen I have a To Do pile of school and children related admin of gargantuan proportions, and, right now, a week away from the end of term, I am acting on a ‘do the most urgent now, the rest can wait’ principle, otherwise known as Running On Fumes, or Flying By The Seat Of My Pants And Crossing My Fingers That I Haven’t Forgotten Anything.  I am very fortunate in my choice of friends, who regularly keep me informed of events I have momentarily misplaced into the tomorrow file.

As we charge towards the end of the academic year, I can see my younger son, A, wishing that it would just slow down a bit.  Everyone else is dragging themselves to next Friday, longing for the finish line, but he, at the end of Year Six, his final term of primary life, is a mixture of emotion.  Exctiement, apprehension, anxiety, pride and sadness that, after finally getting the hang of little school, he is leaving it behind.  Sam, in typical fashion, has either no idea that the end of term is upon him or is deliberately ignoring it.  Ever keener on his own school, it won’t be long into the holiday, I am sure, before he is up and dressed in his uniform, demanding to go.  But A, my little chatterbox thinker, with all the awareness of a dreamer, sees it a little differently.

That said, he is not as nervous now as he was at the beginning of the week.  Monday saw his first ever day at his new secondary school, a taste of what is to come.  He cycled up with a friend (handily catching up with Sam and J, and equally handily attaching themselves to J – who does not yet understand that he is a child magnet), managed all day on half a sandwich and a chocolate milkshake from a vending machine (the mummy part of me is appalled), and came home immensely reassured that All Would Be Well.

Later that day, he and I attended a meeting with his new Head of House (where, when I was eleven, I imagined that I would be attending some sort of Mallory Towers, or the kind of school that Katy Did Next, he is probably imagining some sort of Hogwarts wrapped up in 70s buildings), where he learned about fake nervous laughter and I managed not to identify myself as a teacher.

I gave myself a good talking to the night before, reminded myself that this meeting was about my still-little boy, not me; and, while his academic achievement is something I am endlessly interested in, the thing I really wanted to highlight, to hammer home, is that he has a brother like no other, and that this fact, this relationship affects him more than you might, at first glance, realise.

I wanted to make sure that this teacher, a personable young man (who made me feel a bit old) in a nice clean shirt and tie (no leather elbow patches in evidence) knew that A lives under the pressures that are peculiar to siblings of children with extra-special needs.  While they no longer share a room (as of the last three months), he is regularly woken at stupid o’clock.  He witnesses odd behaviour, challenging behaviour, behaviour that embarrasses him, and forces us, his parents, to require the younger ones to be more independent than they might, perhaps, like.  He is often randomly bopped on the head, or has his precious things stolen or hidden for no discernable reason.  His needs are often eclipsed by a sudden and unexpected event, and, I wanted his teacher to know, that while we want to give him every support possible with homework, his older brother takes up a lot of our time and energy.  And he has a little sister too.

More than that, he cares for his brother.  He often articulates his worry that someone will pick on Sam, or bully him on the way to school by declaring that he will beat anyone up who tries it (something we are at pains to persuade him not to do, being as he is a teeny tiny 11 and resorting to one’s fists is not the way we want him sorting out his problems!).  He sees himself taking his older brother to school, riding together up the cycle path.  He worries that Sam is going to do something silly in public, or step out in front of an oncoming car, invite himself around to play in someone else’s garden and then refuse to leave, and that he must be responsible for him.

We went on a group holiday last year, one organised for families like ours, and it was interesting to watch the siblings playing together.  The care they expressed for their brother or sister with Down Syndrome was palpable.  Their acceptance of difference was a joy.  Two little boys struck me in particular.  One was A, the other was a boy, taller, but not much different in age, a boy who also had an older brother much like Sam.  I saw in him, as I see in A, a tension, an acceptance and love for a brother who is a constant in his life, and a frustrated yearning for a boy in whose footsteps he can follow, an anger that he is not.

For A is a typical second child, a follower in footsteps.  He doesn’t want to blaze his own trail, not quite yet.  He wants a brother he can look up to, one whose example he can emulate.  Sam, despite being overshadowed so many times and in so many ways by his younger siblings, is well aware of his position as Top Dog, and he and his brother regularly face each other off, shaking down the pack order.  We sat there, she over a cup of tea, me a diet coke, and realised how similar our younger sons were, how unique their predicaments are, because big brother has Down Syndrome.

It’s a hard thing to explain to a teacher.  In many respects our family is just like any other.  We’re not the only ones to live under a bit of pressure.  We’re not the only ones to struggle under the weight of responsibility, to find the job of parenting hard.  There’s nothing anyone can do to get him out of his predicament.  There is no magic wand to wave the chromosomes away.   He doesn’t need allowances.  He doesn’t need excuses.  He needs a little bit of understanding.

Moving On Up

Poor Sam.  He didn’t really understand, in July 2012, that he was leaving one school, and joining another, never to return as a pupil to the environment  he had been used to for the last seven years.  When he said goodbye to his teachers, to his TA, it was me who had the lump in the throat, the tear in the eye.  It was me who knew that it was the end of an era.  He skipped off down the road towards home, happy that it was the holidays at last, unconcerned about the future and the changes it would bring.

I thought that we had done a good job of preparing him for the transition to secondary education.  He had attended the new school for three days a week, TA in tow, all through the summer term.  She made him a book all about it.  He’d had a great time.  But when September came, I was proved wrong.  He wasn’t ready at all.

For a start, his behaviour crashed through the floor.  Not at home, that is.  Not for us the strop or the eye-roll, the slam of the door.  No, at home he was an angel.  It was a bit weird, to be completely honest.  We didn’t have any problems getting him to school, he didn’t refuse to walk up the road, put his shoes on or anything like that, but the feedback we got from his teacher was not good.

I consoled myself with the thought that it was all part of the normal process of transition.  All the other Year 7s I knew were wobbling.  They were swimming in a much, much bigger pond than Sam, and it was taking its toll on everyone.  But when he came with me to primary school to fetch something left behind by his younger brother, a penny dropped.  He popped in to his old classroom to say hello to his old teacher.  Then he went on the hunt for his TA.  She wasn’t there.  With him, had gone the job.

Another coin fell the time he helped me walk a group of children to a sport’s activity. He didn’t hold my hand.  We went up to the front and attached himself to another past teacher.  When we picked up the little sister, he threw himself into the arms of the lollipop lady.  And when we went in to drop something off at the office one day when he was poorly and was made much of by the school secretary, a fortune fell from my eyes.

He missed them.  Yes, he missed the children but it wasn’t the loss of them that made his heart ache so much, it was the adults.  He missed the routines they created for him; the delivering towels and registers, the helping the caretaker shut the gate and the looking after the garden.  He missed the attention they gave him, the one-on-one time that, as the eldest of three siblings, he rarely gets at home.  Dare I say it, but he missed the way they made him feel special.

For at his new school, and one of the main reasons we chose it for him, he is just one of the boys.  Nothing special at all.  He rises or falls upon his own merits.  There is no special treatment, no special dispensation, despite the fact that it is a special school.

Part of me ached for him.  His world was upside down.  He went from being the darling of the school, everybody’s pet, the one who was allowed to get away with goodness knows what, to being one of the lads.  One of the lads, no less, who was expected to behave himself and get on with the business of learning.  On his own.  It was all a bit of a shock.  But the larger part of me, despite the heartache, was glad.  This was what school was supposed to be about.

Yes, I worried about how he would continue to be included, if we sent him to an exclusive school.  But the thing is, how included would he really be in a big mainstream comp?  Would he ever get a part in the school play?  Would he be in a football team?  He was never in any of those things at primary school.  Was it likely to happen when he was an even smaller fish?  Would he ever be able to make friends of his own, have a girlfriend (Heaven forbid!), get to know his teachers, without the diluting influence of an ever-present TA?

Yes, I worried about his social life.  But to be honest, the knowledge that he would be in bottom set for everything made me more anxious about what that social life was likely to be.  And our trip round the school before we made the choice was enlightening.  The mainstream comp is a big place.  He would need a minder to help him get between lessons.  He would easily get lost, and he is small.  I remember the squash in corridors, and the bash in the face from the bag of a passing 15 year old, unaware of your scrawny presence.

Yes, it has taken him longer than we ever thought to settle.  Yes, he has been, and still is, a monkey and a challenge.  Yes, he was deeply unhappy for a long time when he first made the transition to his special secondary school.  But all that heartache is worth it when I see him growing in confidence.  When I see him playing, undirected, with his friends.  Friends I have not made for him, friends he has found on his own.  When he picks up his reading book and reads it independently, when he writes his own Christmas cards, unprompted, even when he teases his younger siblings, declaring pompously that he is taking their pictures off and sending them to the quiet room, I am glad.

Independently choosing to read a book from school.
Independently choosing to read a book from school.

He’s growing up.  Moving on up, yeah.

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