Tag Archives: Teacher

In Search of Perfection

It took me a while to get the hang of teaching, it has to be said. At twenty-two, I hadn’t really done anything work-wise, apart from the odd Saturday and summer job, selling ice-creams and working behind the bar. I wasn’t exactly ready for the demands of the workplace, no matter how intense the training course (I did a nine-month PGCE).

I’d gone from school to college to uni and back to school again, and through a stage of getting the sack (or at least, not being asked back to temporary office work or shop jobs – and the less said about my waitressing the better). Even getting my first permanent job as a teacher was a bit of a trial (if you live in a pleasant place where there is a teacher training college, there is LOTS of competition), after figuring out that a job with a bit of creativity and autonomy suited me better. It took me the whole of my PGCE to turn myself away from being a student, and I reckon another two years on top of that to get the hang of working as a teacher.

Apart from one horrible experience, it was OK, though. I may not have walked into a permanent position straight out of college, but along the way I had the opportunity to work alongside a series of older and more experienced teachers who took me under their wings. They supported me through my various Seemed Like Good Idea at the Times – and told me when I needed to go home and not come back in until I was feeling better too.

It helped (and kept me working, no doubt) to know that I was on an extraordinarily steep learning curve. I wasn’t supposed to be fantastic at all times. I’d never heard of Outstanding; instead, I used to wonder if I would ever turn into a Swan Teacher (probably not). I was allowed to be young and make mistakes. It was OK not to know it all (apart from at the Bad Experience School), to ask for help and advice. Seventeen years later, I still write to Rose at Christmas, my colleague who retired and then kept on teaching into her 70s, whose good ideas I used to steal shamelessly and whose brain I regularly picked.

Sometimes, when I read the discourse around new teachers (I like to call them baby teachers, especially as, at twenty-two, they could easily have been my baby), I feel sorry for them. Labelled on a scale of 1-4, graded from the moment they entered the school system as a child themselves, I am sad that there seems to be an element of resentment towards their educators; that they didn’t pop out the other end of the education system fully formed.

It seems to me to be one thing to ‘hit the ground running’, but altogether another to expect either yourself or someone else to be perfect. Maybe, if we stopped expecting new teachers, or even more experienced ones – or parents, come to that – to know it all at all times, that there should be more, somehow, than being on a journey to good enough, then those moments when we are forced to eat a slice of humble pie wouldn’t be so difficult.

I wrote a book about how to be a great, inclusive teacher, a part of which is learning from our mistakes – because we all make them.

You can buy it here: SEN Books   and here Amazon

 

 

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We need to talk about writing

Every so often I decide that I ought to be a Responsible Parent, and I take against technology.  I hide the iPad in my desk (you can rarely find anything in there, once it has been sucked in – this is partly because the drawer handles have fallen off and been put in some unknown safe place that is not entirely obvious, even to me, the putter of things in safe places), and refuse to tell anyone where I have put it. This makes the children cross, but after they have shouted at me (and each other) for about half an hour, they go and find themselves something else to do.  Usually this involves books, or lego, or a bit of colouring or a jigsaw.  Sometimes, this means writing.

When I was a little girl I loved to write; my dad got into the habit of squirreling away little bits and pieces that amused him.  In the days before photocopiers, accounts I had written in school were copied out, phonetic spellings and all, and every so often, when I find something they have written, I do the same.  The odd book they bring home, at the end of the year, makes its way into the bottom drawer, and I smile to myself at their turn of phrase, or the little things they chose to write for news.

It’s difficult, though, to put the teacher-me to one side when I read their writing.  I become easily annoyed at the absence of full stops, concerned that the sentence appears to have been left behind in the desire for wow words. I’ve read an awful lot of children’s writing, you see. I’ve sat in countless meetings, discussing the merits of spelling and handwriting, whether, on balance, a collection of work denotes a specified standard – or not.  I have become boggled by reading the same subject rewritten by countess childish hands.

It’s a funny business, this assessing of children’s writing.  Very quickly, in order to make your judgement, you find yourself sliding down into a grammatical morass.  Noun phrases, extended or otherwise, ambitious vocabulary; the hunt for shifts in formality (google it) clutches at you as you pass by, pulling you into a swamp of disconnected detail. It’s very easy to lose track of what it was they were trying to say, when they put pen (or pencil) to paper.  It’s oh, so easy to forget that they are, in fact, children, adopting as they do, as if they were clacking round the garden in their mother’s high heeled shoes, the voice of an adult addicted to purple prose.  Sometimes, I wonder if the purpose of teaching children to write hasn’t become in order that they may fulfil our official (if temporary – hopefully) checklist.

Until, that is, I see my children writing at home.  Here, there is no purpose other than their own pleasure (or rage, if you are my daughter and you have filled a notebook with all your plots for revenge upon your older brother/s* *delete as appropriate), no teacher with a red (or purple, or green or pink or any other colour you care to mention) is going to come along and tell them what it was they did wrong, to force them to fit their ideas into the convention.

Sam used to write only lists (and occasional notes on the calendar when he had decided that it really oughtn’t be a school day and instead he was declaring an INSET day).  Now it seems he, as I have done, ever since my teenage years, can be found using writing to tell whoever cares to read about his day.  His words, his voice, are there on the page and I, his proud mama, will put them in the safest of safe places and think upon what it was he was really trying to say.

 

 

There are two consultations at the Department of Education that will close on the 22nd June.  They are about school assessment; one on primary assessment and the other on the recommendations of the Rochford Review.  Please take the time to read them and let them know your thoughts.  You can find the link here.

First Class

I went to That London yesterday. Now that I am no longer working in school, but as a consultant teacher, I get to go there once a week, on the train. This would not usually be a thing I would remark upon, after all, thousands of people go to London on the train every day of the week; except that yesterday, it was a little bit different.  For some reason, the coach in which my seat was booked was a first class one.  I double checked my ticket, I checked that it matched the one sticking out of the top of the chair, and yes, indeed, there I was, entitled to share the rarified atmosphere of the Preserve of the Posh People.

I wasn’t alone in my surprise. Opposite me was an equally excited traveller.  We chatted all the way, expressing first our astonishment at our good fortune, and then discovering a shared interest in things educational, him having lived and worked in Singapore for five years, and me being an SEN parent/teacher years further down the line (he took notes on what to write about in the parental statement part of the EHCP).  It was really rather nice.

First class seats are so much more comfortable. They cushion your frame as you whizz through the countryside; there is room to stretch your legs, should you so desire. If the sun comes out (it did) and makes you squint (it did), there is a little curtain you can pull across the window to shade your eyes. If your computing devices need a charge – or anything needs a USB, there is a plug AND a USB socket (with a handy blue light to show you where they are). The table is big enough to fit your things on. If you are tired and need a little rest, the carriage is quiet in a superior kind of way. It is, I am convinced, an excellent way to travel.

I arrived at Paddington feeling refreshed (which is remarkable in itself, since I had been awake since 4 – you know, that strange sense of alert wakefulness that attacks you in the small hours when you know you have enough time to get back to sleep, but you are convinced your alarm is going to go off any moment now), and strode off to start a very productive day thinking how nice it would be to get a First Class ticket for every journey.

There must be people around who never go any other way, and sometimes, I can’t help wondering if those who make public policy aren’t those who, in a sense, travel First Class everywhere.

They are wealthy, so they never know what it is like to count every penny to make sure you can pay the mortgage, or budget for the next pair of shoes, crossing your fingers that they won’t grow out of them til the end of the month.  Their children are always super-bright, like they are, so they never have to worry about what happens to them if they fail the test, or if they can’t get into Top Set because they used up their compliance quota just sitting quietly and they haven’t any energy left for any learning. They don’t worry about the impact on their children of being told by trusted teachers that they never quite measure up, of always finding themselves always in second class; it never occurs to them, because, well, it just doesn’t happen and if it does they are wealthy enough to buy them a place in a private institution that will repair their self-esteem with a good dollop of privilege.

But if you never went there, you would never know what it was like in Second Class; that there isn’t anywhere to sit, and that choice is never going to be an option because you can’t afford the ticket, or you have competing monetary priorities. You would never understand the way your body aches, from being forced to squash itself into the same position, for fear of standing on someone else’s toe, or brushing your leg against their knee.  You could very easily assume that, because you also travelled on a train, that your journey took the same amount of time and your ticket was checked by the same person, that you understood.  But you don’t. You have no idea.

I know I’m a better PE teacher because I didn’t like Games. I know I’m a better teacher because I have spent time outside, in the corridor, with the neediest of little ones. Am I a better parent because of Down’s syndrome? Maybe, maybe not. But I know I’m a more realistic one.

 

Passport

“It is a hell of a responsibility to be yourself. It’s much easier to be somebody else, or nobody at all.” Sylvia Plath

I’ve been doing quite a bit of Sorting Out lately.  First, it was the Teaching Resources.  When I went back to work after my long baby break, I re-started a collection that I threw out, not long after Baby Number Two. I wasn’t going back, I decided, and so, all those lovingly hand drawn worksheets, detailing various aspects of the Tudors, or the Egyptians, made their way, as it were, to the classroom in the sky. (I kept a fair amount of the books, it has to be said; you never know when you might need to rustle up a quick spelling activity or build a Saxon Hall with toilet roll inner tubes.) It didn’t take long to fill ten or so box files. I’m terrible at throwing things out (see above), and I hate waste. The last four years have seen me better at keeping things to a minimum, but still.

Our coming house move has been the catalyst for my uncharacteristic sorting. Once the worksheets were gone, I turned my attention to the filing cabinet. An annoying piece of furniture, stuffed in a difficult to reach corner, it has been easier, for the last ten years, to pile the ever-growing number of letters and other bits of Useful Paper Based Information relating to three children, on top of it, rather than attempt to wrestle with the Hanging Files That Fall Apart At The Slightest Touch. I decided, as I had about ten or so empty box files, that I would transfer the contents of the filing cabinet to said box files (we won’t have room for it when we move, anyway) and do some Sorting Out while I was at it.

It’s been a worthwhile exercise (despite R’s protestations).  We have discovered the whereabouts of a fair number of important documents (along with several that were important in 2011 but are no longer), had a good discussion about pensions (confusing and depressing at the same time) and had (or rather, I have) a lovely trip down memory lane.

I didn’t feel it was necessary to keep hold of all of Sam’s old Statements, and the three or four draft EHCPs we received last winter. I haven’t kept every letter from every paediatrician or visit of the school nurse to check his hearing, although I have kept the first – the educational psychologist report and my original parental statement make interesting, and, to me anyway, somewhat heart-rending reading; one day I’ll tell you about it. I like to keep significant documents, papers that represent a turning or a starting point.

I’ve got the lovely little booklets that came from nursery, a record of a learning journey, a blast from the past that went in a flash, gobbled up by school runs and tea times and bed time and bath times. I look at them, I read the comments, and I see snatches of the people they are now; I am assailed by memory, of the time we went to Cornwall with grandad and took Macey, the class cuddly toy, the play-doh picnic and snow that came over the top of wellies.  A record of the baby years, gone, but not forgotten.

And in amongst the letters and the school reports, the certificates of birth and marriage and the last will and testament of me and him, is a plastic pocket (I am a primary teacher, after all) containing passports. A and I looked at them together, marvelling at the size of the official dark blue, at his resemblance to his father, from an age before I knew him, and to me, a photographic record of change in ten year jumps. (The VERY NICE man at the Post Office told me last time how little I’d changed. I don’t think he’ll say the same next time, that’s for sure.)

There she sits, shyly giving a half-smile to the boxed camera, wondering what the future has in store, and I wonder that she is me. Or at least, she was.

Trench Warfare

Did you ever read the books about the First World War by Pat Barker?  (Yes, I know one of them is missing – someone, not looking at any of my relatives, must have pinched the first one.) I did, some time ago now.  I bought them when I was the kind of person who had the time to hang around in bookshops on a Saturday afternoon, browsing those big tables, piled with not-quite-skyscrapers of paperbacks, looking for something to spend my disposable income on.  I haven’t read them in a while, but I remember them vividly.  Whenever I have a clearout of my bookshelves (which I do on an infrequent, but regular basis, contrary to public opinion) I hold them in my hand, weighing up whether or not I wish to pass them on, and so far, the answer has been, ‘no’.

A couple of things stand out in my memory of them.  A couple of things that struck me, and have continued to strike me, over the years since I first sat dreaming, transported to a world gone by, by a skilled writer. The first is the enforced femininity of trench warfare. The endless waiting. The powerlessness of the men over their own fate. The obedience to orders they had no power to challenge. The care and concern by the officers for the men, over their wellbeing, their health, whether they had enough food, shelter or clothing. The difficulties that some men had in bending themselves to an unfamiliar state.

But the thing that echoes, the thing that haunts me, was the look in the eye, the shared experience, in this case of the horror of war, that asked, ‘Have you been there? Do you understand?’

In many ways it’s a bit like childbirth. Or traumatic childbirth, anyway. Or the bringing to life of a disabled child, of Down’s syndrome, come to that. In a sense, unless you’ve been there, you don’t understand. In many ways, no matter how many of us write or speak in our attempt to make the experience about the universal, you can’t. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t know what it is like; the forced femininity of powerlessness.

We think we might understand, because we have children of our own, or we hope to one day; we think it is enough, but we betray our assumptions with the questions we ask. So busy to show we understand, we forget to listen.

It’s the same with teaching.  Like nursing, or the law, it’s a profession with an illusion of transparency because we’ve all been in that classroom (pretty much), we all (pretty much) send our own children there. But it is an enclosed world. Even within the sector, our differences make only some of our experiences transferrable. Our own experience overlays understanding. Unless you’d been there, you wouldn’t know.

And how easily we forget. I forgot, when I went on my ten year maternity leave, what it was like. It’s so easy to know your own child, in the early days, anyway. You watch them so closely – you have to or you fear they might die – and you forget that it’s impossible for a teacher to know them like that, to be able to adapt like that. You have your home set up to accommodate their needs, a nearby toilet, quiet spaces, freedom of choice – and you forget that when you teach, you just can’t do that.

You forget, when you know them so well, that it takes time to get to know a child, and that that knowing comes from spending time with them, in context, and not on a piece of paper, for yourself, and not through someone else’s eyes.  When you have a child, the responsibility can feel overwhelming. When you have a disabled child, even more so. You will be accountable to them for the rest of your life. But you forget that other form of accountability, when you work as a teacher, the one you have towards multiple children, all equally deserving, towards government, parents, inspectors, the boss.

How easily you forget the never ending pile of things to do – the stack that grows by 30 every time you teach a lesson. You can see it in school leaders who merrily state in staff meetings, ‘it should only take a minute’, while the classroom staff quietly look at each other under their eyelashes and wonder who will point out that what seems so reasonable when you times it by one, is not a simple matter, when multiplied up. What seems so simple, from a distance, from the computer screen or from the office – from the home, even, when it is played out in the classroom, is, indeed, complex, and that the description of the complexity leads us into ethical dimensions that take time to work through, time to understand.

When I went back to work after my long absence it was a was a wake-up call. It was a reminder that I wasn’t perfect – and neither should I, could I be, that entrenched positions of enmity never help the child.  It was a reminder that, while I held responsibilities, I didn’t hold them all. I could not hold them all.  Being something and nothing, a split person,  a balancer along the tightrope, one of them and one of us, helps. Because when you walk in someone else’s shoes – or you put your old ones back on – you remember.

Have you been there? Do you understand?