The turkey is eaten, the presents put away and I have been to the gym twice to try to counteract the effects of Christmas excess! I have also completed the first term of my return to the classroom and as my thoughts are already turning to planning for the second term I want to think back over the time since September to see what has happened and what I have learned from it. I certainly have learned a lot! I left work at the university in December and in my farewell speech to colleagues I was reflecting along the lines of ‘If I knew then what I know now!’
I thought I knew what life was like in schools; I had visited many of them regularly and frequently and had talked with trainees, teachers, senior leaders and head teachers. I have friends who are teachers and my daughter is a teacher. Hearing about something is not the same as experiencing it for yourself. So what are the things I have learned? Let me start with the positive.
The class was challenging at the start of September and it was hard work to get to a position where we can work together as a learning community. I believe we are in that position now and I am looking forward to some exciting things next term. However, there were some magic moments which I will always remember and most of them are based on using quality texts in the classroom. I am Henry Finch was superb and I was really surprised at how much the children loved it. I have been reminded over and over again of the power of story; Barbara Hardy was absolutely correct when she described narrative as, ‘a primary act of mind.’ All learning experiences were enhanced by narrative – usually arising from a text which acted as the basis of the curriculum but sometimes just by creating a story to make a concept meaningful and relevant. Story is one of the things which, I believe, identifies us as people and should be at the heart of all we do in the classroom.
The children in my class are delightful and throughout the term I have got to know each of them as individuals. One of the special children has now left to go to a special school and that will be more appropriate for his needs as it will be better for the rest of the class. There remain five other special children and it is hard work to ensure their needs are met. I think one of them would be better served in a special school but while parents want their child in a mainstream school it is down to us to do the best we can to address the particular and individual needs. The other special children are making progress but still it is demanding to plan for their very different needs and to ensure they get the time and attention they need to make progress. I feel I have a good relationship with the class now; one where we can work together, enjoy a joke and explore ideas. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get there but we are there and in the next two terms we can build on that. It will be challenging work though as I think we are now at the place where we should have been in September.
I am feeling I am getting to know the rest of the staff better. I have been so impressed by their hard work and dedication; sometimes I am not sure how they do it and most of them are much better than me at keeping on top of the work. It is all consuming though and leaves little time for much else in life. The pressure of work most teachers experience is not sustainable long term and I am not surprised that retention is a problem nationally among teachers. There is a real sense of collegiality in the school though and it is good to see how staff support each other and work as a team. It is a privilege to be part of that.
I have enjoyed getting to know the parents and working with them. I was surprised to find that parents would email me to talk about how their child was doing and would frequently come into the classroom to talk about their child. That happened much more than I have known before. It was not a problem – just a surprise! I have found that most of the parents responded very well to an honest and informed account of their child’s progress; of course, they know their children very well and recognise when teachers know their child well too. I have found that the present me is much more confident in talking with parents than the me who was a teacher in former times; I suspect that is because I am a parent myself now, I have had many years of articulating my practice and am secure and confident in what I believe about teaching and learning – also I am old and so less worried what people think about me!!
Last but not least in my positive reflection is the ethos of the school – that truly comes from the head teacher and the relationships within the school community. It is a joy to be part of such a team. I have talked before about the many ‘Wow’ experiences we had during the term: harvest, isingpop, a visiting poet, yoga, reindeer, tree trimming, productions, parties, etc. Sometimes it has felt like a bit too much ‘wow’ but it has served to draw the school together and establish a sense of community.
There have been a lot of positive elements about my first term back in school but there have been some things which have also proved challenging. What are those? Those who are regular readers of this blog will not be surprised when I list them.
The main frustration I have felt is down to assessment led by accountability. Assessment is a key part of effective teaching and no teacher can afford not to be continually assessing children’s learning and modifying teaching accordingly. Learning, however, is a complex process and does not happen simply and smoothly. It has many hitches, plateaus and diversions along the way. I have been exasperated by systems of recording and tracking learning which do not recognise this and reduce learning to a tick list of over-simplified sentences which bear no resemblance to the complexity of the process. These ticked statements are then counted and turned into data which are supposed to indicate the degree of progress pupils are making; it is all nonsense and increasingly frustrating because we are supposed to be in a time which is ‘beyond levels’. I am sure I will come back to this over the next two terms!
I have now finally left my work at the university; the time was right but I do feel more sad about it than I expected to. The main reason is that I shall miss the conversations I had with colleagues about teaching, learning and the curriculum. I feel more naturally ‘at home’ with colleagues at the university and I find that interesting and slightly disturbing. It is something I am thinking hard about – it could be just a matter of time and custom.
Lastly I have found the physicality of teaching 30 five and six year olds tiring – I am 61 years old and a day with young children is tiring! My head wants to do lots of things which my body is not so keen about!
In conclusion, what are the things I wish I had known when working with trainee teachers? I wish I had really understood the power of the accountability agenda; I knew about it but did not appreciate the relentlessness of its impact on daily practice. I did not know the pressure in schools to conform to systems leading to many aspects where classroom teachers have no power to make decisions about their practice. I wish I knew how time-consuming much of the paperwork required of teachers is; it is not necessarily very demanding and often is recording the same things in different places and ways but it takes a lot of time which I would prefer to spend on planning. I wish I knew about the tendency to divide learning experiences into little boxes with the danger of losing the view of the whole. If I had known all this in my heart as well as my head I think I would have spent more time helping trainees to understand processes and articulate and justify practice powerfully so that the professionalism of teaching can be protected and strongly asserted. I always told trainees that teaching was a very political role and maybe teachers need to be trained in political skills in order to be able to stand up for their professional skills and judgements.