Primary Musings

thoughts of an every day teacher


Responding in kind

The thing about educators is that they love helping people learn and this often includes the desire to teach other teachers. Sometimes this comes in a nice, helpful guise, like “Hey, this is working really well for me, you could try it if you like.” Sometimes it comes in a less helpful guise, such as, “If you don’t do it my way, you obviously hate children and are actively trying to destroy their future.” And sometimes, this responsibility for helping others to learn positions us to react to things on their behalf. So we sit in a CPD session on behaviour management and think, “I hope Miss Smith is listening to this because her class are terrible.” Or we listen to a talk on values and think, “Thank goodness they’re emphasising teamwork because last week Mr Jones was mean.” Or we read a blog post on kindness and make a list of all the other people who need to be more kind.

It’s important to recognise that the primary responsibility we have is for ourselves. The reality is, the only person’s behaviour or mind we can change is our own. Of course, we can influence others by offering them choices or opening up alternative perspectives. We can make suggestions, show evidence, debate, manipulate, rant, rave and generally jump up and down as much as we like. But at the end of the day, people, both adults and children, choose their own behaviour. Perhaps respecting this and examining our own actions and attitudes first, before commenting on anyone else’s is the greatest kindness we can offer someone.

Does this mean we should never challenge anyone or expect their behaviour to change? Of course not. I have so often seen teachers who are not doing very well fail to be challenged for fear of upsetting them or seeming unkind. But is it really kind to someone to continually criticise their mistakes or shortcomings without ever talking to them about it? I don’t think so. I have also felt it a personal kindness to me when others have stood up to injustice, speaking out in clear, certain, yet kind ways about things in our world that need challenging and changing. And it is kind to children when we expect the best of them and don’t let them get away with being less than this.

Kindness can come in many different forms and it is up to us to choose what the kindest reaction will be in any given situation. Sometimes it is to stay quiet, which takes self-discipline. Sometimes it is speak up, which takes courage. We’re not superheroes or miracle workers and we don’t always make the right choices. We speak when we should have stayed quiet, and vice versa. But if you do need someone to change their ways, it’s amazing how far a little thoughtfulness and humility will go. Try being a bit kinder to both children and adults this year and see how it works out for you. I dare you.


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Dog Training

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:13

I have unashamedly stolen the title of this piece from one of my writing heroes, E.B. White. In his essay of the same name, he describes his attempts to train up his dachshund, Fred. He writes:

Of all the dogs whom I have ever served I’ve never known one who understood so much of what I say or held it in such deep contempt. When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes. He even disobeys me when I instruct him in something he wants to do. And when I answer his peremptory scratch at the door and hold the door open for him to walk through, he stops in the middle and lights a cigarette, just to hold me up.*

The image of Fred, wholly indifferent to White’s instructions and even disobedient in things he wants to do, never ceases to make me smile. There’s also something wryly familiar about it for anyone who has ever had the joy of working in a classroom.

We had an equally untrainable dog when I was growing up. A black, border-collie/sheep-dog mix, she was my brother’s much longed for, surprise eighth birthday present from our Grandparents. There’s a well-worn family photo of my brother asleep on their living room floor the day he got her, the dog resting her nose protectively over his shoulder.

We called her Candy Floss because that’s what my Nana said her tail was like. She was Candy for short and we quickly discovered that she would respond to any word that rhymed with her name. So we’d wonder round the local parks yelling ‘brandy,’ or ‘shandy,’ giggling in delight when she came running. Of course, she never actually stopped when she got to us but bowled past, barking and yelping all the way to her next adventure.

Candy never learned to walk at heel either. Other dogs would be obediently trotting at their master’s feet but not ours. While on the lead, she’d be straining forward, excitedly dragging us along towards whatever she wanted to sniff out next. Once unshackled from the lead, she was off like a shot. She mostly ended up jumping into lakes, only returning to shake her water-logged fur all over us and stink out the car with wet dog smell on the way home.

My Mum always said Candy thought she was one of the many kids in our family. She was the eternal, attention-seeking optimist, forever putting her chin on your knee in hopes of a scratch behind the ears, or bringing you a slobber-soaked ball to play with. She was also a kind dog who never once bit anyone. Infinitely patient, she never snapped or growled at the little ones who pulled her tail or got younger siblings to ride on her back or told her to go away when they’d had enough.

Maybe it was our fault that she wasn’t perfectly trained. Perhaps we should have been more consistent and expected her to conform more often. But we did our best. She had a good life, full of exploration and adventure. She was ours and we loved her.


*From ‘Dog Training,’ in One Man’s Meat by E. B. White.

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Advent: waiting.

I love Advent. I like it more than Christmas itself. I love the familiarity of calendars, candles and counting down. I love the traditions of well-worn words becoming somehow fresh as we sing them over again. I love all the different forms of  light that spring up, bringing cheer and warmth and beauty to dark nights. I love the yearly retelling of favourite, familiar stories, especially the nativity.

This year, not much has felt familiar or routine in school. When you have a challenging class, with some children who have complex needs, it can be unpredictable. You don’t know what you’re going to be faced with each day which can create anxiety.  When ways of working that you believe in don’t seem to be effective, you are reminded that you don’t have all the answers, however long you’ve been teaching. As my wise Head of School said, sometimes you have to go to where the children are first, before you can bring them to where you are.

So it’s been a whole term of waiting and hard work. Building relationships; working out what triggers melt downs and how to get out of them; being consistent with boundaries and expectations; being consistent with a smile and a willingness to listen to the child and take them seriously; creating routines, familiarity, security, trust.

This week, for the first time I have felt all the waiting and working begin to pay off. I still don’t know it all, but I do know a lot more about these thirty-one children. The relationships we have built together are becoming rooted and established and I am beginning to really love them.

And I think of thousands of other teachers across the country, and the world, doing the same thing. Showing up and doing the hard work. No shouting about it, no song and dance, no acclaim. Each of us quietly creating a small glow of light in what can seem like a long season of darkness.

Joy to the world.


Photo Credit: Betsy McIntyre


Things unseen

I love to read. Old ideas and new spin around my head at high velocity, colliding into each other like meteorites in space, sending my thoughts off into a completely different orbit from the original track.

I particularly love to read writers who pay serious attention to the ‘things unseen.’ Mostly, these are the things that really matter, but they are intangible and easily overlooked.

Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts.

The best writers, though, use the tools of their trade to give these things shape, make them discernible and remind us of their importance.

Whatonomy’s post, We Dance, did this for me recently. The image of God being present throughout, but no one seeing his smile struck a chord because so much of what we do every day as teachers goes unseen. The way you constantly work to ‘catch’ that one child before he descends into a flat spin from which there will be no return. The many, many times you take a deep breath and consciously choose patience over frustration. The shared classroom jokes and enterprises. The child who never speaks getting so immersed in the drama that she forgets herself and talks in front of the whole class. The tiny victories won on the way towards fine motor skills, secure spelling, self-confidence. The peaceful, productive atmosphere as everyone is engaged in writing their very best story. That beautiful moment the whole class are on the edge of their seats, begging you to read the next chapter even though its break time.

In teaching it’s not too often that someone comes and says ‘you did a great job’ at the end of the day. It’s not that anyone is being particularly thoughtless or unkind, they’re just not in the room to see it. Most of the time it’s just you and the children. And quite honestly, there are some moments I’m glad no one saw!

But on the days you need some encouragement, take a moment to stand still, breathe in deep and look around.

You may just catch a glimpse of God’s smile.

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

2 Corinthians 4:18


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A Folk Tale

Many years ago, two sisters, named Akukho and Inala lived in a small hut at the edge of a forest. They were not rich, but they grew food in their garden and kept some chickens which provided for their needs quite well enough.

One hot afternoon, Inala was out working in the garden when she heard a strange and beautiful sound. Wiping the sweat off her brow, she stood up to see where it was coming from. A boy of around 12 years old was leaning against a tree, drawing a haunting melody from a battered old violin with his bow.

Inala listened, enchanted, and when the music came to an end, she clapped and cheered, ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ As the boy turned towards her, Inala could see his face was dirty and tear-stained, his arms and legs covered in bruises.

‘Child!’ she cried, ‘what has happened to you? What is your name? Where have you come from?’

‘Aunty,’ he said, ‘my name is Umbaleki. I have travelled far and wide and I am hungry and thirsty. Won’t you please spare me a cup of water? Then I will tell you my tale.’

Straight away Inala rushed into the house. She moved quietly around the kitchen gathering food and drink for the boy, as she had a feeling Akukho would not be entirely happy with her entertaining strangers this way.

Umbaleki fell on the food gratefully. When he had finished, he told Inala his tale of how his family had been scattered to the four winds by famine and war, poverty and disease. Now he was scouring the four corners of the globe to find them. ‘I must keep playing my music,’ he said. ‘When they hear it, they will come.’

As he took up his violin again, Inala’s eyes filled with tears.

The next day, Inala looked for Umbaleki, but this time, she heard the sound of not one, but two violins.

‘Aunty! My sister has found me!’ he called, joyfully. Inala fed them both, and helped them to build a small fire to keep them warm through the night.

Each day after that, Inala returned to find the family, and the fire, growing. She continued to feed them as the melodies from the now many different instruments swirled around her, capturing her heart and drawing her in.

Inala began staying with the Bhekizizwe family later and later in the evening, until one day, Akukho noticed her absence.

‘Inala! Where have you been?’ she asked.

‘Don’t be angry Akukho,’ soothed Inala, ‘I have made some new friends. They needed sustenance, but really, it’s been no trouble. Come and see, listen to the beautiful sound they make.’

Akukho peered over the garden wall suspiciously, the great sound of the music and the family’s shadows making them appear larger in number than they really were. She began to panic and tremble.

‘What have you done, you silly girl?’ she shouted. ‘If you keep feeding these people there will not be enough for us!’

‘Now, truthfully,’ reasoned Inala, ‘I have given them hardly anything – you haven’t even noticed it’s been gone, have you?’

‘That’s not the point and you know it,’ said Akukho angrily. ‘What if our garden turns to dust, and we have nothing left for ourselves? It is a good job I am here to be wise and sensible. You know nothing, and we would starve if we did things your way!’ And with that, she left the room.

That night, Inala slept fitfully, with strange shadows of the past creeping across her dreams. When she woke, she knew what she must do. She climbed up to her wardrobe and reached a case down from the top. Gently, Inala put together the silver flute that lay inside it. The memories locked away in her fingers came flooding back as she touched the keys and she began to play.

‘No! No!’ shouted Akukho. ‘Stop that horrible noise! I forbid you to make that sound!’

But the music of the Bhekizizwe family had called out to something deep inside Inala and she would not, could not stop. As she played, she walked out of the cottage, through the garden and beyond the walls, until she had reached the family of musicians and was adding her sound to theirs, creating rich and beautiful harmonies.

And she neither heard, nor saw, the shrill shrieking of Akukho ever again.



A Fairytale

Long, long ago, in a land far, far away, a little girl called Hope lived with her cousins, Mara, Sophia and David. They lived in an old, run-down castle. Although they were surrounded by a beautiful land, the cousins were trapped behind the huge castle walls.

Every night they gathered round the fire to tell stories, reminding each other of what life could be like beyond the walls, in hope that they would make it over there one day.

Hope wasn’t too sure about this story telling at first, so she just watched and listened. It was all very interesting. Sometimes they had inspiring, exciting ideas about how to get past the walls, and sometimes they told darker tales about how indestructible the walls seemed. Hope always liked it best when David and Sophia spoke, although she thought Mara’s stories were important too.

One day she decided to join in and tentatively offered her thoughts. David and Sophia responded kindly, but Mara spoke out of her frustrations. “Don’t be stupid Hope,” she said, “you’re just a little girl, what do you know about walls?”

Crestfallen, Hope thought for a moment. And while she thought, the conversation around the fire carried on. Then she tiptoed out of the room, down the winding stairs and out through the creaky door. Gathering her tools, Hope went to the walls and began to dig over the ground, planting seeds right next to them. For what Mara did not know, was that Hope was a clever and capable gardener.

Over many days, Hope nurtured her seeds with patience, care and dedication. After a while, the vines started to grow. They were tenacious, tough plants, who spread slowly and steadily. Their roots crept under the foundations, and their branches dug into the mortar, until one day, the walls couldn’t take any more, and one by one, the bricks began to crumble…