Primary Musings

thoughts of an every day teacher


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Choose Education

Choose Education.
Choose baby Mozart and toddler yoga and after school tuition.
Choose cursive handwriting for four-year-olds.
Choose rote-learning and synthetic phonics.
Choose a narrow curriculum and ineffectual grammatical terminology.
Choose compliance and non-critical thinking.
Choose quantitative social indicators, SATs results, data analysis and homogenised student populations.
Choose pupil premium and linear progress.
Choose memorisation, competition and league tables.
Choose the smallest definition of success.
Choose your values.
Choose collaboration.
Choose museums and art galleries and theatres.
Choose real understanding.
Choose drama and books and empathy.
Choose to see beyond a number on a spreadsheet.
Choose discussion and interest and intrinsic motivation.
Choose science experiments, problem solving and creativity.
Choose wide parameters and eye-opening experiences.
Choose diversity.
Choose to veer away from the mind-numbing, soul-destroying commodification of the human race.
Choose human flourishing.
Choose your future.
Choose education.


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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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Telling Stories

‘Since it is so likely children will meet cruel enemies,
let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.’  C.S. Lewis

*****

On my kitchen windowsill sits a little plant. It was given to me two summers ago by a kind parent whose child I taught. I am terrible with plants. I neglect them or over-water them and they dry up or drown. I can’t quite believe this one has survived so far. After all, I am teacher, not gardener.

*****

This year, my class have felt, at times, like a tiny microcosm of the world. They don’t gel as a group. They fight and argue, unable to see another’s point of view. Some are in desperate need; life has not provided them the right conditions to blossom. Some are trying to navigate their way around a world that seems so alien to them. Some are highly anxious. There have been bright spots, to be sure, but there has also been selfishness and a lack of empathy towards each other.

It is my task to shepherd and tend, to nurture and teach them. It is up to me to create cohesion and community. So I have gathered this disparate little band of children around some carefully chosen stories.

According to theologian, Walter Brueggemann, stories provide us with a ‘fund for the imagination.’ They offer a shared experience from which communities can be shaped and created. Stories let us renegotiate the world, reimagine what it could be like, and hold a mirror up to the consequences of our choices. They create common ground through powerful shared emotions. You can see this in faith communities who  gather round sacred texts, retelling their defining stories, year after year, to remember who they are and why they are here. You can hear it in families who tell their stories over and over, until people have recast them as their own memories, even though the events happened when they were too little to remember. You can notice it in young children who want the same book or film over and over again as they internalise the story and use it as another building block to develop their understanding of the world. You can find it at concerts, where thousands of fans unite around singing their favourite stories; those words, that music become part of the fabric of who they are, joining them to something bigger than their own lives.

You can find it in my classroom, too. We’ve laughed together at The Twits, begged justice for Fantastic Mr Fox, learned how to build a Dragon Machine, been awed by On Angel’s Wings and now we have landed in Narnia. Father Christmas has been and left us gifts to do battle with our enemies, gifts that show us how to call for help and how to heal. And we are coming back after the holidays to find out if spring and Aslan really are returning to defeat the White Witch. It seems we have never needed out stories more.

*****

Meanwhile, back on the windowsill, my little plant has burst into life, blooming unexpectedly, right in the middle of winter.

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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.

betsy-candles

Photo Credit: Betsy McIntyre


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Everyone’s a winner

Dear Justine,

You might have been hearing that teachers are pretty demoralised at the moment. I’m not going to lie to you, the pressure to get better and better results with less and less resources, in a nation where education, health and social care are all at breaking point, is pretty tough.

But as I know you are responsible employers, who care about the mental health of your staff, I’ve been thinking up some ways you could encourage our profession.

    • Cancel student loans for every teacher who has been teaching for more than five years. A golden ‘thank you’ for staying in a tough profession would be really welcome, and might be a nice draw for people considering leaving.
    • Push the pause button on SATs until the inquiry into primary assessment is complete. No one’s education will be ruined if they don’t sit a SATs test, and teachers are quite capable of doing their own assessments anyway. Once you’ve got it properly sorted and put assessment back in its box, let talk again.
    • Stop announcing education policy in the press. Talk directly to us, instead of through journalists.
    • Please, oh please, send Nick Gibb on a managing change course. Even if you completely agree with all the changes made in education over the last few years (I don’t) you have to admit they’ve been handled in a shambolic manner.
    • Talk to real teachers. No, not just the ones who want to kiss your ass further their own careers by agreeing with you. Talk to the real teachers actually doing the job. You must know some of them. Or some of your friends must. Ask them what they need to help their children succeed in the classroom. Then really try to do it.
    • Think through the impact of your policies on the people who will actually have to implement them. It would be so nice if we could stop expending energy fighting the next ill-thought-through policy announced in the papers, so we can actually get on with our jobs.
    • Stop the ‘there’s no problem here’ approach to education stories in the news. I’m tired of DfE spokespeople constantly denying there are any issues in the press. Perhaps the official line could be ‘we’re working with teachers and unions to solve these problems.’ It would at least make us feel you’re taking our concerns seriously.
    • Raise the status of the profession in the press. You could tweet or publish regular success stories, or thank yous to those working in education. Again, not just those who want to kiss your ass  further their own careers by agreeing with you, but those ordinary teachers who are committed to children, sometimes really difficult to work with children, day in, day out.
    • Fight for us in the budget. Be on our side, take your job to support and fight for our children seriously. Persuade your colleagues that we need enough resources to do our jobs properly. And while you’re at it, push for CAMHS to be funded properly. It’s shameful and heartbreaking that children in great need have to wait 18 months to access the help they need.

So those are my ideas. I’m sure you’re listening because you realise that the biggest impact on children is the quality of their teacher. A demoralised, exhausted workforce with a high turnover rate doesn’t benefit anyone. And I know you care about that, don’t you?


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Light at the end of the tunnel

The beginning of this year has been tough. My class are a challenging bunch for myriad reasons and I no longer have my amazing, sanity-saving TA. It’s draining and demoralising to constantly see needs that you can’t meet; to feel like the things you really believe in aren’t working with this class; to feel you’re losing it. As a teacher, it’s so easy to feel you’re only as good as your last lesson and if that wasn’t great, and the one before that wasn’t great either, you must be failing.

I’m particularly dreading being observed after half term. Last time I was watched teaching, the observer commented that my children were eating from the palm of my hand. They were. (Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for Wolves in the Wall.) This class aren’t. (Yet.) The relationship between class and teacher takes time to strengthen and develop, particularly for this group of children. And I wonder – does my (or anyone’s) teaching always seem worse at the start of the year because that relationship hasn’t had time to establish yet?

Added into this mix was Twitter. There are some incredibly supportive, kind and genuinely lovely people on Twitter. Then there are the people who are on there to tell everyone else they’re doing it wrong, their expectations are too low, they’re not teaching the ‘right’ way, it’s their own fault their workload is so heavy, they’re not one of the ‘cool’ people. Do they realise that most ordinary teachers are just busy trying to survive and do the best they can, often in hard situations? Plus, I’m good enough at feeling rubbish by myself, I don’t need Twitter to help me with that.

Anyway, I got tired of reading it all. I got tired of wading through all the rubbish to find the gems. I should get better at curating my feed, but I just didn’t have the energy. So I took a break for a while and it felt really refreshing.

Despite all this, there have been some glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel. I have great senior leaders in school who let me cry in their office and don’t think less of me. I have great friends who let me cry in their house and don’t think less of me. I have great family who let me cry on the phone and don’t think less of me. My class are starting (albeit in teeny, tiny baby steps) to trust me and invest in our relationship. They did a great job showing year 2 children around their pop-up Saxon museum this week. They also have huge creative flair and potential which bodes well for mantle of the expert-style learning.

And when I dipped a little toe back into Twitter this evening, one of the ‘gems’ was there to welcome me with a lovely message saying I’d been missed. (Shout out to you, you know who you are!) Maybe I will pop by Twitter once in a while, after all.