Sunday, 12 May 2013

The cold heart of primary teaching

TED lectures normally have their desired effect of leaving me feeling inspired, invigorated in thought and galvanised into action. But as well as these effects, one I have seen recently – an excellent presentation by Rita Pierson, a teacher with 40 years experience - left me also with a bubbling queasiness in my stomach. Rita Pierson hits the nail on the head when she speaks of the human connection between teacher and child – with the teacher as advocate, ally and champion – as being at the heart of what children need. As Pierson says, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. It is the key to good teaching and good learning. It is in those interactions that you find the glimmer of magic which allows teaching to become the most rewarding way to spend your working life.

And it is so depressingly low on our schools’ agendas that these relationships barely have time to take root, never mind come to fruition. If the relationship between teachers and their pupils is the heart of education, then it is a neglected heart beating anxiously, becoming colder with time, and it is beginning to affect the organs around it.

This isn't because of teachers’ lack of sensitivity, though it is fair to say that some teachers become so used to the demands of the modern classroom – the assessment, the AfL, the data-tracking, the reading levels, the next step marking, the APP – that the child fades away. It is not completely unheard of to hear teachers talk about the ‘teaching the 3Bs’, as an example phrase. These Level 3Bs are children, with lives and emotions, barriers to learning and hidden gifts, with histories and stories and aspirations... and names! But nonetheless, they are the 3Bs.

The daily lives of many teachers and their relations with pupils are far from the ideals they might have entertained when they became teachers. Nobody excitedly clutches their university graduation certificate thinking ‘Yes! Now I can help 5 year olds to identify split digraphs confidently’. The very appeal of teaching is the connection between teachers and pupils, but the contemporary classroom culture, which has been slowly fermenting for a few decades, has gradually weakened this bond, dehumanising the whole process of educating.

Being the teacher you want to be is not simply an individual task, to be solved by altering your own actions. There are so many obstacles which prevent the empathic bonds from developing – deep marking, for example, although carrying academic benefits for pupils as a type of formative assessment, drains away the teachers free time which might otherwise be spent building and strengthening these relationships. The whole apparatus of primary education could have been designed to prevent teachers from getting to know their pupils. I might know they can decode 79% of a list of ‘high-frequency words’ and might know enough to predict exactly how they might misspell a word, but I don’t know what they did at the weekend, or what they like to do, or how to pronounce their name properly. This is so wrong.

Partly, this is because of the maelstrom of expectations placed on our charges’ young shoulders, which guides every single action we undertake for them. We give the children time to read from the carefully tailored bookshelf in order to foster their love of reading. Great, but this then means the first chunk of the day is spent in silence. Some schools demand silence in corridors and when lining up. 

Every temporal nook and cranny in that timetable is packed full – guided reading, class assembly, current affairs talk, class council, silent reading. Every lesson is spent feeling the sands of time cascade, as content is pumped into their workbooks, in order to conform to illogical and unnecessary curricular expectations. A whole day could go by without ever interacting with the children, outside of lesson talk.

There are probably some who don’t see this as a problem. Maybe this pining for a better human relation with the children would be seen as some sentimentalist reminiscence from the educational backwaters, from the days of low ambition. Are these not just the gushy laments of an enemy of promise?

One week, there was a girl who came into my class every single day, wanting to share something with the class. In response, she received my “We need to do the register now.” or my “Now is our silent reading time, that’s what you need to be doing.” or my “Maybe later, if we get time.” or my “If we get everything done.”

We never get everything done.

Now in the end, all she wanted to do was share the fact that she had bought a new unusual pencil case at the weekend, and she wanted to show it off. She should be able to share these trivialities. All of the kids should. These ‘trivialities’ are their priorities.

One of my other kids came bounding in fifteen minutes early last week, before school had started, with a huge smile on his face. “Good morning Sir!” He jollied over towards me. In reply, I gave him a polite but clear “Out you go please, I’m busy.”

And then I felt like an absolute tosser. Our working culture is making tossers of all of us. Many of our kids have enough people who don’t have time for them at home, for whatever reason.

I want to be the person they run up to with a smile in the morning. I want to be the person they share their stories with. I want them to trust me enough to tell me what’s wrong. I want them to love being in my lessons. I want them to want to come to school. I want them to do well whilst enjoying school, not because I am forcefeeding them knowledge.  

This is what lots of teachers want and we shouldn’t accept anything less. As long as our working culture encourages us to see a room full of assessment data and target grades, rather than funny little critters with hopes and dreams, ripe and ready to share, we’re going to be doing a disservice to them.

We need to be hearing their poems and praising their drawings. We need to be hearing their qualms and calming their nerves. We need to be their reliable champions, not their pallid and data-obsessed jailors. 


jeremyinspain said...

You have hit the nail so hard...
I left the UK 7 years ago. Not because I hated it, although I do agree with what you've said above. I moved to Spain to teach in an 'immersion' primary school. The children in my class (6- and 7-year-olds) are Spanish, I teach them everything in English. We were given leeway to 'adapt' the national curriculum with this in mind. Within a few minutes I discovered that the level of English in my class was pretty low, and that I was going to have to go back... to what? Well, the answer was back to 'talking' although it felt like I was going back in time. (I'd taught for 25 years before coming to Spain.)
I'd like to give you my story, the blurb is here if you want to check it out.
I don't know how I'd cope if I returned to the UK, but I'd like to think I'd retain the insight into what is 'special' about the primary classroom, which you have outlined here. Keep the faith! For the children as well as for yourself. Jeremy Dean.

jeremyinspain said...

P.S., forgot to say, if you want a copy of Zen Kyu Maestro (it's an eBook), let me know the email you'd like the Amazon voucher sent to.