5 Lessons We Can Learn From Children

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This was originally going to be a post about Milo Yiannopoulos and the news that he has been banned from giving a talk at his old school. But the more more I read about the story and the further I was dragged into the dark little corner of internet dominated by the alt-right the more depressed I became with the whole political situation. This is the problem with politics being one of your main interests, in a year like 2016 where there has been a barrage of bad news it can really take over your head a bit. Sometimes you need to step away from the news, turn off Twitter and go and find waffles. Which is exactly what I did this morning.
wafflesThey say that in London you’re never more than 6ft away from a rat. Well in Amsterdam you’re never more than 10ft from a waffle. On my walk to the waffle house, I passed a group of children on a school trip and immediately felt a pang of longing to have my own class again. This shows the strength of nostalgia because, in reality, there are things I miss about teaching but schools trips aren’t one of them. With only a couple of exceptions, school trips were days of head counting, sick bags and trying to look composed in front of parent helpers whilst herding 60 wildebeest excitable children around an overcrowded museum. Still. I do miss having a class. Working with children is unpredictable, stressful and exhausting but they will make you laugh every single day. Even on those really awful, child protection meetings, crying in the toilets days your class will make you laugh. I wholeheartedly believe that if everybody spent just one hour a day with a five-year-old we would all be happier, kinder people. So I decided that, instead of giving more attention to Yiannopoulos who is ultimately a professional attention seeker, I would write about a far more worthy subject – the lessons we can all learn from children.

It’s OK to say “No.”

No is one of the first words children learn and they are the experts at saying it. In my experience, four-year-olds are far better at saying “no” than thirty-year-olds. It’s not an easy word to say; it has a tendency to disappoint or upset people. When I was younger I would do anything to avoid saying no. In an eagerness to please, I would take on anything and everything I was asked to do and then end up unable to cope and having to let people down. Whether it’s work, a social event or a favour for a friend – it’s far better to say no from the very beginning than promise something you won’t be able to deliver. For the sake of your mental health and wellbeing allow yourself to say no.

Be Silly

I’m quite a silly grown up as I believe most teachers are at heart. Silliness was a defining characteristic of the staff room in my first school where lunchtimes were spent quoting Monty Python, discussing the items that had made their way onto the “Michael Gove Shelf” and debating the philosophical question, “Would you still be friends with me if I had cups for hands?” It remains an important part of the Paramour household today. From spending, what some might call, an abnormal amount of our time voicing our cat’s inner monologue to recreating that manic Blair Christmas card.

Children are the masters of silliness. I remember walking into my husband’s Year 6 class one year, at the height of SATs mania, and they were trying to rap the entire theme tune to, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” between them. In my own class two stand out memories are the two boys who created a “Jedi Hedgehog School” (complete with light sabers made from pencils wrapped in coloured paper) and the group of children who approached me one playtime to tentatively ask if we could have a, “Dress Up As A Frog Day.” (We did – on the last day of the Spring term and only the children who had approached me actually did it.) Children teach us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Live In The Moment

This one sounds like a such a bullshit cliche but it is true: children force you into the present because that is how they live. There’s no time for your mind to wander or to retreat into your own thoughts; you have to be there in that moment all the time. And not just because at any minute one of them could rock too far back on their chair and fall and crack their head open – has anyone ever actually had that happen? Or is that just something we tell children? Living in the moment means no worrying about tomorrow, no time to wallow in self pity about a break up or stressing about the work you have to do that evening. You are very much “there” dealing and experiencing what is happening right in front of you. Of course being permanently “present” is one of the reasons the job is so exhausting and why, after three consecutive days of wet play, you find yourself quietly pressing your forehead against the cold window and breathing deeply.

Mindfulness is now up there with hygge, craft beer and pop-up eateries in trendiness but before you dismiss it as another passing fad – give it a go. Learn from children: notice the details, take pleasure in the simple things and keep your thoughts focused on the present.

Be Open Minded

“It’s OK to change your mind” became a motto for one class I taught. In this class there was a handful of dominant characters who would have huge, explosive disagreements that would drag on for days out of stubbornness more than anything else. Even if they knew they had done the wrong thing or perhaps got the wrong idea about a situation they would dig their heels in and allow the drama to continue. So we introduced, “It’s OK To Change Your Mind.” It was our class way of saying “I was wrong” without having to use those exact words.

It is only natural that we become more sure of our views and opinions as we grow up; by the time we’re adults our worldview has been shaped by a range of life experiences, the people we’ve met and things we’ve learnt for ourselves. But how often do we challenge these beliefs? Having strongly held views is honourable but, like children, we should try and remain open-minded to the idea of them changing.

Be Proud Of Your Scars

Children wear scars like badges of honour: “LOOK! I fell down the stairs and look what it’s made – I’VE GOT A SCAR!” cue 29 admiring “ooohs” from the rest of the room and the teacher calling out, “Come back to the carpet – we can look at Ahmed’s scar at playtime.”

When you’re five, scars are to be shown off and marvelled – they demand respect. If you’re extra lucky the teacher might even let you tell the story of how you got your scar in the epic battle of staircase. The child who turns up with a plaster cast on their arm is immediately the most popular child in the class. As we grow older we hide our scars, be they emotional or physical. We keep them a secret out of fear of being judged as weak or vulnerable. Now I’m not suggesting we start covering our scars in batman plasters and shoving them into the faces of unsuspecting passers-by but let’s not be ashamed of them. Scars are reminders that we survived – they symbolise strength.

Top Tips for NQTs

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My friend Adam was training to become a doctor at the same time as I was doing my PGCE. I remember one conversation we had as we approached our future careers, “The only difference between my last day as a medical student and my first day as a qualified doctor is that I’ll be paid. Other than that I’ll have no more responsibility and I’ll still be heavily supervised.”

This is not the case for teachers. One minute you’re teaching another teacher’s class that has been setup and established by them. The next you’re presented with an empty room that will soon be full of 30 pairs of eyes staring at you expectantly. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find having your own class couldn’t have come any sooner.  By the time September arrived, I’d planned what my classroom was going to look like, I’d read everything I could find on behaviour management and I had a clear picture in my head of the sort of teacher I was going to be (a cross between Miss Honey and LouAnne Johnson in case you’re wondering.) But even Miss Honey and LouAnne Johnson were NQTs at one point and even they didn’t know where the glue sticks were kept so here are some tips to help you in those first few weeks.

Consistency, consistency, consistency

As I’m sure you’ll have already been told, the first half term with your new class is all about setting out your expectations and setting up the routines.  I’m not going to tell you which behaviour management strategy you should use, that’s entirely up to you and you may find your school has an approach they want you to use. All I will say is: be consistent. If you’ve said Sara is going to miss 10 minutes of her lunch break, then she misses 10 minutes of her lunch break, if you’ve said you’re going to speak to Andy’s mum at the end of the day – make sure you do. In the first half term in particular you need to work hard to make sure what you say is going happen actually happens. It’s hard work because the first few weeks are the time they’ll really push to see if those boundaries are actually where they say they are but it is worth getting it right. You’ll thank yourself in July.

Being consistent does not just apply to behaviour management; it is equally true of routines. It can be easy at the beginning of a new school year, fresh from the holidays and full of optimism to try and introduce too many new systems – I for one am particularly guilty of this. Every year I’d come back thinking:

“This year is going to be great – I can’t wait to share all my new ideas with the class. We’ll have one group who are responsible for keeping the plants watered  in our outdoor area, another to take care of the pet hamster, I’ll introduce the bookmark challenge to get them reading more widely, oooo and I’ll have a word of the day board which we’ll look at every morning and I’ll give a sticker to the child that manages to use the word of the day the most effectively, I’ll have an interactive phonics display that I’ll change weekly and every Friday afternoon we’ll watch News Round and discuss current affairs before they go home for the weekend and hopefully they’ll continue those discussions at home. We’re going to have such a good year.”

There is nothing wrong with any of those individual ideas – I’ve seen all of them work really well but do not do what I did and try and introduce everything at once. Otherwise, once planning, marking, meetings, school shows, INSET, data etc… kick in you’ll find yourself with several dead plants, a missing class pet and children saying in March “we haven’t done Word of the Day since Christmas”. Pick a few things you want to try and do them consistently. If you want to introduce something new introduce one thing at time.

Read Up

Despite being an avid reader, I almost exclusively read fiction until I started teaching. It was only when I started wanting to find out more about how children learn that I started to read non-fiction. The wonderful thing about non-fiction is that it can be dipped into as you need it. You can refer to it throughout the year rather than having to find the time in the evenings to read it cover to cover (that can be done in the holidays.) So read. Read the research and the ideas that are out there. Although remember just because someone has drawn a certain conclusion from one study does not mean they are correct. Read widely, try out different strategies and find out what works for you. A good starting point would be: Shirley Clarke on assessment, Bob Cox on teaching reading and pretty much anything written by Sue Cowley.

I’d also advise that before you start teaching a new topic learn as much as you can about it. The better you know it – the better you can teach it. The expectations of Primary maths and English are much higher than in previous years and you may find yourself having to teach things you haven’t even thought about you were in school yourself, particularly if you’re teaching upper KS2. Don’t panic just take the time to learn them really, really well.  If you’re not sure how what the past progressive tense is, or how to plot linear equations on a graph – find out (this is when being in a building with teachers is very useful!) Before launching into a topic about the Romans find out the key dates, names and events and have them up your sleeve.

We had a phrase for this in my first school – Know Your Shit.

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If you haven’t already, join Twitter. Books are really useful but on Twitter you can speak directly to actual teachers from all around the world (including the authors of those useful books!) They’re a friendly bunch and will happily share their advice.

My “go to” tweeters tend to be: @michaelT1979, @thatboycanteach @jillberry102, @teachertoolkit, @martynreah, @mattgovernor and @MissMaj_ they’re knowledgeable and very friendly.

Not sure where to start? Have a look at the #EdChat, #PrimaryRocks and #Teacher5aday hashtags.

Eat Your Lunch

Not to sound too much like your mother here but: please try and eat something at lunch time. It can be all too easy to fill up that hour with phone calls, clubs, setting up and sorting out behaviour issues. Take it from me, living off the left over fruit from the snack bowl is not a sustainable model; make sure you eat your lunch and, if you can, get to the staff room. In the right kind of staff room, you’ll be able to develop your relationships with your colleagues and build up a support/advice network it’s also the quickest way to get answers to those little niggling questions like “where do we keep the key for the PE shed?” and “how do I get more glue sticks?” Also the staff room is pretty much the only adult only zone in the school so go and enjoy even just 10 minutes of uninterrupted adult conversation. Teachers are some of the smartest, most interesting and good humoured people I know – get to know them.

Observe

One of the things I loved the most about being an Assistant Head was the opportunities it provided for me to observe teachers. Not formally (although there was some of that) just spending time in other people’s classrooms and seeing what was going on.  Your colleagues are your most valuable resource and you can learn something from all of them so take any opportunity you are given to watch other people teach.

Work Smart

These days most schools are open for at least 12 hours of the day but that does not mean you have to be there all of that time – make it work for you. Last year I used to get in between 6:30 and 7am so I could mark my books – I found that I was often interrupted if I tried to mark them after school. I would try leave around 5pm. Other colleagues chose to come in later and stay later and others came in later, left early and worked a lot at home. You need to decide how you work best but remember the number of hours that you are in the building has no bearing on how good a teacher you are.

Look After You

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A wise colleague once told me, “You are no less important than the children you teach; you need to take care of yourself the way you take care of them.” I foolishly ignored her and became a martyr to my job sacrificing my social life, health and well being in an attempt to be the best teacher I could be every single day. Here is what I wish I could have said to myself:

  • Leave early one evening a week. (My first school didn’t open until 7:30am so I would often end up staying late. By my fourth year I’d learnt this and would leave at 4pm on Fridays.
  • Not every single lesson will be outstanding. A handful of lessons will be amazing, another handful will be just terrible and most will be good. You might find you learn more from those lessons that go really wrong than you do from those that run perfectly so don’t be afraid of them. Guy Claxton summed this up really well in an INSET: “When you’re making a really good car – you have to crash a few.” When you’re learning what makes a really good lesson you have to have a few complete disasters.
  • Good is good enough
  • I wish I’d overcome my aversion to exercise earlier in my twenties because it is the best way to de-stress. Whether it’s walking, swimming, boxing, running or yoga – it really doesn’t matter. It forces you to take time out for yourself – and it might force you to leave work earlier.
  • You are allowed a life. I remember sheepishly turning up hungover one morning and confessing to the Phase Leader I’d drunk far too much the evening before. “Zoe, you’re allowed a life” she replied with a laugh. I’ll be honest teaching 30 7-year-olds with an awful hangover is a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies so I wouldn’t suggest you do it too often but it will happen and that is fine.
  • Just say no – don’t feel as though you have to say yes to everything. This is a difficult one to master, especially in those early days of your career. I was the queen of enthusiastically saying yes to everything and having an emotional meltdown when it all got too much. Be realistic. If it feels as though you’re already stretched that probably means you are.

Find out how to do the register

My final piece of advice. This sounds ridiculous but on my very first day I merrily strolled into the classroom, sat my new class down and introduced myself. Then I opened the register and then realised I had no idea which symbols I was supposed to be using. Was it PL for packed lunch or D for school dinners? I had to send a patient LSA around to ask for me and by the time we’d done the register I was late for assembly. Not the biggest problem in the world but one you can do without during your first 10 minutes with your class.


 

“Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

Mary Schmich

This advice has been pulled together from my experiences as a teacher and an NQT mentor and of course from all the advice that has been shared with me over the years. As with any advice – you may find some of it useful, some of it needs to be adapted to your situation and some you can completely disregard.

 

So yes, your first year will be difficult at times because starting a new job always is. I remember telling my mentor that having my first class after my training felt a bit like getting into a car thinking I’d passed my driving test and realising my instructor had been using the dual control the entire time. It’s a steep learning curve but it’s hugely rewarding and remember: everyone has been an NQT at some point so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

How Not To Write Reports

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DISCLAIMER: Obviously I would never leave my reports until the last minute/drink whilst writing reports/have nothing to say about a child in my class. I would also never write a blog post about reports as procrastination from actually writing reports.

This internal monologue is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental… honest.

Right. Reports. Got my laptop, got all the snacks. Got my notes. Just a quick check of Facebook and I’ll be well on my way to starting.

report writing

OK let’s start with an easy one: Jessica – smart, hardworking, popular. Lovely, conscientious, easy-to-write-about Jessica. Done. Next?

Mustafa – smart, funny, excellent musician, lead part in our class assembly… God I really am nailing these reports. I am winning. I can probably get these all done in the next couple of hours. I don’t know why everyone moans about them so much when they’re really no big deal you’ve just got to get on with it.

Jasper – witty, intelligent, kind… Note to self: avoid writing reports that sound like internet dating profiles.

Right next one: Andy.

Why can I not think of a single to say about Andy? Has he definitely been in my class all year? *Checks class list* – is this definitely an up-to-date class list? Maybe he’s been away a lot…

I’ll get some wine. Wine will help.

*Gets wine. Does all essential phone checks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Gets drawn into an argument with a Twitter racist*

Right. Back to Andy…

*Opens work email. Feels chest tighten. Closes work email.*

You know what Andy… I think we’ll come back to you and move on to… Elan. Elan is… what is Elan…? Elan is lazy and thinks he’s much smarter than he actually is.

Can’t put that. “In order to meet his full potential Elan will need to apply himself to all lessons.” That sounds proper.

OK. Andy.

WHY HAS ANDY NOT DONE ANYTHING MEMORABLE THIS YEAR?

Wine.

*Instagrams picture of wine #wine #inspiration #reports #FML. Spends 10 minute choosing filter.*

Seriously Andy nothing – not even Scissor Monitor?

*Does all essential phone checks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Gets drawn into an argument with a Twitter racist*

DT! Bollocks I didn’t know we had to write about bloody DT! Who on earth has been finding time to actually teach DT?

OK don’t panic – they made those Christmas cards didn’t they? And those Eid cards. That was DT-ish. And those Easter baskets – that definitely counts as DT.

“Whilst working on her design project Amber was able to select tools that were appropriate for the task” (read: used scissors to cut out the cardboard template of the basket.)

Right a DT target for Elena: To use tools with increasing accuracy and care (only use the scissors for cutting paper – not hair.)

Who does Andy remind me of from my last class? What did I write for last year’s Andy? Must remember to keep all reports.

Wine.

Right – RE: Easter story – tick. Diwali story – tick. Christmas story – tick. The Eid cards again. Oh and the Rabbi came in and did that assembly – wonderful. RE = done.

Been working for nearly an hour now – must be time for a break soon.

*Does all essential phone checks* 

Art. Well there was the self-portraits that they did with that supply teacher that day I was on a course… They ended up in the bin…

“Eric has explored a range of mediums during our lessons this year”  although only if you consider “eating” to be the same as “exploring.”

Wine.

Oh and the Eid cards again. They were arty. Think I’m mentioning those too often now. Is that how you spell Eid? Eed. Ead…

Isn’t it funny how words stop looking like words when you really focus on them? Is this a word? I wonder what the funniest looking word is? What’s the word that looks least like a word in the world?

*Googles: What’s the word that looks least like a word in the world?*

No – mustn’t get distracted. They’ll be time for looking up words later. Back to Andy.

Andy is… a child… in my class.

What is the name for the study of words?

*Googles: What is the name for the study of words?*

Etymology. There will be time for etymology later. Now it’s time for reports.

Is “recovered from chicken pox” an acceptable comment for the achievements box? Chicken pox is horrible and it’s probably quite difficult to recover from. I’ll put it in.

Chicken pox. A pox of chickens. A pox on chickens? A chicken of poxes. Poxi?

…Who drank all the wine?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sorry, Nicky, I’m out.

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Dear Nicky Morgan,

Please accept this as written notice of my resignation from my role as Assistant Head and class teacher. It is with a heavy heart that I write you this letter. I know you’ve struggled to listen to and understand teachers in the past so I’m going to try and make this as clear as possible. In the six short years I have been teaching your party has destroyed the Education system. Obliterated it. Ruined it. It is broken.

The first thing I learnt when I started teaching in 2010 is that teaching is bloody hard work. It’s a 60 hour week only half of which is spent doing the actual teaching. It eats into the rest of your life both mentally and physically. If it’s not exercise books and resources taking over your lounge and kitchen table it’s worrying about results or about little Ahmed’s home life keeping you awake at 2am. I’ve never minded this. I’ve always been happy to give my life over to teaching as I believed it to be such a noble cause. Besides we’re not the only profession who work long hours. What I didn’t realise back in 2010 is that the job would get harder each year.

First you introduced the phonics check. I was in Year 1 that year and continued teaching phonics to the best of my ability. I didn’t spend much time teaching children to differentiate between real words and “non-words” because I was focused on, you know, teaching them to read. I sat and watched child after child fail that ridiculous “screening” because they read the word “strom” as “storm”. The following year I taught to the test. We spent weeks practising “words” and “non words” and sure enough our results soared.

My second year brought with it the changes to the Ofsted framework and the obsession with data began. Oh the sodding data game! The game that refuses to acknowledge how long a child has spoken English or whether or not they have books or even food at home. The data game changed things. Attainment in Maths and English was no longer just important, it would almost entirely decide the judgement made about your school. Oh and whilst we’re on the judgements “Satisfactory” was no longer satisfactory – it was the far more sinister sounding: “Requires Improvement.”

From then on things began to unravel at an alarming rate. The threat of forced academisation hung over each set of SATs results and the floor targets continued to rise. Gove cut the calculator paper (because calculators are cheating) and introduced SPaG. Grammar was no longer for writing – it was for grammar. Around the same time he also froze teachers’ pay and doubled the contributions we would have to make to our pensions. Teachers were suddenly worse off than they had been the previous year and under more pressure than ever before.

So teaching became harder still and life in schools started to change. There were new hoops to jump through and somehow we just about managed to get through them. It meant sacrificing everything that wasn’t SPaG, English or Maths but we did it – we learnt how to play the game. Outside of the safety of our schools though there was a bigger game being played – one that we had no chance of winning: the status of the teaching profession was being eroded away. There was the incessant name calling and smears in the media from “the blob” to “the enemies of promise” and, of course, “soft bigots” with “low expectations”. You drip fed the message: teachers were not to be trusted and it worked: the public stopped trusting us.

As bleak as it sounds, those years look like a golden age compared to what we have to deal with now.

I was delighted when Gove went. I knew there was every chance he’d be replaced by someone equally awful but I couldn’t imagine things getting worse. I figured the Tories were done playing with Education and they’d move on to something else. I was so wrong .


This year brought with it our greatest challenge to date – the new assessments. For most of the year we were completely in the dark. We had no idea what form the tests would take and how they would be scored (we’re still not entirely sure on the latter.) There was also the introduction of the SPaG test for 7-year-olds (which was sadly scrapped because of your own department’s incompetence.) The criteria for assessing writing has changed dramatically.  Gone is the best fit approach and what has replaced it is an arbitrary list of criteria of the things children should be able to do – some of which are grammatical rules that your department have made up . Year 6 were tested on their ability to read long words and remember the names of different tenses. Whatever foundation subjects were still being taught have had to be shelved in favour of lesson after lesson on the past progressive tense.

In some ways I don’t feel like a teacher at all any more. I prepare children for tests and, if I’m honest, I do it quite well. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of as it’s not as if I’ve provided my class with any transferable, real life skills during the process. They’ve not enjoyed it, I’ve not enjoyed it but we’ve done it: and one thing my children know how to do is answer test questions. They’ve written raps about how to answer test questions, they’ve practised test questions at home and test questions in school, they’ve had extra tuition to help them understand the test questions. They can do test questions – they just haven’t had time to do anything else.

At the same time you’ve cut school budgets to pieces. This one hasn’t been widely reported yet but it will be over the next 18 months. I know of 3 head teachers who are considering having their own class next year as they can’t afford to replace the teachers that are leaving. Most schools I know have already cut back on support staff (read: made valuable, hard-working teaching assistants redundant.) And this is just the start of it. I suppose the only thing schools should be grateful for is that you introduced performance related pay and, with the leap in National Expectations, there will be fewer teachers getting their pay rise this September.

In many ways I’m one of the lucky ones – I work for two smart Head Teachers in a school with an SLT who genuinely care about teacher workload. Meaningless box ticking exercises are kept to a minimum and meetings are kept brief. We only have INSET on average every other week and book scrutiny/monitoring is only carried out once a term. Demands on teachers’ time are kept to a minimum but there is very little we can do to protect teachers from the unreasonable expectations being put on them by your Government, the threat of no-notice Ofsted inspections and, of course, the ever increasing risk of academisation.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like this. A recent survey found that nearly 50% of teachers are considering leaving in the next 5 years. Just within my own family my fiance, my sister and my sister-in-law have all quit the profession in the last 12 weeks. Rather than address this issue you’ve decided to allow schools to recruit unqualified teachers to fill the gaps. The final nail in the profession’s coffin. I don’t want to stop teaching. I love teaching but I have no interest in being part of this game any more.

Worse than being a teacher in this system is being a child at the mercy of it and to them I say this: we tried our best to fight these changes: we rallied, we went on strike, we campaigned and made as much noise as we could. I’m sorry it didn’t work and I’m sorry that I’m not strong enough to keep working in this system but as I’ve told many of you many times: when someone is being mean to you – you ask them to stop. If they continue to be mean you walk away. It is now time for me to walk away. I’ll keep up the fight though.

Maybe in time things will change and, when that time comes, I can come back to the job I loved but until then sorry Nicky – I’m out.

Yours Sincerely,

Zoe

P.S: One last thing – if you do end up losing your job over your shambolic running of the Education System – make sure they don’t replace you with Boris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Persons and Fish Pets

89 children have joined my school since September – that is far more than your average Primary school. Out of those 89 new arrivals only nine arrived speaking someChildren, Kids, School, Little, Boys English. The rest had none. Nada. They’ve come from all over the world: Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Somalia, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Romania… and those are just the children that have joined my class. This is their first experience of a British school and some of them (particularly the KS1 children) didn’t go to school in their home countries.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a moan, I knew how diverse my school was before I applied – it’s one of the reasons I wanted to work there. The fact that there are so many different languages and cultures mixing every day brings out the best in the children who, it has to be said, are wonderful with the new arrivals. There’s always a fight over who will get to be the buddies and then it is with real they carry around a whiteboard with them during the first week to draw pictures to try and explain things to their new, bewildered classmate. They love teaching each other their first language and showing us on the class map the country they were born in.

There is, in Educational circles, a myth that if you throw a non-English speaking child into a class of English speaking children they will just “pick it up”. Sort of through osmosis.  The first issue of this is that in my school most of their peers don’t speak English as a first language. What is far more likely to happen is that the new arrival will find the child/children in the class that speak their first language and then spend their first few days speaking through that new friend.

Even if the rest of the class were fluent in English just “hoping” they’ll pick it up is not how you teach a language. If I wanted to learn French spending 6 hours a day in a room of people that were speaking French would not be the most effective way for me to do that. I would probably learn “hello”, “goodbye”, “lunch” and “toilet” very quickly because those can be understood from the context of conversation but if, after 8 weeks of being in France, I was asked to explain in French how I knew the character in the story was feeling unwell I probably wouldn’t know what I’d been asked/known we even reading a story let alone have enough language to form an answer.

And of course learning to speak English is only half the battle. I have plenty of children that can speak, read and write in English to the point that they can be understood but they’re still learning how to structure sentences. My favourite example of this conversation that I had in my previous school with a 7-year-old boy. He was born in Pakistan but moved to the UK when he was 5.

Me: Does anyone else have a pet?

Boy: Yes. Fish.

Me: Great so the sentence is: I have a pet fish. Can you say that sentence?

Boy: I have fish.

Me: Try again. I have a PET fish.

Boy: I have a fish pet.

Sure enough, when I marked his writing later that day there it was:

fish pet

Fish, Kids, Clip Art, Pink, Cartoon

What could I say to him? “Sorry you’ve used fish as the adjective which is why this sentence doesn’t make sense”? His sentence was incorrect however he’s 7 years-old and doesn’t yet have enough English for me to explain to him why it was incorrect. I wrote the correct sentence underneath but he still doesn’t understand why my sentence is right and his is wrong. He doesn’t have enough experience of English to be able to “hear that it is right.”(Another skill teachers often rely on children having, “Read your work back – does this sound right?” Well, yes to this little boy it did.)

None of this should matter because really I shouldn’t be trying to get children to read and write in English before they can speak it. However, I get paid by the Government to my job and they have decided that my job is make sure all children are writing at National Expectations by the time they are 7 whether or not they speak English yet. Not only that, the effectiveness of my school will be judged by the number of children that meet National Expectations. Their results will be put in a table and my school will be placed below schools where over 90% of the pupils have English as their first language.

So to ensure my school isn’t deemed as a complete failure I don’t just have to teach these children to speak English I  have to simultaneously teach them to write, read and understand grammar rules. They have to be able to use adverbs, contractions, plurals, past and present tense (that one is particularly tricky for children new to English.) They need to have enough understanding about tenses to answer questions on the KS1 Grammar test. Questions like this: SPag1

Of the 22 children in my set, nine of them wrote “go”, six wrote “gone”, three wrote “been” and one wrote “went” (hooray for the one!) The rest left it blank.

The Reading Paper doesn’t provide much relief either. It’s not just that most of the children don’t have enough English yet to actually read the paper, although that is a huge issue, it’s that even the children that CAN access the paper has such limited vocabulary they can’t draw any meaning form it. These children don’t have the points of reference that a child growing up in a more affluent, English-speaking household would have. They don’t know what or where Big Ben is, where the Queen lives or who The Beatles are. They’ve never heard of Shakespeare, Radio 4 or David Cameron… (you have to envy them that last one.) The small amount of English that they have is conversational and based entirely on their experiences; they have such a restricted vocabulary.

They don’t speak English at home so most of my class know the words they need to get through the school day as well as perhaps the names of animals, computer games and a couple of countries. Again this wouldn’t be a problem if it was just about us muddling through the day. However the Reading Test they will take in May means they will have to decode and understand words like: valley, horizon, ashore, drift, exclaim, palm because the Government thinks they should be able to. Words like these, that they do not encounter day-to-day, require explaining. Often with a picture or diagram (although that’s not always possible. I once had a very painful conversation where I tried to explain the word “inappropriate” in the context of behaviour and we had to agree on “not right for school.”)

When I am reading to my class I don’t stop to explain every word because I just want them to enjoy the story so I have to judge whether knowledge of a word is key to them understanding the story. Whilst I am getting them ready for the Reading Paper they can’t just enjoy listening to stories or reading they have to understand every word and give very specific answers to questions about what they have read.

Reading paperThis is a page from the DfE sample papers. Even if you ignore the amount of language a child new to country wouldn’t understand there are other skills at play here that they won’t have had a chance to develop. For example, question 12: “How do you know that Frog was excited?” half a dozen of my children wrote ,”Frog is smiling” which I suppose is a perfectly logical conclusion to draw when you look at the picture (which is one the strategies we teach the children to use to help them when they are learning to read.) The correct answer is actually, “Frog says, “This is definitely our lucky day/this is what I call an adventure.”” Which my class won’t recognise as an expression of excitement because no one they interact day-to-day speaks like that.

This isn’t a post arguing against testing in schools and it isn’t meant to be a list of excuses for why the children in my class won’t score highly on these tests. The argument is about testing children before they have learnt the language the test is written in. This final story sums it up quite nicely. The Man On The Piccadilly Line was teaching his Year 6 set last week and going through the tests with them. One very hard working, conscientious girl put up her hand and said, “I came to this country 3 years ago and I think I have worked hard and I have learnt a lot of English but I find these tests really hard as I don’t know enough English yet.”

There was a petition recently asking for Education ministers to sit the KS2 assessments. Perhaps we should go one step further than that and send them to India and in 12 weeks time they can take the KS2 assessments in Tamil.