Previously on Primary School Confidential!

You last read me a massive 9 months ago having been given the elbow from a school that I had been working three days a week at. This left me with a 2 day a week gig and the rest of the week doing supply leaving me loads of time and space to do other stuff while getting back to loving teaching. What happened to the blog then?

Quite simply, at Christmas, the Year 1 teacher in the school I was doing 2 days a week at jumped/was pushed. The school advertised for a replacement that was very specifically not an NQT. No-one applied which led them to asking me to take the class full-time on a 6 month contract until September. “Why not, let’s give it a go” I said. Quite rightfully, they said “No, think about. Talk to your wife. Sleep on it.” I did that and came back and said “Why not, let’s give it a go” so I only have myself to blame.

The leaving teacher tried her best to hand over all the details to me but, as this was, invariably, in breaks, it was understandably short and cursory. To be honest, during these sort of hand-over talks, I do have a tendency to just hear “blah, blah, blah”,like the noise the teacher in Peanuts makes, after the first couple of hundred of the acronyms that are so popular in education. I did pick up, however, that the teacher was absolutely ground down. By teaching, the school, the class, I didn’t know. I knew that there were a fair few personal issues but she had had enough. I later heard that she had had four years where the results had been terrible and, during the first three months of this year, just turned up often not having planned anything and getting the children to do drawing instead. The school was a much gossipier and bitchier place than I thought while doing supply and part-time so I was never quite sure how much of this was true. I do know that some of the books seemed a touch sparser than they should have been. Not quite as sparse as the last couple of weeks I have just completed but, still…

I entered the new calendar year with the zest and vigour of the zealot. I had pinpointed a couple of issues – one child whose behaviour was off the wall bad, some of the curriculum not being covered and a negative feeling around the LSAs. The first issue I sorted out straight away (or so I thought). I cracked on with relentlessly driving through the curriculum and what was, due to the school being a Catholic school with masses of RE (of more later), a pretty packed timetable. The third issue was alleviated somewhat due to me liking to bring good humour into the teaching but also in my relations with the LSAs. I had to secure the latter as one LSA in particular looked after much of the reading with children and had done so for the previous 5 years (when the deputy head had been the Y1 teacher). Her experience was vital and I couldn’t have achieved anything without her. She was a feisty character and I am sure my disorganised approach to, well, everything more than pissed her off on occasion but we got on well.

Very quickly, I realised that I had bitten off more than I could chew. The strategy I worked out for the badly behaved child – basically seating him on a table away from the carpet where the rest of the children where could still see what was being taught but couldn’t distract the class initially worked out a treat. He was still in class, still learning and wasn’t being sent to the head’s office as much. However, this child was bright enough to work out alternative ways of disrupting the class. This wasn’t just normal chatting away acting silly disruption either. This was “attract the attention of the whole class away from the teacher thus making him look like a prat” disruption that you see in secondary school and, on occasion, year 6 of primary school. Amongst 6 year old year 1s, no so much. His parents were unsupportive of the school while appearing ostensibly supportive. They were both professionals who had all the cultural capital that scares the life out of a head so their child gets a free pass out of a lot of incidents where he is impacting on other children’s education and, occasionally, safety. Having said that, I am somewhat pleased that he wasn’t excluded this year even though it was subtly threatened to the parents. There is an issue when children are excluded in Key Stage 1 that, I don’t think, lies with the children. It lies with the parents, the school or both.

In this incidence, there was blame to be laid at the feet of the school and it was some other issues that arose that led me to believe this. In Year 1, children are making the transfer from the almost nursery-like structure of Reception to the more formal structure of the rest of their school life. In Year 1, you still have children asking “When are we going to play?”, “When can we go home?” going to the toilet halfway through a lesson and not being able to change for PE on their own. You also have children who just can’t sit still on the carpet for even a couple of minutes. To be fair, I don’t blame them. I have no idea why we insist on children sitting on the carpet. It must be bloody uncomfortable. As an aside, I was at a school where all children sat on the carpet up until Year 6. The amount of ankles I almost snapped with my clumsy big clown’s feet.

Anyway, I digress, we had a fair few – mostly boys – who could sit still on the carpet, found it hard to engage with the teaching and found it hard to concentrate on small group or individual tasks. A couple of boys had terribly delayed speaking as well. This was very noticeable as we had a about a fifth of the class who were Polish-speaking and were more fluent than these two boys. One of these boys did have a French speaking mother but, teaching French later on, he was less proficient in French than others as well. I mentioned both of these to the SENco (special educational needs co-ordinator) and got an answer that alerted me that the issues with this class may lie with how the school were treating these children. She said that we would never get funding for any support for them due to their behaviour issues. I pointed out that it wasn’t just behaviour issues, these two both have special educational needs. One boy never slept and seemed to have a sensory issue that meant that he couldn’t sit still at all as it looked like his clothes, the carpet, everything was, quite literally, getting on his nerves. Also, though he could often grab a concept, he couldn’t keep hold of it in the long-term (long-term often meaning “the next day” here). The other boy had an issue with his eyes that, once he had an operation, everyone thought would sorted as far as his education was concerned. Needless to say, this didn’t happen.

The SENco’s answer was a good pointer of how she worked. She never ever observed children with SEN. She actually said when asked “Oh, I never observe children”. This wasn’t a class teacher with SEN responsibilities, this was a full-time SENco. So what did she do? Well, she certainly sorted out all the paperwork that needed to be done once a teacher finally convinced her that a child needed to be checked for any SEN – paperwork which the teachers then had to fill in. She also organised meetings with parents, education psychologists, behaviour support workers. However, she never attended them. The teachers did, the head did, sometimes the LSAs concerned did but she never did. So what did she actually do? Well, she worked with the gifted and talented kids in Maths. Oh, sorry, not the Key stage 1 ones, only the Key stage 2 ones. She saw so little of the SEN kids that I would often get paperwork confusing the names of the children on my class or, in conversation, she would often forget the names of the children I was referring to or which SEN children were actually in my class.

Why didn’t I complain about her? After all, her lack of attention to the SEN children was potentially – and, in truth, actually – letting down children and possibly – again, in truth, actually – had been since they had joined the school 18 months before. The truth is that, in discussing her with other teachers, it turned out that she was feared by everyone – senior teachers, the deputy head and the head. All who either said that they knew or couldn’t possibly not have known. In the end, a fellow teacher who helped me out in my class went to the local School Improvement Partner who was responsible for the school. She said that even she had been trying to get something down about the SENco but she couldn’t do anything about because the SENco was great friends of the head of Governors. The Head of Governors was, as is usual with Catholic schools, the local priest. So, due to the idiosyncrasies of faith schools, this woman was untouchable. There are many observations that I made about Catholic schools while I was at the school but, due to space and time, I am going to have to address this on a different post. However, it certainly meant that children were being let down at a school due to the friendship between a teacher and a priest.

Many experienced teachers told me that this class was the worst behaved that they had ever seen. Even with the three boys outlined above, it was still a difficult class. Along with the pressures of it being an NQT year, I was finding it incredibly stressful dealing with this class not least as I had taken them over halfway through the year and not had a summer to prepare and, to be blunt, felt out of my depth and didn’t know half of what I was doing. I did receive some support about behaviour management but, firstly, I think that the children had gone too far in their behaviour to be dragged back on track. Secondly, the teachers giving me the support ever sat in the class to observe for any great time. I concentrated on getting the previously well behaved children onto a more even keel as they had obviously started to think “I am behaving well and not getting the attention of the badly behaved. I may was well chat and piss around”. This worked somewhat but I did find myself raising my voice and shouting too much at them and not being able to get a positive attitude. At one point, my LSA reported me to the head as she thought I had picked up a child by the arms in order to get him away from another child that he was about to lamp. I hadn’t, I had picked him up by the armpits but the head sent me on a behaviour management course which, actually, was welcome. The LSA was mortified that she had had to shop me, as it were, but I assured her that I thought it was exactly what she should have done. Her responsibility was to the safety and welfare of the kids not to me and she did exactly the right thing reporting it even if it wasn’t quite what she saw. Having said that, she was obviously worried about how stressed and bad-tempered I was getting.

Events came to a head as I almost reached the oasis that was the Easter holdays. Just before these, I had had a lesson observation and NQT* assessment meeting. The head told me that, although there were historical and ongoing issues with the class, I should have been doing better and implied heavily that she felt that my passing off my NQT may be at risk. I went home shell-shocked and, after a day or two, wrote a lengthy email reminding her that I had been asked to do this job that wasn’t initially seen as for a NQT, there had been issues with the class while they were with their previous teachers with a great deal of experience and I hadn’t received the support that I had been promised – basically one class LSA with no 1-1 support for the three boys mentioned.

Well, that seemed to have done something. I have a feeling that I had inadvertently used the same sort of cultural capital that the aforementioned parents had scared the life out of the head with. Suddenly, I had support for the much less able children to work in smaller groups with more LSAs and a more individual curriculum. Also, at great expense, the three least able worked with a qualified teacher for Maths and Literacy.

It wasn’t a cure-all and for all the other lessons, I had the whole class to teach (aside from the last 5 weeks where the other teacher was used to support the most badly behaved boy on an almost constant 1-1 basis). However, after the time at Easter to catch up (not least with sleep) and the extra support, I started to feel that I was pro-active, not fighting fires and able to actually teach properly. It was, by no means, perfect but I felt like I was going to get them all to the end of the year. In the end, not only did I – and the team around me – do this but we gained some pretty good results and I feel confident in saying that not only did all the children attain much of their potential if not all but I think they were in a better position than they were before Christmas. Even though the head still made a couple of negative and demotivating comments (I always thought that she got nervous when having to be critical of teachers and ended up saying completely the wrong thing), the praise from other teachers and parents at the end of the year gave me a much better outlook on what I had done. Interestingly, the two boys who were initially seen as not being able to get 1-1 support for what was seen as just “behaviour issues” were in the process of having applications put through for just that at the end of the year. Much too late but still hopefully next year will be better for them. The really badly behaved child never got much better but I think the school are hoping he won’t return after summer. Interestingly, the class’s teachers for next year are two very experienced teachers (including the deputy head) doing a job share.

All this is by way of a meandering note explaining why I haven’t written for 9 months (to be fair, the 5 delay since is because I hadn’t sobered up since Friday). Although this was a particularly hard class, full-time teaching for everyone is mental. I didn’t mind the 10 hour days in school but I really resented the weeknights and weekends working at the end (especially as they were taken up with assessments and reports that were drastically rewritten in the end but, again, another post awaits for that). Noticeable, I was the only teacher who was working 5 days a week who also had kids. I think that this is the way teaching is going to go – young teachers will come out of Uni with lots of enthusiasm, idea and energy. As they get married/have long-term relationships and have kids, they will start to realise that part-time job shares or supply teaching are more not only family friendly but life-friendly. Teaching will cease to become a life long vocation or profession but something that people do for 10-15 years tops (not least because it is so physically knackering – I am using the holidays to sort out my eyes, knee and back). Teacher turnover will increase which, from the experience of this last 6 months, is detrimental to children. This isn’t something that I, an inexperienced teacher who has, diddums, had to do 6 months of hard work, am saying. At the end of this year, a teacher of 17 years experience gave up because she had just had enough. Teachers are giving up in their droves, often in the first couple of years of their career.

Personally, I am back to supply teaching after the summer. I was asked to interview for the Year 1 job next year but had already decided to go part-time next year. My son is doing his GCSEs next year and I have taken my eye off the ball with his school the last six months. Also, my mother-in-law was very ill and I wanted to support my wife who had been supporting her and, also, supporting me more than she should have been. That my mother-in-law died in the last weeks of term put all the fictional report-writing and doctored assessment results into perspective. Also, as the interviews were just before Easter, I was not only too busy to prepare for them but also was so lacking in self-confidence that I could go and ‘sell’ myself to people who knew all too well my shortcomings.

Of course, I am glad now. The teacher that got the job was, it seems, amazed at the amount of literacy we were expected to get through. I am not envious of here. The thought that, for a while, I will go home at the end of the day and, not only have to do work but I won’t have to even think of work until I get in the next day is blissful. I won’t even mind doing 10 hour days. Mind you, last time I said all this was my last blog in October, after which I ended up doing the last six months.

דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט
Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht.
Man plans and God laughs.
English equivalent; Man proposes, God disposes.
Source: Furman, Israel (1968).

*newly qualified teacher – a sort of year long parole that new teachers get where they are observed more frequently and have more planning time.


One thought on “Previously on Primary School Confidential!

  1. Jenny Book

    Well done Marc,
    I enjoy reading your take on the world and teaching in particular. Sounds like a tough year.
    I have just finished my NQT year where you did your first placement. I now have a permanent full time post there, although I am not sure how long I can work the hours I have done this year. Good luck, keep writing.


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