Who I Am. What I Do.

This post is part of  the Who I Am. What I Do project started by @eddiekayshun and @julesdaulby  at http://whoiamwhatido.edublogs.org/a-collaborative-blog-for-teachers/

I am not particularly prone to self-loathing, but my main thoughts on my own primary school days rest upon how much I would hate to teach myself, if I was the teacher of my former self. There is possibly some truth in saying that my ‘ideal pupil’ as a primary school teacher is the diametric opposite of what I was a child; no doubt, this would whet the psychoanalysts appetite.

Despite not ever really having a profound illness of any kind, and despite having generally good health, I embodied ‘sickliness’ almost as a character trait. I say sickliness because ‘weakness’ sounds too condemnatory. I was that kid whose face would appear all too regularly at the office window, to a chorus of “Not you again, what now?” Migraines, was the most often ailment. Illness and ailment are actually a core theme of my primary school self.

I recall being in Year 4, having a conversation with myself in my head about how much my head hurt. The thought of getting up to tell the teacher about my headache was paradoxically causing a worse headache, and the stress of my mental conversation meant that by the time I got to the front of the line to pester Mrs Earnshaw or Mr Derry, I was already in floods of breathless tears.

I was always one of the clever kids on the top table, and that conferred its special privileges in our school. Strangely, the school managed to make it very highly esteemed to be a clever kid, and the bad kids got on well with us. I didn’t get bullied or anything, which considering what I was like, is a miracle in itself.

I recently met up with some of my old primary school classmates now we are in our early 20s, and it was strange to share perceptions of each other. The way one friend described me, as being obsessed with Spike Milligan, made me out to be way cooler as a child than I had remembered myself.

Nonetheless, I think my over-riding picture of myself as a primary pupil was as somebody who was clever, funny and witty, but utterly and uncritically obedient to whatever my teacher said. Authority absolutely terrified me. I was a monumental crier, and this is the element that would make me hate myself, if I was my own teacher. I would cry at almost everything. When the teachers would shout at the whole class, they would say “You are all being an absolute DISGRACE – not you Jonathan.” I’d still be crying.

My Mum got out my old reports from primary school a while ago and my Reception one said something to the effect of “Jonathan is a very clever boy who becomes inconsolably distressed for no reason.” Christ.

The uncriticality of authority had a dark edge, and in Year 5, I experienced something I now see to be a real rite of passage in my educational journey. I was in the ICT suite doing some independent work and the Year 6 teacher was in there with a Y6 pupil.

“Oh Ryan,” she said to Ryan, “I wonder if you could ask Jonny about Onchlids. He might know.”

This was to be a mean prank on the part of this teacher/child duo.

Together, they came up and explained to me about this self-sufficient species of ape called Onchlids, which were pure vegetarians and which survived by eating the fruit which sprouted from trees which grew out of their cranium. Alarm bells did not ring, because the teacher was telling me they were true.

“I’ve not heard of them but they are amazing,” I offered.

“Why not research them at home?” the teacher suggested.

I went home, my mind filled with Onchlids. We were one of the last families to get the internet, so I was flicking through an old Encyclopaedia on my shelf that some old family friend gave to us. Nothing. I spent the evening drawing Onchlids then pestered my parents.

I was begging for my Dad to tell me about Onchlids and I can’t remember exactly what he said at first – I imagine he might have played along for a while. But it definitely ended with him saying “They’re not real.”

I was arguing with him and I NEVER ever argued with my parents, because I was so convinced that he must be wrong, because the teacher said it was true.

Then my innocence died. I went on to have a good relationship with the teacher who cruelly humiliated me for sport, and in retrospect, I do feel I needed it. Certainly, this episode plays heavily on my mind when I think of myself as a teacher, and about the force of authority as an arbiter of knowledge, that I wield.

In the Year 6 SATS, because they existed back in sunny 2001, I got straight Level 5s. In my own school, this is nothing special, but in my school, to get straight 5s got you elite membership of a group of about 4 kids in the school. That felt good.

Secondary school was really a blur. I enjoyed the school side more as I got older and my memories of Year 7 through to Year 9 are quite dystopian. I was always a good boy, and liked learning, but the stuff going around me was not always ideal. Teachers getting locked out of the classroom by the headcases in my Maths class, and that was top set. Pins in the ICT teacher’s coffee. A series of riotous corridor fights, one which memorably ended with someone getting their face smashed into a radiator. I remember a group of gypsies breaking into school to beat up a Year 8 kid. I remember the spray of hot mercury when my best mate wanted to measure the temperature of the inside of a Bunsen Burner directly. I remember a kid sanding off his fingertips in woodwork class.

These memories have little to do with learning, because I had little to do with learning. The things that hooked my interest were English, for the creative writing element, and Geography, for the environmental issues bit. My tendency to push boundaries but only in strictly conformist ways, such as provocative penmanship, started early.

One of my most distinct memories of secondary school is actually a very early one, and it was in the third week of Year 7, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th bombings, we were set the task of researching and writing a biography about an interesting person. I wrote mine on Osama Bin Laden because, clearly, he was very interesting. My English teacher appreciated me, but I remember one cover teacher got seriously pissed off with me about it.

Secondary school passed quick and I did well in my GCSEs – I had a good little core of friends who were hard workers by that point, and we all did well out of it. I had been looking forward to Sixth Form because I had started to realise that I not only am good at learning, but I quite like it, and it had started to get on my nerves that all of my lessons were being ruined by idiots.

Sixth Form had been built up so much in my head, that when it arrived, I was deeply dissatisfied. Again, I was wondering where the intellectuals were. I chose to study English Literature, Sociology, Politics and French, then would take English Language in a year during my A2 year.

I became a much more involved student during these times and a side-effect of this is one that is with me now: I am unable just to relax. During my free periods, I began volunteering at a local primary school, essentially out of a desire not to get bored at sixth form. More about that after…

My teachers during A Level were very interesting, and I think highly of all of them in different ways. I went to Danum School, now Danum Academy, in Doncaster. My sociology teacher, Mr Hurley, was incredibly inspiring and he had a galvanising effect on all of his classes; proudly Marxist, laid back and knowledgeable, he won over all of his pupils with the charm of his character and the content of his lessons. Again, my lack of criticality meant that week-by-week, I came to identify as a Functionalist, then a Marxist, then an Interactionist. I essentially hero-worshipped him, and subject-worshipped Sociology.

A strange twist of fate befell my AS level exams. I knew I was going to apply to university, and by that point I was really interested in education. Nobody in my family has been to university and so, despite their good intentions, they would be the first to acknowledge that they could not really help me out. I thought “I like education”, and saw that Roehampton University, way off in exotic London, did loads of it. I decided I would just go there.

In our school, there was an ‘Oxbridge group’ for the small number of pupils whose grades might give them a fighting chance. To be put into this little nurture group, you needed straight A grades at AS Level, then we would be taken on trips to Oxbridge during Year 13. I hadn’t thought about this at all because I was going to Roehampton.

I worked harder for my AS Levels than anything else, including university, and the only paper I found tricky was my A Level Government and Politics. I was in the test hall, the feeling of sickness rising in my throat, as I realised I was running out of time and had lost my flow. I looked up and saw on the board, to my surprise, that my name had erroneously been placed on the board for extra time – they had written the wrong Walker. I was designated to have an extra 5 minutes or so, which – with a lack of moral backbone, admitted – I gladly used.

When results came back my score was 240/300, meaning if I had one less mark, my score would have been a B rather than an A. I got straight A grades at AS, meaning if I had not accidentally been given the few minutes because of being accidentally diagnosed with dyslexia for an afternoon, I wouldn’t have got the last couple of marks that tipped me into A Grade.

And I wouldn’t get a place in the Oxbridge group.

I got into Cambridge – whoop di doo! – and took up a place to study Politics, Psychology and Sociology, a course formerly known as Social and Political Sciences. I knew that I was there because of my own intellectual merits and, despite being from a far less well of background than most, I did not for one second doubt my abilities. I loved the studies at Cambridge, and immersed myself in social theory and in the sociology of education.

My dissertation was titled Masculinities in the Primary School, and it was a huge study based on interview and observation in a Year 6 classroom, and conducting it only strengthened my growing sense that I should probably be a teacher.

Back in Sixth Form, I had volunteered in a local primary school three times a week, and I had the privilege of moving up the school with a class of kids. I started with them in Year 2, then moved up into Year 3, and when I went to uni, I would come back and visit them as they were in Year 4, Year 5 and then, les often, Year 6. I learned as much from being in that school as I did in Sixth Form.

One very decisive and, definitely, sad elements of this was the fact that I ended up working with a really deeply troubled boy aged 7 who ended up being placed into the care system, as a result of home life issues. Obviously I’ll not mention any details about him or the case, but for me, it was all too much and I was too emotionally involved at too young an age to fully comprehend the complexity of the situation. I had an undirected rage against whatever it was that was letting stuff like this happen to kids like that.

During Uni, I got really involved in local community charities such as Cambridge SCA and Campus, and I did a lot of work with kids and teenagers.

All of this put me in good stead for applying to be a teacher. Once I knew I wanted to teach after graduation, the question was how and where. I knew I wanted to get out of Cambridge, and ideally go to London for the change and the challenge. At around that time of year that I was considering my career options, Cambridge lifts its skirt to the corporate recruiters and I started to see the words TeachFirst everywhere I went. It defined itself passionately, spoke of the need to address educational disadvantage and I got on really well with the recruiter.

I applied to be a Citizenship teacher, thinking it the most well-suited direction what with me being geekily obsessed with the social sciences. I got a place and was told in a cheery phone call, “Congratulations, you have been placed in Yorkshire in a school with a Sixth Form!”

Yorkshire? That wasn’t part of the plan – I cynically made the joke that I had just spent 21 years of my life trying to escape it and now they had extradited me back there.

I told them I was not sure I could accept that and they said “Well, we are considering launching a Primary scheme in 2011, which would place you in London?”

Immediately, it became clear that I should be doing primary teaching, and that it was what I wanted to be doing in the first place. Boom. I was placed in Elmhurst Primary School, due to start in 2011.

The training at the Summer Institute was like having a professional bomb dropped on us. We were many of us just days out of our undergraduate exams, and now we were taking the tube around London, visiting schools, seeing the incredible skills of good teachers and we were wondering “Oh my god, how the hell will I be like this in 6 weeks.”

We spent three weeks being taught at the Institute of Education, and then three more at the University of Warwick. It was, to be euphemistic about the experience, a time of great socialness and merriment.

I started at Elmhurst in 2011 and was given a fantastic eccentric mentor who would be in class with me from Day One until whenever I was ready to take the stabilisers off. In my entire first year of teaching, as cringeworthy as it is to say this, not a single day went by when I did not come home happy about school. The first year of TeachFirst is ridiculous – full time teaching, plus full time student, plus Masters accreditation and TeachFirst commitments –but the teaching itself was great. I was gifted a fabulous class by management at the school, who clearly appreciated that a teacher needs to walk before they can run.

Working with my mentor Michele was brilliant – I picked up so much from her in the term we spent together, especially regarding assessment. We had many open discussions about the dire quality of my handwriting, which I was implored to improve.

In the first year, I managed to find so much time to dedicate to the kids in my Year 4 class; I would go out with them at breaktimes, and I started after school clubs. I was just loving my job so much, I had crazy amounts of energy.

On that point, on the very last day of term at the end of my first year, I participated in a Teachers vs Pupils football match in the playground, attempted a scissors kick and I smashed through my arm, breaking both radius and ulna at the forearm and wrist. The best thing about this was the legendary status it gave me for a day, when I arrived, bandaged and drugged, at the Thailander restaurant 4 hours later for end of year drinks.

My second class proved much more challenging and it was the year in which I feel I learned most about being a teacher. My class was more challenging, with a much wider spectrum of needs, and this challenged me to improve. I learned my weaknesses, specifically the management of Teaching Assistants and delegation more generally. Behavioural difficulties caused me to realise that my first year had been plain sailing because of the incredibly nice children I had been given; most classrooms would not be so idyllic.

That said, I did grow to love my second class too, and had a great year with them.

My current class are much more like my second year class than my first year class, but my current crop is populated by eccentrics. Although they are a tricky bunch to teach, en masse, they are all thoroughly interesting little people to work with.

My persona as a teacher, and my philosophy on being a teacher, are very much influenced by my experiences. More recently, through becoming much more involved in Twitter, I am thinking more analytically about what exactly it is that I want to be as a teacher, and what should I be in order to best cater to the needs of my pupils.

I do not want any of my children to be anything like as gullible and uncritical as I was in my own primary school. There can be no Onchlids in 4W; I want them to question everything, and I see it as my role to encourage them to do so. I want my children to ask questions, and I want them to develop curiosity.

When I think back to my own schooling and I reflect on what I had that others didn’t, if anything, that would have allowed me to do so well academically, I settle on ‘curiosity’. I mean that in two ways. First, I was always curious about the lives of other people, their words, their worlds and their ways of being – everything I read was grounded in human experiences as a kid, and I had an enquiring mind. Second, I was ‘curious’ in the sense of ‘a bit strange’ – I want my children to grow up feeling proud to be a bit different in the way they think. If Osama bin Laden is an interesting figure, why wouldn’t I write my biography on an interesting figure about him? The pressure on children to keep their heads down can be strong and stifling and I want kids to feel assured enough in their own convictions that they will happily and confidently deviate from the expected paths.

There are many different elements to being a primary school teacher and my view is that it is essentially impossible to embody all of them with the same passion, skill and enthusiasm. There are certain elements that must be there – the ability to instruct, to convey knowledge, to foster understanding, to explain – but outside of that, in the realms of persona, character and philosophy, there is a wide spectrum of suitable subject positions.

As a teacher, I want to occupy the position of a constant ally to the children – not a friend, but as somebody who will encourage them to pick their battles wisely, to apply themselves, and as somebody who will support them from the side. I want the children to know their rights, and to be vocal about policing them. I want them to be happy in school and in my classroom. I want them to excel in school, and I want them to have fun doing so.

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