This will be a minifesto, in which I will outline my key thoughts about primary teaching in a really condensed, misleading, facetious, probably untrue and flippant way. I won’t go into much depth, in the hope that someone will turn my phrases into those artistic images with my wisdom overlayed onto Hawaiian sunsets. Also I am really tired and everyone on Twitter is talking about Eurovision, which I can’t watch because I don’t get signal for BBC channels and my iPad has died because I played Soccer Stars’ for about three hours straight. Read my minifesto. Vote for me.
1) Kids don’t know enough stuff I would like them to know – They’re good at knowing stuff they want to know, but I want them to know the things I want them to know too. They are so focused on knowing things like ‘their interests’, ‘their experiences’ and ‘the things they have learned from their discussions’ that they have lost focus on the really important things a primary aged child should know – the population demographics of Stone Age Britain, the Singapore Bar Method and the language features of the instructions on a Pot Noodle.
2) Primary teaching is about 80% about being organised – I micro-manage the entire lives of 30 children for a whole year – children who often go out of their way to make themselves unmanageable. It sometimes feels like I am trying to teach a Mindfulness course to a pack of playful chimp-toddlers through the bars of the cage. My own mindfulness is somewhat lacking. To be anything like a good teacher, and especially one with a work-life balance, you need to be stupendously well organised. The well-organised primary teacher can survive any storm, as the less organised fall under a cloud of dust, planning, child protection anxieties and self doubts. As an innate flaneur and raconteur (flanconteur?), who allows a literacy lesson to detour into spontaneous lectures on ‘Actually this reminds me of something Foucault wrote about the spectacle of suffering’, I find it really hard to get things done. The peril of being overorganised is that you become less responsive to the children, and less flexible. The peril of being underorganised is that you need to sacrifice literally your entire free time to catch up, but it is vital you stay on top of everything.
3) Fun is not the opposite of good – If you don’t find it fun, you are doing it wrong. Learning itself is fun. Doing PE is fun because running about makes you laugh. Playing a trombone is fun because it sounds horrible. Spending time with groups of people is fun. Hearing other opinions is fun. Reading books is fun because I said so, among other more holistic reasons.. Having a range of after school clubs is fun. Children’s jokes are fun. The act of teaching is fun. Yes it is stressful, filled with meaningless drudgery, and yes it is difficult, but it is still fun. If it isn’t… you are the one who suffers most. Fun is not the opposite of good.
4) Teaching can be the most annoying thing in the world – I have a really rubbery face. I just do. As a consequence, my emotions tend to broadcast themselves through my rubbery face without much say-so on my part. My kids know that little stuff annoys me, and they also know that I get annoyed about the fact that the annoying things annoy me. At 9:15 on a Friday, I would rather be punched in the (rubbery) face than hear the sound of a HB pencil being covertly rolled over a table. Note – this does not give consent for either to happen. My face contorts, and then I can’t ignore it because the kids are commenting on it, and whispers shoot around like “Stop the pencil, look at Sir’s face.” When we realise how important the kids’ education is, any distraction from positive classroom experience is really annoying.
5) Every child has something they are great at. – The kids are not that different from us adults. If I told you you were not great at anything, but that is ok so and you mustn’t fret, because if everyone was good at something, that would make ‘being good’ meaningless, you would think I was mean and stupid. Or at least, you would think ‘You don’t even know me, how can you say that?!’ I am sure our kids think the same when we communicate to them, directly or indirectly, that the only way to be successful is to pass skillfully through our testing and assessment regimes. Being literate is more important than being a great dancer to exhume Ken Robinson’s metaphor from his freshly desecrated mausoleum of pedagogical fury, but if you can be a literate dancer, then that is just bloody great isn’t it.
6) Being a primary teacher isn’t just about teaching and learning – My children learn lots of things, they get their timely feedback and my lessons are well thought-out, but my role as a primary teacher is more than just about that. Some teachers bemoan the way we are expected to become all these other things like social workers, counselors, therapists, surrogate parents, conflict resolution negotiators and so on. I don’t. I think these are a vital part of being a primary school teacher, and it just annoys the life out of me that in order to do it, your workload becomes unsustainable by default. I want the babbies to be smart, geeky and knowledgeable, but I also want them to be happy, I want them to be able to seek help if they need it, I want them to develop confidence and humour, I want them to be able to make good life choices, be safe, know their rights and I want them to have friends. These things don’t just happen as a side-effect of good curriculum teaching, especially not for children who already have a lot of unmet needs. I prefer to bring home 60 books to mark each night if the alternative is for me to shoo out a kid at playtime who seems like they are a bit conflicted or downbeat. If I focused only on the teaching and learning, my life as a primary teacher would be easier, but I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to.
7) Cake Availability – The tone got a bit serious, so I felt I should bring it back by talking about food. Primary schools are full of cake, as we all know. This is a professional perk that we all must take advantage of. The same goes for samosas, in my place, which are like our Ambrosia (mythical sense, but tinned sense). My main lesson learned at my current place, if I was ever to become a leader, would be that the entire emotional life of the school can be controlled through the provision of Milk Trays, fried samosas and a tray of crumble left in the staffroom.
8) It’s hard – As teachers, we all get used to the comments about our undeserved long holidays. This is like criticising a diver for coming up to breathe. As primary teachers though, we often have to deal with condescension from secondary teachers, who presume we are thick (wrong), our work is easier than theirs (it’s not), the kids we teach are cute (they aren’t) and that their jobs are totally different from ours. Teaching primary is a bloody slog and not everyone realises.You find some trainees who clearly struggle, and in large part, it is because of the presumption that if you just smile like Miss Honey, your kids will be Matildas. They won’t. Sometimes you’ll smile like Miss Honey and they’ll be the girl from the Exorcist. It is unpredictable, long work, emotionally intense but because of that, very fulfilling. (PS Ks2 teachers are often guilty of looking down on EYFS teachers – for my part in this, I apologise for having ever underestimated how complex and energy-sapping it is working with the littleuns.
9) Primary teachers always have anecdotes – If the pay freeze ever gets lifted, I will love the money I am rightfully owed for the disproportionate amount of work I do. But in another way, I feel I have been paid off in the form of anecdotes. I am only 4 years into teaching, and my book of anecdotes (if it existed) would be as thick and indeed as diverse as the Yellow Pages itself. Emotional highs and lows. Dramatic events that tear the staffroom apart, traumas and tragedies that bring everybody together. Children issuing pearls of unimaginable wisdom. Children saying things so deeply funny, you wish the moment was being filmed to play it back. Gory tales of school trip viruses, and ridiculous accidents, and staff politics. I feel that among the evergrowing list of roles, one that I particularly like is Chronicler of Anecdotes.