Community Counts

Bear with me as I wobble, like a Scooby Doo dream sequence, into an imaginary world. It is a world where our schools genuinely become the heart of a community; where NO parent is resentful of their own school experiences and sees a visit to school as a normal part of their week; where the local press regularly mention schools for positive reasons and advertise and support activities occurring every week. A world where a school building being ignored as a community hub is unheard of. However, in reality, while there are some great examples of this around the country, it is a dream which seems far, far away.

Some of us work in huge buildings which, to all intents and purposes, close to the public at four o’clock every day. These buildings have corridors filled with computer classrooms, twenty PCs in each. They have classrooms designed for cookery, with equipment in spades. They have music rooms with pianos, guitars, you name it. You’ll find Science Labs, a library, gymnasium – often with up-to-date exercise gear, Drama studios, Art Studios. Not to mention classrooms aplenty. And all of these, while being utilised all day are, in effect, closed to the public at about four o’clock. There is something wrong about that.

So, in this imaginary world school buildings are in use until ten every night. Adult learners are becoming proficient in cooking and baking after developing interest through a current TV contest. They go home and cook healthy meals for their families.The Technical department is in full flow as parents are being taught how to create wonderful things with wood, which they give as Christmas gifts to relatives. We can hear a Gareth Malone-style choir full of parents rehearsing for the end-of-year concert. A computer suite has a CV writing class; a creative writing class; a  basic computing skills class. The community is alive in a community building.

Of course, many changes had to be made to come to this place. More teachers were trained and paid for. Some teachers work from two until ten for a couple of weeks every month. Kids still leave at four but, after an hour of cleaning and tidying, people start arriving for the evenings work. Parents can see their child’s classroom, perhaps chat to teachers, look at the work being done. Parents Evenings, occurring once a year, are a thing of the past. It took a huge culture shift and commitment from everyone but we all got there in the end…

scoobyHowever, like all episodes of Scooby Doo, the dream sequence ends and we unmask the real culprit. The biggest block to progressing to the sort of scenario I’ve outlined here is cost. It certainly would cost money. It certainly would involve a lot of commitment and dedication from a lot of people. But think of the investment in community. Think of the rise in literacy and numeracy levels, the health and fitness of the community, the parental involvement. Think of the fabulous community use of a building which had been under-utilised. It’s not a case of asking how could we afford it. How can we afford not to?

The Dance of School

‘Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music.’ (attributed to Nietzsche which makes me sound intelligent but it probably wasn’t him. Sorry)


You become so accustomed to the dance of school, the sways and sashays of the day, that you can feel the change coming. A faint buzzing from somewhere else and the shifting and scratching of chairs suggests that things are about to happen. Your first, perhaps second, coffee of the day has kicked in;  you’ve even had a second, final email click just to ensure you miss nothing;  a whiteboard check, even though it seems perfect; visit to the loo, straighten the tie. The music of school is about to kick off.

You are ready. The desks have class jotters, ready to go. Each book has a pencil on top. You can do that with this class because, as luck would have it, you are never teaching just before you see them. It avoids the serial sharpeners; those whose pencil is never sharp enough or too sharp to avoid breaking. You head them off at the pass. You also have a rubber and a small ruler for each. Oh, the time this saves. You take the time to sit in a chair at the back. You want to see the board from there. ‘Is my writing too small, too untidy, too difficult?’ You sit and take in the view from the chair of one who has difficulty in your class. All looks good.

The bell rings and things begin to happen. Like one of those horror ‘B’ movies, things begin to spill out into the corridor. One boy, then two. A girl, her friends. The chaos. Before too long there is an ocean of heads, all coming towards you, it seems, only you. But they start to fall off, into other classrooms. You take a breath, prepare for the onslaught. The school comes alive in those few moments.

Slowly, like the young ‘uns from ‘Lord of the Flies’ appearing from the forest, you start to make out small faces. Yep. Your lot. They smile, which is a good sign, and make their way towards you. As they enter you make sure you speak to every single one, every day. Even the resisters. A ‘good morning’ or a ‘Hi’ to everyone. You even stand in their way until they reply. It is important to you: and to them although they won’t admit it. You are talking to them. It is what good people do. They all know the drill, the routine.

As the last one enters, you share appreciative nods with your colleagues. Yes, we are all in this together. It is where we all want to be. Here and now. The corridor is now empty again and you turn inwards. ‘By the time I reach my computer, pick up my book and start the stopwatch we will all be reading.’ Most of them already are, knowing that their time is limited. Some need silent reminders, a mime of opening a book. Walking towards your desk you have a look around to see thirty eleven year olds all engrossed in their books, to varying degrees. It is not a bad job, is it? You sit down, open up your book and start the clock.

And so the dance begins.

Losing it. Year by Year.

There was definitely a moment when I knew I was losing them but perhaps not the moment I first thought. Not when I felt my heart racing or my face flushing; not when my voice seemed to go up a notch more than usual: not when I started to overreact to little things I usually ignored. No. If I’m honest with myself I’d started losing them weeks ago. And the hardest thing to grasp is that I knew it and did nothing about it; couldn’t do anything about it. I’d had ages to nail the problem and, for reasons totally alien to me, I was paralysed.

Imadn the past I may have reacted differently and earlier. I may have stopped the lesson in mid-disaster, insisting on total silence for the rest of the period, quietly harumphing at my desk. I may have lost it and screamed at the nearest victim, the next kid who asked me a daft question, one I’d already answered. When we are new to these experiences it is very easy to react in ways which not only enflame the situation but are completely avoidable. Like the experienced driver when we have been through a variety of situations, including the odd bump or two, we recognise our own behaviours more clearly than others.

This situation was strange though. Although I could feel myself losing it on the inside I quickly became aware of it and took a deep breath. That calm reaction soon began to travel round the room as the more ‘onside’ pupils began to quieten down and pass it on. The class did calm very quickly and all eyes turned to me. At this point I had choices: thank them for their attention and get back to the lesson; express my displeasure at their lack of co-operation and ask them to get on with the lesson; or ignore their behaviour, return to the lesson outcomes and ensure they had enough information to continue quietly. I chose the last one.

Before you castigate me for ignoring bad behaviour please hear me out. I took that decision because in the long run I expect them to realise how their behaviour affects the class dynamic by being less ‘matey’ with them. I will be more aware of the ‘abilities’ of this class for the next few weeks and able to plan for them accordingly. The long term learning of the class is far more important than whether they like me or not. We have all heard the ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ advice and of course it is nonsense. But, do you know, sometimes a class might need that. Sorry. I know that’s not a very popular opinion but it’s not about us. It’s about the learning of the class.

Being a teacher is difficult because sometimes you need to be the bad guy. When I entered teaching I wanted them to like me. I still do but I’ve learned along the way that that is impossible in real life, never mind in class. When I am more honest with myself about the mistakes I make then perhaps that helps me to deal better with the mistakes of others. And kids make mistakes all the time. An awareness of my own behaviour helps me to deal with them.


My Space

This is my classroom. This is the place where I work. This is how I choose to lay it out: the desks in threes, all facing me, all facing the front of the class, all facing the white board. It hasn’t always been like this. But I like it now. I have a poster of Yoda on the wall to the right. To the left there is a wall display explaining how to critique. Above me, pupils will read the words. ‘Stuck? Then it was worth coming in today.’ This is my classroom. This is the place where I work.

Image 1It was years before I had any control over how my room was set up. As a new teacher you can consider yourself very lucky to have your own classroom. Usually you have to cart a box about between rooms before you finally arrive home. So I started with pairs of desks in three rows, all facing the teacher. This worked well but made transitions into group tasks very complicated and potentially disastrous. I moved from having groups of six, to groups of four when that proved difficult to handle, than back to six when I was more experienced, before settling on the plan you see above.

 I’ve made many mistakes on my way to this point. Deluded into thinking that pupils work best in groups – sorry but it ain’t always true- I stuck to a pattern, hoping that I would be right in the end. Why group work fails for me is because it is very difficult to assess how every member of the group is working effectively and, more importantly, learning from the experience. But, sorry, this is not meant to be a rant against group work. Just the way I’ve done it. I’ve yet to come across a situation where three wasn’t enough for some proper peer collaboration.

This might not be the most popular thing I’ve ever said in my blog but there are times when, as an English teacher, I need to lecture. I need to have students listening to me, looking at me, writing down what I want them to write down. This is not a strategy for control, a strategy to avoid distractions and misbehaviour; it is a conscious choice to ensure that they listen to what I am teaching them. They spend a lot of time working in threes on peer critique and peer assessment and there is the odd occasion when they turn backwards into a group of six. But, at times, I need them to listen and learn.Image

Of course I want my pupils to be part of this space; I want them, perhaps, to take ownership of wall space at times, displaying their work for all to see. But it is my space. They turn up for fifty minutes a day and I have to make that work with five different classes. I need to be master of my domain and in order to do that my class is set up the way I work best. And the way I work best is the best way for my pupils to work best. If you are a new teacher keep that in mind. This is my classroom. This is the place where I work. And where pupils learn.