My year in teaching: from bitter rivals to best friends

At the start of the year, Lucy Moss thought she had the dream class – but it quickly turned into a nightmare. She explains how a Black Death-inspired role play helped to bring the warring factions together, so they ended up the greatest of friends
16th August 2019, 12:04am
How One Class Made Students Go From Rivals To Friends

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My year in teaching: from bitter rivals to best friends

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/my-year-teaching-bitter-rivals-best-friends

I stood in the middle of the crowd, surrounded on all sides by sick people, market traders and doctors holding bunches of herbs. The noises, smells and conversation were of another place and time. Was I hallucinating after yet another late night of panicked report writing?

Thankfully, no. I was actually in the middle of a (slightly overenthusiastic) whole-class role play about the plague; the jewel in the crown of our history unit during the summer term.

We were all dressed up and in character. I was a housemaid named Anna. No one had a clue what they were doing (it was all terribly improv, darling) and we were having the time of our lives. I was in charge of a large group of children who could be trusted to enjoy an unstructured session and still behave well. I felt so proud.

Later, we sat down to a simple 17th-century meal of homemade bread with cheese and apple, relieved that the plague doctors had taken off their masks and that we did not, after all, have to pack all our belongings on a cart and escape to the countryside.

I looked around, smiling at the small people who had been my companions for the academic year. They were going to leave me in just two weeks’ time, and in PSHE the day before we had discussed how upset they were that they weren’t staying as one class but instead being split up across four others.

Such is the dilemma for a school with a new 1.5-form entry system. It had been difficult telling them, because they were such a great team and worked so well together. But it hadn’t always been like that.

When our school numbers were reduced, leaving my key stage 2 department with just six classes (rather than the usual eight), there had been tough decisions to make. How should we group the children? Should we prioritise friendship groups or academic ability? How would we make sure that we catered properly for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and social, emotional and mental health needs?

It was a minefield. It took many departmental meetings, poring over potential class lists, until we had it sorted. I remember looking at my new class on the crib sheet I’d created (which looked more like the doodlings of a maniac) and thinking that it was a great combination. I thought I had the perfect class. Until the first day of term.

The combination of personalities was dynamite, and not in a good way. There was a large, core group of very high-ability children who were racing ahead at a frightening speed and telling anyone who would listen that they were better/faster/cleverer than them. They turned everything into a competition.

Then there were quite a few shy, quieter children who didn’t dare speak. Thrown into the mix was a lovely group of children with English as an additional language (EAL) who were getting their bearings and spent most of their time listening, wide-eyed, to the loud proclamations about who had scored 10 in the spelling test and who had eaten their dinner the fastest without burping.

There were also children with SEND who had individual plans to be followed for a myriad of reasons, including three autistic children who had very specific sensory needs, some relating to noise levels.

But, somehow, we had to make it work. And we did. We agreed on the rules: when it was OK to make noise and when not. We bent the timetable to give those with SEND and EAL time alone with me or the teaching assistant. We held theme days based on the countries that our class members came from, and learned a lot about each other’s cultures in the process.

We tried foods together for the first time, discovered that being the fastest runner or the quickest multiplier doesn’t help when you are baking/sewing/sculpting with papier mâché. And we learned what it is like to fail but still want to try again. We did yoga. We laughed. And they came to love each other.

In September, I’m off back to the infants - an alien land where I haven’t been for some time now. I have a new Year 1 class waiting for me in the autumn (blended from two different classes, so the teamwork model from last year might come in handy), and I’m excited.

And so I’ll pack up my files, tidy the room ready for the next occupants, and head off in the hope of getting another little team to understand what I’m trying to tell them. And I’ll smile as I remember the plague topic.

During the role play, the class were told to act the parts of people on opposing sides: the doctors would be insisting on boarding up people’s front doors; the housemaids would be doing their best to look after the family they worked for; the gentry would be packing and heading for the hills, and so on.

“There would have been lots of conflict,” I told them. “It was a tense time!”

But as we looked at each other in our silly costumes, with a London street scene on the whiteboard as a background, we couldn’t help but laugh. They had started the year as enemies and ended it as the greatest of friends.

Lucy Moss is a key stage 2 leader in an inner-city primary school

This is the second in a four-part series about the year in teaching

This article originally appeared in the 16 August 2019 issue under the headline “Disruption in the classroom? Avoid it like the plague”

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