Beware the ides of September

THOSE who inhabit the normal world - the world outside schools - expect the first six weeks of the school year to be marked by energy and enthusiasm after a long, restorative holiday. The reality is that early autumn is characterised by more uncertainty and misunderstandings than we care to admit.

The first morning starts with a false sense of security. By 8.30am, primary sevens have pulled rank as new senior pupils and booked the best part of the playground. Physical force is not required. Younger pupils play the game and look forward to their turn as boss.

The racks of BHS and George at ASDA have been emptied to provide the hundreds of crisp, white shirts which gleam in the morning sun. Local hairdressers have worked overtime on smart haircuts, their work enhanced by discreet scrunchies and baubles from the girls and with liberal doses of gel from the boys. Some children are so delighted at renewing old friendships that they rush around conducting 10 conversations at once. The bell changes the chatter to a stunned silence. Do the children realise they could still be in bed or does the silence signal concern at the unknown which lies immediately ahead: a new teacher and a new classroom?

One of the strengths of primary schools is the class teacher system. Since she spends most of each day with the same 30 children, the teacher knows her pupils intimately. This allows her to adjust her teaching in small and subtle ways to accommodate children's different learning styles, to spot when a child is upset and to provide each child with 10 months of confidence-developing opportunities.

But none of this comes ready-made. In August, when a teacher and new class meet, they are beginning a period of tension. The teacher has no experience of these pupils. She may have read notes, reports and assessment documents from the previous year but her knowledge does not become real until she knows each child as a person. Attitude to work, sense of humour, ability to concentrate and listen, friendship group, introvert or extrovert - all are on a long list of attributes which the teacher assimilates for each pupil during the early weeks.

The children engage in the same process as they meet new boundaries and expectations. But this continuing adjustment means that the teachers and the children's readings of situations are less than perfect.

Misunderstandings abound. Being seated next to a child with an unpredictable temper is seen as a punishment "for no reason"; there is confusion about the number of lines to be left blank after writing the title; re-organising the reading groups causes distress and tears; the teacher over-reacts to some misbehaviour which would have better been ignored, or vice-versa.

The children's parents are invisible in class but the upsets are carried home to them and, since they don't know the teacher, they are not sure how to reassure the child and also become unsettled.

I find that the peak time for complaints, usually of a minor sort, is in September when relationships are still forming. The teacher's homework request which is seen as unreasonable then, presents no problem in November. The subject matter did not change, the security of relationships did.

By the end of October, uncertainty is history. Everyone has moved on. The teacher experiences new depth in her class relationships, children are secure, working well and happy - of course, this means that their parents are too - and the headteacher smells the difference as he walks through the classroom door.

The tensions of August and September set the stage for the period of best learning and teaching from October to May.

Brian Toner is head of St John's primary, Perth.

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