I took the first step to becoming a better teacher last September - I stopped teaching children aged eight to 11. It's quite simple, and statistically proven: key stage 2 teachers teach more "unsatisfactory" lessons than any other group. After years of teaching all the way through the juniors, as key stage 2 was called BC (before curriculum), I was invited to take my chances with the ankle-biters in Year 1.
It has not been easy. After all, there are the disadvantages of the wobbly teeth and the shoelaces; getting dressed and undressed for PE taking longer than the lesson itself; the child who says, "I'm going to be si . . .", and is, right there on the carpet; the need to keep clean pairs of pants handy at all times. However, when it comes to the curriculum, I can at last cope. Science: sort things into living and non-living. Yes! I can do that. I understand it. I can even teach it.
There may be a freak teacher somewhere who has all the skills necessary to teach the full national curriculum requirement at the upper reaches of key stage 2, but I have yet to meet this combination of mathematician, language expert, scientist, historian, musician, artist, techno-expert, Websurfer, geographer, RE buff, and professional sportsperson. Like all other key stage 2 teachers, I did my best, and was good at some things but useless at others. I am not alone.
Another advantage in key stage 1 is the spread of ability. I have some children in my class at level W (working towards level 1) and some at the top end of level 2. The range in reading ages is not precisely measurable, but is probably about four years. This is manageable. But in Year 6 you may have children working from level W to level 6 with a reading age spread of nine years. This is manageable only by Superman woman. Setting by ability can reduce this somewhat but, again, it has to be a very large primary school to make setting viable.
As regards discipline, most Year 1 children want to please the teacher and conform in school. They are still in the first flush of excitement at learning. Even in the most difficult of schools the youngest children are the most amenable. You also have a dialogue with parents, most of whom you see every day. They are generally willing to help at home with reading and other tasks the child needs to practise.
Marking work is generally quicker in key stage 1. The children do bigger projects, but there are fewer pieces of work. Much of it is practical and doesn't generate piles of books to take home. Yes, you do spend a lot of time preparing or making resources and displays, but it usually involves cutting, sticking and laminating which, though time-consuming, is easy.
It would be great to have the secondary school luxury of non-contact time, but in most primary schools non-contact time is a bit like the two-toed Tongan tree toad. It is known to exist, but few have ever seen it.
And those very Year 6 children to whom you no longer have to teach nuclear physics will fight for the privilege of helping you - giving up their playtime to find all the bits of your jigsaws, or sorting out the maths games.
The only real drawback to teaching Year 1 children is their lack of a sense of humour. Where older children will get your feeble attempt at jokes - "What letter is this?" "Y." "Because I want to know" - they fall on deaf ears with the smaller people, whereas anything to do with toilets has them falling about. You have to guard against the nit-picking (actually, that is another drawback - head lice) and pettiness which working for long periods with very young children seems to engender.
So, on the whole I feel it has been a good move for me. The job is still very stressful and I am still working incredibly long hours, but at least I feel that I can do it. Maybe I'll move to key stage 3 next and see how I get on with just one specialised subject and a spot of non-contact time. Mmmmmmmmm.
Cathy Byrne is a teacher in Hull