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P6 puts the spring back into teaching

When I was a primary 6 pupil, many years ago, the country was hit by an epidemic of Asian flu. I was one of the few who escaped and I have fond memories of untroubled days spent with a few other children in an empty classroom doing comfortingly repetitive activities like spelling, fractions and English grammar. It was a disappointment when the classroom filled up again and life returned to normal.

Recently, and decades after Asian flu, primary 6 has provided me with refuge once more as I returned to school after an eight-week illness. School life had gone on without me and I was confused and adrift among the events which had developed in my absence. Other staff members also had been affected by illness, most of it long term, and because there was no immediately suitable supply teacher it was easier for me to become class teacher to 30 pupils for an unknown duration while leaving some of my headteacher activities to others.

The first two days were easy enough. The children and I already knew each other well and I dipped into my large repertoire of one-off lessons. By the third day I realised that my normal experience of filling in or working alongside the class teacher was not going to be enough and I could not continue cutting corners by ignoring planning or arranging to do the minimum of marking.

I reminded myself that making the links from day to day and month to month - all informed by effective assessment, of course - is the central and most demanding task. The length of the school day turned out to be another restriction and I had to resist the temptation to overdose on maths and language and ensure that proper time was allocated to areas like music, religious and mral education and French as well as to the child who was having a bad day in the playground while the marking piled up.

The children were a delight to be with. There was a college text - Sandstrom, I think - that described the primary 6 pupil's development as resting on a plateau at the end of childhood before lurching into the delights of adolescence. My 10-year-olds were textbook cases in their good sense, mature humour, decent concentration span, appreciation of other points of view and clear expression of their own, in their wish to co-operate and do well and their tolerance of my mistakes. No one could have asked for more.

Beyond the classroom other demands were making their presence felt and although it is a long time since I was a teaching head, my primary 6 experience renewed my sympathy for those who continue to labour at that thankless task. You never forget the frustration of being torn in every direction by all those who want a piece of your time - parents, education office, joiners, postman, policeman, social workers, cook, cleaners, delivery men - all while you are trying to teach a class. It is a painful tension which is never happily resolved.

Eventually and reluctantly I was prised away by the depute head who had coped so brilliantly in my absence. Primary 6 had provided me with a refuge from which I could return to the real school world of meetings and monitoring; complaints, problems and dinner duty.

During my illness a changed hair style made the photograph that adorns this column out of date, and on my last day in primary 6 one girl pronounced it to be cool. It was final confirmation of the good sense shown by her and her classmates.

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