Just over a year ago I made the decision to focus my career on special needs teaching. I had been thinking about it for a long time, and when the right job came up it seemed like a divine hand was pointing me to a new decision. I went for the job and, as you can tell from my job description at the end of this column, the rest is history. It was a good decision. Actually, it was a great decision, and I've spent many smug moments congratulating myself on reading all those articles in Cosmopolitan about the power of change, and embracing the new and adventurous. Who needs PSHE when you've got Cosmo, I say?
There are lots of changes in my new job, but the most profound has been my role as a support teacher. As well as teaching my own timetable, I go into colleagues' classes to support specific groups. I was nervous about this when it was first discussed. I realised that, aside from the odd occasion, I had never been into another teacher's classroom since my teaching practice more than five years ago. And, aside from the odd observation, and my one Ofsted experience, no one had been into mine.
I was determined to appear calm and professional, but as my first in-class session approached, I realised that I was full of curiosity and questions. Would their teaching be similar to mine? How would they manage discipline? Would they have any brilliant ideas that I could nick and then pass off as my own? What if they were better than me?
Let's get to the point here. One of my friends is concerned that she won't match up to other girls in the bedroom department. Another admits to stealing the odd glance at other women's cellulite in the changing room at the gym. My brother tells me that in his office, how shall I put it, performance is a common feature of the discussion. I don't care about any of this stuff. Penis envy, cellulite envy.It's never crossed my mind. The only performance anxiety I have is in the classroom, and I'm desperate to find out: how do I match up? Am I a Cosmo girl, or an old slapper?
The first time I went in, I knew that I should have been focusing on the kids, but I wasn't. I was focusing on the teacher. I hated myself. I was straying from my duties. I watched carefully. I scrutinised the opening, the starter activity, checking it all off on my mental observation sheet, while supposedly helping with a writing frame. I assessed the worksheets, the group work, the plenary. The kids were focused and enthused, they asked loads of questions - the kind that show they're interested. It was great. As I walked out of the lesson, I felt flushed with success and relief that I'd managed to do it right. And the one thought floating through my head again and again was: "I've been doing it right all along".
This is the thing with life in a secondary school: you're so shut off from each other. In my last school, my classroom was up a twisting staircase and I never saw another adult from one end of the day to the other. However positive and constructive my observations were, I still associate them with the terror of teaching practice. However good a lesson's been, I still think it could be better. Whenever it all goes wrong, I'm convinced I'm the only teacher who's made a mistake. I was sure that somewhere out there was the Holy Grail of successful teaching that other people had discovered, but not me.
I think that every teacher should do support, for their own self-esteem. I remember those first few lessons sitting there thinking: "My worksheets are like that. My whole-class discussions always go wrong, too. I would not know what to do in that situation, but you dealt with it brilliantly."
Support in the classroom is a bit like watching your first dirty film (I imagine). You realise there are only certain ways of doing it and, for all your worrying, you were doing something similar. I have seen some amazing lessons. And I've stopped being hard on myself. I may have the odd bad day, but I have a few good ones. I hope that if I let colleagues into my classroom, I might be able to return the favour. Support is not just about the kids, it's about the teachers, too. My door is always open.
Gemma Warren is an assistant special needs co-ordinator at a London secondary schoolEmail: firstname.lastname@example.org