A coat of many colours

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
Jon Swain surveys the spectrum of skills involved in teaching pupils at key stage 2.

What makes a successful junior school teacher? Don't underestimate the job of teaching young children: although it is rewarding, it is also complex and difficult. I have been teaching for just over 17 years and have met, and worked with, many newly qualified teachers; it is usually not long before they begin to realise just how exacting and demanding the job really is. For many people outside the profession, and even for those with more inside knowledge, such as governors, what the job of a teacher actually entails remains somewhat of a mystery.

I will focus on junior school, where I have had most of my experience, to see whether I can unravel what some of the demands and expectations of the key stage 2 teacher are: my premise is that some are both unreasonable and unrealistic.

Here is a job description of a hypothetical junior school teacher, spending their career in both lower and upper junior classes.

Classroom work: * motivate and interest every child in the class, often 30 or more in number, every day, for 190 days every year * teach 11 subjects (including RE) to a class whose IQs may well range from 80 to 140-plus * teach children working in five to six different levels from level 1 to level 6 * make sure every pupil is working at their correct level, reaching their full potential at both ends of the ability range, not forgetting that pupils' abilities vary in every subject * teach children from a range of very different home backgrounds * counsel children with emotional and behavioural difficulties (in some cases these may be extreme); * keep up with current educational trends and initiatives * prepare work: plan independently and collaboratively with other colleagues * ensure that there is progression and continuity * collect and prepare resources * mark work, display work, maintain a record-keeping system, maintain your own assessments.

Also, as you gain experience, you may also be required to appraise and monitor colleagues.

Additionally there is a whole range of general duties to be undertaken, some of which may arise in your first few weeks of teaching, others as you gain experience.

General workduties: * be able to make presentations and read stories in assembly to the whole school * lead staff meetings; make presentations; run workshops etc * write policiesschemes of work * write letters to parents about trips, or concerns about pupils * have the ability to relate and sympathise with parents and be able to deal diplomatically with complaints and occasional aggressive behaviour * sort out any problems that arise during, and from, playtime * be sensitive to the needs and wishes of colleagues from a wide ranging background, both teachers and other school staff * offer advice and genuine support to other colleagues * order, maintain, audit resources * refereesupervise after school clubs and sporting activities * make instant decisions on the seriousness of pupil injuries, and act accordingly.

As well as the continuing, on-going area of personal, social, and health development that teachers are responsible for, there are effectively 11 curriculum subjects to be taught (English, maths, science, IT, design and technology, history, geography, art, music, PE, and RE). Extensive knowledge is needed of each, not only about its content area, but also about the most effective teaching methods.

Each subject is sub-divided and composed of many parts. Take English and PE, for example.

English can be subdivided into at least 12 different areas (you can probably add to the list), and you're supposed to have expertise in all of them: grammar; punctuation; spelling; handwriting; presentation of work; reading fiction (from non readers to highly experienced and capable readers); reading from informationreference books - research skills; writing for different purposes and in different styles such as personal writing, letter writing, writing plays, factual writing, persuasive writing, poetry, note taking, and story writing in a variety of genres; comprehension skills in writing and listening; drama; oracy skills; story and poetry reading to the class and to the whole school.

PE can be subdivided into: dance, gymnastics, a range of indoor games, a range of outdoor games, athletics, outdoor and adventurous activities, and swimming.

To achieve all this you'll be expected to work long hours: the vast majority of teachers I know work in excess of 50 hours a week, with virtually no non-contact time, and little chance to reflect on their own practice, or ingest new ideas, methods and initiatives.

Given the list above, many of you may be thinking: "what have I let myself in for?", but don't worry: we all find ourselves in the same situation, we do manage, and there is plenty of advice around; you'll invariably make mistakes, but unlike bringing up your own children, you do get the chance to make a fresh start with a new intake in September.

Moreover, don't underestimate your abilities, because the very fact that teachers do cope with the above expectations is a testament to their level of competence, and it shows them to be highly skilled professionals.

I have been privileged to teach alongside a number of highly talented practitioners, but few people are genuine polymaths, and I have yet to meet anyone who would profess to be an expert in every subject, and in all its constituent parts. So we do our best to acquire an in-depth knowledge of some subjects (obviously the core ones), and get by in others that we are less familiar with.

But, even then, we rarely become anything like a complete authority: for example, I have been mathematics co-ordinator for more than 10 years, as well as an LEA advisory teacher, and I certainly wouldn't class myself as any kind of maths expert; it's just that I have been fortunate enough to have attended a number of courses and have, therefore, had more of a chance to gain the knowledge and ideas it required.

Anyone going into any classroom in the country could find a weakness in something, somewhere, but this is to miss the point: of course you are always striving to improve, but the pursuit of perfection is illusory; your knowledge and skills grow organically, and are never complete. So, when the Office for Standards in Education and politicians look at the weakness in the results at key stage 2, perhaps they should pause a while to look at what the job involves, and then ask themselves: are the demands on the teacher unrealistic?

Yet I would still say this is quite a good time to enter teaching: there are signs that the curriculum may be further slimmed down, and I get the feeling that, finally, politicians from all the parties now recognise that they have to work with teachers rather than against them, for effective lasting change to take place.

And there are still many days when you will find the work highly rewarding, especially when you see the progress that your children are making which will be due, in no small part, to you. That is something to be proud of.

Jon Swain was a deputy head of a junior school in Essex until Easter this year

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