Artistic inspiration

13th October 2006 at 01:00
Lynn Taylor describes how she made the leap from primary teacher to published author in one eureka moment

I consider myself to be a very normal primary teacher. I know that I don't have all the answers. I haven't been teaching anywhere near long enough, nor have I the kind of self-confident personality to ever think I'll have even half the answers. Indeed, on a daily basis I usually have more questions in my head than answers. That's what made my "eureka"

moment all the more surprising.

In 2003 I was asked if I would present an in-service training session on classroom display. I've always had the upper hand here over most of my colleagues, simply due to the fact that I'm artistic. I attended art school for a couple of years before following my heart and changing my career path to primary teaching.

Being artistic has obvious advantages to a primary teacher: you can wow the children into learning with an impromptu masterpiece illustrating any subject on the board, and you can stun colleagues and parents with beautifully bright and considered learning environments. But I wanted to ensure that I had all the correct information, guidelines and fresh ideas on display before making a presentation to my colleagues.

When I embarked on some background reading on display, I was shocked at my findings. There was a plethora of books about displays, but the majority only demonstrated how to make a one-off display about a specific topic or theme. This is ideal if you want a display on "Spring" or "All About Me", but I was searching for a set of principles that would help teachers make a meaningful, purposeful, wonderful display on any topic.

I found myself looking towards the principles of exhibition design and interior design. Exhibition designers are adept at displays that help sell an idea or product. The way that they arrange images, captions and titles are pleasing to the eye. This is exactly what teachers are trying to achieve when they create displays. Displays should showcase children's efforts in the class and make explicit the learning that has taken place, or assist the child in his or her current learning.

The classroom, of course, is the workplace of the child and teacher.

Displays decorate the room and can have an impact on the work taking place within it. If bright colours are predominantly used, this may distract some children from their learning tasks and give the teacher headaches. Taking tips from interior designers can help to educate the teacher or classroom assistant as to which colours, patterns and textures can help calm a chatty class or stimulate a group with specific learning needs.

Eventually, between my own artistic background, research and examination of current good practice in Scottish primaries, I created my own set of "Rules of Display". Eureka!

A few weeks later I was leafing through The TES Scotland, when I noticed a small advertisement from the Scottish educational publisher Hodder Gibson.

I decided to send them an email, outlining my findings on display, as I was sure that they could be written up into a book for teachers. The next day I received a reply, suggesting that I put together a proposal and sample chapter. After months of coming and going, the written proposal finally went to Hodder's publishing committee in London in July 2004. To my great disappointment, it was rejected, largely on the grounds that it was for a standalone book that would simply get lost in the large ocean of competition.

But my publisher-to-be asked if I had any other thoughts for books in a similar vein that offered practical advice and tips to help normal teachers like me with their day-to-day practice.

I consulted my colleagues. One was a probationer teacher who, after completing her PGCE year, found herself trying to get to grips with the basic principles of classroom organisation.

I'm always amazed to see how other teachers organise their classroom in different ways, and thought it would be great to discuss best practice and throw in a bank of ready-made organisational resources, labels, charts and captions. I enlisted my friend Evelyn Laurie, an organisational genius, to help write a proposal for "The Complete Classroom Organiser".

Another idea was to provide a stock of resources in specific subject areas to keep children purposefully busy and continue their learning when they have finished their work. Another good friend, the multi-talented Josephine Steel, was on hand to produce this project with me. To my delight, my proposals for the "Primary Practicals for CPD" series passed both reader's reviews and the publishing committee with flying colours.

I was thrilled that I was, at last, going to be published - but the timing couldn't have been worse. I had not long given birth to my second baby, my son was still under three, I was in the grips of post-natal depression, my job involved a 50-minute commute, and my mum was seriously ill. And I didn't just have to write the three books: I had proposed that I would provide all my own illustrations and photographs too.

Over the past 18 months the books have been like a third baby, consuming the time I had left around family and work life.

Although this time has been emotionally draining, it has also been extremely rewarding, no more so than at the start of this month, when I visited the plant in Blantyre where the books were printed. Seeing the pages of my labour laid out in pallets, ready to be bound, seemed surreal, but wonderful too. Perhaps I should email my publisher - and I just love being able to say that - with this other wee idea that I have.

Lynn Taylor teaches at St Brigid's Primary in Wishaw, North Lanarkshire

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