Celebrating triumphs - the big and the small

14th August 2015 at 01:00
In the final part of our series, a teacher from a special school looks back on the highs, lows and lessons from the last academic year

Returning to school after the Easter holidays, I found myself in a debate with Jake about why stealing cars is not, under any circumstances, OK. Not even when you are doing your mate a good turn because he has missed the last train home.

This kind of conversation is pretty common between Jake and me. We have discussed the police, cigarettes, drugs, girls, stop-and-search rights and the benefits of returning home after a night out rather than sleeping on friends of friends' floors. I often find the conversations surreal, and then secretly hope that when my children hit teenage years I don't have to repeat these exchanges with them.

I am in my 11th year of teaching, six of which have been at Carwarden House School. I started my career as a primary teacher, predominantly in key stage 1, and I now teach in a secondary school for children with moderate learning difficulties.

I have spent these years teaching a variety of subjects, from music and history to RE and careers. This year, I have taught literacy and have loved the new challenge.

I needed it. I have three small children of my own and I teach part-time. Sometimes I feel as though I've been treading water for six years while I balance family life and the needs of my children with the financial contribution I have to make to the family and my own needs as an ambitious professional.

Although I have found teaching slightly easier as the years go by, it is always challenging. This year in particular has brought interesting conversations with colleagues, particularly about life without levels.

In our special school, progress is measured in much smaller terms than in a mainstream school. For some of our children, being able to enter the classroom on their own or hold their head up when walking around the school is an amazing feat. It deserves to be celebrated just as much as being able to write from left to right or use adjectives and connectives.

The challenge we now have as a school is to develop our own system of assessment that measures these small steps, as well as the academic ones. We have some interesting debates ahead of us and I relish the endeavour.

I love the freedom that working in a special school allows me. Teaching literacy this year has enabled me to be really creative in order to meet the diverse needs of my students.

But it is getting harder to find the joy in the job. Somewhere along the line, the paperwork and accountability has got out of hand and I often wonder if teachers' professional opinions, judgements and creativity mean nothing. I spend hours of my life filling out forms - uploading pictures from student books and transferring notes from guided reading sessions to online assessment pages. I feel like screaming: "Just look in their books!"

I completely understand the need to measure progress and compare statistics. However, it is no consolation when I am knee-deep in paper, trying to put together three pieces of evidence for each of the 10 criteria in every sub-level, for 13 children, across three subject areas. Even writing it down makes my head hurt.

I feel desperately sorry for young teachers entering the profession now: without my many years' experience, I think I'd feel overwhelmed, overworked and seriously underpaid.

But although teaching is a tough profession - made harder by the government's constant demands and changes of policy - I do love my job. The joy of watching children learn and become confident, independent young adults never diminishes.

What I learned about teaching this year

Never be afraid to change your lesson halfway through, or even at the beginning. I will often observe the class on a Monday morning and do a quick mental juggle of lessons according to my students' moods. That way, I get the best out of them.

Things that made me happy this year

Parents' evening in February: it was fantastic to hear from so many of the Year 7 parents about how happy they were with their children's progress. We teachers criticise ourselves constantly and never feel as though we're doing enough to meet the needs of our pupils, so this was great reinforcement that I was doing a good job.

Getting my lovely Year 11 tutor group through the year without any exclusions was also good. It's all about relationships. I have some really tricky boys in my form. Most children find Year 11 a challenge; for our students, the thought of transitioning to college can be especially daunting. This then affects their behaviour and attitude to learning. I believe the reason we have managed to get them through Year 11 successfully is because of the great relationships we've fostered.

Things that made me sad this year

I have found it incredibly difficult this year to accept that I cannot change children's home lives. Also, a teacher with whom I'd worked closely passed away. Teachers are unique creatures and we form bonds with others like us.

It is so hard to understand the life of a teacher and what it means to influence, listen to, steer and guide children - Linda was a great listener, yet she always managed to keep two feet firmly on the ground and not get carried away with the melodramas that can exist within schools. I miss her grounded approach and cheerful outlook.

Things that surprised me this year

I know it shouldn't come as a shock after years of teaching but I was really surprised by the massive disparity of need in my Year 7 class. I work with amazing teaching assistants but I often wonder how much I can stretch something in order to meet the requirements of every child. My pupils range from mark-makers to simile-writers.

I was also shocked to find that I was still questioning my teaching and the students' progress. Eventually it eats away at you, so what's really important is to be surrounded by a supportive team and management who remind you often that you are doing a great job.

What I'll do differently next year

I will definitely be more organised in September. But I say that every year.

What made me laugh this year

Megan is the most timid child I have met in a very long time. She keeps her head hanging down, doesn't like to respond in class and finds interacting with teachers and pupils incredibly difficult.

If you were ever to walk into my classroom, you'd probably find me singing a song about whatever it is we are learning. It's a habit that's hard to break. Megan has obviously spent most of the year being irritated by this and finally yelled at the top of her voice: "Stop singing, Mrs Self!"

I hadn't laughed so much in ages - and I obviously stopped singing quickly and now make a mental note to try and hold the tunes in.

What I wish I'd known in September

Protect your stationery! This year I have shared a classroom with various other teachers and children and have had to learn the hard way that if I want to know where something is or to be able to put my hands on it when I need it, then it has to be under lock and key.

Rebecca Self, pictured opposite, teaches at Carwarden House Community School in Surrey

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