Especially for you

1st August 2014 at 01:00
A heartfelt note from a student at the end of the school year can make all the late nights, early mornings and lost weekends worthwhile. And, as Helen Ward reports, these missives teach children the power of writing

The summer holidays are finally here: time to recover from the term in which teaching turns into a death-dance of tedium. The long afternoons spent attempting to engage children while they stare out of the window at bird poo sizzling on concrete. The ennui punctuated by occasional bursts of terror from teenagers as they are prodded through revision timetables and life-changing exams, while trying desperately to ignore the neighbours' rowdy barbecues and their siblings dancing around on the Wii.

And if students think they have it bad, they should try teaching, with its 50-hour weeks, mountainous piles of marking, pressure from management and - in secondary schools at least - ongoing psychological warfare with Year 9.

As Matthew Burton, of Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury, told one member of his GCSE English group in television series Educating Yorkshire: "You're a very bright boy and you can do well. And if you don't do well this time, which you will, you'll do well next time. And if you don't do well next time, then you'll be humanely destroyed so you don't count towards our figures. OK?"

But in the summer term, when senior management are attending conferences in five-star hotels and the rain starts promptly at 4pm every Friday, there is a tacit understanding from students and teachers that they are going through this hell together. And that is what teaching is all about: relationships. Teaching matters because the students matter to you. And despite everything they say (or write on Facebook), you matter to them, too.

It starts early. When children are young, their passions can overwhelm them. Young women teaching infants receive more declarations of love each week than Scarlett Johansson.

For Anna Henderson, a Scot teaching in Argentina, the outpouring came in bright pink ink, framed by a big heart. "I love you mor dat [more than] my dog Miss Anna," said the note on her desk, from a six-year-old girl.

"I can't imagine a higher accolade," says Henderson, who blogs at Miss Anna's Classroom. "Although, in fairness, her dog had chewed up her trainers the night before."

Similarly, Kerry Hewitt, who teaches five- and six-year-olds at Days Lane Primary School in Kent, frequently finds a pile of notes on her desk at the end of the day. "There are little messages and pictures they have drawn," she says. "They know I like penguins so I get a lot of penguin pictures. Children this age are very open with how they feel about things. I have a noticeboard next to my desk and I pin up the pictures so they know they are appreciated."

On the noticeboard at the moment are two particularly special pictures of her - with a baby in her tummy. Her first child was due at the end of July. "These pictures made me smile," Hewitt says. "Especially the one where the baby has a full head of hair - it's very cute. I did get one from another child which had three babies inside. Thankfully, it wasn't an omen."

Pass it on

Sometimes children go further than notes: why write on paper when you can embroider a heart-shaped cushion? Elizabeth Woodhoo, who teaches Year 4 at St James' RC Primary School in Kent, was touched when pupil Orla Benson gave her the gift (pictured on page 19) as a wedding present. "I loved it," Woodhoo says. "It was so sweet and she made such an effort. It still sits on my bed at home."

And there could be more to note-writing than meets the eye. Debra Myhill, director of the centre for research in writing at the University of Exeter, says that young children who are writing notes are starting to separate the personal relationship with their teacher from the more formal, professional one.

"What's really interesting is that it is such a lovely example of writing for an authentic purpose," Professor Myhill says. "They are writing these notes because they genuinely want to say something to their teacher.

"It comes from the children's desire to say something, as opposed to writing that has to be done. It is important that the teacher shows they have read it and responds to it - that gives the child the message that writing matters. It has the power of making writing real."

In secondary schools, pupil notes are usually contraband. They are items to be confiscated, full of content that is not suitable to be shared with the class. They are rarely about students feeling grateful to teachers. But there are exceptions.

"I'm usually on the ball, spotting students writing notes and pulling them up on it," says Zoe Watkins, a science teacher in the West Midlands. But one day last term, she was surprised to find a series of Post-it notes at the back of her room, arranged to read: "Mrs Watkins is the best with science! I promise. I'm not lying."

"My first reaction was: how lovely!" she says. "I didn't usually teach that class, so it was great that they thought about doing this. My second reaction was: how did they manage to do this without me seeing? I am normally such a hawk-eye. But it is nice to think I have that respect from the pupils."

Rachael Harris, who teaches English to French-speaking children in Geneva, Switzerland, had a similar experience when she asked students to give feedback on the school year. A pupil wrote, in English: "There's nothing bad. Mrs Harris is the best teacher I've ever had."

And sometimes she receives more detailed notes. "I think that a foreign language is like a veil they can hide behind," she says. "They say things that they probably wouldn't say in their own language."

Of course, teenagers' scribblings are often more funny than sweet - as are their teachers' replies. When one Reddit user posted an image entitled "Wrote a note to my teacher on a test I failed. Her response", it received more than 1.2 million views. The pupil's note reads: "I hope this wasn't as depressing to grade as it was to take it." The teacher's reply, written underneath in red ink, reads: "Pretty much was."

Myhill says the ability to banter with students is a common characteristic of outstanding teachers. "Responding in kind is a good idea," she says. "Responding in this way makes children value writing and themselves as writers.

"There are so many children who hate writing in school; anything which feels authentic has to be good. In classrooms where there is a good relationship between the teacher and the class, you can see the teacher shift between authority and banter. You see that a lot in secondary schools, because that sort of humour is something adolescents like.

"It shows there is more to being a teacher and education than test results - the relationship a teacher builds with their class is something immeasurable."

But could we measure it? With the advent of performance-related pay around the world, could funny notes from your class soon earn you extra cash?

Myhill laughs. "Thank-you notes would be a great thing to bring up in a performance review," she says. "But you don't want it as a target to increase the number of children who write notes.

"I think they really do matter and I understand why teachers keep them. They are special. They remind you why you became a teacher."

A note of concern

Some notes may be alarming. A child may disclose bullying, family problems or abuse through writing, rather than risk being seen or overheard speaking about their worries.

Each school will have a safeguarding lead who must undergo refresher training every two years. Shirley Rose, who runs safeguarding training, says: "Some schools have worry boxes, where children can put a note if they can't talk about something. That is good practice.

"If a child leaves a note that includes an alarming disclosure, the teacher must pass that note on to the designated person in their school. This must happen whether the child is named or anonymous. The designated person will make the decision whether to investigate by talking to the child. But you have to be terribly careful about what you say to the child, so it is best to take advice first from the designated person."

Sometimes notes may not contain the truth, but Rose says that the teacher who receives the note should not be the one to decide. The note should always be passed on.

Find TES Connect's collection of safeguarding resources from Ofsted, NSPCC and others at bit.lySafeguardingResources

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