Falling foul of fashion

15th December 2000 at 00:00
Trends in education swing from one extreme to the other. But sometimes it can get too much

The classroom door opened and the head walked in, catching me in the act of listening to a child read. And not merely reading, but reading from a reading-scheme book. Worse still, I was sitting down to do it.

There was an immediate inquest. What exactly did I think I was doing? Where had I found that book? (At the back of a cupboard.) How many times had I been told that this is not how children learn? How many times had I been told that I should never sit down? Surely I knew that all the children (all 43 of them) should be engaged in their own research on a topic that interested them? This was the only way they would improve their reading and writing skills, not to mention their knowledge of history and geography. How could I expect to succeed when I imposed texts upon them?

This took place towards the end of the 1960s when I was teaching my first class of 10-year-olds. They listened with interest to the tirade, and when the head left the room they said cheerfully, never mind, just ignore her and two of them would pop to the staffroom and make me a nice cup of tea - which they did.

More than 30 years on, the classroom door opens and a local education authority "adviser" walks in. She catches me in the act of cutting short my plenary session because the children are so absorbed in what they are doing that they don't want to stop. What exactly do I think I am doing? Don't I know that 20 minutes is quite long enough for differentiated learning tasks? How many times have I been told that children should be given strict time limits to regulate the pace of the lesson? How can I expect to succeed when I don't run a worthwhile plenary? And nobody makes me a cup of tea.

In the intervening years I have taught around 1,000 children aged four to 14. Most have learned well and gone on to lead good and successful lives. There have been some outstanding successes and a few disappointments. There has, from time to time, been both joy and sadness in my classroom. There has been the everyday routine andthere have been events both memorable and magical.

I still meet many of these children, now grown up. Some serve me at the checkout of the local supermarket. Some show off their children to me. I have watched, proudly, as some perform on stage and in concert halls. I have never been bored. I have never woken up in the morning and felt I did not want to go to work. I have always enjoyed my job.

But now I have decided to retire - although I am several years off retiring age. I made the decision quite suddenly. The school I teach in was put into special measures. Ofsted tells us that the ethos of the school is "outstanding". The children are happy, well-behaved and well-motivated. Parents like us. They bring their children to us from out of our catchment area. Our numbers have almost doubled over the past five years. But the teaching, it seems, is not up to scratch. By some people's standards it is a "failing school".

Never mind. Money is available now that we are officially failing. The well-loved head, who has struggled to juggle the demands of running a school as well as teaching a class, will be replaced by a new head who will not have to teach. Other staff will be brought in. Not to teach, but to "sit alongside and point us in the right direction".

It was at this point that I decided to retire. Am I bitter? Perhaps. With my colleagues, I have experienced the swing of the pendulum through many fashions in teaching. I have enough integrity and experience to know how children learn. I consider myself a good teacher. There is enough evidence to support this. But measured against a particular set of criteria, I am a "failed teacher".

So, if a young teacher is now going to be sent in to point me in the direction of the latest educational truisms, yes, I am bitter.

A colleague who teaches locally is considered to be one of the authority's "super teachers". She was in the first class I ever taught. So surely, along with hundreds of others, she is doomed to failure. After all, she never took part in a "plenary" in her life.

The writer wishes to remain anonymous


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