That first day of termwill last for ever

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
The first day of school is an event for teachers, parents and pupils alike. As school bells ring throughout the country, new parents eagerly accompany their offspring. Confident pupils with weathered faces return in their new clothes. And teachers begin counting the days until their next holiday.

The youngest pupils nervously clutch their new school bags in anticipation of a bright and exciting future. Behind the smiles is an uncertainty of what is in store. Some may cry with insecurity, but nowadays those are usually the parents. Children have little or no idea of what their teacher will be like or of what they will be asked to do. They don't know that they will, in time, come to like some teachers more than others and that they, in turn, will be liked more by some teachers than by others.

When my oldest child started school, I was more excited than he was. Once I had settled him in at his seat, and filled in the required forms, I found myself glued to the school gate, sharing my child's first school experiences with other anxious parents, and shedding utter relief that it had gone smoothly. Although we joked about the free time we now had, that morning was probably the one and only time that we were slow to leave. We were all too well aware that one stage in our lives had finished and that another had just begun.

On our prompt return to school, we were met by our offspring, proudly brandishing their paintings. They had received their teacher's written seal of approval: the happy face. They had also begun the process of forming an opinion of their school and the people in it.

When I recently asked some primary children about the qualities of their class teachers, I was surprised by their enthusiasm to engage in such conversation and by their perceptions of teacher behaviour. One teacher was considered "silly" because she continually stopped her lessons to stare at the child who was talking or not paying attention. The seven-year-old thought the teacher's silence a waste of time and that "she should at least say stop it, Mark" if Mark was the offender.

Mrs G was "horrible" because she expected her children to know things that they had never been taught. The child was emphatic that no one in her class liked this teacher. "Once me and another girl didn't understand the work so she asked us to stay back after class. She was so cross. She shouted at us as if we were stupid. I felt bare, I still couldn't do the work."

Another teacher was "the best" because he had a sense of humour and "sorted the bad lot out". "He makes lessons fun. He makes jokes with our spelling words. If someone's really bad, he tells them to go out to the corridor, and count to 200 before coming back in. The bad ones probably don't like him as much but that's OK."

Fairness was also mentioned. One senior pupil expressed the view that the youngest pupils should not be publicly shouted at, or kept in at intervals. "They're just too small and still learning about school. They'll never enjoy learning that way." One infant explained her class point system. She beamed with pride as she told of the extra 10-minute interval her teacher gives the class every Friday when everyone has achieved the desired number of points. She was totally oblivious to the fact that the whole school have an extended interval to accommodate a weekly staff meeting!

On my first day as a primary teacher, I was extremely tense, scared and over-organised. I had meticulously planned the day with a long list of activities. By the end of it I was still wading through the first half of my list. My headteacher caught me before I went home and assured me that the worst was over with that and that I would find teaching easier from then on. (She probably only said it to see whether my face would crack if I relaxed and tried to smile.) At the time her words were encouraging and reassuring but 20 years on I know she was lying. What is worse is that with her vast experience I am convinced she knew that she was lying. Though that day was an important milestone in my not so glorious, teaching career, I, along with my colleagues, have since been required to rise to far more challenging teaching situations.

Despite my enthusiasm, organisation and degree of talent, it is inevitable that not all my former pupils will regard me in high esteem. Some will remember me as their best or worst teacher. I used to think that if you taught infants you would have the best chance of not being remembered at all. I quickly changed my attitude when my uncle recalled his early days in the reception class.

He was shouted at by his teacher, for writing too lightly. Notwithstanding taking great care to lean heavier, he got the belt for his meagre attempts. His illegible writing was not his fault. His teacher had inadvertently given him an H pencil instead of the regular HB. She never bothered to find out why his writing differed from the others. To this day, he still holds her in contempt.

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