First encounters

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Ruth Ainsworth wins respect with a banana

"Phoneme? What's a phoneme?" I ask myself. "You understand what a phoneme is, don't you?" asks Mrs McCloud. "Yes, yes," I bluff.

It's my first day as an additional literacy support teacher at my son, Joe's, school. That night, I plough through the National Literacy Strategy Handbook wondering how I managed to complete an 8,000-word dissertation for my fine art degree without knowing what a phoneme is. The accompanying video portrays an earnest, though kindly, support teacher working her way through the rigidly formulated lesson plans. They are being completed by the five compliant pupils gathered around her.

It is now my second day as an ALS teacher and I am surrounded by my not-so-compliant pupils. "You're not Mrs McCloud," says Louise. "Are you Joe's mum?" asks Craig.

Knee-deep in notes, word cards and sentence sheets, I glance up at the clock. We're halfway through the 20-minute lesson. The 45 seconds allocated for explaining why "look" has an "oo" in the middle, like moon, but is ronounced "u", as in put, have slipped by and the five-minute slot in which to learn "tricky words" is almost upon us.

"When is Mrs McCloud coming back?" Louise hisses. "Very soon."

It is my third day and I have plans afoot, a secret weapon with which to wow them. "The banana game" is a spelling device I invented last night. I collect my brood from their class-room, receiving a look of disdain from Louise. This sets the mood for the others, who imitate her surliness with varying degrees of success. "OK, this is the banana game," I say, producing the fruit from my handbag. The whoops of delight I am greeted with send waves of heat through me as I recognise the beginnings of a breakthrough. I'm disarmed when Louise throws herself at me as the game closes. "Brilliant," she beams , and links her arm in mine. "Mrs McCloud never played that with us."

I allow myself a moment of triumph as we parade back to the classroom. Yessss!

Ruth Ainsworth is a classroom assistant at Farnborough Road junior school, Birkdale, Southport

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