Giving learning a jump start

25th November 2011 at 00:00
She's a whirlwind in the classroom and pounces on every opportunity to inspire and inform her pupils. Meet the Teacher of the Year.

Trying to keep up with Teacher of the Year Christine Emmett as she teaches her Primary 34 class is like trying to hang on to a small, fast- talking whirlwind that has boundless energy and no need to breathe.

Mrs Emmett's pupils at St Elizabeth's Primary, Hamilton are working this afternoon in four groups on set tasks for Remembrance Day. Inside the classroom one table is writing sentences on memories while another is making paper poppies for people's buttonholes.

Just outside the door, overseen by parent-helper Maureen Wilson, a third group is making poppy biscuits, while half a mile away along the corridor - or so it feels at the speed we're travelling - the fourth group is learning all they can about Remembrance Day from the computers.

Principal teacher Christine Emmett is moving among them all, talking, listening, encouraging, cajoling and pouncing like a pussy-cat on the little teaching moments. "Write down what you remember since you were born. Do you remember a birthday, a Christmas, a special toy? What do you remember, Nicholas?

"My hamster Faith."

"Why, doing what?"

"I like when she runs on her wheel."

"I will always remember my hamster Faith running in the wheel," prompts Mrs Emmett. "Big, long sentences because we're in Primary 4. Can I help anyone here - how's the poppy factory?"


"How many are in the class? Take one home tonight. What's 24 add on 24? Doubles are fun, doubles are cool, we know doubles in school, 24 add on 24 makes?"


"Plus one for Douglas - factory, get moving, don't forget to tidy up."

Without seeming to move, Mrs Emmett is suddenly outside talking to the biscuit-makers. "Oh my what a mess, have we got a recipe, how much butter are we using - 125 what?"


"How much caster sugar?"

"55 grams."

"And plain flour?"

"180 grams."

"What do we call these - instr .?"


"Why do we need instructions? Imagine just tossing everything in, what kind of poppies would that be? This is Maureen, we have great parent- helpers here, let's go see the children in the computer room ."

It's a teaching style that in less skilful hands could become frenetic and superficial, making pupils tense, fractious and attention-seeking. Mrs Emmett's pupils are none of these and it takes a little time to figure out why.

For a start, all the activities are planned and controlled. The teacher knows exactly what she wants and the children know what is expected of them. There's scope for spontaneity, but there is also a lot of structure. Mrs Emmett moves fast among the children, meaning that many get her attention during a lesson - and when they do, it's brief but it's not superficial. It is focused, quality, in-depth attention.

Every child is left with something to think about, or to make, write or do, to help take their learning another step forward. They are also left with something else. Mrs Emmett is a physical teacher in more ways than one and the kids often get a caring ruffle of the hair or a squeeze of the shoulder as she leaves them and moves on to the next pupil.

UK Teacher of the Year is the top honour in the annual Teaching Awards sponsored by educational publisher Pearson, which culminate in a ceremony each October and a TV programme on BBC2. Teachers are nominated online throughout the year, by the simple means of one of their pupils going to the website and leaving a short thank you to a teacher there.

The organisers follow these up with requests to headteachers to support the nomination and specify an appropriate category - science, history, special needs etc. "I've worked with Christine for 27 years," says St Elizabeth's headteacher, Liz Bradshaw. "I've been her boss for 19 of those, and in that time she's never changed.

"She has always been resourceful and inexhaustible. I remember at the start, when she taught Primary 1, one of the older teachers saying, `For God's sake, Christine, leave something for the rest of us to teach them.' She had a feel even then for getting them out, getting them finding out, making learning fun."

Having studied the nominations, judges in seven regions around the UK then visit the schools and watch the teachers in action. Regional winners are chosen and go forward to the UK national judges. One feature of Mrs Emmett's teaching that particularly impressed them was that she is "adept at involving the community", they said.

Adept doesn't begin to describe it, says Mrs Bradshaw. "If a new shop opens or someone comes into school, Christine asks what they do, what skills they have, whether they can help us. Others might hesitate. Not her. She'll do anything that's good for the kids."

A chance meeting with members of the local embroiderers' guild led Mrs Emmett to invite them to the school, Mrs Bradshaw remembers. "They came and talked to the pupils, got them thinking about all the things our school means to us. Then they made a plan and got the kids to weave it all into a wall-hanging.

"Because of the embroiderers' guild, every child in school at the time has something of theirs in that wall-hanging. But it was Christine that got them here. Everything she does is for the benefit of the school and the children."

A fair-trade and eco-friendly enthusiast, within the community and in her own life, Mrs Emmett has successfully brought both into St Elizabeth's, says Mrs Bradshaw. "She runs the school eco-club, which has won four green flags, and everything here gets used again and again. We try to buy nothing new."

But are there maybe one or two dissenting voices? The children love her and the school clearly benefits from Mrs Emmett's dynamism, but plenty of people just want a quiet life and not too much activity around them. "Christine doesn't have a bad bone in her body," replies Mrs Bradshaw. "She would hate to think she'd stood on someone's toes. But she is a whirlwind.

"That's where I come in. You have to judge when to let her go and when to pull her back a bit."

At this point the Teacher of the Year joins the discussion, and agrees that curbs on her creativity can be helpful. "Mrs Bradshaw has to ca' me back sometimes. She is good at that."

"I don't know how you still come up with fantastic ideas 27 years down the line, Christine," the headteacher says. "But they can be too fantastic and sometimes people have enough to do already. So I've written to you this morning about your bike-trail idea, saying it's too big for us. We are looking at outdoor learning, but that's one for the community, not the school."

Mrs Emmett seems unperturbed. "It was one idea," she says. "I've got more."

That is true, agrees Mrs Bradshaw. "See the big plastic bottle at the water-cooler? One day Christine asked the man replacing them what he did with the empty bottles and whether we could have 10, one for each class. Then she explained to the other teachers that they could make the plastic bottles into book characters because it was Book Week."

Soon every classroom had its own clothed and painted five-gallon version of Goldilocks, the Crocodile, the Gruffalo.

A cake shop owner, the local garage, and weights and standards experts have all been brought in to talk to pupils, and St Elizabeth's has more than 20 partnerships with local businesses, from St Andrew's Hospice to Lanarkshire TV.

"The supermarket just gave us a Hallowe'en aisle of hats, staffs, outfits and masks," says Mrs Emmett. "We'll keep some for display and sell the rest at Christmas. I don't mind asking for things. I'm comfortable in this community. I live and work here and I know the people. They can only say no."

Back at the Remembrance Day lesson, the son of someone who did not say no is getting dressed in the combat fatigues of his father, to talk to the class about the life of a soldier. Young Reece is about half the size of his dad, so the sleeves are long and the helmet wobbly. But he looks good and his talk is interesting.

"This is an Army helmet which people use in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's really heavy in case a bullet goes into their head. They also have knee- pads, elbow-pads and these big ear-muff things. Let me tell you about the badges on the sleeve ."

As the lesson draws to a close, there's just enough time to ask her pupils why they think Mrs Emmett - who slips out to let them speak freely - was named Teacher of the Year.

She is kind to people, say Peter and Thomas. She cares about the school, Mia suggests. She does Spanish in class, says Monica. "She's a really good teacher," Shana says and Reece agrees with her. "She is caring and she's fun," says the young soldier.

Parent and chief poppy biscuit-maker Maureen Wilson has known Mrs Emmett for 25 years, she says. "She hasn't changed a bit. She's down at the health club first thing every morning for a swim before coming to work, and you often see her around town on her bike. Christine is a hundred miles an hour all the time.

"She makes the lessons so interesting that she gets all the kids to work. They adore her."



Now in their twelfth year, the annual Teaching Awards accept nominations from across the UK. In Scotland the early stages are different from elsewhere. Teachers are first nominated for the Scottish Education Awards, then winners of those are judged alongside local level winners of Teaching Awards from the rest of the UK.

At these finals the national judges choose one winner in each of the categories: teacher, new teacher, headteacher, teaching assistant, science teacher, history teacher, special-needs teacher and lifetime achievement. There is also a school team of the year award and an award for special needs which goes to a whole school.

"You don't win awards like this on your own," says teacher of the year Christine Emmett. "We've a great staff at St Elizabeth's Primary and a great community. It's a team. I love it here."

Photo credit: by Chris James


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today