Hands up for lending a hand

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Don't be afraid to let children take responsibility for classroom duties. It's good for them and helps ease your workload, says Adam Gibson

Some of the people who know most about how a school works, or how a classroom should work, are the children in that school or classroom. While student teachers are getting to grips with model lessons differentiated to 74 different levels of ability, colour coding their teaching practice files for their tutors and remembering to pay their coffee money, small, day-to-day things like the smooth running of the classroom can be overlooked.

Children's knowledge about the school and its systems, and their keenness to help teachers, are instrumental in keeping many classrooms and many schools running smoothly. However, although student teachers on teaching practice realise how useful children can be in helping to run their classroom, few are able to make the most of the reservoir of support and enthusiasm on which many established teachers rely.

Last year, as a student teacher, I had a million and one things to remember. When you take on responsibility for a class, you also take on a responsibility to do your bit to ensure the smooth running of the school and each one runs differently.

I found that every time I started a new teaching practice, my head was swimming with things I was trying to remember, some of which seemed important and some not quite so important, and inevitably I forgot things.

I became pre-occupied with my performance and concentrated on developing my teaching relationships with the children. This was important to me, and occasionally I forgot the blindingly obvious.

On my final placement, I spent two months with a lively class of 37 Year 5 children, with a huge ability range. One of my aims was to improve my differentiation and classroom management skills. One morning, after a huge amount of planning, preparation and discussion, I had prepared a science lesson which I was sure would capture the children's imaginations and cater for the mixed abilities.

The lesson started smoothly as all the children came into the classroom, collected their books and started the introductory work. I was able to take the register in some sort of silence and then I walked round the classroom, answering questions and discussing the experiment we were going to do later. For the first time on the practice, I had a rare moment of clarity and I felt a lesson was really going well and that all the planning had been worth it.

That was until a Year 3 child appeared at the entrance to the classroom, bringing the message that the rest of the school had been in the hall waiting to start assembly for the past 15 minutes and the headteacher wanted to know if my class would be joining them. As calmly as possible, I asked the children to line up for assembly. I had been so caught up in what I was doing with my class that I had forgotten that the school had an assembly that morning and my class (bless them) had gone along with me. I could have kicked myself because I had made a needless, foolish mistake that should have been avoided.

While you are a student on teaching practice, many recently qualified teachers enjoy telling you how everything is much easier when you have got your own class. As a student, I suspected this was true, but I did not realise why.

I believe the most effective time I have as a teacher is between nine o'clock and half-past three, when I am working with the children. During this time, bits of routine administration take a back seat, but as I found out with the assembly incident, these routine pieces of administration can be crucial to my success and credibility.

When I started my first job, I found I immediately forgot half the things I was told about the school and I am sure I was not told half the things I needed to know about how it worked. So, as manager of 32 keen, knowledgeable young people, I decided to delegate some bits of my workload that I was not quite getting to grips with.

This is not radical. Most teachers have lists for class jobs, but as a student I had been so used to working in isolation, I had not realised how much children can usefully do to help. For example, I can never remember to give out letters at the end of school, so now, if a pile of letters arrives at five past three, a forest of hands go up, asking to look after them and to give them out at home time. Children in my class organise and run rotas for school and class duties ranging from ringing the school bell to getting the books ready for certain lessons.

I am not the only one who benefits from these arrangements. There is a lot to be said for encouraging children to take on responsibility in the classroom, since it can help to develop a child's sense of self-esteem, as well as providing its own satisfactions. A job which is a small nuisance to me can be an important mission for some children.

However, apart from the importance of child development, I believe that sharing jobs shows I am prepared to trust my class, making me more human, and children enjoy helping to run their classroom. I ensure that my class know I am genuinely grateful for their help. There are worthwhile benefits to my relationship with my class as well as getting rid of some of the more fiddly parts of my workload.

On teaching practice I would not have dared to try this kind of delegation. I would have been scared that I would have been let down and I wanted to prove I could do it all. I tried to do everything and remember everything, and often found I was trying to do too much - I could have safely made my life easier if I had shared some of the workload.

Obviously, nobody should go into someone else's class and start to change all the established systems, but an important part of any successful teaching practice is experimenting. How you manage your children, your workload and your time are crucial to your success as a student and as a teacher. Every day brings its own demands and sharing your workload is not a sign of weakness, it is a mutually rewarding way of using your time better. Letting the children take on some of the routine class tasks helps you and helps them, and it might help to save your sanity.

Adam Gibson teaches at Gayton Junior School, Littleover, Derby

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