Highs and lows of being in class

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Former secondary teacher and Jordanhill lecturer Robin Frame relives his placements for his Additional Teaching Qualification (Primary)

The time had come for those of us on the course for an additional teaching qualification in primary education to go out on our placements, all three of them: nursery, infants and the others.

Nursery has always been my favourite group. I enjoy the way the children take school so seriously. I think this is because they are allowed to retain ownership over their own learning. They choose what they will attempt to learn, how they'll go about it, how far they will go, who they'll accept as a co-learner and who they will allow to help them. Their method of choice is to pretend and they need little (and welcome less) interference from the giants who encroach on their imagined worlds.

It took me a while to understand how all this was planned for and even longer to find myself some more useful role than that of bewildered bystander. I tried lots of things, developed my theme, marvelled at the children and balanced my ignorance with enthusiasm. I was a happy student.

Too soon there came a change of gear with a move to the infants. My first visit to Primary 2 confirmed that the descriptions "challenging" and a "bit of a handful" undersold them. The class specialised in a number of unhelpful behaviours perfectly co-ordinated to confound adults. The placement became a graveyard for my educational ideas.

To begin with, I greatly overestimated the children's ability to grasp things: what they seemed to have understand one day drifted off by the next morning, leaving only the recognition, "We've done that", and nothing of the intended outcome.

I had wanted my placements to be challenging but here was a challenge too far. The children challenged my right to be there. I was failing on my first criterion: the children couldn't accept me as their teacher. The skills I brought were not up to managing more than three of them at a time.

An opportunity to try out some maths ideas on tens and units with a small group found me instead trying to control children who would not stop grabbing things, kicking each other and breaking into torrents of rage or freezing into sulks. The emotional blow made it hard for me to see through to a solution.

A full day's teaching and a wet lunch augured ill for the critique. I was upbraided for the fact that no one enjoyed themselves. It was a shambles and gave a pretty good picture of my teaching at its worst.

The kindness of my teacher saved me. In the ensuing days I almost convinced myself that I could create and run a thoroughly organised activity and have within it something of value for children.

I coped better with the despondency of the final week than with the stress of the approaching tutor visit. Some of what I tried worked but a lot didn't and I was left dejected.

With no time to draw breath, I was preparing for the upper school placement. I was going to P4P5 with a teacher I had long respected. She was, and is, an incredibly accomplished practitioner, and strict, accepting no nonsense from anyone. Here was the opportunity to find how to provide a secure environment for the troubled souls, the needy children that predominate if not in reality, certainly in one's mind.

As the pace picked up for this final placement, I exhibited another familiar student teacher behaviour. I found myself having a tantrum, essentially: "How can I be expected to teach something when I know nothing about it?"

"Lowry, who wants to look at a Lowry?

"Saint Andrew, what in heaven can I do with that?" I asked.

The professional calmness of my partner saved the day, even if it did lower my sinking self-esteem another rattle of notches.

She gently analysed a few prints showing what we could tell about Lowry from the way he painted. It sounded good: he was a lonely misfit, who erected barriers between him and his subject. Art expert Julian Spalding agreed. So I could teach the children about Lowry the man and help them mimic his painting.

The problem of Saint Andrew offered an opportunity to make a reliquary for his bones: an "ecumenical experience".

If it was a question of learning from my mistakes, I was giving myself every opportunity in the classroom. But some of it was fun: it was best when lessons became shared and we team taught.

Regarding the "crit", I have to admit that my desire to show an organised morning squeezed out much of the teaching, but that ordeal was over quickly.

It ended with me succumbing to exhaustion and illness. "Well, what do you expect at your age" was the unsympathetic response from my partner. And I still had to sum it all up in 10,000 words.

Even writing the assignment, I couldn't emulate the wonderful nursery children, I couldn't get a grip on the ownership of my own learning. How much we lose along the way as we grow older.

Robin Frame now thinks it was all wonderful and worthwhile but found it very bruising and deeply appreciates the support given by everyone.

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