How healthy is your pulse of learning?

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
The art of good communication lies at the heart of schools which function well. Senior managers are required to be multi-skilled, class teachers demonstrate an astounding range of abilities in changing classroom scenes and pupils too are expected to succeed at listening, talking and using technology.

One of the most refreshing changes in my years in teaching has been the end of that Victorian view that children should be seen and not heard. What a huge disservice previous generations did by perpetuating that nonsense. The good sense, the humour, the insights and the joie de vivre of young people were all suffocated under the misconception that good breeding demanded silence.

I love the openness of young people and spending time with pupils, formally or informally, is the highlight of each working day. Their willingness to ask, inform and share experiences is uplifting. I hope I have that key gift of good communicators: the ability to listen well.

I recall one exchange as depute in my previous school. I was joined on my walk from the main building to the annexe by a boy who was probably in S3.

As we chatted, he asked a devastatingly penetrating question: "Sir, what do you do all day?"

It was open. It was honest. It was sensible and it was full of insight. He saw other teachers in classes; he saw them working. He didn't see me in class. I hope my answer convinced him I was working.

I think of that boy's question regularly, but amend it to what am I doing to make the school better for pupils and staff?

The key lies in good communication. It colours my thinking and actions and touches all corners of the school. In written form, in speech, in attempting to keep abreast with modern technology and in each personal interaction, it has to be the aim. Much of it can be planned, much of it demands immediacy of response and action, but often in circumstances where quality is hugely important.

If good communication includes passing on and receiving important information, then the time spent visiting classes is vital for taking the pulse of learning. My depute, Gerry Lyons, and I do it as often as possible and never cease to be comforted by our experiences.

On a recent tour of the school, I have been enthralled watching S2 pupils work on The Merchant of Venice with their English teacher, who had prepared an interactive technology package. Shylock and PowerPoint proved a fruitful mixture.

Moving on to S3, I found a drama class preparing for a public presentation, not in English but in French. Our French assistante has been co-opted into drama for the duration.

The highlight was visiting a class of S2 pupils completing a jewellery box in the technical department. I watched them engrossed in the task, listened and openly admired their work.

Chatting to the teacher made my spirits soar. The task, she explained, was possibly beyond the pupils' abilities but she was keen to see how they would cope. They were succeeding because they were being challenged. In a very clever way that teacher had communicated some huge ideas to her class and they believed they could achieve because she believed in their potential.

A teacher taking risks to engage pupils: is it surprising my spirits soared? Even more encouraging, the lesson was taken by one of our probationers.

Wasn't I lucky I had nothing better to do than move around taking the pulse of learning?

Rod O'Donnell is headteacher of St Paul's Secondary, GlasgowIf you have any comments, e-mail

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