I'd forgotten how teaching makes the head hurt

2nd October 2009 at 01:00

You do, indeed, forget. My wife says that it is only because she forgot the pain of giving birth to our first child that we had a second. Such is the cleverness of human conditioning.

I remembered this as I left the classroom after teaching my first proper lesson for some time. I have supplied cover and filled in when needed, but this year I have a whole Year 7 history class to myself. I have never taught history, but I have seen every episode of Blackadder and the timetabler was desperate.

I know I am going to get about as much sympathy as a banker whose bonus has been cut, but I had forgotten that the whole teaching business is really very hard. Even the simple stuff starts to feel like a Round Britain Quiz question.

As head, I feel an obligation to carry out the policies that I devised. It's why I'd be a lousy MP. So I sat down to make my seating plan for the class, with mixed boys and girls to improve oracy and stop the boys from picking their noses all lesson. First problem: Taz? Mgu? Jordie? What gender are they? The last time I taught, the girls were called Cynthia and the boys Charles.

Planning the first lesson took hours. Until the new Dan Brown novel was published I had been stuck for something to send me to sleep at night, so used the new Ofsted grade descriptors as my bedtime reading. They ended up giving me nightmares.

Of course, the head must be an outstanding teacher - so it was no use trying to make sure "that pupils are generally engaged by their work and little time is wasted". That's only "satisfactory". I needed to be "acutely aware of my pupils' capabilities and of their prior learning and understanding, and plan very effectively to build on these".

Now Ofsted can visit any time after the first week of term. So I needed to get my head around 30 different pupils from a range of primary schools whose previous study of history encompassed everything from dinosaurs to Nelson Mandela and whose skills ranged from "p" levels to Gifted and Talented.

Yikes. Running a school is dangerously easy by comparison. I also knew it was no use relying on whole-class, hands-up question and answer. I needed to check each individual in order to "systematically and effectively check pupils' understanding thoughout the lesson, anticipating where I may need to intervene and doing so with striking impact on the quality of learning".

As it turned out, I would have judged my lesson "just about OK". Halfway through my single-handed re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings, I suddenly felt guilty that I might be slipping into my old teacher-as-performer routine. I climbed down from the teacher's desk and we co-constructed some differentiated cooperative learning in groups. I ran out of time. A young buck bounced into the room after me, flashing his animated PowerPoints on the screen; he made me feel rather old as I limped exhausted back to my office for a strong coffee.

That evening I met Dave, the geographer and regional teacher of the year award winner. He was asleep on the photocopier. The glass just felt so lovely and warm, he told me after I had woken him up.

It was the first week of term. He had arrived at seven that morning, taken assembly, taught a full day, seen kids at lunchtime, had a meeting after school, and was now preparing tomorrow's lessons. Before going home to do his marking. I thought I'd cheer him up by reminding him that at least there were no reports to write at this time of year. It's the first time I've ever been assaulted with a photocopying card.

You do, indeed, forget. Vernon Coaker, our latest schools minister, will make much of his teaching background and his empathy with the profession. But he will have forgotten what it is like, just like the erstwhile teachers who wrote the Ofsted criteria.

Modern teachers are extraordinarily skilled in leading fast-paced sequences of learning, using the slickness of IT to manage seamless transitions from one activity to another, while ensuring that no one, whatever their learning or behaviour difficulty, is left behind. The Government is encouraging sacked bankers to come and teach maths. Such is the scale of new skills they require, they might as well retrain as astronauts.

It is right that we demand outstanding teaching for all our children. It is also right that we remember that a modern lesson takes as long to prepare as it does to teach, and as long again to mark. Those who manage their own diaries need to remember the unique stresses of having to live every minute by the bell. Those who work in the calm of an office need to experience the daily abrasion of a roomful of challenging youngsters wanting the attention they deserve.

I still cannot think of a more rewarding and morally fulfilling job than teaching, and few that are more demanding. Never forget it.

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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