'It's the kids, stupid'

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Christopher Wyld, formerly a foreign editor at the BBC, is finding his first year teaching at an inner-city primary to be his biggest challenge yet. Here he describes his trials while, over the page, Kate Figes, his wife, explains why he now requires more maintenance than their two teenagers It was not until Christmas that I found out some of the Year 4 mums had been taking small bets in the playground on whether the school's new teacher would last one, two or three weeks with their little treasures. At least he's a man, they agreed, that's a good thing. That was at the start of the school year and by December 19, thank you very much, I had been there a full 14 weeks and was still standing. Just.

For me, it wasn't so much a new term as a whole new way of life that had begun in September. Insomnia, some excitement and heaps of anxiety at not having much of a clue about a lot of what I was doing: an old story I'm sure for old hands at teaching, but fresh every autumn for the latest recruits to the staffroom. Excellence and enjoyment? By Christmas it felt more like survival and endurance.

The previous summer seemed an age away, tripping the 20 minute walk down town to my lovely new school in late August, hoping (idiotically) to find relaxed and friendly teachers slowly revving up after weeks in the sun, getting things ready for their new charges.

The school wasn't just closed - this was in the week before term started - but firmly shut and locked, dark and empty. Oh well, I thought, I'll keep going down, but the school never did open until the training day on the following Monday. Even then it was still locked, with staff milling around the playground for an hour or so waiting for the head to arrive with a key, because the schoolkeeper was still on hols. If ever there was a moment I truly realised I had left the wonderful world of business - or just the wonderful world - behind, this was it.

The children, of course, were - and are - absolutely terrific. Noisy, interested, difficult, trying it on, one or two angry and unhappy, most smiling and friendly and funny.

All of them keen to be accepted, to join in and learn and succeed. Far too many for one class, of course, with such a breadth of abilities that I struggle all day every day to appease the great God of differentiation (now there's a word I had barely heard before I started teacher training; sure have now).

All of the children keen as anything to test their new teacher to the limit, and rather good at it too. Why does anyone stick it out, why does anyone choose to be a teacher in an inner city primary school, getting paid what they get paid, working most evenings and much of the weekend doing The Planning? It's the kids, stupid.

I know that it's interesting and fun lessons that engage children, I do really; I know that it's praise and support, even love that changes children and makes progress possible.

I have had just enough good days to hope I might one day get it sort of almost right, but the bad days certainly leave you reeling. As for my poor wife and teenage daughters, oppressed every evening by this 50-something new boy's angst and exhaustion, I suppose it made a change, though perhaps not one they were looking for.

Coming into teaching after years working elsewhere, a few things are clearer. First, teaching is the single most difficult and exacting job imaginable. I can faintly see that "rewarding" might join the descrip-tion at some point, but not yet.

Second, teaching is the best way to learn anything - and that's fun - and it is wonderful when a child feels and shares the pleasure of learning something.

Third, class teachers are caring and professional. It's amazing what some of them put up with. Finally, good leadership is more important in a school than in any other workplace. A school, like a fish, goes bad from the head down, an old boss of mine used to say, and she was spot on.

Christopher Wyld was a foreign editor and chief executive of Children's Express at the BBC before training to be a teacher

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