`It's the small things that make me content'

31st July 2015 at 01:00
In the second of our four-part series, a primary teacher looks back on her personal highs, lows and lessons from this academic year

"Summer, can you tell me what a fraction is?"

I know it is a mistake the minute I say her name. There is an inordinately long pause. The class shuffles.

"Erm...a half?" she says finally, with relief.

She smiles expectantly, hoping that she is off the hook, but immediately senses this is not good enough. I can see her second-guessing herself, a recipe for disaster. I plough on regardless. "That is an example of a fraction. Can you define a fraction for me, please?"

Summer looks at me blankly, her pleading eyes telling me to move on.

On a normal day I'd get everyone to talk to their partners at this point or let her "phone a friend". I'd ensure that my class knew the correct mathematical definition quickly so that I could move on to teach them about equivalent fractions (the actual objective). But this is not a normal day nor a normal lesson. I feel the iron grip of fear and hesitate. I stay on Summer. Finally, she opens her mouth.

"Is a fraction like a pizza, Miss?"

I know what she means. I know that Summer has calculated fractions of whole numbers in mental maths all year. However, I also know that she, like me, can feel tension in the room and isn't performing at her best. We are all on edge. I glance at the Ofsted inspector in the corner of the room. He pulls a face and scribbles on his clipboard. I imagine what he is writing: Not achieving age-appropriately. Low expectations. Imprecise questioning.

It was my eighth Ofsted inspection and it is the thing that sticks most stubbornly in my memory of this year. Visits from the inspectors don't get any easier.

I am an inner-London primary school teacher with 18 years of experience. I currently hold a middle leadership role (literacy coordinator).

Although I increasingly see much younger teachers climbing the ranks to senior leadership, what I enjoy most is class teaching.

I have visions of what a perfect school would be like. Sometimes I wish I could run my own show, but even if I seriously wanted to get promoted, I know my skills do not lie in data analysis and managing adults. I guess I have reached the pinnacle of my career in schools, unless things change.

When I started teaching, I had a free-standing rolling blackboard and didn't have an email account. I planned using a pen and paper and I had a gallery of children's pictures of hearts, rainbows and flowers on one wall of my classroom.

Schools and teaching have changed a lot since then; there is a growing trend towards uniformity. Time has become a precious commodity in the continual drive to raise standards, and children are often not allowed to be, well, children any more. Much of my time these days in Year 6 is taken up with testing.

Luckily, one thing has remained the same. It is the reason that I haven't left the profession and the reason I can say that, on an average day, I come home happy. That thing is, of course, the children.

But this year has been a particularly hectic one. I started at a new school that was almost immediately thrown into rapid change by an Ofsted downgrade. It's one of the nicest schools I've ever worked in but now "requires improvement". Like so many judgements in our increasingly data-driven system, this is not the whole truth but it carries unfair weight. What it means for me is more pressure than usual to ensure that my Year 6 children make rapid progress in their test results.

Despite the downsides, my job is satisfying in many ways. Working in education means that I never stop learning. If I did, I would know it was time to leave.

So here are my 12 months in review.

What I learned this year

Each year my bag of teaching tricks grows more full. In September, I began using a method called reciprocal reading in place of my usual guided reading. I have been so impressed by the small-scale results that I gave a presentation on it with two of my colleagues and seven of my students at a primary literacy conference.


There have been obvious high points: seeing a girl's pure joy when she received a response from the author of the book we were reading in class, and one boy's delight when we visited the Science Museum. "This is the best place I have ever been!" he said.

Another was when my class was watching a black screen depicting the massive distances in the solar system. When Pluto (or, rather, a dot encased in a red circle on the rapidly moving simulation of space) finally appeared after 15 minutes, my pupils all cheered so loudly that they could apparently be heard in classrooms three floors down.

It is the small things, though, that make me the most content. Each and every day I am greeted by a series of students offering a bright and cheerful "good morning". The smiles, the laughter: these are what really make every day enjoyable.


There have, of course, been things that have made me sad. Witnessing the emotional impact of the loss of a close family member on a child is one of them. It is at times like these that teachers realise how powerless they are in the face of children's personal circumstances - there are some things we just can't change.

I have also heard of more than one close friend and brilliant teacher leaving the profession this year; I am sad that the system is pushing out experienced staff.


The most delightful thing about my job has always been the unpredictability of children's reactions, and their immense capacity to become absorbed in things that interest them. During our evolution topic in the spring term, a boy in my class was so taken by Charles Darwin's life that he memorised his entire journey on the Beagle, a feat that left all the adults who heard him do it stunned. He came on World Book Day dressed as Darwin, clutching several sketches of finches.

Funny moments

I have daily proof that children say and do the funniest things - and it is another thing I love about teaching. From surreal conversations with four-year-olds in the playground ("Miss, I'm a dog!" "What kind?" "A horse!") to finding out that a child in my class had been off sick for two days after eating cat food "because it looked tasty".

Children's misuse of words can also bring hilarity. On a trip this year, one boy, who had taken it upon himself to bring an enormous camera to wear round his neck, announced on the underground that he was a terrorist (tourist).

What I wish I had known 12 months ago

That's simple. I would have liked to know who in my class would be able to define what a fraction was at 9.47am on 5 November.

Hope for next year

My biggest hope for next year, besides a dramatic change in policy direction from government, is that when Ofsted comes back we do not need any more "rapid improvement". This will mean that I can continue doing the job I love with a little less pressure, and hopefully have a bit more fun with the curriculum.

Jane Manzone, pictured above, teaches at a primary school in North London and can be found on Twitter at @HeyMissSmith

Coming soon.

The next instalments in our My Year in Teaching series:

7 August Christian Pountain, a director of spirituality and head of RE in Lancashire

14 August Rebecca Self, a special school teacher in Surrey

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