Let's bring back the coffee break

1st February 2013 at 00:00
Evidential paperwork threatens to bury us. What we need is time to think, writes Jo Brighouse

Certain universal truths exist in primary education. Windy days make children restless, any teacher seen doing a handstand gets a round of applause and the only children under 11 who can spell John are named John (and not all of them). Another truism is that the longer a senior manager has been out of the classroom, the more unrealistic their views of what a single teacher can achieve in a day will be.

Now that your average teacher requires an identical twin and Marty McFly's DeLorean to fit in every task required of them, one of the first casualties has been thinking time. If you spend your waking hours wading through planning, marking, assessment, photocopying, endless meetings and after-school clubs - not to mention actual teaching - the time remaining when you're not talking, writing, conducting 10 recorders or just plain tearing your hair out is shrinking at an alarming pace.

But this doesn't deter those above us from adding to our already unachievable to-do lists the task of sitting back, taking stock and looking at the "bigger picture" (managers love this phrase). This reflective activity usually comes in the shape of self-evaluation forms, on which we are invited to make detailed notes about our lessons under headings such as "What did you do?", "What went well?" and "What could be improved?" Fighting the temptation to scribble "Nothing - it was a triumph of pedagogy" before handing it straight back, we dutifully devote time to writing lengthy remarks about needing more differentiation while mentally replacing EastEnders with an extra half hour of marking.

I know self-evaluation is important - all teachers need to sit back and check that what they're doing in the classroom isn't total bollocks - but I'm not convinced we have to fill in forms to achieve this. Whatever happened to just talking and thinking about it? Five minutes of "turn to the teacher next to you and tell them about your day" would beat any amount of solitary form-filling. But following the golden rule that if it's not written down and filed it doesn't exist, the old-fashioned method of sharing ideas by chatting to colleagues is fast becoming a dying art. Our secretary has had to reduce the milkman's order by half because we're all so busy writing about what we're doing that such time-wasting activities as drinking cups of coffee have simply had to go.

With such massive emphasis on creating evidence for everything we do, it's becoming increasingly rare to find anyone sporting a lean and hungry look in the classroom these days. Yes, you can do a speaking and listening lesson but only if you video it, file it and assess it. Yes, the kids can think but only if it doesn't interfere with their writing time. For Wordsworth poetry may have been "emotion recollected in tranquillity", but for many teachers it means barring the playground door to anyone who hasn't produced at least four extra verses of On the Ning Nang Nong in the allotted time.

Last week, I actually found myself urging a group of children to "don't think, just write" as the ticking clock, their blank pages and idle pens set my blood pressure rising at the impending lack of evidence. And while those who hold the reins have time to sit in their offices and think clear, logical, consequential thoughts, the thoughts of your average teacher are on a constant spin cycle, spiralling off into massive branching databases until the only coherent thoughts left are four- lettered ones.

I've thought about it and the solution is simple. Downgrade the paperwork and bring back thinking. Make unregulated discussion between staff obligatory, set thinking homework and build thinking time slots into the day. Teach thinking skills and do the odd pencil-free lesson. And while you're at it, make it mandatory for Ofsted to check on any changes to the milk order.

Jo Brighouse teaches at a primary school in the Midlands.

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