Many and varied ways of seeing

5th October 2012 at 01:00
When handling pupils - and partners - perspective is everything, says Jo Brighouse

My husband and I have just wasted an hour arguing over a magic eye picture. He can see a stag; I'm positive it's a snake. He's pleading colour blindness; I'm strengthening my case by reminding him of all the other times he's been wrong and I've been right. "We just see things in a different way," he finally tells me, in a desperate bid to end the discussion and get back to the cricket.

Viewpoint is everything. You love Marmite; I think it's tar in a jar. One country's GCSE pass grade is another's fail. Apparently there are still people who can look at Michael Gove and see someone who should be allowed near a school.

When you get a new class, it's important to get a handle on how your children view things. This is especially true for children with special educational needs (SEN). I'm not a natural SEN teacher: it requires a level of patience that I frankly don't possess. Over the years I've done a few courses on dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, but the main thing I've discovered is that the only way to learn how to teach a child with SEN is to just get on and teach them.

I taught Jack when he was in Year 4. He was very bright, very likeable and very hard work. Teaching him on a one-to-one or small-group basis was fine; trying to get some work out of him in a whole-class situation without him shouting out, tilting on his chair or pinching the child next to him was less so.

Within the first term we had him assessed. He has Asperger's syndrome. A harassed-looking woman with a briefcase came for a meeting, told me to give him a visual timetable and his own 5m2 of classroom and departed.

Teaching Jack was like playing a daily game of chess in which he was constantly one move ahead. A behaviour strategy that worked on Monday was usually kaput by Tuesday. Trying to get him working properly while simultaneously keeping 31 others on task was nigh on impossible.

He also had an unnerving ability to see through teacher bullshit. "As you know, Ofsted is coming tomorrow," I remember telling my class. "Your headteacher has filled in a form that says you're all well-behaved, hardworking children and the visitors are coming to see for themselves how wonderful you are." I could see the rest of the class visibly swell at this praise. Not Jack, though. "If we're not wonderful is the headteacher in trouble for lying?" he wanted to know. I could see this thought appealed to him.

"I hate school," he once told me. "Everyone's always telling me off for things I didn't do." It took a while for me to realise he was right. From where I stood, Jack was consistently and deliberately disruptive. He disobeyed instructions, he called out, he was unkind to other children. From his point of view the adults around him were inconsistent, nagging and unfair. I hadn't told him to write more than one paragraph so why was I berating him for writing too little? He and Jacob were playing policemen so why was Jacob now cross that he had grabbed his arms and restrained him when that's exactly what a policeman would do?

A few weeks later I got a further insight into life as Jack saw it. It had been a good day. He had got four stickers on his chart and listened attentively while I read the children Roald Dahl's version of The Three Little Pigs. As I sent his table off to collect their coats and bags, I praised him for his behaviour.

Within two minutes a small contingent of girls was at my desk. "Jack called Sophie a pig," they told me. Wearily, I called him over. "I'm so disappointed, Jack," I told him. "You were having such a good day. Why did you upset Sophie?" Jack was outraged. "I didn't," he argued. "I just told her she was a pig, like the one in the story." I opened my mouth to tell him off again when I happened to glance down at her - a small blonde girl wearing a pink coat, her pale pink face famed by a pink fur-lined hood. He was right - she looked like a pig.

"Jack," I said. "Even though someone might remind you of a pig, it's not nice to call them a pig. In future, will you agree not to call Sophie or anyone else a pig?"

He smiled at me. "No problem, Miss." Progress, of a sort.

Jo Brighouse teaches at a primary school in the Midlands.

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