My Oscar for best supporting role;Opinion

16th April 1999 at 01:00
IF I AM asked at the day of judgment to name the one thing which, depending on its quality, made my classroom heaven or hell, I won't hesitate. Without a whisker of a doubt, support for learning offers the best and worst moments of team working with colleagues. I am certain, too, that support for learning teachers would also describe their classroom experiences in polarised terms. They can be the target of slashingly severe criticism or the focus of quite exceptional praise.

Remember that this is the service which, in the past, has seen its teachers variously described as "remedial", "backward" or even as "the teachers for the dafties". Even now, some critics may debate whether support for learning teachers pay their way in the classroom.

An important issue is the way power is exercised in the classroom. The relationship between the classroom teacher and a support for learning colleague is fairly akin to the traditional male-female relationship in which the male demonstrates a tyrannical approach and both partners fall into stereotypical gender roles. One partner leads and the other follows. The classroom teacher makes all the major decisions and the support for learning teacher becomes the reacting sideshow.

The inevitable consequence is snapping and crackling on a grand scale. Spare a thought for the support for learning teacher who overheard a colleague describe him as "not a real teacher". Even the pupils can add insult to injury by asking questions in the ilk of: "When will you be finished your training?" You can't, however, claim that all support for learning teachers are synonymous with excellence. What strikes me is the importance of a proactive approach in the classroom. The support for learning teachers who currently work with me come from different backgrounds but both offer ideas in a creative and, pardon the pun, supportive way. Sometimes, in fact, they do so much that I contemplate putting back half my wages.

I only jest, yet I can't stress how vital it is to feel part of an equal partnership. Indeed, while canvassing friends for opinions on what they look for in their support for learning teacher, the same ideas are repeatedly voiced.

Support for learning teachers should not be mere appendages who choose to show up when and if the whim takes them. Their attendance at classes has to be regular, punctual and productive. If their presence is merely ornamental, they are a hindrance and a distraction and they deserve the negative comments.

You can sense the frustration in the classes where this does not happen. Mounting blood pressure as the support for learning teacher walks in halfway through the lesson. No wonder that, a la Chris Tarrant, desperate class teachers want to phone a friend or, indeed, ask the pupils for help. There can be no get-out on this, support for learning must be well organised; if it is not, the heads of such departments deserve the screed of name-calling they sometimes evoke.

After all, why should support for learning departments be any less rigorous? They may not have to sit down to examine Higher results but they are accountable to the pupils in a most exacting way if they take their job seriously. I do not envy for a minute the range of responsibilities the head of learning support has in my school. But I am amazed when I chat to colleagues in other schools to hear that such an all-round professional approach is not universal.

Of course, the attitude of the headteacher is also vital. If the school management views the support for learning department as a dumping ground for "all and sundry", then the teachers in the department will be seen as little more than glorified nannies.

The definition of support for learning demands that the principal teachers take on the role of lobbyists for their departments, reminding headteachers that they are there to support the pupils to learn. Any old adult can babysit but it takes a skilled practitioner to punch their weight in supporting learning. Who knows, maybe if I'd had such support myself as a pupil I might have become a brilliant mathematician.

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