Opening up behind closed doors
Can you work in someone else's classroom without losing your sanity? Gary Thomas finds out.
David Hargreaves once said that teachers think of teaching as they think of sex -it's best done in private. This may not be as true now as it was 10 or 15 years ago (teachers teaching in private, that is), but privacy is still certainly a problem for the support teacher. The dynamics of working in someone else's territory create a lot of problems which the progenitors of support teaching never considered.
This book reflects on those problems. In a chapter entitled "Always a Bridesmaid, Never the Bride!" the author discusses the feelings of isolation and powerlessness which are well-known to any support teacher. She gives some good ideas on how to work in someone else's classroom without entirely losing your sanity. The second chapter gives a lot of time to self-esteem - that of the teacher and that of the child - when a support teacher is in the classroom and it gives some good ideas on sensitive handling.
I wish that the first couple of chapters had been allowed to seep into the rest of the book, for these early chapters reflect on the peculiar trials of support teaching. The rest of the book, with chapters on children's specific problems, the use of computers, and the Code of Practice are a brief digest of special needs in classrooms today. While this is useful to the newcomer, more on ways of making support teaching per se work in these contexts would have been valuable.
In discussing how to help children with a range of problems, the author creates a new category: "impossible children." This is much better than the portentous, pseudo-scientific and insulting "emotional and behavioural difficulties" and should immediately replace that term.
Unfortunately, though, she doesn't likewise rename "specific learning difficulties" or "dyslexia". This is surprising given some of her experiences. She relates a tale of trying to teach a boy with reading difficulties who told her that he was dyslexic and that she wouldn't possibly be able to help: sadly, as she was not a "proper dyslexia teacher" (not trained by the British Dyslexia Association), she would be wasting her time with him.
There are also useful chapters on helping children with moderate learning difficulties and children with sensory and physical difficulties in mainstream classes. One can understand why these particular groups have been chosen (it will be these children who are encountered most often by the support teacher) but it would also be useful to have some ideas on supporting children with more serious problems and particular syndromes - such as Down's syndrome or Prader Willi syndrome - who ought now increasingly to be working in mainstream classes. If schools are to be helped to be genuinely more inclusive, staff (who might justifiably complain that they know nothing about these children's problems) need to be given confidence that they are not "doing it wrong".
For those who come new to the subject this little book forms an excellent introduction to support teaching in the secondary school.
Gary Thomas is Reader in Education at Oxford Brookes University