Take a lesson from your past

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Remember what it was like to be a child trying to learn? Now go and teach, says Luke Darlington

A long distance lorry driver who gave some voluntary classroom help one morning told me afterwards that he preferred driving a fully-laden 38-ton vehicle in freezing fog on motorways the length and breadth of the country to being with a class of reception infants.

Empathy is the key. The trick lies in remembering what it was like to be young and imagining yourself as a pupil listening to your own words. Could you honestly say that you would be enthused? Some teachers - and parents - seem to expect children to be mini-adults and extensions of themselves. But it is important that you understand the school environment as a child does.

You also need a real understanding of childhood, including what it is to have a spirit of mischief. It is always sad to hear a young boy or girl being told off for being childish.

The trick is to continue remembering what it was like to be young. But remaining young at heart is not an excuse to be over-familiar and childish yourself, which would shock those who look up to you.

Did you ever worry that your teacher would be in a bad mood? Try not to bring your personal problems to school. Something is very wrong if a child is afraid to speak to you because you seem unpredictable. Your tone of voice and body language are important. How would you feel if you needed help but dared not ask your teacher for fear of his or her impatience or sarcasm?

If you are unnerved by the speed at which an idea is introduced on a training course, consider what it must be like for some children in your class. Then try to recall how you enjoyed being taught by someone who was challenging but fair, firm but gentle, busy yet approachable, because your efforts were highly valued.

As a teacher you are also a learner, and it is by being observ-ant of your pupils' needs that you will gain experience.

If you are unobservant your own learning will be stunted and the children's development will be hindered. There may be something which can quickly be put right, such as moving a left-handed child sitting on the wrong side of a right-handed pupil, or there may be circumstances which take time, encouragement and patience.

Any teacher taking on a new class needs to build on the past progress of individual children, particularly those with learning or behavioural difficulties, since insensitivity could undermine previous efforts.

Watch out for quiet pupils and those who seem withdrawn who may require extra attention. There could be many reasons for such behaviour, but each child is unique and has something worthwhile to offer that you can build on, if you can find out what it is.

Some pupils may prefer a quiet life to a gregarious one, and some may dislike effort, opting to coast along. If they know that you only choose those who put their hands up, they can hide. Others may be quiet for reasons related to special educational needs or to unsatisfactory relationships.

Make a point early on of knowing your school's policy about bullying. Home circumstances can also be a factor, including all forms of domestic unhappiness. Talk to your mentor, the school's special needs co-ordinator and other colleagues if you feel unsure.

Gaining all the children's confidence takes time. Part of the way to encourage them is by reaching out through good eye contact and a friendly, interested expression showing that you are genuinely listening to what they say. Making an effort to be at the same height also helps.

A poor response to an answer which is not quite right can damage a child's confidence for months, whereas a positive response and a little encouragement might elicit the correct answer, which you can follow with plenty of praise.

Try to let all those in your care feel that your classroom is a place which thrives on hard work, is lively and interesting and exciting. Then there is a good chance that none will be like the Shakespearean "whining schoolboy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like (a) snail unwillingly to school".

Job satisfaction and empathy go hand in hand. There's a passage in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca which says "If only there could be an invention that bottled up memory like a scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again."

All teachers should have such a memory bottle, and it should only include memories of childhood. And every now and then, more frequently as they become older, they should be required to uncork it.

Luke Darlington is a recently retired headteacher

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