Unforgettable pupils and aides-memoire

5th September 2003 at 01:00
I have never been good with names. As the years go on, I'm beginning to have a bit of a problem with faces too. I can't think why.

Now, if I bump into someone in the supermarket, several moments can elapse while my brain recalls if this is a former pupil (highly unlikely that they would stop to talk to me), a former teacher, a parent I Women of a certain age call this a craft moment (can't remember a flipping thing, or words to that effect).

It is not exactly appropriate to comment on the weather to fill the conversational gaps on these occasions but I learned the hard way never to try to con my way out of such a situation.

I had been chatting for several minutes at a social event with someone who was clearly in education, as she had greeted me like a long-lost colleague.

I was pretending to know who she was and thought that I was carrying it off rather well until my husband turned and said: "Well dear, are you not going to introduce us?"

So, returning to school after six weeks' break is interesting for memory-challenged headteachers, who not only have to mentally relocate pupils and staff into new classes and areas but also have to learn a host of new names.

One of my mums, a former pupil, was recently really chuffed that my predecessor, after 15 years of retirement, had hailed her by name in the street. I didn't like to tell her that this was not necessarily a good sign. Even I can remember the names of certain former pupils; in fact, some will be forever burned into my brain. Unfortunately, we readily recall the kids who caused us the most grief and who we would have bet on, as early as Primary 3, becoming famous for all the wrong reasons. I occasionally scan the local press for proof of such prescience.

Teachers' staff nights out are notorious examples of sad people who can only talk shop and need to get a life. Ours are no different. Inevitably we get around to "What was the name of the boy who came to us in P7? You must remember him. His father had a big, bulbous nose with a bit on the end that wobbled, huge cauliflower ears and a woolly hat that he pulled down and made them stick out even more."

No, sorry, I'm not getting him. How much more information do I need? The child was well behaved and allegedly yawned a lot but obviously not enough to be referred to the heidie.

There is a knack to circulating on parents' nights, open days and sports days and not making it obvious that some parents are instantly recognisable to me because I have been in frequent and prolonged conversations with them about behaviour individual education plans. I have to force myself to approach other, less familiar parents and hope that in the course of the conversation they will mention their child's name and give me a clue as to their identity.

Once I have made the connection, I am off and running because I have developed a strategy for getting to know the kids in my school really well.

It helps me remember their names, their siblings, their family background, their attainment levels, their allergies and their syndromes.

I hear them read. I look over their shoulders at their jotters to see if their writing is neat and they are using rulers. I look at their homework and write encouraging comments for their parents to see. I sit in on their lessons and watch how they interact with their teachers and each other, not only the perfectly behaved lot that are right in front of me but also the classes on either side who are not aware that I am watching them. I listen to how their teachers get the best out of them by quiet and skilful praise and persuasion and I never fail to be impressed.

I think it's called monitoring of learning and teaching. I like it.

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary in AberdeenIf you have any comments, e-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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