Teaching pupils with learning and behavioural difficulties is no trial for Alison Cousar, who says the classes are small while the rewards are great. Eleanor Caldwell reports
Science teachers are used to teaching 16 pupils in the lab. Experiments using matches and lighted candles and electric circuits heating up wires are the norm.
So Alison Cousar at Burnhouse School in West Lothian is bemused by colleagues in other schools who think her job "must be a nightmare" when the 16 pupils she will teach in the course of a day come in groups of no more than five or six. Today there is even one-to-one teaching.
Burnhouse has a roll of 24 pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties ranging from P67 to S4. Ms Cousar, who has been at Burnhouse for two-and-a-half years and worked for five years in a residential school, enthuses about her work. "I love the challenge of working with pupils who initially don't want to learn. You have to be adaptable. I love being teacher, mother and social worker all in one."
Ms Cousar's day starts at 8.15am, arriving at school and checking her mail before going to the daily senior staff meeting at 8.30. Discussion on the importance of pupils' diaries reveals that "they're like gold dust", keeping daily records of pupils' progress. Points from a maximum 10 are awarded in every class and at lunchtime.
Ms Cousar is in charge of the school's positive behaviour scheme and points out the colourful columns of achievement stickers on the noticeboard in the main entrance hall. "It's important that everyone can see the kids' progress," she says. At 8.45 she goes to the full staff meeting, which focuses on the day and week ahead, arrangements for pupils boarding buses after school and work placements.
Explanation of one boy's outburst earlier in the week, however, is greeted with hilarity. "He claims a 5lb pike took a bite out of his leg!" The meeting disperses and staff follow the aroma of tea and toast to join pupils for breakfast. Staff sit and talk with them, while Ms Cousar moves from table to table chatting and checking diaries.
After breakfast, it's period 1 with S2. Ms Cousar greets the four boys and one girl at the door, taking in their diaries. The walls of the bright science classroom are clad with posters of animals, beakers, plants and experiments. A diagram of the day's experiment is already drawn on the whiteboard and Ms Cousar uses quiet persuasion to suggest that five quiz questions have to be answered before conducting the experiment.
Competition is fierce and, as answers are shouted, she praises those who are writing them down. Too many interruptions, Ms Cousar says, and tells one boy to stand outside the room for a couple of minutes - "Was that a swearie word?" The look of indignation suggests not. The children set up their own electrical circuits and, with heated wire and accompanying loud comments, burn efficiently through small plastic boxes. The 35-minute period moves quickly with all pupils completing their work and Ms Cousar discusses the merit points for the period. "You've been a little star today," she tells one pupil.
Her next class is S1, where four pupils are doing chemistry. For the experiment - making carbon dioxide with vinegar and bicarbonate of soda - she tells them: "James is going to act the daftie and you're going to explain this to him." James proves to be no daftie as he explains why the gas extinguishes a candle flame.
Matches are handled with care and the whole group is keen to don the teacher's white lab coat and conduct the experiment. There's enormous praise when Samantha pipes up: "We breathe carbon dioxide out and plants breathe itin." Ms Cousar scoots about the front of the class on a designer roller stool, offering praise at every opportunity.
Next period after break is free, giving her time to check her email. As co-ordinator of the pupil support scheme in West Lothian, she arranges training events for teachers from the local secondary schools with behavioural units. Then it's back for a quick bite in the staffroom before the next period. S4 arrives with requests for drinks of water. "I give out a lot of water," she explains. "It helps to calm them down."
James is conducting an experiment with a lighted candle and matches. A learning support teacher, Toni Cameron, helps Kerry Anne with a worksheet. Worksheets and experiments are abandoned when the school nurse, Kay Proudlock, arrives to demonstrate a blood pressure monitor and Ms Cousar catches up on lesson reports and diaries. One boy declares himself to have no blood pressure while another rejects it entirely and asks "Can I have that kiwi fruit over there please, Miss?" "Not today I'm afraid!" As "bloody hell" rings through the air, Ms Cousar looks away. "That's no' swearin' Miss." "It is in here," she replies. Shrug of the shoulder. Lesson learned.
Unlike mainstream schools, there are only seconds here between the departure of one class and arrival of the next. Noise levels drop dramatically as Ms Cousar welcomes the two boys in her S3 class. Damien and Chris are both aiming for General and Credit grades. After lunch Period 7 brings S1 pupil James on his own. He elects enthusiastically to don white lab coat and goggles.
In her free period at the end of the day, Ms Cousar prepares for two review meetings after school, making phone calls to the social work department.
At the afternoon staff meeting Ms Cousar is in the chair. Each pupil's progress is discussed with phrases such as "can't handle change", "just couldn't get him calmed down" confirming that it has been a "definite high wind day". The police have been in to "have a wee chat with one boy" following an incident in school, explains headteacher Alan Maclaughlan.
The first of two review meetings finishes off Ms Cousar's day at Burnhouse. Joined by deputy head Adele Green and careers adviser Sean Bradley, she meets the boy and his mother to discuss problems, successes, achievements and targets for the future. Ms Green says: "Alison gets it right with these kids because she makes learning fun."
A DETAILED DAY'S DIARY
8.15am Arrive at school, sort out mail. Prepare for classes.
8.30 Senior staff meeting.
8.45 Full staff meeting.
9.00 Breakfast and registration with pupils. A chance to discuss targets and any problems informally.
9.30 Period 1, S2. Lesson and experiment on electrical circuits with five pupils.
10.05 Period 2, S1. Lesson on carbon dioxide - need to get vinegar and bicarbonate of soda all ready. Four pupils.
10.40 Break and a quick coffee and chat
11.00 Free period. Time to catch up on emails from colleagues on the West Lothian pupil support team. Arrange meetings and training sessions.
11.40 S4. A visit by the school nurse with lesson and demonstration on blood pressure - five pupils.
12.10pm S3 - A quiet time with two pupils working independently.
12.45 Lunch break
1.20 S1. One pupil. When he finishes his work he can make a card for the new baby on the computer.
1.55 Free period. Telephone social work department about review meetings.
2.30 After-school staff meeting. Full report on each pupil's behaviour and progress from all staff.
3.00-4.00 4.30 Two review meetings - chance to reassess pupils' progress and set targets. Leave for home.