How to adapt to a rural school as an inner-city teacher

10th June 2016 at 00:00
A move to the country prompted this deputy head to rethink some of his tried-and-tested methods

“Whose bloody Massey Ferguson Tractor is that parked in the disabled space!” the caretaker shouted down the corridor one June morning. It turned out that it belonged to Ryan. He had driven straight from his tractor-driving test to his maths exam.

Having grown up in the experiment in concrete that is Hemel Hempstead and spent my working life in London and Southampton, the British countryside was like a different planet to me. But when my wife and I had children, raising them in a rural idyll seemed more appealing than next to a tobacco factory, so I found myself a job at a school in the depths of beautiful North Devon.

I love being part of a close community, but it had never occurred to me that there would be such a difference between urban and rural schools. So, if you are seeking a piece of the good life, here’s what to watch out for and how to ensure a smooth transition.

Perfect or passive behaviour?

Having taught in some challenging urban schools, I was fully prepared to impose my authority on my first day in a rural school. I was armed with seating plans, reward stickers, withdrawal slips and detention letters. I meant business.

My first class (Year 9s) were at a difficult age when behaviour can be challenging. But to my amazement, the pupils filed in quietly and sat down. When I started talking, they sat silently. When I gave them a task to do, they did it. No fuss, no chatter, just work. My heart leapt with joy. “This is going to be a doddle,” I thought to myself.

My results after the first term were a disaster. In general, pupils in rural schools are far more laid-back and passive than those in urban schools (although some do have their moments, obviously). What I mistook for good behaviour was actually passive compliance. They appeared to work so that I would leave them in peace because this was less hassle than going to the effort of misbehaving.

I now ensure that my classroom management routines are focused on good behaviour for learning. Being passive is not tolerated and I litter my lessons with Assessment for Learning techniques to ensure that every pupil is engaged.

Remote possibilities

Most pupils come from families that are involved in farming or tourism. Because of the constant need to milk and tend herds, few farming families have the opportunity to leave North Devon during the holidays. Similarly, those families involved in tourism cannot leave because the holidays are the most lucrative time. There are many pupils who simply haven’t been anywhere.

I recently took a team of chess players to Torquay for a tournament. One boy asked me: “Where are we, Sir?” When I told him that we were in South Devon, he said: “Wow! It all looks so different.”

All this means that there isn’t always a general understanding of the wider world on which to base learning. Urban words and concepts, such as “rush hour”, “the tube”, “black cab” and “cappuccino”, may mean nothing to a significant number of pupils. I now ensure that any cultural references are as localised as possible. If I do mention something that would be rare west of Exmoor, I always explain what it is and check for understanding.

On the buses

About 80 per cent of our pupils travel to us by school bus, coming from small villages, hamlets or isolated farms. For most of them, school is their social lifeline. Break and lunch times are the only opportunity they get to mix and socialise all week.

Receiving a break-time detention, then, can be a catastrophe. Pupils would rather be kept behind for an hour after school than for 15 minutes during the break. I now never set such detentions as the impact on a pupil’s social life usually far outweighs the offence.

The bus timetables also make running after-school activities difficult – the school empties of pupils after 3.30pm. Our headteacher has come up with an ingenious way to overcome this. The last hour of every Thursday is scheduled as “Enrichment and Intervention”. Staff offer a range of activities that pupils can choose to do each term, from learning Latin to surfing or making toys for the animals at Paignton Zoo.

‘I recall teaching his dad’

Many teachers stay at the school for a long, long time. With no other schools nearby, there is little choice of employment once a teacher is settled in the area. This has huge benefits because experienced staff have an invaluable knowledge of the community and the families that children come from.

However, it does mean that you need to put extra effort into building positive working relationships with staff. If, for any reason, a colleague decides that they don’t like you, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

I also end up teaching many of my colleagues’ children. This is a real privilege. But it does encourage me to be extra vigilant about getting my marking done or delivering good lessons – you never know what the child might say at home.

The heart of May Fair

Our school is at the heart of the community and we are the largest employer in the town, which makes for a strong family feel. This can be a real delight when it comes to unique local customs and traditions – particularly May Fair, when people return to their home town from across the globe to enjoy a few days of celebrations.

The children of the town play an important part in the festivities: pupils from the primary school do a maypole dance in the village square, for example. We close the school for the day and our pupils and staff get a temporary reprieve from the frantic exam preparations of that time of year.

We also hold elections for May Fair’s Carnival Queen. A range of girls nominate themselves. The carnival committee interviews the candidates and makes a selection. The headteacher announces the winner and her attendants to cries of delight and tears of disappointment. A team of staff and pupils also enter a float for the carnival, which in the past has involved dressing up as students from Hogwarts or walking around the town in biohazard suits.

Such occasions offer opportunities to build strong working relationships with your pupils and their families, making teaching even more enjoyable. So embrace it.

John Stanier is assistant headteacher at Great Torrington School in Devon @JohnStanier1

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