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Wipe a nose, save a child

There's no such thing as a lost cause in the classroom, writes Andrew Rigby

Able and talented children may be the current hot potato for schools with enough time on their hands, but what is it about the unable and untalented child that makes the life of any conscientious teacher so difficult? What do we do about them?

Not those with specific learning difficulties, or behaviour problems, or anything else easily labelled with a sticker or a pseudonym. I'm talking about that child we can never quite reach. The one that isn't doing quite as well as we would want them to be doing, but at the same time is not desperate enough to be deserving of the help that others in your class apparently warrant.

We all know them, with their constant toilet breaks, snotty noses and persistent tummy bugs. They can't read, can't write, can't count. Can't even talk without mangling a vowel or missing a whole bloody sentence out somewhere along the line.

The signs are always there: shirt hanging out, lunch-stained chin, the way they slouch in their chairs. They always forget their PE kit and never quite get the point of the lesson, unless the point of the lesson is to do some colouring-in (and who would dare to do that any more?) They struggle through an entire academic year, a point of pity on some days, but cause for bemusement (or amusement) on others. What is it about that one child that we don't quite reach?

And what is it with the fact that, some time later, they will find themselves in the class of a teacher who will inspire them to great things? Who will turn the sad edges of their lips into a smile; who will inspire them to sit up straighter; speak a little louder and create a whole impression of contentment that was never there before. All of a sudden, they can read. And write. And countI To recognise there is such a child in the class, and that it doesn't have to be that way, is the hallmark of every teacher who has inspired me since I started teaching. And it has always amazed me that the initial response to such children is so simple: teach that child to wipe that nose, fold those arms, clean that chin and never let them believe it's OK to get through the day with a mumble when a whole word will do.

All of a sudden, all that wonderful teaching you have been doing for what seems like forever might just start to work. It could be the key to accessing a whole curriculum. It could be the beginning of a beautiful school career for them. Or, at the very least, a fighting chance for the unable and untalented to pass themselves off as "normal" - and from that supposed normality, who knows what personality might feel secure and strong enough to emerge from the scared little shell that was there before? And from that personality, who knows what extraordinary things might one day be accomplished?

All of which leads me to the moral of my story: love your life, love your job. Never worry about not being perfect in an imperfect world. And make sure that every child in your class knows where the tissue box is.

Of course, it's not always so simple. It doesn't always work. It's not rocket science, but when it does all go according to plan, teaching is the best job anyone could ever have. There's a certain poetry about the moment when that one child realises that this is just the first step on the road to genuine self-respect and academic achievement.

And, sometimes, it really is as simple as wiping your nose. Unable and untalented? No such thing. That's what I call back to basics.

Andrew Rigby teaches Year 1 at Hargrave Park primary school in Islington, north London

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