In the last month or so I have taken up working as a supply teacher, cover supervisor and teaching assistant for infant, primary and secondary schools, enabling me the rare opportunity to see first-hand what’s going on in our nation’s classrooms.
I’m afraid to inform anyone who thought otherwise, a child’s experience of school is generally a routine of Pavlovian obedience training with some drab looking bullet points thrown in. No matter how glossy the school prospectus or the interactive white boards, no matter how charming or well intentioned the teachers… they are still basically in the business of crowd control, un-uniformed police armed with sticks and carrots, corralling students with the promise of rewards or the ubiquitous threat of punishment.
Typically, students arrive excitedly on a beautiful sunny morning and are met by a barrage of “Shut up, voices off, sit down, settle down, don’t move and be quiet…” and this continues pretty much throughout their day, a day filled with pointless exercises with only a few momentary exceptions when their creativity is unleashed on something meaningful and subsequently restrained again only a few minutes later.
It’s been a shocking and profoundly disturbing journey at times, one day in particular left me feeling utterly depressed, temporarily bereft of inspiration having witnessed a deep and pervasive sense of stagnation. If we truly wish to revitalise our schools and strengthen our culture for the future, we require a fundamental shift in approach. Thankfully, I’ve been able to have some very positive meetings with Headteachers suggesting that certain schools are ready to try something new.
The recent interventions have also provided me with the opportunity to experience the satisfaction of working with students who are commonly thought of as being ‘hard to reach’. It’s easy to see how rarely young people have an adult talk with them sincerely, as an equal, I’ve found adolescents usually labelled as ‘difficult’ to be highly responsive when I’ve worked with them.
I’m currently supporting students at a local academy who are preparing for their GCSE Maths exams who at age 16, still don’t know how to do multiplication and division. Just one session with me and I am able to see a light go on and I can watch them competently and confidently carry out a task that had mystified them for years. The joy of helping someone in this way is tempered by the sadness of the travesty that an eager young mind should have detached so completely from the art of number, this modern survival subject, purely because they got lost along the way… if they’d had the benefit of an updated teaching method many years ago, they may never have arrived at the point where they would say “I hate maths, I can’t do it.”
I’m not sure where all this is leading, but somehow, I feel an indefatigable optimism.