A confession. I made a mistake teaching long division to my class this week. It had something to do with zeroes and, while I realised my error straight away, putting it right wasn’t so easy. Children, who I assume only half listen to 30 per cent of what I say, were conscientiously putting in my superfluous zeroes.
Perhaps I should be sacked. After all, the ability to do long division at primary school was important enough to the Tories to be written into their manifesto. Being ‘let go’ would, in many ways, be a blessed relief. Aside from a desire to live just a tiny portion of my own life, I am torn, like 53 per cent of teachers, between my belief in the value of the job and the frustrations involved in actually doing it.
Let me explain. Under my calm teacher exterior seethes the interior turmoil of a squirrel on acid. The crazed rodent is tasked with ensuring that every child makes steady progress across the board of an ever harder curriculum – and that there is evidence to prove it. Each day passes in a whirlwind of lesson planning, preparation and panic. Resources must be found or created to cater for four ability levels. They must be photocopied, sorted, stapled and guillotined to fit into books nicely. Assessment methods – self, peer or squirrel – must be decided and organised. Each lesson’s ‘learning objective’ needs to be printed onto individual sticky labels. This is degree-level photocopying and has taken me months to perfect – but I was driven to it by the fact that some children spend an astonishingly high percentage of their learning time just writing out what they are supposed to be learning.
Usually I mislay one vital ingredient somewhere along the line, entailing squirrel-like scrabbling on my desk and frantic repeat photocopying. The children warm their hands on freshly printed worksheets while I try not to worry about the planet. In between all this, there are ‘working wall’ displays to sort out, interventions to discuss, assemblies to give, hurt feelings and cut knees to tend. Then, of course, there is the marking … marking … marking. Teachers go on alarming about marking so I will spare you – anyway it largely happens at night.
It rarely runs like clockwork, but usually we get by. Sometimes, however, things go awry. The day of the long division error is a case in point. After lunch, I had intended to teach science – a lesson on light and pinhole cameras. Sadly, the three test cameras I made the night before failed to turn a mug of coffee, let alone the world, upside down. Never mind, I mused as I shovelled some lunch into my mouth, perhaps we can move straight onto reflection and refraction, Quickly, I grab torches and mirrors from the new £100 science light kit and peer hopefully into a pale pool of light. No joy. The beams are too diffuse to refract or reflect anything save my despair.
With 15 minutes left of the lunch break, I decide to teach a history lesson planned for the following week. It requires watching a short video clip on the Stone Age settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys. What a shame, then, that the local authority regards online videos as the devil’s work and blocks 90 per cent of them including, of course, Skara Brae. Ten minutes to go, I leap into the car and head for home. No, I’m not running away – not yet. I’m in search of my Simon Schama History of Britain DVD.
Phew. Made it. We sit engrossed as Schama takes us back to prehistoric Scotland. Reluctantly, as he moves to the conclusion of his thoughts on Skara Brae, my finger moves towards the off button. ‘Please, just one more minute!’ beg the children. Given that they are genuinely interested in the thoughts of a serious historian, I happily give in. Sadly, the serious historian chooses that moment to discuss some Viking graffiti. Gravitas thrown to the wind, he translates the Norseman’s runes. ‘Horny bitch,’ he announces.
‘Oh Miss!’ the children chorus in delighted shock. ‘Oh Miss, should we be watching this?’”
Comedy aside, such days persuade me not of my own disorganisation and incompetence, but of the validity of the case for more specialist teaching in primary schools. It is a case well made by Children, their World, their Education, the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review.
The real breakthrough will come when schools accept that the argument made by the Williams report for using specialists to enhance the teaching of mathematics could be made for all curriculum domains …
Until there is acceptance that domain expertise is so crucial to educational quality that it directly challenges the historical basis of primary teachers’ professional identity as generalists, this Review’s definition of curriculum entitlement as the highest possible standards of teaching in all domains, regardless of how much or little time each is allocated, will remain a pipe dream. (p 434)
Most teachers, in fact most humans, would struggle to become expert enough to teach English, maths and science – never mind French, computing, history, geography, art, music, RE, PE… This is especially so given that good teaching requires so much more than knowledge. It requires a cupboard full of engaging lessons backed up with tested resources coupled with an awareness of what children need to know and how they best learn it. It would be truly delightful to be able to develop such an expertise in a few subjects or domains. They wouldn’t be the same subjects as my colleagues’ so between us we could cover the curriculum. The children would thrive – most actually enjoy seeing the occasional different face in front of the whiteboard – and so would we.
Perhaps then the crazed squirrel could take the occasional nap.
Stephanie Northen is a teacher and journalist. She contributed to the Cambridge Primary Review final report and is a member of the Board of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. For other blogs by Stephanie download CPRT’s recent collection Primary Colours.