A week at the chalkface

I recently spent a week in a local Primary school as part of a kind of work-release programme from Pearson. Upon my return, colleagues kept asking me how it was, to which I responded “amazing.” If they had to time to listen I would then expound on that a little with snippets of learning I had picked up over the week – but in reality, no words could adequately convey what a transformational experience it was. I could only urge them to go and do the same, to experience it for themselves.

So why was it amazing? Well, first of all, the warmth of the reception I received. I had a semi-formed notion before arriving that I might be something of an inconvenience to the teachers – just another person to think about when planning their already complicated days. But if that was the case, they certainly didn’t let it show. Each and every teacher I met, without exception, was friendly, inclusive, accommodating – and just put me to work, as I had requested. Even the Head made time to chat to me in his office, with a pumping great handshake as though we were old friends.

Values-based education

I was privileged enough to observe, on my first morning, a ‘parliament’ assembly during which the children – from Year 1 right through to Year 6 were given the opportunity to discuss the values they felt the school ought to have.  (These are over and above the ‘Golden Rules’ that definite the acceptable standards of behaviour at the school).

Children were invited to stand up and talk about which values they wanted to put forward and why, and later on to vote on a single value that they would make a particular focus for the coming half term. I was astonished to see how many children were willing to stand up and speak – they clearly felt empowered to do so and secure enough to know they could do so without fear that the other children would mock them.

It was heart-warming, too, to see what values the children put forward. Many of them you would expect – Respect, Kindness, Fairness and so on. But the winning value this term was one that I felt showed an enormous amount of emotional intelligence and maturity: Forgiveness.

Incredible teachers

The teachers that I met were inspiring. What struck me most was the level of commitment to the job. Before that week I had known, academically, that teachers work hard, and well beyond the school hours that many assume they do. However, seeing it in action drove it home in a way that reading about ‘teacher workload’ never could. The teacher who marked all the way through her lunchbreak. The teacher who got into school at 7.00 in the morning and left at 6.00 in the evening, and who was on email to her fellow Year 2 teacher until 10.00 at night.  The teacher who organised Science week all by herself, presumably in her spare time.

I was also awed by the show of wonderful teaching practice that I saw in every classroom: the enormous skill involved in keeping control over the class – without ever resorting to shouting. The slow escalation from gentle rebuke (‘hands down for now’; ‘why can I hear talking’) to gentle consequence (take a marble out of the jar; move yourself down the star ladder), was calm, and respectful – and the children responded to it. The teachers’ energy and dynamism that turned a potentially dry topic (how to write a good sentence) into a fun activity that had the children jumping up and down to contribute.

Did I hear any of these teachers complain? Not once – or not about the teaching anyway. They seemed instead to be energised, buzzing, thriving on the challenge of each day’s timetable. And without gallons of coffee! More than one told me they loved teaching because of the variety – “No day is the same.”

Lightbulb moments

And of course, it’s all about the children. It occurred to me that perhaps what keeps teachers going is the hundreds of little moments of job satisfaction they must get during the course of every day. According to the ‘Why Teach’ research, it’s the ‘lightbulb moments’ that keep teachers in the job, no matter how hard it gets. I suppose I had previously assumed these were the big lightbulb moments – when a child who is a reluctant writer suddenly turns in a great piece of work, or when they suddenly get a complicated mathematical concept because you found the right way to explain it to them.

Now though, I see that I shouldn’t be thinking in terms of a few big lightbulbs, but rather a vast plane of tiny little bulbs. Each day, more of those lightbulbs get switched on in each child’s brain. They learned that ‘magic e’ turns ‘mad’ into ‘made’. A tiny bulb lights up. They learned about Guy Fawlkes and remembered the next day that the King involved was James II. Another tiny lightbulb. Every day is full of micro-moments of job satisfaction, when you realise that what you do really matters, because every day you’re sharing your knowledge and helping these children understand and thrive in the world.

I started the week with admiration for Primary teachers, and a suspicion that they must be a little bit mad to do what they do. I ended the week with even more admiration and an understanding that they’re not mad – just really, really dedicated! Teaching isn’t a job, I realised. It’s a vocation, yes, but more than that – it’s a way of life.



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