She gave her teacher who was sitting near her a beaming smile that told the whole story. We can’t claim to be the best school in the world, but that day we were all celebrating the achievement of being named Prep School of the Year at the TES awards. I am fortunate to work in a school that values children over data and puts childhood firmly and boldly in first place. Our children love coming to school!
This quote from Independent Thinking sums it up for me:
‘Because children aren’t data, obedience isn’t engagement, silence isn’t respect, learning is more than memorising and there’s always another way.’
High quality learning and excellent progress happen at our school without being driven by endless testing and the analysis of data, without commercial schemes and worksheets, without repeating a topic using the same resources ‘because we’ve always done it that way’. So how does this happen? It happens because our teachers are all about the children. They are thoughtful, they are innovators, they are creators and most of all they take the time to know, I mean really know the children they teach. This allows them to create the culture and conditions where challenging learning can take place, where children can take risks, think creatively, try out ideas, get things wrong and become self aware learners, who seek to develop new skills, as opposed to being passive consumers of knowledge. Teachers who know their children can design learning for them, always rooting that learning back to their knowledge of the children. Teaching is all about relationships. Get the relationships and the culture right and high quality learning will follow. It’s stunningly simple; Children need to know you understand them, care about what happens to them and they need to trust you. Then you can do your job and get on and teach them. In turn they will respect you, even when you have to be tough and they will want to be taught by you.
When I reflect on the school I teach in now, I naturally look back on my own experience of school. I liked school, mostly. I was a compliant pupil, self motivated and keen to succeed. However, although I enjoyed the things I was viewed myself as being ‘good at’. I also had a fear of things I thought I wasn’t ‘good at’ and it stayed with me for much of my life. Just think about your experience of school and you will vividly recall the teacher you had such fondness and admiration for, and conversely you will remember the teacher who you were terrified of or you were convinced hated you! Then there are those who have faded in your memory, who had no impact either way. I have never encountered a single person, young or old who doesn’t talk with passion about their teachers. Teachers have a huge impact, whatever that may be. So we must all think carefully about the power of relationships in our classrooms.
My story is very unremarkable, but unremarkable as it is it has been hugely influential, not only on me as a teacher, but throughout my life. My strongest memory is that of the dreaded ‘Friday maths’ test. I would begin to worry about it on Thursday and get that awful churning in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much I tried to ignore it. There were 20 timed questions and the minute I saw them my mind went blank and it seemed as if I was utterly incapable of answering anything. Then came playtime and after playtime was the worst part for those of us who got less than 10 out of 20. The results were read out and then we had to come to the front. There we were, all of us heads down, every week standing at the front, the humiliation, trying not to cry, feeling stupid and scared. I moved to senior school and still dreaded every maths lesson, always trying to avoid the horror of being asked a question in front of the class. At age 16, predictably I failed Maths 'O' Level, because I believed I couldn’t, wouldn’t ever pass. Yet I did well in every other subject I took. I had been instilled with such a terrible, long lasting, crippling fear of Maths that it could have genuinely changed my life. I might never have become a teacher and been able to do this, the most hopeful and joyful job. I was lucky to have a truly fantastic teacher who took on the challenge of the re-take class! She was kind and patient, even when I insisted I would never understand, even when I refused to try, she believed in me and in turn she gave me a tiny glimmer of hope that I just might pass Maths O’level. I did pass, just 4 months later and she cried when I opened the envelope. I must have been more of a challenge than I realised! I still have the piece of paper with the result on to this day and I will never forget her.
She’s the teacher I have always wanted to be and throughout my career I have always aspired to be like her. Why? Because she cared, she was unrelenting in her efforts, she took the time to get to know and understand me and in doing so she was able to engage me, challenge me, set high expectations, allow me to fail, show me how to be resilient, to look at things in a different way. She held my hand through difficulty. She was so remarkable that she showed me what it is to become a learner and her influence went far beyond maths and a classroom. It has stayed with me and been a source of confidence in all those inevitable moments of self-doubt that plague us all. I have the greatest respect and admiration for her and all teachers for whom teaching is so much more than a job.
My journey as a teacher has often been complicated by the bombardment of change and debate in education, constantly shifting our focus, constantly trying to refine and improve, but throughout all this time one thing that has remained constant is the fundamental power of relationships.
So, in that moment in assembly last week, I saw a little girl who, because of her teacher was brave enough to speak in front of the whole school, who knew her teacher cared for her and believed in her. I was really moved by this seemingly small, but hugely significant moment, so I asked all of the children to look at their teachers sitting around the room and I told them that one day they would tell their children about the brilliant teachers they had, the teachers who made them see that they could do something, even when they thought it was too hard for them, the teachers who made learning a magical adventure, always had time for them, shared in their struggles and triumphs and never ever made them feel small, afraid or not ‘good at something’. Then I asked the children to say thank you to their teachers and teaching assistants that day, but to be specific and really think how they had helped them this year. I am unashamed to say I had a lump in my throat in that assembly!
Children won’t remember what mark they got in a test, but they will remember their teachers, the ones who cherished their hearts and in doing so opened the doors to learning and to many opportunities in life. As teachers I believe we should begin with one thing, know each and every child. We are given the privilege of making the difference and doing the hardest, but best job there is.