It’s a different world I woke up to on 15th August this year. A brand new school that’s only three or four years old; new students to teach and learn from; new colleagues to work with and new friends to make. It’s a great place to work but it’s a world away from my last school even though it’s only about two miles away, as the crow flies. There are many differences, some good and some not so good, but all create a slightly different dynamic in which to work. For a start we have loads more space and there is even a spare classroom in the Maths department! The school was built to facilitate 1250 students and currently the roll is about 1000. Space allows for both learning and freedom and we are very lucky to have it. I once did a placement in a new school built in partnership between public and private organisations and, besides having very little freedom to do the simplest things (like stick a student’s work to the wall), the school was already too small the day it opened! The fire alarm has been tested twice already in the first three weeks so we never need to have an official fire drill! The janitors in this school understand that it is a building where children work and play and they are friendly! They are also incredibly helpful and smile. There are bells after every lesson so it’s not as easy to send your S1s off ten minutes early but it is easier to get used to the seven period day. Most of these are cosmetic differences and besides, the extra space don’t really add up to a huge difference if I am to be honest.
The real difference is in the students. The students here are, in the vast majority, just like all the schools I have had the pleasure of teaching in, wonderful people but they are already behind in terms of learning the moment they enter secondary education compared to their peers down the road. I have two wonderful S1 (first year) classes who are all happy, eager and ready to learn. They compare well to their comrades in both the north of Scotland and the west of Edinburgh in terms of social skills and intelligence levels but their algebra and numeracy skills are below those of same set classes I have taught before. I would like to point out that I am in no way placing any blame at the feet of their primary school teachers – I am merely stating an observation. Primary school teachers have an incredibly difficult job and I do not envy their task in the slightest. The difference I believe comes from the behaviour of some students, which affects the quality of learning of others. If teachers have to spend more time maintaining order then it stands to reason that they have less time to teach. This is a problem of and for society but before I get into that I would like to introduce you to my classes.
As I have mentioned I have two wonderful first year classes with bundles of energy and all are very good-natured. We are progressing well, though sadly this week we had to have a ‘fun time happy quiz’ (tests are dead to these children and almost a dirty word now!) to set the students. These classes will change slightly now and I will teach both second set classes. We are on the brink of a year of adventure and I am very much looking forward to it. I have ‘shares’ in three S2 classes and I understand why the timetable is written and the classes are shared but don’t really like the situation. It’s hard to bond with these students because I only see them once or twice a week. It’s a very stunted existence but we will make the best of it.
My third year class comprises of thirteen students and is a bottom set class. They take up by far the majority of my planning time and they are also my biggest challenge. They are good kids but they lack every basic social skill, any motivation and have negative work ethic. They somehow are further behind than when they entered the school and have the belief that if they can do something it’s too easy and you are patronising them but if it’s the tiniest bit too hard they give up completely because it’s ‘solid’ (way too hard) and they can’t be bothered. I like this class but it is a challenge like none I have faced before on many different levels. Some of the students come from broken homes, some are in care facilities: one lad is due in court on Monday (he assures me of his innocence and I believe him) and one young lad has just re-joined us after been held at her Majesty’s pleasure in a secure unit of a young offenders’ institute. This last student had me thinking a lot. Part of me wanted, almost needed, to know his history but I knew that if I don’t give him a fresh start then what chance would he have? I have to trust in myself and hope that he responds to fairness, structure and a new dawn. So far he is going well and seems to like the class and is working fairly well.
Another lady who only joined this school last year is finding it very difficult to deal with the structure of the classroom. She does not like to listen, does not have the patience to wait to be heard and rages against the machine if reprimanded. When she is good, she is very, very good and when she is bad, she is horrid. She is never bad in an attention seeking way or, in my opinion, never seeks to deliberately disrupt the class; I just think the poor lady is not used to a classroom environment and constantly feels like the world is out to get her. I have spoken to her guidance teacher but like her friend I only ask for information relevant to her learning. I feel it’s very important that I do not let my judgement become coloured in any way and give her the best chance I can to help herself. It’s not always the good times though and four times I have had to place her in a different classroom so as to keep order. I have had to ask more of these students to leave this class so the rest could get some work done than I have ever had to eject in all my other classes combined.
Every day with this class is a challenge and every last detail must be planned. We have done a week of team building to establish some rapport amongst the members of this class and to try and work on manners and respect. Most, with the exception of the last lady mentioned, have responded relatively well. We have set up a reward system to try and take the focus off sanctions and place the emphasis on effort, respect and work. The students of this class have had all sanctions, taken all punishments and it has not done much to improve their lot yet. This is going to be a long race with very slow progress but I think we are slowly going in the right direction. I have the patience of a saint but keep a daily eye on amazon in case I can get more, it might be needed.
My fourth years are a second top set and are good fun though nowhere near as colourful. We are enjoying our maths class, having lots of fun and will hopefully do well when assessment time comes round. The last class I teach is my Advanced Higher Finance class (self chosen title). They are a great bunch of young adults and, to be fair, are settling in well and enjoying finance which is all I can ask for.
Classes also suffer because they get less time in S1 for maths than in other schools. In this school they only come to Maths four times a week and that equates to almost forty hours less in a year. This cannot be a good thing but a decision was made for the benefit of the broad general education – so we work with what we have. Life’s not fair so there is very little point complaining.
Behaviour can be a problem and does get in the way of learning but what do we do about it? We have great structure and support in my school and as such discipline is pretty good and for the vast majority of the time I can get on and teach. But somewhere along the line we, as a society, are failing these children. I was helping another member of the maths department out today with a low second year set. We were teaching very basic division and some were doing very well whilst others struggled. This just does not make sense to me: how can we be doing these students any good if, after almost a decade in education, they are still struggling with division? I am pretty sure if we asked their primary teachers they would swear by the closest members of their families that this has been done over and over again. Now I cannot fix society; all the people in my school cannot fix society and none of us can fix broken homes or family units but neither can we say society is screwed and this leads to bad behaviour which in turn leads to a poor education and that’s just the way the world works! I think for the foreseeable future I will focus on how I can help these students progress (if I can) and charter the growth of these S2s and my wonderful S3s. Onwards….