And so it begins. The weekend before returning back to school, the holidays have almost ended and I’m desperately trying to savour every last, delicious second of freedom, before we’re back on that hamster wheel, when real-life begins again. Over 20 years of teaching under my belt and the ‘fear’ is still there. I know I will not be able to sleep on Sunday and Monday night. A build up of nerves, apprehension and excitement. Wondering how on Earth I’m going to be able to fit back into the routine and discipline of being back at work again.
My daughters also have mixed feelings. They are looking forward to going back to school and meeting their friends, but a huge draw for them also is being with their new teachers. It’s so strange to be on the other side of the fence. Hearing my daughters chatter to each other about what their new teachers are like, and the excitement about building a relationship with someone who is going to be such an important figure in their lives for the next academic year. I know that if I say something to my girls, give them a golden nugget of information, they will listen politely and then perhaps forget or dismiss what I have said a few moments later. If, on the other hand, their teacher says exactly the same thing to them – they will absorb that pearl of wisdom with so much gratitude and love, repeating it to all and sundry.
Listening to my daughters reminds me of how important my role is in the classroom. It doesn’t matter how much other work I’ve got on, how much paperwork needs filling in, data that needs inputting, how many items there are on my never-ending ‘To-do’ list – my most important job is to be present for the children in my class. Not just teach them the curriculum. But to look after them. Listen to them. Notice if they are sad or upset, worried or nervous. Notice if they are tired. Listen to them reminding you everyday that it’s their birthday soon. Listen to what they did during their weekend. Notice if they’re worried about who they are going to play with at playtime or lunchtime. Because being a teacher in the classroom and showing children how to get better in their reading, writing and maths is only a tiny, miniscule part of the job. Actually, we nurture children. Make them believe in themselves. Make them understand that failure teaches us to get back up, dust ourselves off and try again. Teach them to work with different people. Get them to learn to articulate their points of view without being fearful. Make them understand that not everyone can be good at everything – we all have our own strengths – find your strength – you are important and precious, regardless.
On my third teaching practice, I worked in a beautiful, kind, warm, welcoming school. Every morning I would be excited to walk into the school building. The headteacher was always there at 7 o’clock in the morning and he would always walk into the school hall, set up a CD of calming classical music, and that would be the music I would hear as soon as I came into school. The music would get rid of nerves or anxiety that I was feeling and I would almost float into the Year 3 classroom where I was based. Every morning, the headteacher, would walk to every classroom and would wish every member of staff, ‘Good Morning!’, and his presence would always fill us with confidence that we would be able to deal with whatever challenges lay ahead.
There were 32 children in this class. All of them sweet and kind. In this particular class, there were two boys who were twins. One was a smiley, happy, chatty boy. The other brother was withdrawn. Unable to make eye-contact. He had a huge speech impediment and would not want to communicate with anyone. As was the custom on teaching practice, my job on the first couple of days was just to observe the children and learn from the class teacher about how she managed the class, and went about teaching things. The twins intrigued me though. I found myself watching the quieter twin in particular. He never appeared to listen to the teacher. His back was always turned and he would be playing with something in his hands. He found sitting up straight really difficult and would always be lying listlessly over his desk. In a world of his own…
If the teacher went over to speak to him, he would tiredly blink his eyes, as if he had woken up from a dreamless sleep and be completely unaware of what she had been asking him to do. During my break time, I asked my class teacher about him, and she explained that the two boys had been victims of sexual abuse since the age of 3 months. Both children had been removed from the horrific situation and were living with foster parents. Nonetheless, trusting adults, communicating with people, learning – these things were incredibly challenging for them both. What they both needed was an incredible amount of love, patience and understanding.
It means nothing really – but my heart broke for those two beautiful boys. I was probably only 20 years old and I wondered what type of monster could even think of harming babies? Anger consumed me. That was my first experience of working with children who had been hurt, abused, betrayed by adults. Sadly, it was not the last.
I knew from that moment though, that when I became a class teacher, when I was lucky enough to have a class of my own, I would do my best to make sure that the children in my care would feel loved, cared for and valued. But most of all – safe. That regardless of what else was going on their lives, aspects that I was not in control of – when they were with me, in our classroom, I would be there for them and they would nothing to worry about and nothing to fear.
I’m not 20 anymore – but I hold onto that feeling always. I love my job because I am working with the best people in the world – children. Life is so simple with children. They are idealistic – they care about the environment and justice and making the world a better place more than the adults who run the world. They laugh at the simplest things and can be so incredibly kind to others. When I was going through some incredibly tough moments in my life, it was seeing the children in my class daily that helped me heal and feel better again.
I’m aware that I sound as though I’m not bothered about whether children learn or not. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually I’m passionate about education and learning, I’m living proof that if you work hard at school, then your life will change! But children don’t learn when they are in a state of fear, or in an environment of mistrust, when they are afraid to make a mistake. Children don’t learn if they feel that their teacher doesn’t like them, or doesn’t care about them. Children don’t learn, if they are not happy.
So, as I enjoy the dwindling moments of the summer holiday, I hope that the children in my new class have had a good summer and are looking forward to coming back. But most of all, my nerves, anxiety, fear is all tied up in a desperate knotted ball of making sure that I do my best for them – because that’s what they deserve.