Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures

“Who’d be a teacher?”

I came across this Guardian article the other day and decided it was worth a share.

“My younger daughter has always wanted to be a teacher. She thinks it would be lovely to boss children around all day and have long holidays every now and then. After just a year at my job, I am pleading with her, hand on heart, to forget the whole thing.

Not that I am a teacher; nor have I ever been one. I work for one and a half hours a day at an infant’s school as a school meals supervisor. This is a cross between a mother and a nursemaid with a bit of teacher thrown in. (We have to teach them table manners.) There are between 70 and 100 children (the number varies) and three of us, with a teacher in charge. I must be frank and confess that before I started this job I thought that teachers had an easy life – short working hours, long holidays, nothing that anyone could complain of. Money, in fact, for jam, I used to think. When I get home at a quarter to two there is only one thing I want to do – sit down for half an hour and relax, with my mind a complete blank. It is not the physical strain of being on my feet for an hour and a half, after all I am on my feet for most of the day. It is just the feeling that my brain has been battered by dozens of tiny hands. My mind still buzzes with things like “No dear, not your knife in your mouth, you might cut your tongue off…who has fallen down? Don’t throw him on the floor, he’s smaller than you are…please don’t run in the corridors children, have you washed your hands? Let me see them…who threw that baked bean…Your fork should be in your left hand dear…what, left handed? Very well then…Isn’t she? Well she ought to know, what hand do you write with?” And so on and so on. Buzz, buzz, buzz. I ask myself what on earth a teacher must feel like after five hours.

I think the whole point about teaching is that you can never leave your work behind. When your mind is concerned all day with the problems of human beings and not things, you cannot shut them up in a desk drawer – they go home with you. I am sure this is why most teachers I know are so tired by the end of the day. Their minds must feel not only battered but sucked dry.

Every mother knows the infinite patience needed to teach children the elementary skills. How they long to do the things for them instead of gritting their teeth and watching them try to do it for themselves, slowly, clumsily, their tongues sticking out in concentration. But I wonder if they could be as patient with other people’s children. I do not think that anyone who did not care about children would think of going into infant teaching: she could not do her work properly unless she did. But caring about children is one thing; being a mother to them is another. Teachers in infant schools are expected to be just that. There are many five year olds who cannot cope with things like buttoning their coats. Mothers take this kind of thing as part of their job, together with the occasional hazards of wet pants and stomach upsets. Is it not expecting rather too much to ask teachers to do these things?

What a child needs at this age (up to five or six) is someone with patience, firmness, tolerance and compassion to show him gently and lovingly how to cope with life. When he has to share this person with thirty others it is impossible for him to have all the encouragement and interest that is essential to his development.

All this makes me wonder whether it is really necessary for children to start school at all until they are six or seven. Teachers spend years in training for their profession. Is there any reason why they should be use as nursemaids? Their job is to teach children to learn, to think, to read, to write, to deal with figures, not how to tie their shoelaces. If mothers want to send their children away at four or five, let us abolish infant schools and build hundreds of nursery schools.

When the teachers have a weekend off for half term so have I. Instead of thirty children for an hour and a half, I shall have three children for the whole of the day. It will be a pleasure”

There’s a lot in this article that chimes with me as an early years educator. In particular: ratios, teachers’ workload and the future of maintained nursery schools.

The issue of ratios is one that constantly rears its head in the Early Years sector. It has been discussed in the recent past by the Childcare and education minister Sam Gyimah. He is arguing that early years settings should move from the 1:8 ratio towards the 1:13 ratio for adult to children groupings – this being the same as the minimum ratio set for school nursery classes.

Children in school based provision are grouped in higher numbers per teacher, not because said teachers have extra hands or eyes in the backs of their heads. No, the reason these children have less adult support is solely because the adult with them is a qualified teacher. This clearly infers greater capacity to manage all the needs of 13 young children single handedly. As anyone who has ever spent any time with children aged three and four will know, this is simply not true. The nursery teacher however has it easy. Consider the lot of the reception teacher who might be required to manage all the developmental needs of four and five year olds in a group of 30. Clearly quality for children can be lost here in the pursuit of quantity. Young children’s developmental needs do not, generally, vary, regardless of the qualification level of the adults working with them.

Teachers’ workload is also an issue never far from my day to day conversations in schools. I think I only really realized how much time and energy Early Years teaching consumes in your life, when I came out of classroom teaching. I lost the need to rest my mind, to have only silence around me when I finally came home. Suddenly whole weekends became my own – the whole weekend, and evenings too! I found I went into shops and didn’t look at objects with the question “would that be useful in my classroom” lurking in my mind. I realized how all-consuming teaching can become. Although I missed the day to day interactions and fun with children, I didn’t miss the energy sapping, being all things for all children, that a class of thirty reception aged children and their families demands of you.

Another issue raised in the article is the role of nursery schools in providing high quality early education. Ofsted’s own Early Years Report demonstrates that maintained nursery schools “perform as strongly in deprived areas as more affluent ones”, making a difference for the most vulnerable children. Yet the future of our maintained nursery schools remain under threat because of funding arrangements which do not take into account such requirements as having to employ head teachers and qualified teachers to lead learning. Nursery schools have been closing across the country. We continue to face the threat of more of them becoming unsustainable and risk losing this typically outstanding and specialist provision as a result.

I suppose what I can also take from this article is that some things never change. Its date: January 1962.

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