Back to work

Return to the Classroom

Return to the Classroom

I went back to work once before.

The Boy was about ten months old and I returned to a new job – before I went on maternity leave I’d had exactly five weeks in this new role at my old workplace. When I returned nearly a year later, I had to re-learn everything. I was very blessed to be able to go to work without needing to send my boy to nursery. Daddy looked after him on one day and a dear friend on the other. But even though it wasn’t costing us money, and he was with family and close friends, I was wracked with guilt. I felt guilty about all sorts of things: that my husband was sacrificing his only day off, that my friend was having to look after a kamikaze baby while trying to home school her own four kids, that I couldn’t do more days at work, that I wasn’t doing fewer days at work. I felt guilty if I left work early and I felt guilty if I picked the Boy up late. I drove drove drove like the wind to get back home or to my friend’s to pick him up at the end of the day.

Mostly, I felt like I was shirking my responsibility. He was my son. I was his Mummy. I should be looking after him.

After a few months, we decided the situation was not ideal, and as I was getting lots of freelance work in at the time, I stopped teaching and became purely self-employed. I worked while the Boy napped/slept and when he was awake I could spend the time with him.

It is now two years on. A lull in the freelance work and the end of maternity pay caused a financial drought and over the summer we decided something had to be done. I applied for a teaching post and got the job: part time, close to home, mostly in the evening which is easy to cover childcare-wise. I do one morning when a kind friend has the kids until after lunch.

Somehow this second return to work is different. I don’t feel guilty. The kids are loving having a bit of special time with Daddy without me around and they love being at my friend’s house. She has a four year old girl who the Boy is slightly in love with, and a 1 year old daughter who is 9 days older than the Girl. The two babies just adore each other and are so cute together that my friend reports never getting any housework done because she just sits and watches them be adorable.

The Fun Bag. It is red and entirely frivolous.

The Fun Bag. It is red and entirely frivolous.

And I am enjoying having a place where people meet me for the first time without two small children hanging off me. I am just Judith to them, or “Teacher”. Slowly, as I prepare lessons and look through the familiar websites and course books, I am remembering what I loved about this job, why I did it in the first place. I feel I am genuinely making a difference to people’s lives and to my community.

Best of all, I get to take my fun bag with me! There are no nappies in it. Just my wallet, my phone, my ID card and some real actual make up. 

So I don’t feel guilty. I feel great. Even the Boy’s new favourite phrase doesn’t make me feel bad: “Oh Mama,” he says, throwing his arms around me, “Zo gemist enenene werk!” [I missed you so much enenene work] I see it as a sign of a healthy attachment. He loves having me around, he misses me when I am gone and is pleased when I return – but he is clearly not distraught or worried that he has been abandoned.

Really, apart from an initial settling in period at my friend’s house back when he was ten months old, he has always been quite content and secure and not half as mummy-ish as I imagine him to be. As for my daughter, she didn’t even need settling. She merrily starts waving me goodbye as soon as I put my coat on, even if she is coming with me and we’re just popping to the shops. And so I have come to realise that two years ago, it was me who had the separation anxiety. I didn’t want to give up being a full time mother just yet.

This time, though, the time is right to broaden my horizon again. This time, I really am ready to go back to work.

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Reinventing Education: The Role of the Teacher

Clean SlateClean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

In Part 4 last week, I started thinking about the role of the teacher, but ended up focusing on mentoring and bringing a family atmosphere into school instead. So this week I really will discuss the all important topic of what the teacher’s role will be in my Sandpit School.

I have put a lot of emphasis on learning being instigated by the child in my new school. The children decide what they want to learn and when and have a great measure of freedom to explore their interests. You could be forgiven for thinking that I am arguing that teachers are redundant or even in the way. In Part 1 of Clean Slate I already go some way towards explaining how I see the teacher’s role, but I would like to go into a little more detail here.

Guide

Tourists mostly explore by themselves, but appreciate being able to consult a guide (book)

Tourists mostly explore by themselves, but appreciate being able to consult a guide (book)

In a school designed to help children explore the world and discover new interests, one of the teacher’s most important roles is that of a Guide. On arriving in a new country you have no idea what there is to see and do, so you turn to a guide (book) – someone who has lived or been there before, has many years of experience and knows their way around. Children are in effect new immigrants on earth. One of the things I love about spending my days with my two small people is that everything is new and exciting to them. They have no idea what the world has to offer and every new discovery is the best thing yet.

The teacher has the privilege of being a Tour Guide to Life. They should be a sensitive guide: not killing off the enthusiasm of their charges by their own prejudices or cynicism (“Oh you wouldn’t like medieval art, it’s a bit boring” or “Don’t bother with Arabic, you’d have to learn all the special letters. It’s too difficult.”) but hanging back long enough to find out what each child is like in order to get a good idea of what they might enjoy. The Guide lets tourists spend as long as they like exploring an old ruin, even if they have seen it many times before themselves, but then knows when to suggest moving on to another location so they don’t miss out on other fantastic sights.

Expert

When you are discovering a new interest, you can get quite far on your own. Let’s say you have heard of archeology and you decide to get a spade and have a go at it in your own garden. You have fun digging and finding. Perhaps you dig up some objects which you then take inside and start to examine. You can decide what you think they are and how old they are and what they are made of, using your own current limited knowledge. But there will come a point – and mostly people come to this point all by themselves – where they will want to look up more information. Most of us go on the Internet and will Google: “old pot with two handles” to see what comes up. We might go to the library and find some books on archeology. Some of us might be lucky enough to have friends, relatives or acquaintances who have some experience in the field and we can show them our find and ask them about it. These experts will either be able to gives us answers or give us good tips on where the answers can be found.

The teacher as expert provides these avenues of broadening the child’s knowledge and experience. Firstly, by providing a classroom that is equipped for self-study. It will have folders with fact files, relevant books and posters and computers or tablets with which children can access the Internet. The teacher can assist where needed by helping with these peripheral but essential research skills. Secondly, the teacher will themselves be the expert, who can provide answers when asked or point the child in the direction of where the answers can be found.

The teacher as expert is sensitive to where the child is at and is responsive rather than intrusive. Some people are happy just digging in the garden. If, even after a long wait, even after other junior archeologists have come and shared what they have found out, even after the expert has shown them pictures of dig-sites and examples of what you can discover with a bit of research, a child is still just happy digging in the garden, then let them. Closer inspection may reveal that their interest was not in archeology at all, but in dogs, or mini beasts, or gardening. The teacher can then gently encourage them to go and do some more exploring in the Biology Wilderness, for example.

Lecturer/Story teller

The two roles I have outlined so far are very hands-off. They involve a lot of preparation before school starts in setting up rooms, but very little traditional “teaching” while a session is in progress. However, I definitely see a place for direct transference of information from teacher to students en masse, not just one-to-one on demand. Everyone has their preferences when it comes to learning. There are plenty of children who benefit greatly from sitting down and listening to someone tell great stories. Not just fiction, but great stories such as “What is courage?” and “Who was Leonardo da Vinci?” and “What is a chemical reaction?”. Sitting down and listening in itself is a skill worth learning for everyone and it will get you far in life. It also provides some structure to an otherwise very free learning environment.

So in the Sandpit School, there could be set times in the day or week when you can go and listen to great stories being told by people who know their stuff. These will be the teachers, because the teachers are experts on their subjects, but they can also be visiting speakers. Children can ask questions and get involved, and these, too, will be occasions to both discover potential new interests and go deeper into the topics that already fascinate you.

Advisor

Mary: a child learning about nature through experimentation.

Finally, when a session is coming to an end, the teacher once again becomes your tour guide, advising you where you might like to go next based on what you have seen so far. If you are in the English room and you have just started reading The Secret Garden, the teacher might suggest you go to the school garden next to find snow drops or plant flowers – or perhaps to the History Room to find out what clothes Mary might have been wearing. If you are in the kitchen and you have been baking pancakes, you might ask the teacher why the syrup has made your hands sticky. The teacher would then suggest going to the Questions Lab for your next session to do experiments and find out more.

The teacher as advisor is sensitive, and gives advice when asked, based on what genuinely seems to flow from the child’s current projects – not from a desperate need to create reasons to send them to the Maths room.

Your Turn

What else do you think a teacher should or should not aim to do in a curriculum guided by the students?

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Reinventing Education: The Mentor and the Family

Clean Slate

Clean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

Welcome back to Clean Slate, my initiative to scrap school and start again from scratch.

The Story so far

In Part 1, we looked at motivation as the key factor in learning.

In Part 2, I suggested school should be structured to allow pupils to explore and pursue their interests.

In Part 3, I imagined the Sandpit School and sketched an example ‘class room’/session.

And so we arrive at Part 4, which you see before you. I started writing about the role of the teacher, but found there were so many other sub-topics lurking that I would need to split this into several posts. Today is about the teacher as mentor, and about providing children with a safe base at school. I realise that a lot of my ideas on learning so far have been very individual and that they might result in a child seeing different people at each lesson he goes to on a given day, which wouldn’t provide much in the way of continuity. So here is my suggestion.

A Surrogate Family

At my hypothetical Sandpit School, children would start the day with half an hour in a ‘home’ group, with their mentor. They are encouraged to regard their group as a ‘family’, a ‘house’ or a ‘team’. Many children come from warm, loving families already – hopefully the home group will simply serve to help them recognise school as familiar and safe. For those children whose home lives are less than ideal, who don’t have a place where they feel unconditionally loved, the home group could become the one place in the world where there are people who will look out for you and support you, like in a family. And like in a family, the children in your group will be of all different ages and stages in the school. The older ones can help the younger ones if they are struggling – with school work, practicalities, or with life.

The teacher who acts as mentor for the group is responsible for the well-being of their charges in the school. The children will see their mentor every day, regardless of the subjects they choose to explore, and hopefully the mentor will become someone they trust enough to turn to with any issues at school or at home – a bit like a parent.

The Desired Outcome

The mentor is responsible for helping the home group to be a model of what family can and should be:

1. A place of acceptance
2. A safe place
3. A place you can come to for guidance and advice

Like in a family, not everyone will get on all the time, not everyone will be close friends with everyone, but the home group will stick together. If you are five years old and lost, a member of your home group will be a friendly face to help you back to your class. If you are getting bored of dinosaurs but don’t know where to start with discovering a new interest, your mentor knows you well enough to suggest you go to the Questions Lab to find out about fire, or you can talk to another student and ask them what they have done that was good.

Ultimately, if done right, the home group will help children (especially those who do not get this from their own parents and siblings) to leave school with a positive blue print for family-style relationships that they can implement in their own lives. Even if home for them was a place of terror and neglect, they will have this supportive group and supportive teacher to look back on to inspire them to create a better life for their own children.

How to make it happen

Everybody needs a place like this. It is human nature to seek out or create a group of people who are like family and stick with them through thick or thin.

This is why young people get involved in football teams, or school plays.

This is why teenagers end up in gangs.

They want to be a part of a group that cares, that protects its members, that shares a common goal and has in-jokes they can laugh at that nobody else understands. Us against the world.

The best families provide this for their children. If we give our children acceptance, safety and guidance, they will still look for their own groups and teams, but these groups won’t replace the family, merely supplement it.

So how do you get a group of children of various ages to become a team, a home, a family?

1. They need to have time together: besides half an hour at the start of each day, home groups could reconvene at the end of the day to chat about what they have done and get ready to go home. There could be an a time slot each week for home groups to meet together for longer. Time is the baseline, without time together it will never work.

Families go to the supermarket together and do the washing up.

Families go to the supermarket together and do the washing up.

2. They need to share a common goal and cooperate to achieve it: during sports days or other school-wide events the home groups will function as teams and compete against each other. This plays into the sports/football analogy. During their weekly slot, home groups could work on a big collaborative project that will be displayed to the school. It could be a play, or a craft project, or a big display or experiment. They could make a film together or write a magazine. This plays into the drama analogy. These kinds of big scale events and projects are the hot house in which group cohesion is cultivated. (I would advise against learning from the gang example, though…)

3. They need to share both special and every day moments: families have holidays together, they celebrate birthdays and Sunday lunches. They appear in photographs together, smiling and wearing silly hats. They share jokes and poke fun at each other. They play games and watch TV together. They hang out the laundry and mow the lawn. The home group can decide to have breakfast together in the mornings before sessions start. They bring cakes for birthdays and have parties to celebrate each other’s achievements. This is the glue that holds a family together.

What was your safe place as a child? How do you think school can help give children positive blueprints for family life? How can you encourage a supportive environment in a group of children of various ages? Help me improve my ideas!

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Can’t Stop Teaching

I believe in transferable skills. I think nothing you learn is wasted. I spent my summers as a teenager keeping my father’s online bibliography updated and later that knowledge of HTML got me the kudos I needed to be asked to teach my peers computer skills at university. This experience then got me a part-time job in the UK, where I finished my degree, and that experience in turn looked good enough on my CV to get a teaching job in an FE college fresh from my English-as-a-Foreign-Language teacher training. In fact, the position vacant was for teaching IT to immigrants who were learning English. The job was just meant for me.

IT classroom

Old classroom

Anyway, I am now no longer teaching English or IT. I am now teaching an 8 month old and a 2 and a half year old about the world. I teach them about food: what it tastes like, how to eat it, what society expects of you vis-a-vis cutlery, what the meals of the day are called, how eating lots of snacks before a meal fills you up so you’re not hungry for the meal anymore, that food comes from a shop where you have to pay for it before you’re allowed to tuck in and that it requires preparation at home, during which time Mummy is very stressed and cranky and unlikely to look favourably on repeated requests for bread sticks.

I am also teaching them about gravity, balance, the economy, road safety, speed, concentration, delayed gratification, time, seasons, distance, rhythm, rhyme, sharing, turn taking, friendship, missing people, disappointment, unfairness, saying sorry when you’ve messed up and that brushing your teeth is non-optional.

Oh, and I’m probably also teaching them English and IT.

And it struck me the other day, that there are many techniques and skills that I learned as a teacher that are very useful in parenting as well. I’ll share a few with you here:

1. Let them try things out for themselves: Don’t jump in and do the puzzle for them, impatient for it to be done, or worried that they’ll be scarred for life if they can’t do it. Give them a fair chance to try it out for themselves. They’ll ask for your help if they need it. Your confidence in them will give them confidence in themselves.

New classroom

New classroom

2. Keep instructions short and to the point: Imagine you’re a beginner, learning a new language, and the teacher says “Now, what I want you to do today is- basically, we’re going to learn about the past tense, which is talking about the past, and to do that I’d like you to sit with a friend, or just someone next to you, why don’t you find a partner, or maybe I’ll just split you up into pairs, we’ll start here…” You get the idea. You’d probably panic and possibly run out of the room. Toddlers have the language, but not the patience to listen to lots of waffle. They have playing to do. “Coat, please,” is about long enough for an instruction.

3. Make praise specific: I clearly praise my toddler a lot, because he praises me back. “Well done, Mummy,” he tells me when I have switched on his favourite TV show. But just “well done” is meaningless. If you want your praise to have the desired effect – that is, to affirm and encourage the good thing your child did – you need to make sure they know what it is they did that was so good. “Good painting” is okay; “I love those colours, they’re so bright” is better. “Good boy” means very little; “Well done for giving Tom back his truck” will help your toddler know what it was about his behaviour that was good.

4. Model best practice: If you’re a teacher trainer, you’d better be a good teacher yourself. If you are teaching IT, it doesn’t look good for your students’ knowledge of hardware to be more up to date than yours (as I found to my detriment…) If you are teaching your children how to live, you need to model best practice. I know. This is tough. But if you want them to handle the cat gently, it is not good for them to see you chucking him out the back door shouting “And don’t come back!”. If you want them to share their treats, they can’t see you refusing to give him and Daddy a piece of your ginormous chocolate bar. (All true examples from real life). By all means, get angry, be mean, hormonal, stressed, anxious, tired. Just model for them how to deal with those emotions positively, and how to apologise for the less than ideal things you do when you are feeling them.

I had to battle constantly to remind myself of these principles when I was teaching; the same is true now that I am a parent. Just knowing what might be good practice doesn’t mean you do it automatically, sadly. But every now and then, I will remember to give specific praise before I’ve opened my mouth, or I will remember after an angry outburst that I am meant to model for my son how to live, and I can apologise to him for shouting and tell him I love him.

How about you: what transferable skills have you got from your Career Before Parenting that you fall back on now?

Occupational Hazard

Before my son was born I Entry 1 Aims Objectivestaught English to immigrants and asylum seekers at a college. I enjoyed teaching higher levels most, as it afforded me the best opportunities for language geekiness – really getting my teeth into the finer points of grammar and pronunciation, stretching the students’ vocabulary and exploring essay and story writing. My last tutor group, however, was a beginners’ group. I was very nervous at the start of the year, not sure if I would be able to do a good job or whether I’d enjoy it, but I loved it. The students were so lovely and grateful for anything you did for them and teaching-wise it was also extremely enjoyable. You see so much progress in a year with beginners. Also, absolutely anything you do with them will help improve their language and their confidence, so we went on outings to the cafe, the park, the British Museum and the local ecology centre.

What I found essential for communicating with my students and building a good rapport was what us English teachers like to call ‘grading your language’, which basically means choosing words like “trip” instead of “expedition” and trying not to use endlessly long sentences with subclauses and past perfect continuous tenses. It also helps to make eye contact and face your student when talking to them, and trying not to mumble or speak too fast. I can actually think of quite a few walks of life where we could benefit from people grading their language.

These essential skills for teaching I am now finding a bit of a hindrance in speaking to my Toddler. He is not a fifty-five year old Afghani woman who is leaving the house on her own for the first time and already has a native language interfering with the learning of English. He is at the peak of his language learning abilities. He is like a little sponge, soaking up everything he hears. He repeats anything you say to him, as if he is tasting the words. He picks things up when you weren’t even sure he was listening. He is absorbing two different languages at once and sorting them into their appropriate context without any need for formal instruction or homework. The things that will help him learn are not the things that will help a group of nervous, adult beginners.

I know this, yet out of habit I find myself grading my language. I use words that I know he has already mastered and use the same phrases in the same situations. In fact, I find myself worrying about other people ‘confusing him’ by using different expressions to me. When I want the Toddler to ask for something politely, I say: “Can you ask me nicely?” However, other people will say: “What’s the magic word?” or “What do you say?” The evidence suggests that he has absolutely no trouble recognising that all these questions require the same response, but instinctively, I feel I need to limit his language input.

The opposite is true. I need to radically re-wire myself. The Toddler needs more, not less, variety in his language input. Unlike an adult, who has already got all their concepts of the world sorted but needs to learn to map them to a new language, he is learning about life at the same time as learning to speak. Everything in the world is new to him and he wants to know how things work, what they are and how he can talk about them. He knows ‘good’, so now it’s time to learn ‘excellent’, ‘fantastic’, ‘amazing’ and ‘wonderful’. He knows you can ‘fly’ on a plane, so now he needs to know that you can ‘soar’ and ‘zoom’ and ‘lift off’ and ‘touch down’ and that birds and kites and Superman can do flying as well. Instead of limiting myself to conversational topics that can be expressed in the present tense, I should discuss the past and the future and conditionals and passives and mights and used tos.

Technically, this is still “grading your language”. I just need to grade it up, not down.