Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

Beccy

Beccy, my latest guest blogger, is someone I only know through twitter, where she tweets as @bird42. Her individual voice shines through in 140 characters more than anyone I’ve ever ‘met’ in social media. For the last year or so, I’ve followed with great interest her humorous and humanistic take on life as a primary school teacher, interspersed with tweets about her family and others containing some truly dreadful pun film titles that often make me laugh out loud.

I was so taken with her optimism and fortitude in the face of her difficult working circumstances, that I suggested that she start a blog, which she did (details below). And of course, I asked her to guest blog for me…

Making love of learning stick

Jo and Jenny are identical twins. Honestly, after a year of teaching them, I can’t tell them apart. And I’ve spent a lot of time with the two of them as they’re both on the SEN register, both have language and learning issues. And when I first took Year 3, neither of them believed they could do anything.

I’d never met children with such a low opinion of their own abilities. And there were many like them in the class. The children were spectacularly down on themselves. They were disengaged. They thought they were “the worst class in the school”.

Obviously, the urge to do something about this was strong. I wanted to give them a boost. I wanted to show how important their efforts were, every legible letter that Jo wrote, every time Jenny wrote her name. ‘We Must Raise Their Self-Esteem’ became my rallying cry.

Up went the Housepoint Chart, the Champion Table Cup appeared, the box of stamps arrived and I shelled out for the finest stickers known to humanity. It was all about the rewards. Their books soon became sticker collections and each day they scanned their work hungrily for smiley faces or the magical “HP”. Aha! Engagement! Enthusiasm!

Wrong.

What I had discovered, like many before me, was Love of Stickers. It’s a long way from Love of Learning. And it wasn’t going to get them anywhere.

Yes, they were eager to open their books, but unless there was a gurning neon face in there, they lost interest immediately. Jo still copied her maths off anyone within eyeshot and Jenny spent a lot of time playing with her shoe velcro. They both still thought they were incapable. I didn’t want them to want stickers or stamps, but to really want to learn.

It’s the Holy Grail, isn’t it? Children who love learning for its own sake; who always strive to achieve their best. We bandy around terms like “learning for life” but I feel that often we simply teach our subjects and hope for the best.

For me, this wasn’t working. The children were struggling horribly with learning and I wasn’t helping them by putting stickers over the wound.

Around this time, I paused from banging my head on the table to pay attention to the Head’s new drive on language for learning. It was good stuff and it made me think about language for the love of learning.

I dragged a name out of my head from the old Child Psychology days. Vygotsky. Scaffolding. Something about zones. It certainly didn’t involve stickers and it put the onus on me to really get involved in the children’s learning. I was going to teach them enthusiasm. Every adult in the room was going to bridge the gap between “have to” and “want to” learn.  The children didn’t feel a sense of achievement, but we could feel it for them and show them how it happens.

I changed my language, made every word of praise count. I put away the shineys and stopped telling them everything was wonderful. I made them earn the whoops of pride. I started to sit down with them and tell them how it was.

“Now this, this is brilliant. Do you know why it’s brilliant? Well, let’s look back to last week. Can you see the difference? You have learned so much this week.  Wow. I am so proud of this. Are you proud of this? You should be. Will you tell your Mum tonight? Tell her: look what I can do!”

Always, I questioned them. What was new? What had they achieved? How did it feel? I told Jo how great it was that I could read every word in her sentence. Was she proud? She shrugged. I told Jenny that she was getting so organised. Wasn’t that great?  She didn’t know. I kept on with it.  In shared writing lessons, I stopped modelling connectives and started modelling the writing process.

“Ooh, I love how I made that sound. That’s just what I wanted. But this sentence is rubbish. I don’t like it, and I know I can make it better. Hang on. Got it. Now look! Isn’t that better? I love this story now. I am on FIRE today!”

It got giggles, of course. I like giggles – I am at heart an old ham. We did the same in shared writing.

“Look what we wrote! Do we sound like authors? Have we scared our socks off with this spooky story? It’s full of great stuff. WE are on fire today!”

I started to see changes. Children would come up to me at break time and tell me they were proud of their writing; how hard they’d tried. Or how they’d told their Mum about their science. Or how pleased they were at learning the next times table. My favourite was always “…and I didn’t think I could do it, but I did!” accompanied by a broad grin.

One day, Jo and Jenny’s mum appeared at the end of school. She was always slightly aggressive and my heart sank a little bit.

She asked about Jo.

“What’s she done? She told me you wanted to see me.”

“No, I didn’t tell Jo I wanted to see you. Jo, what’s this all about?”

After an awkward pause, it transpired that Jo had been so proud of the three sentences that she wrote, that she brought her Mum in so I could show her; which of course I did, while trying not to cry.

The changes came thick and fast. “I’m really pleased with myself” became commonplace. And one day Jenny said to me: “I used to think we were stupid. We used to copy all the time. But we don’t now. Cos we can do it ourselves!” and she bounced out of the classroom.

Children love stickers. But they love feeling good more. As teachers, it’s often up to us to show them how good learning and achieving feels. It’s hard work, and it makes you feel self-conscious doing it. But the feeling lasts so much longer than a stamp; if you’re lucky it might just last for the rest of their lives. And, unlike a sticker, it will never weld itself to the door of the washing machine.

About me….

I trained to be a primary school teacher, then specialised in Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties. I was Senior Leader at one of the few PRUs (Pupil Referral Units) that Ofsted * had anything nice to say about. I ran a team of teachers and support assistants. We did outreach in primary schools with children who were experiencing EBDs and who were at risk of exclusion and we also ran specialist projects.

I also taught Social and Thinking Skills to secondary students who had been permanently excluded from school. Amongst other things, I supported and trained lots of mainstream school staff and ran Behaviour Support Workshops for recently qualified teachers. I’ve recently had a spell back in mainstream primary education which made me sad. I am now having a hard think about What Next. I’m also a very proud mum of two and a general chatterbox.

* For non-UK based readers, Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, a department of HMCI, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. One of Ofsted’s tasks is to monitor the performance of state schools.

Beccy’s blog: http://birdonthesteeple.blogspot.com/

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Comments on: "Guest blog 21 – Beccy on teaching ‘difficult’ primary school pupils…" (7)

  1. A truly heart-warming post! The tug of war between rewards and feeling good about one’s efforts shine through in this article that it will tug many a heart string. You managed to keep the tears back, but we won’t for sure!

  2. Thank you Bethany!

    It’s good to remember when things seem sad that there are lots of teachers out there who are doing an amazing job in difficult circumstances, hopefully without the crying.

  3. Thank you Beccy for your post!! Your post definitely got me teary-eyed… :-) Your desire and determination to truly guide your kids to that place of loving learning and feeling good about their progress is admirable. Your post shows that it changes in our practice and changes in our students don’t happen overnight, but through practice and active reflection we can make a difference!

  4. What a great post! As I was reading, I kept shouting in my head COME TEACH EBD!!!! Then got to the end and saw you do ;o) They get in your blood, don’t they ;o)

    I too feel that if I ever did go back to a mainstream I’d be very, very sad so not planning on that if I can help it.

    I’d love to hear more about your work with Social & Thinking Skills.

  5. Great post!

  6. Hi Beccy,

    How inspiring your post was. I must admit that reading your account of the process you went through to re-engage Jenny and Jo brought back to me all the reasons why I think teachers are amongst the most special human beings on this planet! (closely followed by firefighters!)

    Yes, there are endless hours of trying to work out how to reach the kids in class, yes the challenge is huge in many cases, yes we go through massive emotional rollercoasters (and crying is indeed a good thing at times as it does help us get perspective on things). But there´s no denying that when you´re able to see achievements such as those described by you, you probably feel intensely uplifted and know that that child will never be the same.

    Thanks for sharing with us the intensity of the process of change you brought about.

  7. Thank you all for your thoughtful and kind responses. It’s as well I’m not a blubber, isn’t it? Um.

    I think Mrs Honeysett, that you are right to point out the gradual nature of change. It’s something all teachers are reminded of every September when we start from scratch with a new class and only then realise how far we came with the last one!

    Branka, ebd35 thank you! And I think, ebd35 that the Thinking Skills work in the PRU might have to be my next blog post. Can you hear the cogs turning?

    Valeria, you’re right, there is something faintly miraculous about watching a child of the verge of a breakthrough, even if it brings you to the verge of a breakdown getting there!

    And I think most teachers secretly love the rollercoaster :)

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