Back to school

Something old and something new today. I went back to school. As some people may be aware, one of the options I’m considering is a PGCE (or PGDE if I do it in Scotland) to convert my IT degree into a teaching qualification – preferably with primary kids. As such, it made a bit of sense to see what a primary school is like these days. After all, I honestly don’t think I’ve stepped foot in one since I was a student at Wester Overton in Strathaven. And I was about 13 then.

To work with children in the UK, you generally require some kind of disclosure form from the police to prove you’re not a criminal. I actually had one of these from over two years ago, as I needed one when I was thinking about shifting to New Zealand, but it’s out of date now. I applied for one of these, but it takes up to 14 days to arrive. Fortunately, as I was only to be visiting for a day and because Leah vouched for me (she’s a teacher at the school I was to visit), they deemed this unnecessary. If I decide to go back and help out more frequently, or get involved in doing the course then I will need one of these bits of paper.

The school is a very new one with all mod cons, shiny fixtures and so on. It’s also in a very nice area not too far from where Leah lives. It could pass for a decent sized medical centre or clinic on first glance – it even has a reception on the way in. My first school never had anything so posh! You walked straight into a hallway (after a lot of stairs) with classrooms off it.

This place is a world apart. No stairs, I assume for full accessibility for anyone in a wheelchair. Many of the classrooms don’t even have doors which has it’s up and down points. All of the rooms have these funky new electronic white boards which are way cool. At first glance you think “what’s wrong with a blackboard?” (sorry – chalkboard. “Blackboard” is racist these days. The mind boggles) until you realise all the great things these screens can do. Without a doubt they make things easier for the teacher, quicker to set up and so on – and that’s before you even consider how they make everything that bit more “zingy” and interesting for the kids.

Other than those differences, it was much as I imagined and to some extent remembered. Only newer and more shiny. Small chairs for small people at small desks. Little libraries. Units with slide-out drawers for each pupil. Coat-racks at the right height for them to be able to hang things up and poke their eyes out. Those kinds of things.

The school had even arranged a little timetable for me. I guess they get a few postgrads, or interested parties and so on who want to get a feel for things the same was as I did. My first “lesson” was with Leah and her Primary 4 class. That places the majority of them around the 7-year mark agewise and I was amazed with how open and chatty they were.

I’m a new guy. They hadn’t seen me before, didn’t know my name (though I did get one of those great musical “Good morning Mr Purdie!” greetings when they were prompted – that rocked) but were more than happy to stick their hands up or ask me for help when Leah was busy with one group.

You know those Nintendo mental game packages that they’re using to push the DS handheld console? Forget it. Teaching fractions to 7 year olds is just as challenging, a lot more rewarding, infinitely more interactive – and you can get paid to do it.

Even after just a couple of hours I got to spot the class clown, the pushy girl, the little cliques and so on. Possibly the two boys who’d grow up to join the army together despite spending half the day at each other’s throats. Never a dull moment.

After break – signalled by the most annoying and overloud (and overlong) beeping alarm I’ve ever experienced – I joined another class in the ICT room. All the PCs look as new as the rest of the building, and the class were in for maths being taken by a supply teacher. This group was a mix of mainly P7 with a couple of P6s who were doing particularly well with numbers – a great idea, in my opinion. Don’t hold someone back if they’re doing well.

Their task was mental maths, mainly addition and “take-aways” while I had a natter with their teacher about what her job’s like and so forth. She was in awe of the electronic whiteboards as well. One great example she gave was of a school she’d been in recently where the screen was on when children filtered in first thing in the morning. They each dragged and dropped their namebadge into a box to say what kind of lunch they were after. This was then fed direct to the secretary who aggregated all the input and passed it to the canteen. Superb idea – it warmed my inner geek.

Before knuckling down to written work it was educational to watch the children doing addition in their heads… and then being asked how they did it. A simple question: add 17 and 46. Not the hardest bit of maths to do in your head. But how did you arrive at the answer? I counted at least five different methods being described by the class when they were asked. It’s not something you even think about until you question someone else’s methods.

Enough number for the day and I moved on to a class being taken by one of the three male teachers in the school. For some reason teaching is a predominantly female career path, massively so in the primary sector. The three men here are outnumbered about 4:1 at a rough count by female colleagues. At the secondary level, the difference is less noticeable apparently – although the last secondary school I went to only had three female staff.

This class is what would have been, in my day, RE (Religious Education) or RI (Religious Instruction). In my primary school, this is what it was used for and was (as far as I can recall) always about Christianity. By the time I got to my last secondary school it was more of a catch-all class for social studies. It included religious tuition although it wasn’t limited to one school of thought, and it also encompassed things like basic sex education. Society had changed, and education to fit it. The students at that school came from a much wider area background than the catchment area profile of my primary school, so teaching about just one religion wouldn’t have been right.

Such is the case here. The class I was in with were being taught about Hindu weddings, and the differences between them and Christian ones. Indeed, the teacher even brought in registry offices and weddings not taking places in church at all. Some religious zealots would doubtless fling their hands up and despair at this, then threaten to sue the council. Mind, some religious zealots are trying to force children to be taught Genesis instead of Darwin in their biology classes in the US – this is because they’re idiots.

I found it refreshing. If there’s a time in life where people have an open mind, this is it. At no point did the teacher say that one was better than the other, or anything of that ilk. He pointed out differences, similarities, choices, options, traditions and so on. Once again the funky whiteboard came into use. As it’s attached to a PC which is online, a simple trip to Yahoo! and a video of a Hindu wedding was shown. No messing about trying to borrow a projector or wheeling a TV in with a clunky video recorder.

Lunch arrived and as Leah attended a meeting for it all (you think teachers get a break?) I walked down to the high street and picked up some delicious if unhealthy baked products to munch on.

After filling my belly, the afternoon began with an art class. For this, a “specialist” had been brought in. This is done for a few subjects at the school, also including music and PE. The class teacher observes and helps out while someone trained in the actual subject teaches. It also gives her a chance to get on with other tasks, just as marking work.

Now, I can’t draw the proverbial straight line, although I do a mean cartoon spaceman. The class today was about drawing faces in portrait. None of the children had done this before, at least not in school, and I have to say I was well impressed with how it all turned out. The specialist was a little “old-school” to start – quite strict and no-nonsense – but she settled down once the drawing began and results started to appear.

I was impressed. Easily half of them were way better than anything I could produce – and these were P7 children, around a third of my age. I actually enjoyed the class myself, as I learned from it. I’ve never been taught much art-wise – my art classes at school generally consisted of “here’s some stuff – draw/paint it” with no instruction on how. I’m still no Salvador Dali or Arthur Ranson, but at least I now know what the proportions of a face are.

After an hour or so, I was nabbed and moved into the gym with a P6 class. I have to say that gym is just as I remembered it back when I was that age. Only the music’s different. The wall bars are the same, the benches with the hooks on the end are still there, and kids still find their own personal space by swinging their arms around. They also don’t cry when they fall over as they’re enjoying themselves.

Again, there was a specialist PE teacher (one of two the school uses) while the class teacher observed. Last term was touch rugby and games, this term it’s gymnastics and the children really took to it. I remember the days when I had no shame *sigh*.

All too soon, the day was at a near end. I returned to Leah’s class as they were tidying up (one buy ran up to show me pictures of the dalmatian puppy his family had just bought) and watched them all file out and head home. The teacher’s day isn’t over when the little ones leave, though. Tidying, marking and preparing for the morning has to be done first.

I really enjoyed myself. Time flew. Could I do it for a living? I think so. I’d like to spend a bit more time getting a feel for it before I committed to it, but it’s certainly an option I’d be happy to consider. Besides, it’s a very portable skill (like IT and diving) so I could take it anywhere.

Just in case any of them read this, I have to say a huge thanks to Leah for sorting it out and to the school for letting me in for the day. They know who they are. And also to the kids for being really good and not scaring me! I think I’m back next Thursday, too, to help with their “eco” day.

Looking forward to it!

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