Lesson 73. The Maverick Teacher

Lesson 73 on Relationships – sad and happy

Miss Maverick worked on the far side of the activity area shared with Mr TopJuniors.  Although there were folding room dividers that could be closed between the area and the classrooms, these were almost always kept partially open.  In fact none of the classrooms in Owen’s school were regarded as private. Doors and partitions were left open. The generous spaces between areas meant that classes rarely disturbed one another.

Miss Maverick preferred not to have other adults in her class.  She had her own ways of working and another person disturbed the delicate balance she had established within her difficult group.  The class contained some very troubled children. Any change easily triggered a meltdown, but Miss Maverick recognised the warning signals and implemented a range of strategies for defusing trouble at an early stage. Other adults got in the way.

The only time I was called across from Mr TopJuniors was when she needed somebody to temporarily supervise the group, while she dealt with a sudden blow up.  Danny had simply had enough.  He had got through the morning, but by afternoon he was beside himself with tiredness and distress.  There had been a major incident at home the previous night.

When I was in teacher training I used to remind my students that children are sent to school in circumstances which would have adults signed off sick or given compassionate leave. Pupils experienced bereavement and parental desertion. They witnessed domestic violence, drug overdoses, drunken fights and quarrels, but the next day they would be back in school.  Often the adults needed the children out of the way, while they tried to cope themselves. 

Danny fell into that category. On this particular afternoon he stormed around the classroom, refusing to sit down.  Fighting back tears he yelled defiance at Miss Maverick.  What he really wanted was her whole attention for himself. He wanted to be hugged and comforted.  Yet he couldn’t lose face so he had to be bad.

Miss Maverick manoeuvred him into the activity area, and waved me into the classroom. Then she set about talking him down. It was hard. She had to get him to see that he couldn’t do this here.  In school there were other people who needed attention too. However he felt, the class couldn’t function if people went into meltdown.

In the end he calmed down sufficiently to sit at a table scowling. The class were remarkably tolerant of outbursts provided they knew Miss Maverick had everything under control. They settled down to work.

Miss Maverick was firm and unflappable, even in such fraught and heart-rending situations.  The class had to be a place where every pupil’s right to learn was respected.  Nobody could claim a monopoly on attention.

However Miss Maverick sought to balance out her pupils’ dark, difficult times with stacks of happiness. Her class had a whole repertoire of favourite songs, which they sang with gusto.  They wrote silly poems.  They decorated the walls.  One morning they disturbed us next door by singing Happy Birthday to Miss Maverick’s mother on her mobile phone.

When the weather permitted they grabbed every opportunity to play games outside.  They were given the chance to enjoy things. They read exciting stories and made up their own.  They told jokes.

My clearest memory of Miss Maverick was of her sitting on a bench at the edge of the school field one playtime.  She had one child on her lap, two others leaning on her on either side and another behind her, arms draped round her neck.  They were all laughing.

She caught me looking and called out.

“Now Mrs Wise, isn’t this the best job in the world? Where else could you get so many hugs?”

I smiled back.

Those were innocent times.

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Lesson 72. The Trouble with Box Ticking

Lesson 72 on Meeting individual needs

I worked with Mr TopJuniors from time to time whenever he needed an extra pair of hands.  His greatest strength was managing the wide range of abilities amongst the challenging individuals in his class. This he did with patience and good humour.  He was straight talking and consistent when it came to sticking to classroom rules.  He never put people down. 

Arthur was one of the challenges he had to deal with.  Arthur desperately wanted to be good, but he found school work hard.  He had moved back and forth between schools as the family fortunes ebbed and flowed.  He had difficulty focusing on tasks, and there were so many gaps in his basic knowledge that he was constantly interrupting and begging for assistance.  This was a source of irritation to his fellow pupils.  It led to arguments and unsettled the group.

Poor Arthur was so eager to be liked and wanted so much to be helpful,  but his unremitting efforts served rather to annoy and hinder the work of those around him, till they tried even the good nature of his teacher.

So Mr TopJuniors devised a strategy for saving Arthur from himself and at the same time protecting everybody else from his well-meaning attentions.

There was a shared activity area connecting his class and the two neighbouring groups. It was easy to move between all three classes through the common area.  The teachers cooperated and often worked on joint projects and activities. Together they came up with a sharing Arthur scheme. 

Arthur’s day was scheduled between the different groups for particular activities.  It was not unusual for pupils to move between groups for different purposes.  Also any pupil who was having a bad day in their own class could be informally moved into another class for time out.  All it needed was a quick word between teachers across the activity area.  In Arthur’s case, however, this was a structured long term plan.

It had two aims.  The first was to give Arthur a chance to master areas of work he had missed, the second was to stop him driving everybody else mad.

But the plan left his teachers with a problem.  It was hard to match these objectives to Ofsted criteria.

There wasn’t an Arthur box. 

Lesson 71. A Bit of Bother

Lesson 71 on The further adventures of Arthur

Long ago, when pupils were away for a week on a family holiday, all that happened when they got back was that their teacher asked them if they had a nice time.  In the case of Owen’s school not many people had such a treat and the few who did generally took advantage of bargain weeks at a caravan park not that far away.

In the normal course of events hardly anybody left the town.  There was a general reluctance to stray from familiar surroundings and routines.

The main places pupils visited at weekends were the town centre, the match and Nan’s.  The match was a big expense, but it was amazing how much of some families’ budget must have gone on the team, in one way or another.  A handful of families even had season tickets.

As a rule few children ventured far from the estate, even although the seaside was only a bus ride away.  One of the older girls explained to me that she didn’t want to miss anything.

“I was in the bath when it all kicked off, but I jumped out and got in my pyjamas quick, so I could go out and see what was going on!”

Family altercations spilled out into the street for the entertainment of the neighbours, and fights were a regular occurrence,  especially after drink had been taken. One boy, writing about “What I want to do when I grow up”, had this to say on the topic of family life.

“I want to get married, because if you are on your own there is nobody to row with when you come back from the club on a Friday night.”

One Monday, when we came into school after the weekend, Arthur was spotted anxiously looking for the headteacher, right after he had dropped April off.  He was reluctant to tell Mr TopJuniors the reason. He just needed to speak to the head.  All he would say was that he was in a bit of bother. He was given permission to wait in the corridor outside her office.

When the head came back from checking everyone safely in, she ushered him into her room.

Arthur had a shamefaced confession to make.  He wanted to warn her that he was afraid the police would be getting in touch with the school about him.

“What makes you think that, Arthur?” she enquired stiffly.

“I was picked up shoplifting on Saturday, Mrs Head,” Arthur explained.

Sadly such stories did not come as a shock to Mrs Head, but she was sorry to hear this from Arthur.

“And where you were you picked up Arthur?”

“In the Metro Centre, Mrs Head,'” Arthur confessed. 

“The Metro Centre!” Mrs Head gasped. Even after an entire career in the town, teaching could still spring surprises. The Metro Centre was miles away.  Only one question about the whole matter occupied her mind.

“But Arthur, how on earth did you get there?”

Lesson 70 Where There’s a Will…

Lesson 70 on Finding ways

Outings and trips at Owen’s school had to be carefully spaced out because there wasn’t much money around. Over 90% of pupils were on free school meals.  Because everybody was hard up, it had been found impossible to single out individuals for special assistance. Instead the total cost was subsidised from a governors’ kitty raised through donations, sponsorship and fund raising. But everybody still needed to make a set contribution to cover the full cost.

So the rule was that you had to pay to go.  Bearing this in mind, all trips were planned to keep expense to a  minimum and plenty of notice was given, so that people could pay by small weekly instalments. The system worked well.

The major day excursion every year was to a countryside adventure and education centre. The whole school went. It was a keenly anticipated event.  Preparations and planning began early on. The first challenge was to ensure enough waterproof footwear for all the infants. Collection of borrowed and outgrown wellingtons began well in advance.

I overheard Mrs Classteacher instructing her class.

“You will all have to wear waterproof boots or shoes. It will be really wet and muddy in places.”

The class looked unmoved by this information.  She gave up and started again.

“Now listen! You’ll all need your wellies, because it’ll be dead clarty!”

That got the message across.

As the day approached, however, a problem became evident.  Arthur, who organised things for his two younger siblings, had found raising the money for all three of them beyond his powers. Somehow he had managed to scrape together enough money from home to keep the instalments for April and Aidan up to date, but he couldn’t manage to pay his own.

Arthur was not popular with his peers. He had little in common with them.  His family moved in and out of the area, depending on the state of their finances and convictions, so he had never had the chance to become a part of any friendship network.  He preferred to be with grown ups.  To breach the “no pay” rule, just for him, would have made him even more of an outcast, as the truth of the matter would inevitably have come out one way or another.

The day came when the whole school except Arthur had their instalments paid in full.  A face-saving solution was urgently needed to enable Arthur to go.

I can’t remember exactly who came up with the answer, but it arose from the fact that Arthur was the person who brought April to school each morning.

Arthur could be recruited as a teachers’ helper, just like other volunteers from amongst the Mams and Nans who delivered their infant charges to school every day!

Problem solved!  Not only would Arthur get to come, but he would also be able to enjoy the day in his helper role.

As for his fare and admission, the head paid that herself.

Lesson 69. Shivawn’s Shoes

Lesson 69 on Practical and financial matters

Shivawn sat at April’s table.  She was a very, very picky eater. The school doctor who carried out routine checks and immunisations said she was undernourished.  The head teacher knew the family well.  There were a number of siblings and their mother often found it hard to cope. She wasn’t neglectful or uncaring, but she was a poor organiser and she was bad with money.  She couldn’t add up. 

This was a problem for a number of families.  It made them very vulnerable to the lure of weekly payments, especially when purchasing from catalogues.  They only thought in terms of the weekly total and didn’t realise how much they ended up paying over the odds.

Shivawn’s mother regularly turned up to seek advice on practical matters.  The head didn’t have an “open door” policy as such.  She didn’t need one.  She was rarely in her office for long. She was out and about in school. The parents could always find her at the start of the morning or afternoon, welcoming (and keeping a watchful eye on) the pupils as they filed in.

Shivawn’s eating was one matter on which the head was consulted. It was agreed that the school would ensure that a yoghurt was consumed at breaktime.  Shivawn wouldn’t be allowed the standard reward biscuit until it had all been spooned into her. It was a task that frequently fell to me and it was a long job.  At least it wasn’t as bad as getting her to eat her school dinner. That required a whole range of of bribes.

One day Mrs Reception noticed her limping as she came into class and investigation showed that the sole of one of her shoes had disintegrated.  A quick search of the lost property only came up with an aged pair of flip flops roughly approximating to her size, but enough to see her through the afternoon and get her home.

The next day Shivawn wasn’t in school. An older brother brought in a note to say she was going down the town. In those benighted times going down the Civic or the Social or the town centre for shoes was a familiar reason for a morning’s absence.  Demands for housing transfers or clothing grants were widely considered more likely to succeed if you took a troop of needy children with you. As far as the shoes were concerned, many pupils only had the one pair, so if they gave out during the week, an emergency trip to the town was necessary.

The following day Shivawn was back flaunting her new shoes. The town trip had been successful.

“But Shivawn,” asked Mrs Reception, “How on earth did you manage to get there?”

“We went on the bus,” replied Shivawn proudly

“But what did you wear on your feet?” Mrs Reception pursued the matter.

“Oh it was fine, Miss,” Shivawn reassured her. “I went in my socks!”

Lesson 68. April’s Breakfast

Lesson 68 on Caring

I was so lucky in the people I worked with.  One of the best was an educational psychologist of remarkable and varied experience.  She had started her career working with Anna Freud in Vienna amongst street children in the aftermath of the second World War.

She was analytical, perceptive and totally non-judgemental.  She had seen the best and worst of humanity. One day I asked her why she felt some of our children survived while others simply turned their face to the wall and gave up. She thought a little before she replied.

“When I was in Vienna we worked with children who had been orphaned, displaced and left to fend for themselves. The ones who survived and went on to have settled adult lives were those who had formed themselves into family groups.  They cared for each other.  The most capable looked out for the weaker. From my experience I would say, having people to care for and people who care for you.”

I often thought of her when I was at Owen’s school.

One of Owen’s classmates was April.  She was a slight little thing with fine blonde hair, who seemed to live in a perpetual dream.  She seldom showed any disposition to work, so I spent quite a bit of time with her attempting by various means to persuade her that it was quite useful to learn to read.

One day we were talking about what we had for breakfast, (it might have been something to do with the Healthy Eating campaign). April brightened up.

” I had a lovely breakfast!” she offered her contribution to the group discussion.

” Really April? What made your breakfast special?” I was delighted. April rarely joined in with enthusiasm.

“We had apple crumble! With ice cream!” The others in the group expressed a mixture of disbelief and envy.

“Are you sure, April?” I enquired tentatively

” Oh yes! It was a treat! ” April stuck to her story with determination. “There was nothing else! It was all Arthur could find in the freezer. He put the apple crumble in the microwave. It was lovely!”

Arthur was her eleven year old brother, who brought her into the cloakroom every morning, helped her hang up her coat, gave her a kiss and told her to be good, before he hurried along to the Juniors.

Lesson 67 One Size Fits All?

Lesson 67 on Non compliance

At Owen’s school there was no homework. 

Reason number one was the “playing out” situation. After a day cooped up in school, pupils were itching to be free. It took all their teachers’ efforts to encourage them to last out till the end of the school day. Sitting still and paying attention did not come easily to them. Also many pupils stayed up late, so by home time they were restless and bad tempered.

Reason number two was that few pupils had any space to work at home where they could be quiet and uninterrupted.

Reason number three was that taking books or other materials home was problematic. Things tended not to come back.

Had the school insisted on homework against all the odds, every day would have started with aggravation and bad feeling.  Relationships between pupils, parents and teachers would have been unavoidably soured. So the school organised its work to ensure that everything to be covered was done within the school day.

In the nursery and infant classes, the school had a story club to encourage mothers or carers to read with their children at home, and provided books for them to borrow.  Parents who had been unsuccessful at school themselves needed their confidence boosting.

The school organised its work to meet the particular needs of the community it knew and served. 

Seems straightforward and sensible, doesn’t it?

But being sensible was no longer the required priority. Owen’s school had to comply.

We live in censorious times.