All the things I learnt at school

With special thanks to Edyta

Though I can’t say I’ve ever had to apply Pythagoras’ theorem in any day-to-day situation, nor had to relay the various steps in the formation of oxbow lakes, I can say with some level of certainty that I learnt a lot of useful things during my school years. I learnt to read and write, I learnt how to add and subtract, I even learnt how to make bread and butter pudding – part and parcel of going to a traditionalist single sex girls grammar school in Surrey. However, after 18 consecutive years in the education system, I decided to take a sabbatical from all of that learning; where did I end up? Back at school.

In lieu of attending my fourth year of university, I had an urge to try out a few career choices that I had been toying with. So, in September I began working as a one-to-one teaching assistant at a local primary school, something that usually received one of two reactions: either the aww-that’s-so-cute-working-with-kids-must-be-a-hoot spiel, or the retort. I’d always enjoyed working as a swimming teacher, and the holidays are great, so why not? I have so much respect and admiration for the teachers who devote their lives to their profession, and for very little pay, but being a teacher takes more patience than all of the saints’ combined, and I realised very quickly that I was not a saint nor a teacher, hence I lasted just 8 weeks. However, in that time, I managed to experience all of the highs and lows of being a teacher, and I certainly learnt more than I did in my first round in reception:

  1. For a start, children are so utterly excitable and positive about even the tiniest of things. Us big-kids should take note. Adults like to whinge, whine and wax lyrical about the woes of life; if only we could see things through the eyes of our four-year-old selves. Somewhere along the line we all begin to lose that optimism, the sense that anything can be made into some sort of fun game or song, that the world (or at the very least, the playground) is your oyster, and that you can achieve absolutely anything. Kids have a tendency to boost their own esteem very easily, and who are we to say that they shouldn’t; whilst little Lucy is telling me that her handwriting is the best and that she’s going to be a princess or a popstar or maybe a ballerina, I’m berating myself for not knowing what I want to do with the rest of my life. The imagination I have seen over the past 2 months has been incomparable and infectious, and I have been inspired to view my own world with a more optimistic, childlike excitement. At the end of the day we’re all just taller, more boring kids.
  1. Make sure your voice is heard. If you have something to say, speak it, and make sure your intended audience is listening, articulate your truth and let everyone know you have an opinion. I listened to a lot of tiny, squeaky voices in those 2 months, and a lot of never-ending tales because children don’t have the same grasp on conversation as adults, and tend to speak at you, rather than to or with you. In all honesty, I can’t say that I ever truly cared to hear that John’s dad drives a blue car with 6 seats, or that Sammy had pizza for dinner last weekend, but I certainly learnt to feign interest. My point, however, is not that children are boring, but that they are unequivocally self-righteous and are not afraid to get their point across. Next time I’m uncertain of myself or what I have to say, I will simply remember that once a child told me 13 times that they really, really like Peppa Pig, and remember the value of my own opinion, even if my audience doesn’t want to hear it.
  1. School dinners have never, and will never change. Since our dear friend Jamie Oliver decided to thwart schoolchildren everywhere by banning our turkey twizzlers, dinner ladies have been serving the same ‘balanced’ meals – balanced being a codeword for bland and sloppy. No wonder half the food ends up on the floor when the lumps of mushy, mangled ingredients are already congealed before they reach the plate. I found I had a severe moral objection to forcing children to eat a whole plate of food that I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, marking one of many internal conflicts I encountered whilst working within institutional education, and I silently congratulated the parents who sent in packed lunches with fresh and identifiable ingredients. Highlighting the linearity of education in the UK, one of the dinner ladies looked identical to one who once served me my own school lunches – it took a lot of restraint not to ask her if today’s lunch options were just the leftovers from 2002.
  1. Life can be reduced to a simple carrot and stick manifesto. At first, I was surprised at how prominent this was in the early school years – if a child had done something even minutely positive, they were praised to the high heavens and showered in stickers and high-fives, whilst negative behaviours were met with stern warnings that led to time-out. Even in the youngest classes, the children were so quickly conditioned to know these outcomes, and how so-called ‘green choices’ would be rewarded and ‘red choices’ would only result in punishment; yet I quickly began to realise how inherent this system is even within my own life. The carrot and stick approach works so well because it teaches children that their actions have consequences and forces them to recognise their ability to choose between ‘green’ and ‘red’ in order to obtain reward. Adult life is really just an extension of this. If a child completes their handwriting worksheet, they get a smiley face and a well done; if adults go to work, they get paid. If a child pushes another child, they have to sit on the ‘thinking chair’ for 5 minutes; if an adult assaults someone, they’ll most likely go to prison. Over time, I became acutely aware of the positive and negative outcomes of my own actions, and how conditioned I was to chase rewards and avoid punishment. Maybe I’ve just been moulded by my own education, but the simplicity and applicability of this system is successful in forcing you to recognise acumen and the consequences of your decisions.
  1. Kids are gross, and unashamedly so. Within a week, I’d been farted on, dribbled on, and covered in snot. Whilst one child giggled and announced her own passing of gas to the classroom, another tugged my arm and asked, without embarrassment, if they could go for a poo. It never failed to amaze me how many children could blindly ignore the sinks and “wash-your-hands” symbols as they ran out of the bathrooms into the playground, nor how easy it was for food to end up anywhere except their mouths during lunchtime. On top of this, kids have absolutely zero awareness of personal space, so all of the mystery stains and substances that end up covering them from head to toe, usually ended up covering me too. I spent the first 2 weeks with a constant cold, before my immune system hardened to the fact I was going to be with these little virus-carriers for the long-run, and my concern shifted to a persistent phobia of catching the dreaded headlice. Pediculophobia, in case anyone was wondering. Essentially, schools are breeding grounds for germs and viruses, and it’s a miracle any teachers survive the term.
  1. Children are far more accepting of difference than adults. As a one-to-one for an autistic boy, I’ve become more aware of how we interact with people with special educational needs. “What’s wrong with him?” someone asked, when I described my role within the SEN team; and I found myself refraining from saying that there is nothing wrong with him, he just learns and interacts differently because he has autism. The fact that most adults will refer to a range of conditions or diagnoses as ‘learning difficulties’ is saddening, and the fact that as recent as 3 months ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about using this term myself, frustrates me. Neurotypical adults have a bad habit of pitying those different to themselves, whilst children can be far more understanding (or at least nonchalant) regarding said differences. Sure, they ask a lot of questions at first – “why is he crying?”, “why doesn’t he have to sit on the carpet like us?”, “why is he not good at sharing?” – but once they realise that everyone is a little bit different and are therefore treated as such, they quickly grow accustomed to the idea. More often than not, I was fortunate enough to experience the sweetness of watching the other children do my job for me – looking after the boy with autism and diffusing any situations that were causing him distress. I’ve never seen anything more heart-warming than this child, who once bit me so hard I had to get a tetanus shot, approaching another child to give them a hug because they’d let him go on the bike first. Perhaps because they haven’t yet been exposed to society’s prejudices, there is a lot to be taken from the way children interact – they might have a quick, tiny fisted punch-up because X said she wasn’t best friends with Y and didn’t want to play with her, but you can guarantee this has nothing to do with race, religion or any other kind of difference that adults might discriminate against.
  1. Teachers really don’t get paid enough. Teachers unions have been backlashing against the obscenely low wages for years, but only by seeing just how hard teachers work have I been enlightened. Imagine spending an entire academic term teaching phonics, only for a child to sound out “p-e-g… clip” during an illustrated reading test, spending your entire evening preparing classroom resources, only for them to be destroyed in minutes by hands that can’t even tie shoelaces. Though it is truly rewarding to see progress in the little ones, and I certainly grew attached to them and developed a personal interest in seeing them reach their full potential, it is incredibly demanding work that requires more tolerance than I could ever imagine. Though I finished at 3.45 pm every day, I came home physically drained and often ready for bed by 8. I met some of the most hardworking and inspiring teaching staff, that reinstated my confidence in the schooling system, and realised that they substituted financial benefit with emotional investment in their pupils’ wellbeing and progress. It’s just a shame that the majority of people will complain when their kid’s school has an INSET day for teachers’ pay strikes that force them to arrange alternative childcare, rather than supporting the adults that have so much control over their children’s early development and learning.
Images courtesy of my little sister’s diaries.

The main thing I learnt in my 2-month placement is that teaching just isn’t for me. As much as I enjoyed it short-term, I quickly realised that the staff-room isn’t a particularly fulfilling place, and that the kind of mental stimulation required in a teaching role doesn’t align with the kind that I need to keep my brain happy. At first, I struggled to admit that maybe I wasn’t quite cut out for it, and the genuine happiness I felt on rewarding days blinded me to this. Grateful to be given such an amazing opportunity, I came to the conclusion that it had been a productive 2 months that had convinced me not to do my PGCE after university, though sometimes you have to admit defeat. For now, I’ll continue working as a bartender, where I can converse with humans that have a wider repertoire than children’s television, but that’s not to say I won’t miss my 5-year-old friends. Teaching 1, Miss Hamilton 0; if anyone has any further career suggestions for me, I’d be more than happy to hear them.

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