In July my daughter Beatrice and I had the absolute privilege to visit Edlumino’s school in Dunkirk to teach for two days and meet the wonderful Ginny. This blog looks at UK schools through the prism of this experience. If you are reading this anywhere except on the Edlumino site, please go there to find out more about the wonderful work they are doing and how you can help. www.edlumino.org.
I have just left my teaching post at an excellent secondary school. Today will be the first time in 25 years that I haven’t attended a training day there with all the pretend groaning about being back but the real delight of connecting with colleagues and looking forward to the fresh, sharp new term. Now please don’t panic – this is not another ‘I am leaving the profession I love even though I am brilliant, and Gary Couldhart who no one else ‘connected with’ still sends me a Christmas card’ blog. We all know teachers are leaving the profession, UK schools are exam factories and teachers’ workload is incompatible with any sort of normal life. It’s broken. I left because I had an opportunity for change. The two days in Dunkirk made me fall back in love with teaching and reflect on what good teaching is.
Initially the school is disconcertingly familiar – it could be a classroom in my village primary, such is the hard work that has gone into creating a stimulating, safe and nurturing environment. Once inside though things could not be more different. Ginny and Rory have been through several curriculum models before arriving at a drop in 1 to 1 (personalised curriculum and student led learning to you) that works. The students are highly motivated to learn maths and English - it has a ‘real world application’ for them. They work for intense 1 hour blocks, often with the student signalling that their focus is wavering. They go away for a bit and return later to do some more. They know what they need to know too. One young man flicked through a vocabulary book with me ‘Going to the seaside’ – ‘I don’t need that’, ‘Buying something in a shop’ – ‘yes, teach me how to say these words properly’.
At any training day exercise this week you’ll hear teachers agreeing that good relationships are at the centre of teaching but what does that really look like? Well, I know -it looks like Edlumino. It is children queuing for school to open, the delight on their faces when they see Ginny and the real pleasure she and they share in learning. And they just simply like and respect each other too. I had expected the children to be the same as any other children but I hadn’t expected so much fun and laughter in such difficult circumstances. I was aware of these from their play and pictures but it is what this little schoolroom can show us about teaching that interests me for now.
In the midst of all that is going on in these children’s lives once they are with Ginny and the volunteers they are known and valued. I don’t just mean by name although this is very important and I will return to it. I mean looking into their eyes and really seeing them. When former students talk about a real connection with a teacher they don’t talk about a brilliant explanation of apostrophes. They talk about the hand on their shoulder that gave them some courage to take the next step, kindness shown to them when things were difficult at home, belief in their potential and how this made them feel confident. It’s about those conversations outside the curriculum where they tell you about their dog, or about the job they’d secretly like or that their Gran is ill. It’s also about you sharing a bit of yourself with them. This trust opens the door to deeper discussions and also to deeper learning. It’s about fun and laughter too.
Good teaching comes down to one thing – a connection between people.
This is completely laid bare once there is no scaffolding and very little common vocabulary. In Dunkirk teachers are communicating in a mix of Farsi, English, French and Kurdish. Immediately you fall back on gestures and facial expressions. Watch a good teacher and it’s like watching a conductor (orchestra not bus). They are signalling quieten down to one student, nodding encouragement to another who is unfolding an answer, patrolling the room and making eye contact with everyone. A touch on the arm to say ‘calm down’, a thumbs up to say ‘well done for not throwing that pencil case that I saw you tempted by’ a smile to say ‘I know that took courage for you to put your hand up’. I prefer this to the common ‘spinning plates’ analogy which assumes an impending failure. Although we’ve all had the sinking feeling that tells us that is precisely and irrevocably where the lesson is heading.
All of this is evident in Ginny’s teaching and classroom. The high five is the perfect – ‘yes you got that right’. It requires eye contact and touch but doesn’t compromise anyone’s personal space.
Ginny doesn’t need CAT scores or KS3 results to assess a child. She makes eye contact and chats in their hybrid of languages and can tell immediately what their reading level is. It can be adjusted if needed. Progress is also instinctively assessed. This is because Ginny is an experienced and trained teacher who can be trusted to do her job. I do understand that not all UK teachers are a Ginny and there must be some checks and accountability but I also think teachers should be treated as professionals.
These connections are at the heart of good schools. In the UK there are many obstacles - data, targets, management systems, LOP etc. etc. And, honestly? I have sometimes hidden behind checking my PC in the last two minutes of a lesson when I can see a problem but I’m tired. In Dunkirk there are none of these things to hide behind and there’s no on call team, SLT, HOD. There’s just you and a child looking to you for guidance and reassurance – for your complete and full attention. The best teaching takes place when you simply make yourself fully present. Ginny and I talked about the important bit is not ‘outstanding’ lessons but by reliably turning up every day being consistent, and every now and then, brilliant.
In Dunkirk the struggle for a common vocabulary creates teacher and pupil collaboration. My favourite form of teaching. The warmth created by Ginny in that classroom is increased by the use of the term ‘my friend’ when students address you. I preferred this to ‘Mrs Robson’, I’m much too old to feel 100% comfortable with ‘Cath’ but ‘my friend’ – I’m very happy to be that.
So, back to names. Names are important. The Menin Gate down the road with its thousands of names can’t fail to move, as does the 22-hour long roll call of victims of 9/11. In the camp the names of the children are everywhere. On charts, on reward systems, on their books, on the ‘we came to school chart’. They reassure the children that they are known. It sometimes feels in Britain that we are moving more and more to seeing students as a set of data, as G and T, ‘PP’, C/D borderline etc. I have a horrible feeling that there are some children that if you put their photo on a staff room board no one would know their name. Because they don’t cause trouble, because they never answer questions so you don’t use their name, because they look a bit like 5 other year 10s, because you only teach them once a fortnight and have never really got to grips with the names. Ginny spoke really movingly about the importance of names, especially when vulnerable, in her last blog here.
Good teaching can’t always be measured. Its impact travels down the years. Good teachers stay part of their students’ lives, or some of them, those where that connection has been deep. Where you have been a fulcrum in their lives. Said the right words at the right time. We all remember things teachers said to us forever, for good or bad and they’re not usually ‘the battle of Hastings was 1066’, they are ‘well done’ or ‘you’re stupid’. I think Arts subjects, PE and tutor groups are particularly rich in these emotional connections but that is my experience only. If that is true it would be interesting to work out why and see how we could apply these factors to every classroom. I suspect PBL maybe the answer here. We all know how relationships are deepened by a school trip or being part of a performance.
I think a lot of teaching is down to quite simple parameters. Student teachers are told ‘never humiliate and never confront’ and this is good advice. I’d also like to add something that resonated with me and explains a lot in a classroom -
“There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. 'How much do you love me?' And, 'Who's in charge?' Everything else is somehow manageable. But these two questions of love and control undo us all, trip us up and cause war, grief, and suffering.”(1)
The ‘who’s in charge?’ stares you in the face with a new year 11 class. Until they all know that you are in charge, they jostle for leadership. Once your control is established they will all relax and start to learn. The ‘how much do you love me?’ works too. The student who is acting out, who is misbehaving? They want to be noticed, they want you to see them. They don’t want your love but they do want your unconditional high regard. They want to know that you like and care about them enough that they can make mistakes and still feel valued by you. We don’t give up on our sons and daughters as they stumble on the road to adulthood. We pick them up and carry on. Show these students some kindness and compassion and miracles can happen. Ginny dealt with misbehavior in such a calm and kind way that perfectly demonstrated ‘I am in charge but I care about you and I notice you’.
The relationships I saw in Ginny’s classroom create a nurturing and fertile environment where children as well as learning can flourish. What a trip to Dunkirk reminded me is focus on the relationships and the learning will follow. Ginny – thank you, my friend.
(1) Elizabeth Gilbert, "Eat, Pray, Love."
(2) Throughout this blog - David Jackson, my first head teacher and Rob Robson my husband , both of you are an ongoing inspiration. There has been so much discussion over the last 25 years between us that I’m not entirely sure whose ideas are whose anymore. Thank you.
Catherine is an experienced teacher from Bedford and her daughter Bea visited in La Liniere and were quick to adapt to the classroom. Happily gifted with teacher and caretaker skills.