Steve Munby recently spoke at our East Lothian Learning Festival and told a story about when he swapped roles with a teacher when he was Director of Education for Knowlsley Council, in Merseyside. The idea appealed to me and I rashly offered a job swap on Twitter – never imagining that anyone would take up the offer.
You can imagine my dismay when my bluff was called and Pam Currie a Depute Headteacher from Law Primary School asked me if I’d like to come and teach her Primary One class of 25 five year olds. Hoist by my own petard I had no option but to agree and so we arranged for me to come to the school last Friday to teach for the morning.
We met the week before and Pam ran through the programme of work that I would be expected to cover: PE, Music, Numeracy, and Storytime. As we chatted about the Autumn theme that the class are working on I suggested that the PE class could be a dance lesson using actual leaves, and that the numeracy lesson could make use of the same leaves in an outdoor context.
During the week prior to my visit my most important task was to collect enough dried leaves of sufficient variety to provide a stimulus for the lesson.
Now I hadn’t taught a dance lesson for something approaching 17 years – and hadn’t taught a primary class for closer to 30 years – but I suppose teaching is a bit like riding a bike. It felt great to get back into the classroom and connecting with young people again. The kids responded brilliantly to the leaves and as I tipped the sack out onto the floor they loved the sounds, smells and colours. We experimented with holding different leaves and letting them fall to the ground – and then trying it again with a different kind of leaf. Then we explored how we might copy the movement of the falling leaf with our own bodies.
Then we looked at how leaves are affected by the wind. Using a fan heater we blew a light breeze towards a pile of leaves and looked at how they rustled – a child came up with a great Scottish word when he said the leaves were “shoogling”. We then tried to copy the rustling leaves while I gently shook a tambourine.
The third stage was to ask the children to blow their own leaf as hard as the could across the floor. Once again we copied that movement with our bodies.
The final stage was to look at how leaves formed piles, where the leaves lay one on top of another in different shapes. This was the riskiest part of the lesson where children could have been jumping on top of each other but they handled the task superbly and moved into the piles in a very convincing and safe manner.
The last part of the lesson was to put all of these movements together into a final performance. I think the lesson was recorded so I’d hope to put a link here to youtube whenever it’s put up.
I’d gone into the jobswap with the intention of having fun – and without a doubt that key criterion was satisfied throughout the whole day. But what did I learn?
Firstly, teaching is an exhausting business. The teacher is constantly having to be attentive – there are no points when you can switch off and let the children get on with things while you do your own work. This is reinforced when the range of needs is as varied as it was in my class.
Secondly, lesson preparation is crucial to engaging the children in the learning process – I’d put a fair bit of work into planning for the morning – but what must it be like planning for an entire week?
Thirdly, the school staff work as a team. The staged assessment meeting I attended at 8.30, where six teachers talked about a single child’s needs, was hugely impressive and reassuring. The morning break showed that team spirit in a different way where pink cakes were on offer in aid of Breast Cancer Awareness and every member of staff wore pink.
Fourthly, I saw 100 children engaged in a break-time aerobics session being led by P7 pupils – a wonderful example of children being supported and encouraged to do it for themselves!
Fifthly, I saw teachers who cared about learning; who cared about young people; and who cared about each other. A humbling and inspirational experience which will stay with me for a long time.
Law Primary School – thank you.