It is hard to believe now, but before the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988 there was enormous variation in what was taught in primary schools and, although many did an excellent job, others were quite chaotic places by modern standards. No school exemplifies this latter point better than my first placement school in which I worked when I was a student. At this school teachers were allowed to teach in any way that they wanted, irrespective of what was going elsewhere in the school in other year groups. There was a Year 3 teacher who, for example, decided that no instruction was necessary if children were to learn and that they could basically teach themselves if left with suitable materials. On visiting the classroom the children could at any one time be wearing fancy dress and engaging in role play, making models out of junk materials, playing the recorder or doing some writing on the floor with chalk. Maths might happen or it might not; weeks or months could go by without any physical education or music. It all depended on what the children wanted. I have no idea how those children progressed later in life and this style of learning may have been very beneficial for some. However, at the very least, it must have been confusing for most children in this school as they moved up the year groups, each year having to learn in a completely different way depending on the views of individual teachers. At worst children could have huge gaps in their basic knowledge as they moved up through the school. A similar approach has been controversially developed in a modern context, using technology, by someone called Sugata Mitra, author of ‘The Hole in the Wall: Self-organising Systems in Education’ (2006)
A few months after this placement I was teaching a Year 6 class in a different school. It was my final placement before qualifying and it was in the days before SATs tests at Year 6 so I was basically left to get on with the job, aided by some planning to guide me and with the support of a wonderful teacher called Mrs Woods.
Mrs Woods was in her last year of teaching and was about to retire in 1989. I hadn’t even qualified as a teacher and the contrast was not flattering for me. Mrs Woods would make a lesson look easy while I excelled at confusing the children and breaking the chalk on the chalk board in mid-sentence. The gulf between us was a source of amusement to us both (but probably more to her) as I stumbled through the weeks of my placement and sought guidance at every turn. When she was teaching, commands were obeyed by the children, the children seemed to know what they were doing and she always seemed to know what to do next. However as soon as she left the room and I took over it was obvious that teaching wasn’t easy at all: to start with my supposedly clear instructions were misinterpreted, my planned activities didn’t always work very well and I frequently couldn’t find what I needed at the right time. Fortunately I managed to build a good rapport with the class. It’s amazing how transformative music can be, and by bringing in my guitar and singing with the children, we got on well most of the time despite my blunders.
On arrival at the school I was loaned a black plastic whistle for use at playtime and when doing Physical Education, but Mrs Woods always had a shiny silver whistle round her neck; a sort of teachers’ insignia, and I vowed to get one myself when I got my first job. As it turned out I didn’t have to because as we said goodbye at the end of my placement, she pulled a brand new silver whistle out of her pocket and gave it to me as a present: kind and nurturing to the end. I still have that whistle!
Thus does a trainee teacher learn, earn and break the tools of the trade and, like all teachers, I had to learn mine quickly in order to survive and improve in the profession. Notwithstanding my numerous lesson disasters, as far as I know, no children were harmed in the making of this teacher! It is worth mentioning as an aside that at this school there was just one computer available for class use; I never got to use it because I hadn’t had the training.
Moving on to today, and from my current perspective as Headteacher, it is amazing at how different schools are compared to the late 1980s . Gone are the enormous differences between the types of curriculum children experience. Gone are the worst of the decaying, leaking and poorly designed post-war school buildings that were used to educate generations of children. And today the quality of teaching is more consistent and of a higher quality than it has ever been. Mrs Woods would be impressed; or would she? What would she make of schools today if she could be time travelled from 1989 into Bradway Primary School? I think that she would see much that she recognised because children still have similar characteristics, interests and needs whatever generation they are from. She would be shocked however at the workload for teachers, and the expectations placed on pupils through so many national tests. She might be glad that she had retired when she did. I think that she would be bewildered by all the electronic devices, the amount of time that children spend on them at home and at school, and astonished at the degree to which the teaching profession along with life in general, has become computerised.
Mrs Woods was a fantastic teacher in 1989 and, although she would have to learn an enormous amount to teach in the 21st century, she would be an excellent teacher in today’s schools too because she knew how to bring out the best in every child. She would very quickly get things organised in her high tech classroom of 2015 and would probably teach an excellent lesson on her first day without using any computers at all.
Could technology ever replace a great teacher like her? Of course it can enhance a lesson if used well but I don’t think that it will be able to replicate an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and deeply empathic person like Mrs Woods, so much appreciated by the children in her class, any time soon. Perhaps teachers are safe from being replaced by robots and computers; for now.