A guest post by Claire Eades, teacher @VicParkAcademy
I have an awful confession to make: I was once an Early Years and Key Stage One detractor. Until I walked into Victoria Park four years ago, the overwhelming majority of my teaching career had been played out in upper Key Stage Two classrooms, then my spiritual home and comfort zone, where I could converse with children in my own voice and expect independence – and certainly no snotty noses (or worse). I confess that in my ghastly ignorance I looked down at the staff who took on these seemingly feral small children and I scoffed at their seemingly low expectations: the phrase “Oh but the little ones can’t do that” heard so often in training sessions and staff meetings, summed up for me all that I deplored about them. What did these people actually do? Surely they weren’t really teaching, not like the ‘proper’ teaching that I was doing?! As I write this now, I feel such shame for ever having been so arrogant and foolish, for disparaging colleagues, for being so judgemental about something of which I knew nothing. I shudder at my conceit and that of former upper Key Stage Two colleagues who shared these disgraceful thoughts. I write this blog now as one who has atoned for her sin and who is now a fully fledged convert to the joys of teaching in these phases. I want to share my experiences and my journey of discovery not only to cleanse my professional soul but also to highlight the fact that I believe that all teachers, detractors or not, should experience what I have experienced in order to become better practitioners. I also want to show that a school which embraces the ethos of creativity and a child led approach, such as Victoria Park Primary Academy, would never nurture such a warped view of teaching and learning.
Frankly, I would have cleaned the toilets at Victoria Park if that had been the only work available, so keen was I to be a part of the school. Luckily, the toilets weren’t beckoning but a Year One class was. I was terrified and horrified at the prospect of having to become one of ‘them’ but the then deputy head persuaded me to give it a trial period of a week – I think that cleverly she knew that it wouldn’t take any longer for me to change my mind. At the end of day one I said an emphatic ‘no’ but by day four I was begging for the job. How could you have been so readily converted, I hear you cry, you must have had the convictions of a weasel! It is hard to explain the turnaround but it was an enormous shock to me that I could actually enjoy the experience. The children were full of enthusiasm and energy and they brought out my own exuberance. As the term progressed, I soon realised that they would rise to any challenge put in front of them, that if the bar was raised they would meet it and that expectations could be as appropriately high as in any other setting. Their yearning to learn was infectious and they brought so much of themselves to the learning experience. My fears soon turned into dreams that maybe I was meant to teach this age group. The transformation was as thorough and sincere as it was fast. To watch a child first learn to read and write and understand mathematical concepts is a moving and privileged experience and one from which I have derived the most pleasure in my working life. To facilitate it is more rewarding and joyful than I can ever explain – these moments are why I became a teacher and I found that working in Year One afforded me so many more.
So this September, when I faced the prospect of becoming a Reception teacher – one that would have previously filled me with dread – I embraced it with open arms. I was aware that I would need to change my mindset even further in order to do the job: however, this has been made easier because working at Victoria Park has mutated my professional DNA, adapting my beliefs and practice to the environment in which I work. Across the school and the curriculum, creativity, independence and a child led approach are key. The children I guide through their learning experience are at the centre of everything and right from nursery they are equipped with the right tools with which they can build their own path. Aged 3 or 11, our children are explorers and pioneers, learning through technology, play and experience. Yes, I have sat in meetings and thought ‘The little ones can’t do that’ and can understand now why it is said so often but the atmosphere in which I work would never leave it at that. There is a ‘have a go’ approach in the school which encourages creativity in the staff and a desire to find a way that works for all the children. Risk takers aren’t derided or frowned upon, new ideas are explored and positivity is the norm. Like early years children, staff are supported and encouraged to embrace all opportunities and shape their own learning. My experiences in this phase and Year One are a reflection of the model of the school as I have explored my potential without fear or barriers and with a sense of anything being possible. My whole outlook has been framed anew.
So I say to anyone who thinks as I did, go down to the younger classes – find out what it is that they do and break down any prejudices that blind you. Open your eyes and hearts: the staff there do amazing things and deserve respect. Become a convert, a zealot even, and return to Key Stage Two, preaching and proselytizing until all ages are served as well by their teachers as the younger children are by theirs. I am lucky to work in an enlightened school that already knew this and turned it into a mission to provide children of all ages with an education that is fun, immersive, purposeful and personalised. It has played a crucial part in my professional development, making me a better teacher and, yes, a better person: I have learnt that the only little person that couldn’t do something was me and I am grateful for the chance to have done something about it.