Sunday, 20 April 2014

Languages 2014

As a teacher trained in secondary languages, I often find myself blustering through the primary curriculum followed by a trail of self-doubt and insecurity. I might be able to blag my way through English and humanities, but what on Earth gives me the right to teach maths or P.E.?

Most of the time, I remind myself that teaching skills are transferable. Yes, you need to adapt, but the fundamentals are the same; good progress, pupil talk, higher order thinking skills, VAK approach. I'm constantly learning (or deepening my knowledge), particularly in specific curriculum areas, and have made a lot of progress in the time I've been working with my lovely Y3 class, but I'm still in awe of the skills demonstrated by my primary trained colleagues.

However, in various staffroom discussions, I began to realise that the way I feel about primary teaching is how most of my co-workers feel about teaching languages. Many of them currently avoid it, using excuses like, "we couldn't fit it in" (in fairness, we do have abnormally short afternoons which are taken up with so many other subjects) amongst other things, and consoling themselves with the knowledge that my MFL club constitutes access to language learning.

But September 2014 is coming, and with it comes the new curriculum.

I am by no means an expert, and definitely not in Spanish (the chosen foreign language of my school). I was a French and German specialist, but I have a vague idea of what Ofsted are looking for in a language classroom, thanks to the constant threat of HMI in previous schools.

So, the standard 80:20 pupil:teacher talk ratio, rapid progess, at least 50% target language (including pupil talk), normal classroom commands and questions done in target language, learner autonomy in communication, application of grammatical concepts...

How do you create learner autonomy and promote language use in a classroom where the teacher is not confident or willing in using target language themselves? There are only two teachers in the school (myself not included) who speak some rusty Spanish and they only teach it under protest.

The first task, evidently, is to raise confidence in staff. Yes, you could employ a native speaker or language specialist to get the job done, but if you are going to integrate the principles of language learning throughout the curriculum (as suggested), then the rest of the staff need to get confident too. 

Schools simply don't have the money, resources or time to spend on sending every member of staff on a course. What needs to be done is ready to go lesson plans, with target language included, for every member of staff. Linked with that needs to be target language sheets for pupils so that they can ask to go to the toilet, if they can borrow a rubber, if they can get a drink (rather like most secondary schools already do).

Yes, it's time consuming, but it's worth it. You simply cannot get the required percentage of target language without the right scaffolding, support and confidence on both sides. It's not enough to have enthusiastic learners, or just enthusiastic teachers, you need both. And you need to give them the tools.

As for 80:20, why is it that primary teachers go into a blind panic about this? They are amazing at planning literacy lessons or numeracy lessons that are pupil centred. But ask most of them to do the same thing in a foreign language, and they lose the ability to think straight. That treasure hunt that you did for science? Yeah, that works for French too. And the Tarsia activity you did in history? Perfect for German! You know how you use chunking grids for practising with different connectives? Use that too!

For me, the area it gets really tricky is rapid progress. I've seen so many lessons at primary level focused on greetings, with no progression over the half term, just repetition. It's fine for playing with language and getting used to some of the sounds, but for the new curriculum, it will need a complete overhaul.

In my class, I have girl whose mother is a native speaker. I have been given all sorts of advice from my colleagues, such as "She'll enjoy the games, leave her to it" and "Use her as a translator, it shows progress in a different skill", but I'm not convinced by any of these.

If I leave this girl to the games, she shows no progress at all (except, perhaps, in her enjoyment of language). If I use her as a translator, then how do I prove her progress in Spanish? How is her skill measurable in interpreting single words and short exchanges for her peers?

On the other hand, this girl has not done much written work in Spanish. She currently tries to write things phonetically, using English rules (which works sometimes, but not with ll, y or v) and she rarely uses connectives. She gets her tenses mixed up too when writing, which shows a whole area where we could differentiate appropriately, stretch her and show good progress.

But how many members of staff in primary schools have the skills and ability to do this? I'm currently struggling, and get by through my knowledge of language teaching and my networks that I've developed over the years. Ideally, schools would be able to access this sort of expertise through their local secondary schools, but in cases where the primary curriculum is in a different language to that taught at KS3, this is not necessarily going to work either.

The new curriculum for language teaching has the potential to work. But only if the curriculum is directed by someone with the time and skills to support everyone appropriately, and if there are suitable links in place. Teachers need to stop seeing foreign language as a scary, unteachable concept, and realise that they already have most of the skills in place. Above all, for this to work, we need to co-operate, network and be a little more confident.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Right School

"Wow, it's been four months since I first interviewed you... It's just flown by!" my boss (who isn't really my boss and it's complicated, but I still call him my boss because he's awesome) told me.

This was a staff night out on the last day of term. Quite sedate really, but the first staff night out I've been on since I lived in Dunstable (and those were merely after-school pub sessions or nights in the school hall), because I've never been counted as one of the staff before, no matter how long I've worked at a school.

In some ways, he's right. This term has flown by quickly, before I even realised it was happening. But, on the other hand, it feels like I've been at that school for years, like I'm as much part of the furniture as everyone else. I love it so much and it's been such an integral part of my healing process and personal journey.

Before starting at that place, I'd all but given up hope with teaching. I felt like I was useless, had nothing to offer, and like the detractors who blamed me for my experience of violence (and accused me of being unfit to work with young people) were probably right. I had no self-esteem, no confidence in my abilities.

Mr Boss Man once asked why I was so worried about a lesson observation, when I had been so chilled at interview... The truth was that I never expected to get a job. I couldn't for one second believe that anyone would actually want me, so I wasn't overly worried about rejection when I expected it anyway.

Being at this school has taught me so much. Firstly, that I do have the organisational skills to cope with this job, though it does take an awful lot more effort for me to keep on top of things than for some people! And that I'm not the messiest / most disorganised person in the school. It's a close run thing, but knowing that scatty people can get far in this profession keeps me sane!

It's taught me that I do have strengths in this job. I am good at languages and music (obviously), but my language work has given me a head start in teaching English. I've discovered that I adapt quickly, that I learn from training and work to meet my targets. I've also learnt where I can give extra to the school, in terms of clubs and things. I've found that I'm good at scaffolding and differentiation. It's not something I thought I was very good at, but it seems to come easily, as do pupil-led lessons.

I've learnt that I'm stronger than I think I am. With so many children from difficult backgrounds, I was bound to come into contact with stories similar to mine. I didn't think I'd cope with that, but I did, I am, I can. It's really empowering to know that my experience gives me perspective, strength and empathy, rather than the weakness and hindrance that I thought it would.

And, most importantly (possibly), is that I've found out how to love a job and commit to it - throw myself in entirely - without sacrificing myself and my emotions. Too often, in the past, the only time I would really work as hard as I could was to escape the pain and flashbacks. Now, I throw myself in because I want the children to learn and have fun, I want to do my best for them and for the school.

I've still got a long way to go. Observations seem to cause severe allergic reactions (well, nervous breakdowns) and I need to get the hang of this work-life balance thing... but I've discovered how much I can do with the support and input of the right school.

And, for the first time in forever, I feel truly happy.

This didn't really fit in anywhere above, but I wanted to say it anyway... the people I work with are amazing and supportive. The school is the wonderful, nurturing environment that it is because of the fantastic men and women working in there are so compassionate. I have wonderful TAs in my classroom, reassuring me constantly, a beautiful colleague in the other Year 3 class who has coped so well with a newbie, a brilliant senior leadership team and, just generally, the best colleagues a girl could ask for. The school wouldn't be what it is without them, and I wouldn't be who I am without them either!