Do you speak child?

Every time we had students in the school the initial format was the same. I would meet them, give them a tour of the school, tell them about the safeguarding procedures, ask if they were in a union, introduce them to their class teacher, and then leave them to get on. At morning playtime I would seek out the class teacher and get their impression of the student. In every case the class teacher accurately assessed how well they would do. It all worked well, except once.

I did the usual and everything was okay until I got to the union question. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t promoting any particular union, I just wanted to make sure that the students had representation. This particular student was a mature student, he had a background in law and so he felt that he could deal with anything that came his way. That’s when I should have been very worried.

I was out at a meeting all morning so couldn’t see the teachers until lunchtime. When I arrived back the teacher looking after our more mature student was waiting to see me. I invited her into my office and she shut the door.

“Do you hate me?” was her opening salvo. “He is a 34 year old man who cannot speak in full sentences, his vocabulary and grammar are atrocious. He put his hand up in the middle of the input to ask if he could go to the toilet! He has questioned my spelling, told the children that what holds up the roof on a Roman temple are “pillows” and is incapable of relating to children!”

We kept him for a while, we tried everything we could to make him into a teacher. The lessons I observed were terrible. I think the final straw came when the teacher came to me with her teaching assistant to relate the latest incident. Whilst trying to get the class to come back together for a plenary the following words were heard,

“Year five, stop! You are behaving like children!”

I am still surprised that one of the kids didn’t turn round and said what I thought, “What the f**k do you expect?”

My point is that he should never have been allowed near a school, he had no idea about education other than a vague recollection of being at school and wanting to have a teaching qualification. Other than that he did not have the ability that all primary teachers need. The ability to speak child.

What is speaking child? It is the ability to naturally relate to children. It means that you have to take off your “adult, sensible” hat and remember what it is like to be childlike. It’s like the scene in the film “Hook” where Robin Williams is with the lost boys and has to use his imagination to play. Speaking child means understanding the vast importance of being able to fasten your own coat. Appreciating the effort that has been put in to tying your own shoelaces. Being able to stand in front of a class and say “James Bond was modelled on me, we have a mission to do for MI5” and have the class go along with suspending belief. Speaking child means not belittling a seven year old who is so excited about getting a pet for the first time. It is not having a go when you are on supply in year 6 and everyone wants to tell you who is going out with who.

Speaking child is a vital part of working with children, and they very quickly identify who is fluent, and who is completely inept. Children are the best judges of character in the world. Try fooling a seven year old child. I dare you. Understanding children is instinctive for those who work in school. They know their children, their quirks, their needs. As a headteacher I knew which children I could have a bit of banter with, which ones would need a cuddle, which ones were struggling with loss, which ones had experienced domestic abuse, which ones would never reach the “expected standard” but would give it their best shot. I also knew the ones who were a bit lazy, who somehow felt entitled, who had a bit of arrogance about them. One of the best compliments I ever received from a child was, “You’re just a big kid really, aren’t you?” At the end of the day, I understand children.

At the moment the teaching profession is under fire from all quarters and it seems that we cannot do anything right. There are “experts” who are belittling all of our efforts, picking up on where there are gaps. They criticise, find fault, say we are damaging the education of children. They say that they know better than the professionals in school. However, all of their concerns seem to be on what the impact of the continued lockdown will have on the economy. They say that all of their suggestions are more valid than the experience of teachers. These people cannot speak child. I doubt if they ever have. They relish in being the “leaders” who are knowledgeable about everything. They delight in being controversial and never let any cogent argument change their point of view. Let’s have all children sitting in desks, two metres apart, even in reception. Really?

Any form of discipline which requires them to remain seated and physically inactive for long periods will be out of place in a modern school.

Handbook of suggestions for the consideration of teachers and others concerned in the work of public elementary schools 1944

What we need is an Education Secretary who has actually spent time in a school, not just visited. They need to be in a school that is struggling with disadvantaged children so they see it is not the schools that cause the gaps, it is the continued failures of successive governments over a long period of time. And most of all we need an Education secretary who can speak child. We need someone who can go home with playdoh in their hair and paint on their trousers. Someone who is able to deal with a child in nursery who just wants to show you her new knickers!We need someone who can keep a straight face when children write something innocent but inappropriate in their books. The children deserve someone who will bounce with enthusiasm when a child is jumping up and down as it is their birthday. We need a person who has sat in a staffroom whilst colleagues are comforting an NQT who has just had a mouthful from a parent who thinks that it is the school who should dress their child in the morning. We need someone who has shadowed a headteacher for a few days and has seen the amount of work they have to do, and how much of it is administrative nonsense that has no impact on the children’s learning.

I am willing to bet that anyone who can speak child knows exactly what I mean and those who don’t will dismiss this as childish nonsense. Personally I love childish nonsense. And Haribos. And playing in the sandpit. And reading Harry Potter. I could go on……


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