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By John CoeInformation Officer for the National Association for Primary Education

Having one eye on the curriculum is one thing, but really knowing your children is a teacher’s greatest strength

John Coe

I remember a boy in my first ever class (you can always remember the names of those who were there at the beginning). Derek was a lively eight year old. Alongside him, I was struggling to explain something, subtraction with carrying perhaps, and he gave every appearance of listening attentively, his face fixed upon mine. I paused, briefly, and he suddenly said: ‘My Dad’s got a tie like yours.’ For me, it was a needed message that teaching is about so much more than instruction.

That knowledge, that empathy, is at the heart of teaching and it is what makes learning possible

Process of learning

It is understandable enough that the now widespread recognition of the importance of primary education should have carried with it an emphasis on subject content and the assessment of child progress. Now, at long last, we are entering a new phase in which content and assessment are balanced by a greater attention to the process of learning – what is actually happening as teacher and child interact. For too long the primary sandwich was indigestible. The curriculum slice was (and still is) far too thick and the assessment slice, far too substantial. The filling in the middle, teaching and learning, had almost been taken for granted. Yet it is the bit in the middle which is of greater importance to children. All else is of less significance.

Group of individuals

In primary schools, we are immensely privileged by being with a class, 30 or so individuals, for at least a year, and, beyond that, being part of a school community of a relatively small size. Our traditional focus on the children and their learning is a natural outcome of having the time and opportunity to really get to know those individuals and for them us. That knowledge, that empathy, is at the heart of teaching and it is what makes learning possible. About now, what was for many of us a new class in September, is becoming more a group of individuals, each with a distinctive personality. Getting to know them, a wonderful alchemy, takes just a few weeks. This was illustrated for me by a young teacher I met in an Oxfordshire school. I forget what took me into his school in the second week of the September term, but I was having a cup of coffee in the staffroom when the teacher on playground duty put her head round the door to say: ‘Come on you lot, I’m getting them in.’ Then she added a few hard words about the bad behaviour several members of the young man’s class had been demonstrating. He concurred: ‘Yes, they need sorting out.’ The face of the teacher in the corner whose class it had been the previous year became a little pinched. I forgot about the incident, but it so happened that I was back in the staffroom after the autumn midterm. As before, there was a complaint of bad behaviour concerning the same children – but this time the young man rose to his full height and stoutly defended them. By then he knew them and it made all the difference.

Greatest strength

Of course, having a clear view of what needs to be taught is important. But, as we go forward now with our focus more on the process of learning itself, we are able to draw on the human interaction which comes so easily to us in primary school. This is our greatest strength.

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