Subject or child-centred education? As a primary teacher you need both and a whole lot more. 

This post is a personal view in response to the age-old traditionalist v progressive educational debate which I read on Twitter every holiday. Please bear in mind when reading this that I’m not on holiday and it’s Sunday morning so please forgive errors and omissions. 

Primary teachers need:

1) subject knowledge without which you’ve got nothing to teach. This can feel daunting in primary schools because there are 10 subjects. The way into this is to draw on your own successful education, experience, interests and ability to research in order to be able to articulate the unique contribution each subject makes to the child. Acknowledging that contribution will give you the motivation to teach each subject well. The key subjects are the core which provide access to the rest of the curriculum. Do not fall for the politicians’ need for a one size fits all approach where if every child is not taking on core subject knowledge at the same moment, there must be failures who need intervention and an ever narrower curriculum. But also, do not let children fall through the net. The fact that most of the prison population have low levels of literacy illustrates the crucial importance of teaching reading well. You need strong phonological knowledge, a passion for reading and a knowledge of high quality children’s literature. 

2) an understanding of child development. Each child is unique and her/his development reflects genes, environment, parenting among many factors. However, there are fundamental aspects (biological, psychological and emotional) that appear to underpin all human development.         As a teacher you need to be able to see learning through a child’s eyes in order to break your subject knowledge down to be progressive (after mastery is established), challenging, accesible and inclusive in the context of development; 

3) an understanding of different philosophies that impact on pedagogy including transmission theories and constructivist theories. These are the ideas that drive the Twitter arguments every holiday. Take a view but know that there are holes in all philosophies.  Keep reading and reflecting knowing that the most confident voices maybe the least useful when you are teaching 30 children with a wide range of needs. All children to need to memorise facts and be engaged in their learning- these are not mutually exclusive whatever your approach and beliefs. 

4) empathy with unsuccessful learners. You need to understand what it feels like to fail repeatedly and the range of responses children have to that feeling. Try playing the flute (assuming at the moment you can’t) while someone stands over you getting increasingly frustrated; that’s what it feels like. As a teacher you are a successful learner so this maybe a new or rare feeling. For some children, it’s all they ever feel in a classroom. Reflect on that often. You need to change the child’s inner story (see Tim O’Brien’s book of that title) without creating dependency. However you choose to teach, communicate high expectations of and to every child by not allowing the classroom culture to develop strong labels linked to ability.    

5) empathy with parents. Whether you a parent or not, you need to have an insight into what it is like to hand over the most precious part of your life (the only person you might reflexively die to save) to a  professional;

6) an understanding of the many barriers to learning including the physical, social and emotional. Train your mind to put any labels given by others after the word child whilst developing a wide range of teaching strategies in response to the barriers;  

7) interpersonal skills to get on with colleagues who may have nothing in common with you and a very different set of educational beliefs; 

8) a level of cultural literacy in order to understand the experience and motivations of children from a range of heritages; 

9) an understanding of what it means to be a professional. The best way to test yourself is to ask another adult to check your facial expression when the child with the most challenging behaviours is absent during morning registration. If you keep a neutral face, you have passed the basic test of professionalism. The advanced test comes when the same child walks in late. Greet the child in the same warm way as you greet every other child (bearing in mind it’s always the adults’ responsibility for the child to be on time) without a hint of disappointment and you are a professional.  

10) the ability to keep up to date with politically or technologically driven change. 

11) a life outside of school with a strong network of friends and a range of stable relationships. 

Above all know that there will be never be one method that works for all the children you teach.  The sales reps have to make exaggerated claims for their resources in order to sell them to schools but there never will be the single magic wand that enables all children to learn everything at the same time. You also need to accept that you are not the magic wand with all the answers (or the heroic figure who will make all the tough, horrible aspects of life disappear for each and every child). The knowledge that you will never have all the answers is what makes teaching both rewarding and challenging. 

That’s all you need. 

Primary teaching is that simple because the answer to every issue is to seek the balance that works for each child. Finding the balance is not to compromise between irreconcilable philosophies, it’s bringing together child, subject and environment in the context of what it is to be human. 


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