I’m sure I’m not the first teacher to have a new child join their class unannounced, but this happened to me recently and the child in question spoke absolutely no English. Again, I know this happens all the time and I’ve had several EAL pupils start over the last few years but this time was different because the range of needs in my class was already so vast that I was suddenly faced with this dilemma of do I sit with this child and do my usual of going through the basics and printing off flashcards and phonics cards, or do I what I’ve been doing all year and work with one of my children with a special educational need who find it a huge challenge to work independently?
Teachers are under more and more pressure to meet the needs of the learners in their classrooms. With the eradication of ability grouping and differentiation by task in many primary schools, teachers need to find new ways to keep an entire class engaged whilst ensuring every student can access the learning. Children are being pushed all the time and teachers must be ready with additional challenges in every lesson. Many schools have had to lose support staff who would usually play an integral role in ensuring children are actively taking part and learning in a lesson. Because of this, some teachers are finding it more of a challenge to be there one hundred per cent of the time for all the students in their classroom. As well as this, SENDCOs are under immense pressure to meet deadlines and cannot always provide the practical in-class help that they could have done some years ago, so teachers are having to source and create their own resources and squeeze these into an already busy timetable.
Lots of teachers would agree that we face a myriad of barriers on a daily basis both in and out of the classroom. There are budget cuts which make everything a bit of a squeeze. In some schools this is resulting in a lack of resources, in others it could be the loss of teaching assistants and support staff. While some schools are working to reduce teacher workload, others are piling it on meaning their teachers are tired and overworked and don’t have the time to go above and beyond. There are increasing class sizes which makes marking and report writing far longer than it ought to be. As well as this, there is the far more prevalent issue that is the huge range of needs we are faced with every single day. In one class, you could have children who speak English as an additional language, autistic children, children with ADHD, children with speech and language issues, children with mental health issues and children who are thriving and need extra challenge, children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, as well as a whole host of other needs. So how can teachers possibly be expected to meet everyone’s needs in every moment of every lesson?
Many would say that that’s just part and parcel of being a teacher. We all knew it would be a challenge coming into the job, so why moan? In fact, this expectation of us is clearly written in the Teachers’ Standards. TS5 states that we must ‘adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils’. All pupils, even those with significant barriers to their learning. Therefore, we should be altering planning and teaching for the children in our class who can’t fully access the learning. Other standards include planning and teaching well structured lessons and promoting good progress and outcomes for students so surely this means ensuring all students, including those with additional needs, are engaged, challenged and making progress in every lesson? It’s within our job role to equip ourselves with strategies and ways to empower all children to learn and make progress every day.
Personally, I have taught classes where I have found it easier to keep on top of everything and everyone in the room and one class where the range of needs was so huge that I felt it impossible to be there for each of them throughout every lesson. Having had this experience, it became clear that it just isn’t doable for teachers to always be there for every child in their class every day or in each lesson. There will, of course, be classes and lessons where this is doable, but I honestly don’t believe it can always happen. I’ve come to learn that it’s not the end of the world if a child is sitting doing ‘nothing’ for a minute or two in a lesson and it’s ok if you didn’t get around to giving some children verbal feedback because you can catch up on it later. One thing I have tried over the years is giving my SEN children mini projects to keep them occupied such as making a comic book so that when they’ve finished a task, they can move onto that rather than doing nothing. From an outside perspective, it might look like a bit of fun/busy work but if a child is practising holding a pencil, writing and recalling a story, then the learning hasn’t stopped.
In an ideal world, teachers would have the time and resources to meet the needs of every child in their class during every lesson but there will be times that this simply is not possible. With heavy workloads, a lack of time and a strain on resources, teachers cannot be expected to work miracles. There are far too many teachers working until the middle of the night to make sure they are prepared for the next day’s lessons. Teachers should be able to use their professional judgment in the classroom and feel confident that their children can and will still make progress even if they didn’t manage to move a child’s learning on or nip a misconception in the bud before the end of a lesson.
Ultimately, teachers should, and do, strive to meet the needs of every child in every lesson but we shouldn’t be breaking our backs or staying up all night to make this possible. We need to remember not to beat ourselves up if we can’t get around to everyone or if we haven’t given one child a challenge question because there’s more than likely a very good reason why.