Teaching: going full circle – 1969-2007. (2015)

Location : Lowestoft

Janet began teaching in 1969 and worked until 2007. She says, ‘teachers are the people who know what their children need and hopefully that is what is happening now’.

As I was going through my school career I swore I would never be a teacher as I’d come from a family where there were five of us and everyone was in teaching and I’d been practiced on. And no I thought, not going to be a teacher, I must be something else. Well it ended up when I left school I just seemed to drift into it and decide to go to St Mary’s College, Cheltenham. And I thought what am doing? I don’t really like children I don’t think! I chose Cheltenham because growing up I had just been the last of the Mosses. We spanned thirty years and people kept saying, are you the last? And I was always compared to my sisters and my brother and I thought no, I want to get right away and go somewhere that they don’t know the Moss family so that’s how it happened.

But I found as I got involved with my teaching practices I really sort of gelled with children and I began to think maybe this isn’t such a bad idea. I still wasn’t absolutely sure but it got better. I did three years and it had been the nine to thirteen age range I’d trained in which was supposed to be for the middle school when it came; but it wasn’t to be in the end because I got a job, you had to apply to the authority then and they put you where they liked. And so I applied to the Suffolk authority because Suffolk was where I was from – you tended not to leave home then. And they did actually put me in a school in Lowestoft where I was born, but I remember after getting a letter when I was at college throwing myself on the bed in utter despair because I was told I had a class of forty-two six year olds.

And I hadn’t had any experience of children so young. Anyway, I got into the school and well, the marking was a nightmare but at least all children sat and listened to you then. But I was working all hours and I wasn’t really enjoying it because of such a large number. I wanted to work through my dinner hour and everything and the head used to come down and say this is no good; all your children want to do is love you (both laugh). And any rate in the end I made myself rather ill and had to have time off and they had a supply teacher and all the parents were saying, ‘When’s that Miss Moss coming back, the children love?’ And I thought oh right, I’ve done something then.

So then it went from better to better, you know and I really got on very well with them.

Well the school I had first of all was in Cheltenham and I just had twelve children then just to get me used to things. And the second teaching practice I was responsible for a few more but the class teacher themselves were also responsible so you know; I never got used to a huge number. Well I think the final one, I was in the Forest of Dean and I did have the whole class and we had people coming round from the college to inspect what you were doing and I was rather scared of a lot of the children really but apparently I can remember someone saying to me, oh you’ve got such a good way with you, so good with the discipline and the children really seem to gel with you. And that quite surprised me (laughs). So I was doing a much better job than I thought.

At Lowestoft I went straight in to teaching a class. There was a team within that year group and those people gave me guidance but mostly I was on my own which was not easy. It was a bit of a nightmare that first year but I got through it; and I had learnt quite a lot and I really started to gel with the children then. I can remember one day some children stayed after school to help me with some tidying up and I happened to mention my mum, and they turned round in such a shocked state, ‘you ain’t got a Mum!’

So I suppose when I started I would have been twenty-one, twenty-two and my second class, soon after I had it I was my twenty-third birthday and the rest of the teachers in my team, it was all open plan and down the corridor we were doing some work on Jack and the Beanstalk, I think, and they hung these placards from the ceiling saying ‘Happy birthday Miss Moss, twenty…no a hundred and five today.

I can remember one class I had, I had a little boy who he was very good on his reading and very competent little boy and he used to go round the school telling stories to the younger ones. I think it must have been about seven I’d got them then and I can remember one day could he tell stories to the class? And I was in the cupboard, we had a big sort of walk-in cupboard and I was doing some tidying in there and I heard him say, ‘right, where are all those straight backs and bright eyes,’ and I thought oh that’s me!.

In the late sixties, you discussed a topic with the children of their interest and you sort of did a diagram with the topic in the middle, Venn diagram it was called, and then you did a line to all the different subjects and I decided what would go in those subjects to do with this topic.

And I feel that children then, when they had chosen the topic that they were interested in, worked better at it than children today who have something put on to them that they have to do, that the whole country is doing at the particular age. So I feel it was better. As my career developed over the years I had to adapt but I used old ideas and merged them with the new ideas which I think was somewhat better.

Well I was there from sixty-nine to seventy-one and then I decided to apply to Norwich. And I got into a junior school in Thorpe Hamlet and that was from seven to eleven and I had seven year olds to begin with and that was a very interesting class. I can remember when you had Jehovah Witnesses in your class they couldn’t go to the school assemblies but today people have to be with them but in those days you just left the poor little things in the class room to look after themselves. And we went to an assembly and we were quite a long time and I can remember coming back and this little girl ran out of the classroom and hugged me and said, ‘oh where have you been, I’ve been so lonely.’ And I felt so bad but there was nothing I could do.

Well the differences today are phenomenal from when I started and most of my fulltime teaching career. I did supply later on and well, I wasn’t happy with the changes really. All this testing you have with the SATS where they go down to, well when I did it they went down to seven and you ended up with quite neurotic children really. It didn’t seem natural and I used to have children telling me if they couldn’t meet a certain level, oh I’m thick, I’m stupid and to me the whole idea of education which means taking out what is in there and working on it and making children confident in their own abilities ‘cos all children have got, well as all people, different practical abilities not just the written word. And I felt that we were making them less confident and destroying their self-image for the ones who weren’t so able with the three R’s.

With the children I had at the beginning of my career and for several years afterwards, you would let them work at their own pace but later on they had to do it within a certain length of time, that was their target. And some children just could not possibly and it just ended up that they felt inadequate and stupid and to me that is not the idea. You should teach children and let them work at their level, rather than put them all in to one pool.

As for this all the records one has to keep today, anyone would think we had never kept records. Well, not much perhaps was in writing but you certainly kept records in your head. You knew your children very, very well. They weren’t consigned to black and white and I think in some ways we got to know them better. If their pet rabbit had died that morning, you could start doing some type of lesson where they were all involved and they could talk about how they felt but you could bring it all about rabbits and things like that. Whereas now you have to say to a child, well sorry we haven’t got time to talk about that, we’ve got to do our literacy now, this is the literacy hour. And children really need to talk about something there and then, not at a later date. So I find that’s not so good at all.

And all the planning, you have to tick all these boxes and things and you are so involved with that, that you can’t be as involved with the children in their everyday life which is important. And I felt you were working during the day as well you were having to keep records and so you couldn’t be with your children as I always wanted to be. I know records have to be kept but we had always had them. We had some written down but a lot in your head. And when you get to understand children then that to me is more important really, rather than making them in to little boxes.

But one thing that is very different today is the discipline problem with children. A teacher’s hands are completely tied. You cannot, you have to be so careful what words you use and you cannot touch a child. I’ve had my career threatened twice just by putting my hands on a boy’s shoulder to see if he was getting on with the work that I had set, and he blew it out of all proportion and I had to be called in to the head’s office to say sorry, no physical contact whatsoever. And when I first trained you were told if a child was reading to you and another child came up to you, you put your arm round the first child to show you had not left contact which a child appreciated, they didn’t feel left out. But today it’s terrible from that point of view.

There’s a lot of nasty things happening but health and safety has gone mad in schools. I mean children used to love playing with conkers. I think they might have changed this rule now, but when I was working still you couldn’t let a child play conkers because it was dangerous and all the years that children have played conkers. And also when it was snowy I used to have to stand astride an icy puddle, children mustn’t slide cos they might fall over and if a child fell over and grazed their knee and rushed up to you with their arms open wide, you almost had to say sorry I can’t cuddle you. Oh it has got ridiculous.

And I can remember at one school I was doing supply then I think, that was out in the country, quite a way out in the country and the head said most of her children wanted to work on the land and she said she had always used to take them on nature walks and things and described all the different leaves and the different jobs around in the countryside but as soon as all the different recording and SATS and different things came in she couldn’t do that anymore because there had to be literacy hours and numeracy hours and there just wasn’t time for these things and she felt she wasn’t providing her children with what they needed.

In other countries they let their children learn through playing and adventures in the countryside etcetera. I think we tend to do a formal education too early. It was alright when I first started but now such young children have to be so formal that I think it’s destroying something, destroying the spontaneity.

I have heard that now they are moving to more freedom and my grandchildren seem to have more freedom in their education than I saw when I left.

Well I think over my first few years of teaching, a lot of teachers were very, very remote from their children and there’s one particular teacher who has always stuck in my mind. Whenever she used to trip around the school, she had these high heels on and tight skirts in the sixties and these winged glasses and the way she reacted with the children she wasn’t in with them at all. And even later on after I had my family when they were old enough I did all sorts of jobs associated with schools ‘cos to my mind whatever job you do, to do with children, is as important because teachers can’t teach if someone doesn’t look after the children at dinner time and clean the classrooms and all sorts. I remember one cleaner saying to me; you are one of the only teachers who ever talk to us. And I thought well if the teachers are looking down on people like that, what are the children going to do. And I remember when I was doing some dinnertime supervision, when the teachers brought their classes in they knew that I was a teacher and they would say things like, ‘can’t we find anything better than this to stretch to Mrs W.’ And I thought how terrible because the children were seeing the dinner ladies as a nothingness but if those ladies hadn’t been there and fed the children, how could the teachers have worked with them?! I could never understand any of that.

And also later on I did some work as a, well they called them welfare workers; it’s the same as teaching assistants today. And I thought I could understand that the teachers wanted their kettle put on ready for their coffees and so on but I didn’t see why they couldn’t make their own which they certainly do today. And I managed to get away with it for a while and then I had a cryptic note put on my desk telling me how many spoons of sugar and…

The ideas that we had first used were, and that hadn’t worked, were still put in to practice and we told them they wouldn’t work but they said well you still have to try them anyway. But I do feel now, possibly, teaching seems to be going round full circle so maybe there will be a better, the child will be more centred. It definitely seems to be more child centred as it used to be. So although we told them that some of the things weren’t too good, they wouldn’t ever listen. But teachers are the people who know what their children need and hopefully that is what is happening now.

Janet Wyer (b. 1947) Interviewed in Norwich for WISEArchive on 30th October 2015.

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