My Observation of a Middle School

This is a middle school of open plan three level design built in 1975 to 1976 now accommodating 145 pupils with nine teaching staff in total, six non-teaching staff and outside contract meals and cleaning workers. Children use four doors for access. Centrally placed next to shops and a public house, of 70% private and 30% public housing, the school has no perimeter fence or wall. It suffers a little graffiti and scattered broken glass beyond. The dormitory township, a controversial overspill greenbelt development on land taken from a neighbouring county, still has four hundred houses to be built which should add another 100 pupils. The school works in collaboration and some competitive tension with a neighbouring Sheffield junior school.

There are 6 mixed ability classes from Y4 (8-9 years old) to Y7 (11-12 year olds). There are 38 children who could be in a Y4 class and 38 who could be in a Y5 class, but to reduce class numbers there are 26 in Y4, 22 in Y4/5 and 25 in Y5. On two afternoons a week they divide according to years in order to facilitate the meeting of national curriculum targets. There are 43 Y6 pupils divided into two classes of 23 and 20. The larger group are slightly older and more confident. There are only 27 in Y7 partly because some pupils have left for a school in the next county in order to attend a sixth form later on rather than a college in Sheffield. Children physically move up the school year by year except that Y7 comes before Y6 because of space reasons. In the previous year there was a Y5/Y6 class and some children feel they have not moved up this year. One child in Y6 on a special needs statement has extra tuition on his own one afternoon a week. All children attend a daily assembly with one leader so that the rest of the staff can use the time together (although they did not).

There are two permanent male staff and seven others, one male. There are six non-teaching staff. There are contract canteen workers and cleaners.

The headmaster has to fulfil the requirements of the national curriculum (that subject elements are covered, assessment tools are in place and records are kept). He must see that the budget balances. These functions are carried out with the governors. He is concerned with the image generated of the school in the outside world. Whilst the LEA appraises his performance, he appraises staff performance. He teaches science and sometimes covers for others. He laments the lack of management training. He takes assemblies three times a week, the deputy head once a week and two teachers alternate once a fortnight. A 110% teaching job share takes place, the extra 10% tied to a special needs statement which another teacher meets. Teachers must do yard duty. Although dinner duty is voluntary teachers do it because children do not respect the two dinner supervisors; teacher presence gives stability towards afternoon behaviour. There is an itinerant music teacher. One staff member looks after the library and keeps in contact with city resources. She liaises with the first school. One staff member is concerned with resourcing the national curriculum. As a rule of thumb the general assistant (13 hours a week) works for the school and and the school clerk (19 hours) works for the headmaster with administration. Two caretakers are concerned with both the school and community unit on shifts. Dinner staff and cleaners work on contract.

In October the school opens on one evening for parents to see the teachers. As early as March a main report is sent out and interviews follow so that subsequent action can be taken that year. In June and July there is an option of a second report being sent out if the child has significantly changed for better or worse. A parents' evening follows. There are about twenty to thirty keen parents who wish to help in school management, a few becoming governors, because they are interested in the welfare of their own child. On the whole, however, parents are happy to raise funds but spend little time in the school. Many are at work. Parents do not begin commitment with their child as in the first class at a primary school and also children of 8 years and over do not like them present. Parents usually complain when matters go wrong but otherwise leave it to the school to plan the work.

Local Authority headquarters provides the headmaster with specialist officers for advice in non-educational matters. It funds the school according to a formula which changes year to year. The school received around 250 000 for 1990-91. The deputy headmaster believed that an average of 14 pence per child was available for everything on a daily basis. The Local Authority has the right to let rooms in the school. These are off the red tiled area on the highest level. Costs incured as a result go to the school (mainly on an extra caretaker). There are meetings for older people, keep fit, a disco and a playgroup for pre-school children. The school itself makes 'governors' lettings' which offers extra but marginal income. In the summer a nine day playscheme generated income directly to the school. The school brass band and football team has a good reputation in the community.

In Y7 science the headmaster introduced the topic of understanding the contrast between living and non-living things. He gave out books to be well looked after as they were to be sold to the neighbouring Sheffield school. Using them he asked for examples of living and non-living things. He also asked what made something live, and used the correct answers given to clarify and progress the class onward.

In Y7 geography the teacher used a book on comparing countryside and urban features. She described the task and asked questions.

He sat informally on his desk creating some closeness. Their attention was also gained by the use of questions clarifying the task, checking that people were following and understanding.

She used extended and quick fire questions, compelling attention by turning the questions into dialogue and telling them that without listening they would not know what to do.

The teacher heard or watched mistakes being made with some frequency and stopped the class to guide everyone.

This observation covers the Y4/5 class. Teachers have support and prior knowledge of difficult pupils. In class the teacher observes and acts very quickly in the first few weeks of the school year. In Y4/5 the teacher puts behaviourally and educationally difficult pupils on the combined tables next to her desk. She has sat with children needing extra attention. Teachers notice when a child has done too little in the time available.

This observation covers several sessions, more than for question 1. Teachers asked questions early on in lessons requiring no immediate answers as a form of getting children to think. These questions are often quite vague. Most questions, however, seem to be to clarify, requiring verbal responses or work on paper. A French teacher used fast fired French langauge questions to her Y7 form at the end of the day to maintain attention and to make up for the lack of homework unlike at a nearby school. A Y6 maths lesson used questions from blackboard work to revise from previous work done. Certain sessions use quick fire questions for discipline and attention getting reasons. Children who are not looking at the teacher are asked questions or a deliberate pattern of random targetting takes place. One Y4 teacher lost some keys and generated conversational responses to give clues as to where they were. Most of all questions are put instead of statements to get children to think. Repeat questions usually require the teacher only to point.

Some answers are hands up for yes or no especially with blackboard work, as used in a maths lesson. Some teachers insist on hands raised first and yet are inconsistent in refusing to answer those shouted out. Revision answers are often shorter because of the way the question is framed; the intention is to move on to new material. Some answers ramble when a child fails to grasp the precise point being made. Extended answers can also lead to new questions and produce dialogue. Short answers are generally the best, proving a sharp grasp of knowledge. Y4 children answered to tell what they do during the day, building on other answers from their peers, the question being repeated by a hand movement.

Few questions were asked by pupils openly; they tended to be privately to the teacher. Mainly they are for specific information and clarification. Some questions are actually to demonstrate and show off existing knowledge (Is...? Answer, yes). Questions involving exercises with key words are either to get the work done for them or to clarify. Guidance seeking is important as pupils ask how to do something (for example in the use of shapes). The teacher may refuse to answer because she feels it takes away their thinking.

Children fail to see the point of the exercises. In Geography Y7 children added new words to the limited choice of key words. Going above the intended level of answwers happened in Science. Less conceptual thinking in Y6 and Y5 maths reduced the scope for error.

Some error is caused by the material used. Children do think and go beyond the limits of the material. The material encourages the notion of right and wrong answers while some teachers (as in Y7 science) may say that thinking is more important. Pre-teenage children themselves tend to think in terms of a limited black and white world of truth and error. Occasionally errors are encouraged to aid learning but this can cause confusion. Also children are distracted by others and noise and do not absorb details.

To understand the difference between living and non-living things.

3 minutes ruling a grid. 1 minutes with ruler in the 2 minutes shuffling papers and air.

participating by cutting with others. 1 minute with pencil in the 4 minutes writing and noting. air.

1 minutes tearing paper strips with a ruler.

2 minutes gazing at another table.

He used a workbook with examples, drew a grid and listed examples, cut, sorted and filed cartoons of examples into piles of living, used to be living and non-living categories.

The child learned how to think about ordering lists, and what it means to be 'used to be alive'. By gazing he watched (perhaps did not take in) how others organised themselves or he was lost in some thought. Also he found that breaking paper with a ruler's edge, however rapidly, did not create clean cut edges.

Subtraction using a set textbook.

4 minutes doing sums. 6 minutes talking and 20 seconds turning pages. giggling.

10 seconds reading only. minute gazing.

2 minutes showing friend. 50 seconds fidgeting.

10 seconds talking at teacher. minute looking at pencil.

She wrote, ruled and subtracted sums.

She learnt how to subtract, use a ruler and write. She also practised conversational skills and probably gained reviewing skills of the television seen the previous evening. The child learnt some discipline by reacting to two interventions from one of the two teachers which increased her time on the task.

A girl in Y7 science was asking me whether examples were living, once alive or never alive. Very inquisitive, she thought the examples were unclear. I was unclear too and I handled this by asking questions to help her think along. I found myself allowing her and others to make mistakes as long as they were thinking. The girl still expected correct answers and that I should know them.

Also in science I found a child writing more and more in a book without successfully explaining an answer. It showed just how much the ability to write something crisply is learnt.

A boy and his friend asked how tall I was. This led him to refer to watching wrestling. I thought this was on too late (night time television) but he said they watch it on video recorded from Sky Television. He said English wrestling is "crap" whereas Americans do things like smashing chairs over their heads. So I asked if wrestling is sport or entertainment. He said entertainment. I asked if it is fixed. They said not at the top level. This, and endless pupil references to Neighbours (sometimes used by teachers: for example in a Y4 topic class the teacher identified Australia to them by humming its tune), showed that children are drenched by mass popular culture.

In Y6 maths I found myself having to explain the very basics of subtraction, saying that each column to the left has ten times the power of a column to the right and that is why one of it can be borrowed to make ten of the other. It helped the child too.

A child on the computer of 11 years old needed the same kind of broken down and simplified instruction as in my teaching of 16-18 year olds, only he was much slower in typing.

The most obvious point referring to equal opportunities was that the headmaster and deputy headmaster were the only full time male members of staff in the school. They also took all assmeblies but one each week and two female teachers alternated for the other day. Therefore the whole school was presented with the norm of male figures as the highest authority.

A poem comparing the stability of the colour of black children and the many colours in many conditions of white children was displayed in the Y6 teaching area and in the staffroom.

There was only one black boy (from Nigeria a year ago) and two British Asians in the whole school. The boy was always getting into trouble but he was badly behaved. He was bawled at early in Y6 Language and was removed from P.E. and sent into a room off the Y6 area with another boy. It was suggested that Sheffield housing policy might be to blame for the lack of black children in the area and therefore in the school.

A Y4 teacher in P.E. asked boys with bare feet to get out the bean bags first followed by girls in bare feet and then both in sandshoes. Boys put them away first leaving one bean bag per group of three and childen left to change in the same order as they got out the bean bags. However, one boy in Y7 (with a girl opposite) told me a joke they were telling relating to football goalkeeping, Tampax and periods. Asked if I thought it was funny I said it was "crude" and "sexist". He replied that the school is sexist. The girl agreed and both said that girls go out first in P.E., are sent through the doors first and are first for much else. One teacher of authority in particular tells boys off but is friendlier with girls. This was partly confirmed later in observation where boys were spoken to with less sensitivity and more directness than girls.

Three boys too slow in dressing from Y6 P.E. in the previous week had to sit in shorts and underpants only (that is bare chests, legs and bare feet on the floor) during spelling and multiplication tests after P.E.. I doubt if girls would have been treated this way.

An Asian girl was sat alone during exercises which were co-operative in Y5 maths. She was the most isolated of all the children. Nothing may have been overtly intended in this.

No one was physically disabled within the school. No one wore hearing aids or other special supports.

The child with a special statement was frequently in trouble. Once he was told that he might be sent to "the building down there" if he did not behave. The building referred to was a nursery.

On a school programme about mapmaking recorded on video shown to all Y4 children for their project the road warning sign for chidren was interpreted as "mother and child walking to school".

The Y4/5 teacher began in the staff room chatting socially and about individual children. She returned to teach a modified class, her Y5 people having gone leaving her Y4 pupils and some from the Y4 only class.

She spoke to the Y4 group about what they had been doing and what they were going to do. They continued labelling plans of the school and she went around the joined tables of four to six children helping them. She wrote some extra words on the blackboard to help and had to call for quiet and stop them shouting before carrying on going around the tables.

She took them to join the other Y4 project group to watch a video recording of a schools programme about children mapmaking. She wrote down some notes, commented on fidgety people and watched the recording while the chldren began to lose interest. In questions afterwards she found that few children had bothered to look at the maps on the wall. She commented, "We don't just put things on the wall like wallpaper." She asked further questions and stood with the other teacher to calm them down.

In the staff room she drank coffee and laughed at a humourous book. She chatted about a film coming up on television. She had a brief consultation with the headmaster.

In the class she stopped children working on their school plans to ask questions about each map. For the world map she asked them to tell her which country she pointed at: for Australia she hummed the Neighbours theme and many hands shot up. After this she introduced an exercise about maps in the text book. Here, most of all, she had difficulty remembering the names of some of the Y4 children out of the other group. Some work began.

The class stopped and groups returned to normal for the last twenty minutes of the afternoon. The children wanted to hear their favourite poems. She also read part of a story and asked questions about hunting, hearing some children mention foxes killing chickens and she discussed fox hunting as a moral dilemma. At the end chairs were put on desks and she led prayers. Letters were handed out to some people, and she sang Happy Birthday for one child as the others were leaving.

The teacher said that on the whole her job is to encourage a willingness to learn amongst the children. She said that the children, for all that the National Curriculum may expect, cannot hope to retain knowledge. Year by year she forgets what she has taught and has to return to the text books. She attempts, on the whole, to improve and develop their social, moral and spiritual behaviour. When asked about prayers at the end which I thought encouraged fear of the dark she said they are to shut the children up more than anything.

She is heavy with discipline early on, especially with new children coming in from another school with a different regime. They then understand the boundaries beyond which they cannot go.

Also there is difficulty with children of mixed ages. Some from the other school had no storage and places of their own, like at this school. They have to learn the new ways. Others are used to the ways of the school.

She said her teaching style is a mixture of didactic and pupil centred methods. Progressive teaching is limited in effect because children and people in general are "idle" and prefer to be so. She does yard duty and dinner duty but no assemblies.

There is an obvious conflict between the demands of the National Curriculum and the idea that children are encouraged to want to learn. Also she acted as an agent of teaching social skills. Presumably this is shared with the home. This is part of the all round understanding of teaching. One problem is the open plan nature of the school (a progressive idea but leading to noise carrying along the building and teachers aware that their class noise affects other classes) and also the limitations on teacher time per pupil. So a teacher's task is holding in balance a set of sometimes conflicting demands from the government (targets and competition), the community (socially responsible children), parents (successfully educated children) and the teaching theories of the profession itself (co-operative education through didactic and progressive means), which is not unexpected even if not ideal.