Primary School Teaching - a Guide to Classroom Practice
Created | Updated Dec 13, 2010
One of the problems of being a teacher is that everyone has been to school or is going through school and therefore feels qualified to pass comment on the job you do. This entry is an attempt to put the job in context with an overview of how teaching is done. It is a guide for parents to understand what their child's teacher does (and why they do it) and may also be of help to those considering teaching as a career. It is meant to show the conditions of teaching 4-11 year olds in England in 2003 and it will naturally become less accurate over time.
Primary education is split into two sections; the first is for children aged 4-7, and the second is for children aged 7-11. Some pupils will need to attend two separate schools over this time; others will have just one school containing the whole primary phase.
This is already decided for teachers, framed by the National Curriculum, which has been in place from the early 1990s. It was last reviewed in 2000, after which a more integrated and streamlined curriculum was put in place. For most subjects, central skills of the subject are taught continuously, with areas of study added, for example different eras in history, a variety of tasks to design and make in technology.
ICT1 is different to most subjects, in that it is expected that it will feature in all areas of the Curriculum, either in teaching tools or as a way of pupils recording their work.
Maths and English now have dedicated lessons, framed by the Literacy Strategy and the Numeracy Strategy. Both are taught in a discrete session with strands requiring different skills running through them. In English, work is split into text (reading and writing skills), word (spelling) and sentence work (grammar and punctuation). For numeracy lessons, a session on mental maths leads to work on weekly topics such as number work, data handling or shapes. However, teachers are expected to plan for the employment of Math and English skills in all lessons.
Science also has a high status, one of three core subjects, along with English and Maths. These subjects are tested at points through a child's school career.
Most primary school teachers will teach all subjects within the Curriculum to their class. There is scope for team teaching of specialist subjects such as Games or Music. Peripatetic teachers are also available.
Primary classes are usually mixed with ability and gender. Pupils will be seated strategically, often at a group of tables rather than the popular conception of rows of individuals' desks. Teachers seat pupils in different ways according to the lesson as well as their ability, behaviour and friendships. A balance is always sought between learning needs and pupils' happiness. Pupils' equipment is generally stored in named trays and in specific locations around the classroom. Most classrooms have common stock available to the pupils.
Other features include specific activity areas, areas for pupils to sit and be taught as a class, and displays on the wall. Displays are required to show pupils' work, to include some interaction to promote learning and to create an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere.
Teaching and Learning
Prior to the National Curriculum, there was much variation within a school as to the kind of education each child received. It would depend upon the skills of the teacher and their main interests. Subsequently, the provision of a standard set of skills has become a priority. Schools have developed teaching and learning policies to ensure that their staff follow school-approved Schemes of Work (what to teach and when), subject policies and methods of planning.
When planning, teachers select Learning Objectives based upon the age and ability of their children. They will then construct a lesson that will give their pupils the necessary experience to build upon skills, improve understanding and gain knowledge.
The lesson will have to be differentiated, including the needs of at least three ability groups. This means that there will be easier work for those at a lower level, harder work for those who are progressing faster, with the majority of work aimed at the majority of pupils who are progressing at a standard rate for the school.
Teachers will look at the work produced in a lesson by the pupils and match the attainment of each child to the objectives set at the beginning. They will then give the work a level, as described in the National Curriculum. This is most closely done with the core subjects, as many of the others have end of Key Stage2 objectives. These are to be met at the end of the Infants (Year 2) and the Juniors (Year 6). This assessment will then be used to inform the planning of the next lesson.
As a logical extension to the provision for every pupil set out in the National Curriculum, the right to a full education has been extended to those with Special Needs. In many schools, there is provision for those with specific mental and physical needs. Many of these needs have traditionally been met at home or in special schools, but the trend is now towards these pupils being taught in mainstream education. Where this occurs, the pupil has been awarded support through a Statement of Special Needs provision, but is, within reason, then expected to participate as fully as they can in normal school life. The teacher will not only provide these pupils with normal schoolwork, but also opportunities for the pupil to progress through their own specific targets as set out in an Individual Education Programme.
Gifted and Talented Pupils
The provision for the needs of those pupils, who are capable of work well above the level of attainment expected for their peers, has recently become an expectation within schools. After identification, pupils' names are kept on a register and would be given projects and special work in order to build on their particular talents and skills. Teachers would need to plan for this and use special tasks or projects to show that the special needs of these pupils are being met.
Thinking Skills and Learning Styles
These are, currently, two popular areas for schools to explore. Following the review of the Curriculum, there has been a need for teachers to promote thinking skills in class work. This would include open-ended questioning, interactive displays, problem-solving opportunities and research and investigative tasks. These are to be rooted within the context of the subject and lesson being taught.
Learning styles relates to the way in which pupils learn. Broadly, this means that a teacher should use a variety of pedagogic styles, allowing pupils to listen, see and do in order to learn. This requires teachers to develop more than one teaching style and to be aware that if they do not provide all three styles, some pupils may under-achieve.
A large part of teaching time can be spent 'looking after' pupils. Many problems come through the classroom door, from pet illness to parental estrangement, to issues of bullying and abuse. It is one of the most challenging parts of the job to take care of the pupil without over-stepping professional boundaries and yet, also to show that you are willing to help. It is also a challenge to keep the pupil progressing through their work, which in most circumstances, can be a welcome relief to the problem weighing them down. Furthermore, it is common to find oneself supporting colleagues who are helping pupils through tough times, as it is a stressful time for the teacher too.
Rewards and Discipline
Primary schools have taken on board the concept of rewarding good behaviour positively. This is seen as an active rejection of just punishing bad behaviour. The correct use of appropriate rewards does stop bad behaviour, by increasing self-esteem and pupil contentment. Alongside this, punishment is used in context and proportion, and the rehabilitation of pupils, seeking to improve that behaviour, is also seen as crucial. Teachers must always seem fair, keep records and accounts of incidents where bad behaviour has been shown and avoid value-laden language. Schools will have their own behavioural policies; teachers may also have their own reward systems in place to fit in with that policy.
The above represent the most common responsibilities the teacher will face. They are varied and require patience, flexibility, intelligence and experience to perfect. A primary classroom should be a supportive and happy place, where pupils are keen to learn and are being supplied with the lessons to do so. At the centre of this will be the teacher, who will be looking to support and encourage all, in order to fulfil their potential again tomorrow. Working with people creates many variables, and teaching is not always an exact science.