Education is straightforward; the difficult part is keeping it simple, says Bury St Edmunds headteacher Andrew Hammond
I remember a few years ago, I was enjoying a drink in a local pub with some friends. I was the only teacher around the table and I vividly recall one of the group asking me: “So, Hammond, what’s this teaching all about then? Last I heard, it was just childcare.”
The room fell silent and all eyes turned on me to see if I would take the bait, and launch into one of my usual lectures on why the teaching profession mattered so much and why more people should enter it.
But I didn’t. I took a sip of my pint, thought for a while and said: “Do you know, I couldn’t agree more, childcare is exactly what teaching is all about. But did you really need the word ‘just’? Take that little word out and we have a deal.”
Childcare, in its truest sense, is a fitting blueprint for teaching and I am proud to be associated with the word. A good school is built on love.
Yes, there is a curriculum to deliver, exams to prepare for and values and beliefs to espouse; there are character traits to hold up as being worthy, life skills to develop, core knowledge to be taught and skills to be demonstrated.
There are positive attitudes to model, like optimism, aspiration and self-worth, and there are critical thinking skills to sharpen. But when all’s said and done, there is one aspect of a teacher’s job worth all the rest: to provide the highest standards of care for the children.
If we begin with love and work backwards from there, everything usually fits into place. Education is straightforward; the difficult part is keeping it simple. If we love the children, we have high aspirations for them and we will work tirelessly to help them to achieve their best.
This is what makes teaching the vocation it is. When children are loved – and know they are loved – they feel a sense of value and self-worth. Children who value themselves feel confident, and confident children work hard. Anyone who is willing to work hard in school can achieve their best.
No matter how frequently I pore over the attainment and progress data, calculating what proportion of our pupils are on track to meet national expectations in reading, writing and maths, I know that there are many other indicators of success, too – checks that show we will all make good progress over time.
And the most important of these tests, put simply, is this: are all the children in my school being loved?
I would not settle for anything less. To say that love is the most important thing in a school is a bold thing for a headteacher to say, perhaps.
It can be misinterpreted. Critics might believe such a sentiment lacks ambition or rigour – that we are afraid to provide challenge for our children for fear of upsetting them and disturbing their well-being. To this, I say: if you love someone then you want only the best for them.
Just like physicians, we teachers have a Hippocratic oath, too. We act in loco parentis – in place of a parent – during the school day. This means we love our children; it is what binds us as teachers.
You know when you are in a school that is rich in love. You feel it. The warm smiles on the teachers’ faces are met with bold grins on the children’s. There is a warm, vibrant atmosphere in classrooms and cheerful chatter in corridors. There is a unifying appreciation and affection for childhood.
"There is no better feeling for a school pupil than knowing that your teacher is pleased to see you"
It is possible to take the role of being a headteacher tremendously seriously without taking oneself so seriously that it becomes almost impossible to relax. This is not a good model for children to follow.
We were all children once, whether we wish to admit it or not, and reconnecting with our own childhood helps us adults to remember what school looks and feels like for a child. There is no better feeling for a school pupil than knowing that your teacher is pleased to see you, that he or she enjoys your company.
If you know that, then you will follow them up and over the top into the most daring and difficult learning activities you care to provide. Only when they are properly cared for, can children begin to develop the resilience, optimism and self-worth they will need in adulthood.
We hear all too often the saddest stories of children, and particularly teenagers, struggling with anxiety, depression and self-loathing. It seems that this is on the rise, and the uncertainty and suffering that envelops some children in our society, caused by austerity cuts, lack of leadership and perpetual ambiguity over the direction of our country, does not exactly bring comfort to them.
They need the caring and reassuring voice of an adult around them sometimes, they really do.
So yes, my friend, teaching is about childcare. And I dearly hope you had at least one teacher who loved you when you were at school. I know I did.
-- Andrew Hammond is headteacher at Guildhall Feoffment Community Primary School, in Bury St Edmunds. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewJHammond