The class friend

"When somebody makes you feel like a fool, when somebody is so terribly cruel, you can feel your anger down deep in your soul, you can hold on to the feeling or you can let go."

Twenty eight children at Juniper Green primary, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, are singing along and doing the actions to their post-playtime "Fischy Music" favourite, including a few air guitars.
“What are our emotions?” asks the teacher afterwards. The class sticks its arms in the air with enthusiasm. “Is it something to do with the sea?” “That’s the ocean,” explains the teacher gently. “They go up and down,” answers another child. “They do. What goes up and down?” “The waves,” answers another boy.

This could be frustrating for an award-winning teacher, commended for her work on emotional literacy, but Susan Ward is also notable for her patience.

Hands up, baby!

A child shouts out instead of waving her arm in the time-honoured manner and Ward shakes her head and grabs one of her collection of cuddly toys from her desk. She presses its tummy and it sticks its hand up and sings to the tune of an old disco number “Hands up, baby hands up”.

It makes the point firmly but it is also fun, which is a good encapsulation of Ward’s teaching style.

Another child who stands up in eagerness to get her attention is also passed over. “I think we’ll choose someone who is doing some good sitting.” The child sits down again smartly.

There is not a cross word and the children are hardly aware that they are being trained to behave.

Ward’s charges are aged four and five and she has to hustle them through a strict programme of literacy and numeracy in their very first year of school under the Scottish system.

Ward says: “All behaviour could be described as challenging if you choose to see it that way. What I try to do is to set up really positive relationships. Challenging behaviour is easier to manage in that context.”

At the beginning of the school year, Ward says: “I took some photos of primary 3s demonstrating different emotions. We had to be feelings detectives and decide what they were feeling in the pictures.

“Then we talked as a class about what sort of feelings we wanted to have in our classroom. They decided that they wanted to be happy and excited and proud. They didn’t want to be angry and they didn’t want to be sad.

“We made some promises to each other. They are up on the wall. We promised to be kind to each other. To tell each other if we were feeling sad. We promised to work together and to be a good, happy team. So the idea is that the relationships that are set up are all positive.”

Ward has also worked at developing positive relationships with parents and families. “I think you do have to work at that. You can’t just expect it. Parents really want to know what you are doing all day with their children and I think that’s fair enough. I want to be trusted.

“We have an open-door policy here, we encourage parents to come in the morning and at the end of the day, and they can just catch me and have a word with me then so that nothing becomes a big deal where you have to phone up and make an appointment.”

As part of her positive relationships strategy, Ward and the class are making termly newsletters for parents. “I have got a lot of positive feedback about the newsletter. What parents have said is that it really improves the quality of the dialogue they have with their children. Instead of saying ‘how was school today’ and hearing ‘fine’, they can say ‘I see you were doing this’ or look at the pictures together and the children really open up and start talking.”

The first newsletter features the “class friend”, Mr Whiskers, one of a range of cuddly toys on teacher’s desk for various purposes, and quotes from the children about him. “If anyone was sad, Mr Whiskers would come and give them a hug”; “if you’re upset when you’re lining up, Mr Whiskers comes out to the door to see you”, “Mr Whiskers is nice and he’s got a school tie”. Other featured toys are “The Cluck brothers” who join in free play and squeak when you squeeze them.

Unlike many other Scottish primary schools where primary 1 is very formal, all P1 children at Juniper Green have free play in a nursery-type setting each day.

Another innovative technique is that when they are doing quiet work at their desks, Ward puts on music in the background. “We really enjoy that. It could be classical or dancey, anything that is upbeat. If it’s really, really quiet a lot of them seem to find it difficult and if someone coughs or shuffles it can disrupt the whole class.”

Ward, who did her probationary year at the school, says the headteacher, Karen Noble, and principal teacher, Paul Ewing, gave her enormous encouragement as a new teacher. “I think I’ve been put into an environment where I can succeed. I am very lucky as the atmosphere here is so supportive. I am allowed to try things and be creative and nobody knocks my confidence.” A new scheme at the school, she explains, was a “teachers’ show and tell” where teachers make presentations to their colleagues about what works in the classroom.

Ward, 26, has a father and uncle who are teachers, but initially resisted going into the family profession. She took a degree in literature, film and TV studies and then went on to work in a restaurant before deciding to take her teaching qualification. After her first in-school training, she says: “I loved it. I remember coming home afterwards and thinking ‘maybe I am one of those lucky people who has found the job that is right for them’. It’s hard work but it’s the best job in the world as far as I’m concerned.”

The UK Teaching Awards judges certainly felt she stood out: “Her classroom was a delight, even a privilege, to visit. Her relationship with her pupils was firm – they all knew what was expected of them – but warm and constructive. The lessons moved seamlessly from one activity to the next and pupils knew what they were doing and why.

“It was clear that her commitment was total and her understanding of what makes excellent teaching, and an excellent teacher, demonstrated a maturity well beyond her years. Several of her colleagues emphasised a happy union of natural flair and extremely hard work.

“The work she was doing was also ‘cutting edge’ in the area of emotional literacy and emotional intelligence. The work we saw with young children, especially using music to understand and deal with a wide range of emotions, not only influences what happens in the school but has resulted in her working on a national stage in Scotland.”

The panel felt that she should get the award because “the voice the award would give her would be listened to and respected”.

The Guardian
17th October 2006