If your child engages with one of the teachers, it’s a good sign.
It’s the “meet the teachers” event in the main hall at the school where you’d like your daughter to go.
You’ve read lots of school brochures and websites. So you know how important teachers are for “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. Every school quotes it.
You’ve read the Ofsted report, so you know how teaching works in the school.
You cast your eye over the assembled throng. The teachers are standing together, safely in numbers, near the staff room door. You guess that they number 70%/30% female/male, which, as an avid Schoolsmith reader, you know is about the national average. Some wear suits, others short sleeves shirts and trouser combos. You’re disappointed at the low number of beige corduroy jackets with leather effect elbow patches. You guess the ones in track suits teach PE.
Some brave souls have ventured into the mass of parents and prospective pupils. Parents outnumber them ten or twelve to one. Yet valiantly they hold sway in the sea of gentle and tactful enquiry smoothed by chocolate brick and warm white wine in plastic glasses.
Primary school teachers are different to secondary school teachers
You realise that you feel a little less drawn to this gathering than when your daughter started primary school. That occasion was different, so much more intimate and endearing. It was in a classroom with lots of soft toys and five year olds running around. The assistants, yes there were assistants, were occupying the children with Lego to the sound of parental cooing. The teacher gently explained how she would soon have their little ones writing their name and reading their first words.
But this is so much bigger, calmer, more adult.
Even so, this is still a relatively small secondary school. And, in your view, it is similar to the two other schools in the area. So, you decide, the teachers will make all the difference.
Pupils like subjects when they like the teacher
A cheery middle aged man holds out his hand to greet you. “Hello, I’m Alan. I teach maths here.” Alan proceeds to talk about his teaching style, the examination boards he prefers and his GCSE and A Level grade average. You’re starting to glaze over. As he moves onto the merits of the 360° staff appraisal process other parents join the group, which allows you to slip away discreetly. It dawns on you that he directed all of his conversation to you, and not a word to your daughter. Knowing that your daughter only likes subjects when she likes the teacher, you make a bet to yourself that she won’t be doing maths A Level.
You wander past a group hosted by a teacher who you hear saying “I’ve been a supply teacher for eight years now, and the thing I’ve learned about kids is…” You move on.
Good teachers get pupils participating
You join a group where Brian the Latin teacher is speaking. You’re wondering how a dead language could be relevant today and look to move on when you notice that your daughter is captivated by Brian. He must be close to retirement but he is so animated, he’s more like an actor. His eyes sparkle behind his half-moon glasses and his voice booms in praise as your daughter repeats a Latin phrase back to him. You’re not sure whether you’re more surprised at her speaking Latin or just the fact that she’s participating at all.
Good teachers have passion for their subject
Between Brian and the refreshment table you meet Clare, a young and relatively new teacher at the school. Clare teaches physics and has fire in her belly about female participation in science, or “STEM subjects”, as she calls it. She asks your daughter what she thinks about science. Embarrassingly, your daughter tells her that she did science at primary school and it was boring. “That’s what I thought too” Clare whispers in her ear as she leans forward conspiratorially. You can’t hear what they are talking about but you are impressed by Clare’s passion for her subject. Your daughter is doing a lot of nodding and smiling.
Good teachers intrigue their pupils
You’re surreptitiously licking the chocolate brick from your fingers when Dolores looks to shake your hand. Sheepishly, you offer the little finger of your left hand, the only one not smeared in chocolate or holding a napkin. Surely she’s a Spanish teacher, you think. Wrong. Dolores teaches art. She too speaks mainly your daughter. “Do you like art?” she asks her. “No” comes the crestfallen reply, “I’m rubbish at it”. Dolores takes your daughter’s hands and turns them palm up, palm down, and then palm up again. “Ceramics”, declares Dolores, “You have a potter’s hands. Come and see me on your first day.” And with that she turns and strides back into the throng whence she came. Your daughter looks after her, then down to her hands, then raises a quizzical eyebrow at you, intrigued.
Good teachers are interested in their pupils, their achievements and ambitions
The evening seems to be going quite well. The initial huddle of teachers by the staff room door has dispersed into the general mix. Everyone seems to be talking to someone and the sound of chatter is punctuated only by the occasional blast from Brian. You meet Esther, a quietly spoken, otherwise unassuming geography teacher. You amuse yourself thinking that Esther is a bit insipid and try to imagine her saying boo to a goose. But Esther is ignoring you. Esther is speaking with your daughter, only with your daughter. It is as though you were invisible. She seems to be asking her a lot of questions about her interests, achievements and ambitions. There is genuine dialogue between the two of them. Though you struggle to hear Esther’s voice in the general hubbub you do hear your daughter say the words “ox-bow lake”, “urban planning” and “field trip”. You don’t think you’ve ever heard her use those phrases before. Well, not the first two anyway.
Good teachers help pupils be all that they can be
The evening is brought to an abrupt end by Frank, the head of year. Standing on a stacking table that looks too flimsy for his weight, Frank thanks everybody for coming and then makes a well-received joke about depleting the staff room stash of white wine. Amongst other things he asks that you don’t judge him and the other teachers by their social skills. “Some of us you’ll like more than others” he says. But he asks that you think of the school as an organisation “striving to engage your child with opportunity, to help them to be everything that they can be”.
In the car on the way home you reflect on the people you’ve met this evening, and in particular, Frank’s closing remarks. You’ve made a decision.
So has your daughter. She’s going to do Latin, Physics, Art and Geography A Levels.