All posts by bythepondsofapperception


I want to be really clear about this: teaching children with SEND has made me a better teacher, not just for those children, but for all the children that I teach.
When I started teaching, i’d had no experience, or knowledge of, SEND. My PGCE course proved of little use in this area: we had a lecture on SEND one rainy morning and I left with the impression that SEN, as it was then, meant dyslexia. 
During my main teaching practice, I was given a bottom set Year 9 group: 16 boys, 2 girls. The HOD handed me the class list and said : “They’re all dyslexic, pretty much”. I went home and worried. What, actually, did that mean? My own research left me, if anything, more confused. Not only did I not really understand what this thing called dyslexia was, I also had absolutely no idea how to teach these children. Did I have to do something different? When I marked their books, what did I do with their spelling? Was I supposed to ignore it? Baffled, I went in search of the SENCO, who, tucked away in a tiny cupboard-office, looked astonished to see me. 
Some 14 years later, I find that I am still in a very similar position: I may have a great deal more experience teaching a range of SEND children, but I still find that I am constantly seeking advice. I find it unacceptable that there is somewhere out there an entire universe constructed from PP posters, but there is still so little useful support and training for the classroom teacher where SEND is concerned. Perhaps this is why there are still some teachers – at all levels – who conflate behaviour issues with SEND. 
Working with such children has meant that I have had to work in many different ways, ways that I would never have imagined when I trained and all of it, every single bit, has added so much value to my practice and to the learning of all my students. This year I will say goodbye to a student who came in having massive melt-downs every single day and will leave us to go on to A’ Level studies. There are many factors that have contributed towards this, but only one that underpins them all: the absolute belief that every single child deserves the best that we can possibly offer them. For this child, it has meant a future that we – and he- could never have envisioned when he came to us; for his classmates it has meant a clear, fair and efficient response to his distress that ensured it would not disrupt their studies. 
I cannot fathom how, or why, we would look at the children who often represent the most vulnerable in our society and blame them for the way in which they navigate an often bewildering and terrifying environment. I have made many, many mistakes in my classroom, but I am very clear on this: if I have a child who is regularly “kicking off” in my classroom then the continuation of this is my damn fault, whatever the issue turns out to be. 
If I had spent the last bunch of years teaching children who never had a bad day; never had any issues; were never ill, never had rotten parents, in a world where SEND did not exist, I think I would be a pretty two-dimensional teacher. I’m sure there are many people who would disagree with me, but I know that the biggest – and most sobering – lessons I have learned as a teacher have been learned from the students who are often seen as having the least to give; the ones who go through an education system that is content to let them fail and be labelled thus, for the whole of their school careers.



A couple of weeks ago, a colleague used the word “Mastery” in a meeting, then stopped, looked at me with a lopsided grin and said: “force of habit. Sorry – I know you hate that word”. Another colleague chuckled and everyone shared ‘aww, what is she like?’ looks. The next time the opportunity to use it arrived, she hastily amended it from what she was originally going to say: “and that leads to mastery in the classroom” to the ever-so-slightly more vague “and that leads to, uh, great stuff happening”. But she’d changed it. And she’d changed it for me.
She shouldn’t have. Oh sure, she should have changed it, but not because someone else didn’t like it – she should have changed it for other, much more valid reasons. But before I go any further, I want to check the etymology of this word and see where it leads me.
.. mastery (n.)

early 13c., mesterie, “condition of being a master,” also “superiority, victory;” from Old French maistrie, from maistre “master” (see master (n)).

Ok, so… Master: .late Old English mægester “one having control or authority,” from Latin magister (n.) “chief, head, director, teacher” (source of Old French maistre, French maître, Spanish and Italian maestro, Portuguese mestre, Dutch meester, German Meister), contrastive adjective (“he who is greater”) from magis (adv.) “more,” from PIE *mag-yos-, comparative of root *meg- “great” (see mickle). Form influenced in Middle English by Old French cognate maistre. In academic senses (from Medieval Latin magister) it is attested from late 14c., originally a degree conveying authority to teach in the universities. 
What does it mean, then, to master? master (v.) 

early 13c., “to get the better of,” from master (n.) and also from Old French maistrier, from Medieval Latin magistrare. Meaning “to reduce to subjugation” is early 15c.; that of “to acquire complete knowledge” is from 1740s. Related: Mastered; mastering.
Three things leap out at me from these words:

1) the connotations of mastery are entirely male.

2) Mastery has to do with subjugation.

3) Mastery is concerned with “complete knowledge”.
It is no accident that so much of our academic language – particularly the soundbite language – has so many male connotations. There may be more female teachers than male, but the gender balance of teachers is largely irrelevant. The gender balance of social engineers and policy makers, however, may be a whole lot more relevant! I do not believe, by the way, that they are sitting in darkened chambers, glass of port in one hand, ornately-carved pipe in the other, evilly plotting the dominance of masculine language in education. I simply believe that no-one much thinks about the language they are using. In true soundbite fashion, as long as it sounds good, baby: it’s in.
This lack of accuracy over language use starts to cause problems quite quickly. I spoke to a teacher a few weeks ago who used the word ‘mastery’ and the phrase ‘growth mindset’ in the same sentence. Well now, hang on a minute: you can’t have Mastery if you believe in a growth mindset. As a quick peek at the etymology shows, Mastery is inextricably bound up with “complete knowledge”. If you promote the “growth mindset” approach, then you’re going to have to leave that word, Mastery, behind, I’m afraid. 
I don’t understand why we are so reluctant to be as precise as we can with the language we use. Imagine the maths teacher: “James, what is the sum of 3 and 8?

James: “Umm, 10, Miss”

Sally: “No it isn’t, it’s 12!”

Miss: “yeah…either is fine”.
Why are we so careless with our language when we know how powerful it can be? Why are we so happy to use a word that sounds good, without even considering what it means, what its connotations might be? 
I do not want my daughter growing up with language that, however subconsciously, defines and reinforces a gender stereotype that is not conducive to her dreams, her goals and her view of herself as a strong, independent individual PERSON. I don’t want my children, or my students -male or female – to grow up with language being used so carelessly around them. I do not want my teenage students growing up, having had the belief ingrained into them that anything that is great, anything that leads the way, anything that subjugates and oppresses, is male. It perpetuates divisions; it perpetuates dominance; it perpetuates subjugation. And that cannot be A Good Thing.
I also do not want my students, or my children, growing up with the belief that language really isn’t all that valuable, or important. Words, meanings, are interchangeable, valuable only if they sound good. Teach children to devalue language at your peril: our society, our culture, with all its richness and diversity, will be all the poorer for it.

Setting up failure?

We are moving to full mixed-ability in my school…we’re not there yet, but it is happening. There has been a mixed reaction from a few areas and, last night, I was asked why I agreed with it. As luck would have it, yesterday morning I’d had probably the best experience I could have had to answer that question.

We are not mixed ability in English in all year groups, just in Year 7. However, for a range of reasons a few students in upper school were moved from set 6 (of 6) to higher sets and one of them came to me in set 2. That’s a big jump, right? I mean, it’s 4 sets! If setting is the incredible tool some people think it is, this student should really not have been able to access the lesson, nor the essay task attached to it.

I’d prepared the students for the task, then went on a conference and left them with an analytical essay about the settings in The Lord of The Flies. Yesterday morning, I marked this student’s work. Going by the World According to Setting, he shouldn’t have really been able to do it, except at a very simple level, right? 

It was fine. It wasn’t amazing: it was lacking in depth of analysis, but it was, for a student at the start of a GCSE course, a decent attempt. It wasn’t even the lowest in the group.

I sat there, yesterday morning, and wondered how many students we have failed, over the years, bound by the crippling weight of low expectations, simply by placing them in a low set. It was a pretty unpleasant moment.

And that was my answer. Ok, this was only one student – I’m sure there are lots of arguments that can be thrown at me. But I won’t forget yesterday morning, not for a very long time.