Primary school nightmare

I’m writing this on a sweltering day here in Italy, so I apologise in advance if any of this is going to sound a bit harsh. I also want to point out that most of the colleagues I met during the experience I am going to describe were great teachers and wonderful colleagues, to whom I wish best of luck in their teaching career.

Let’s get to the point. Around Christmas last year I was interviewed and offered a job as English Teacher for years 4 and 5 in a local primary school. Unfortunately all previous teachers had left and the school was desperate to find a good replacement. The children had already changed three teachers since September, furthermore the parents of year 5 pupils were very concerned that the children wouldn’t get a good education in English, resulting in a disadvantage in secondary school.

During my interview, both the headmaster and the teacher coordinator stressed the fact that there were strong classroom management issues with some of the classes and that good behaviour and discipline were of paramount importance. I had some previous experience with YLs, so I brushed up my skills, read some extra literature and prepared a set of activities and ideas for classroom management to contain disruptive behaviour and to engage learners.

Turns out nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. As usual, I entered the classroom speaking only or mainly English, using gesture and example to give instructions and trying to create communicative situations for the children to use the language. All of which led to complete disaster. I had children shout at me things like “tell us in Italian, we don’t understand you!” and parents complaining to myself and to the coordinator that my lessons were “too demanding” for the children.

I admit my errors and oversights, these children were probably not used to being spoken to in English (yet they have been studying it since nursery school!) or to working in groups in communicative activities. But I only had four months with them, and I was trying to get them to use the language in as real-life situations as possible. I tried different type of activities, I used the classroom as a map when we studied giving directions and I even got them to pick their favourite song to listen and learn in class. Still, all I got was chaos, boredom and angry parents and supervisors.

The experience has been a very bad one for me, therefore I’ve gone over and over it again trying to understand what went wrong. With hindsight, I think my main errors were:

  • Approaching classes using my usual, “communicative” method to which the children were evidently not used; if I had first explored what other teachers did before and around me, I might have adapted my teaching style to the children’s habits.
  • giving in to parents’ demands; it was my first time as a proper classroom teacher, so when I started getting complains from parents I decided to adapt to their requests (a lot of written work on the children’s notebooks, grammar rules, “making it easy” for the children and so on);
  • not acting on my lack of motivation; when I started to see that my efforts were useless, I started to loose motivation and to kind of “cruise along” to get to the end of the school year. I am really sorry I did this, if I had sought advice or help from colleagues I might have found renewed enthusiasm on the job.

On the other had, what I think the school could have done to make things easier for me and to avoid disaster could have been:

  • give me more details on the teaching methodology adopted by teachers in the school and situation of some classes and pupils — possibly fill me in on techniques and strategies used by other teachers for classroom management in these difficult classes;
  • monitor my work and offer help with lesson planning, classroom management and other practical aspects of school life; I have to say I felt pretty letf on my own to deal with my own problems from the very beginning.
  • reduce class numbers; I had as many as 26 pupils in one class, so I found it impossibly difficult to engage all pupils in the learning process (but this is my fault too, as I had no previous experience with large classes and I was quite unprepared for the task).

I’m sure many of you have had experience with primary school teaching: was your experience positive or negative? Did you receive any help/guidance from the school? How did you manage disruptive behaviour (I know, we would need a whole book to answer this one)?

Thanks for reading, and if you live on this side of the globe happy summer!

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8 thoughts on “Primary school nightmare”

  1. I wholeheartedly sympathize and it’s always easy in hindsight. The motivation to do things well always diminishes when nobody appears to recognize effort. I have similar problems at the moment and some days get close to giving comments to parents like, “I am a trained educator. If you have so many criticisms, teach your child yourself or shut up with your ill-informed nonsense.”

    1. Thanks Marc.
      Actually what hurt me the most was my supervisor saying in front of all the other teachers that English has never been as bad as this year, that she had so many complaints it would have been better if she had taught it (she is a weak B1). And she never said anything during the year. Sigh!

      1. It sounds like the school developed problems and didn’t want to pay enough money to fix the problem. 1 teacher for 26 little kids in a language class is a bit much unless you are looking at only flashcards, games and token levels of production. I think you are better off out of it.

  2. It seems like a really challenging class. And the lack of support made it more challenging. I’d like to share one activity type I use with very low level young learners – class surveys. I’ve found it helps build confidence and builds longer sections in which students speak English. By class surveys I mean really simple ones, starting with two questions; what’s your name? and how old are you? I’d give a handout with the two questions in the columns of a table and a variable number of rows. Students would need to speak to a lot of different students to complete the table.
    The next week it’ll be what’s you name and what’s your favourite colour. Each week I’d develop it depending on the language we’d learnt in previous weeks, and I’d often use it near the start of the lesson.
    It worked for me. There are problems with pointing at questions, rather than asking, and also with copying answers half way through the task, but I was generally happy with it.

    1. Thanks for your suggestions David. I hope I’ll never find myself in a situation like this again, but if I do I’ll keep in mind your activity.
      I tried classroom surveys, even ones created by the learners themselves — who were able to create questions such as “can you play football” or “how do you go to school”. The problem was that as soon as the class started to mingle, there would me some (or a lot of) noise, so the headmaster or some other teacher would come in and ask me to keep it quiet. 🙁
      I understand their concern, but I also think it is very difficult (ineffective?) to teach a language to YLs without a certain amount of noise produced.
      How do you manage a YL classroom while you do this type of activities?

      1. They can be difficult to manage. I sometimes use the ladder formation: two lines of students facing each other, then one student from one line moves to the other end when you say (or clap). Everyone else shuffles down a place. It allows some control and easier monitoring. For more calmness line up seats, but that takes organisation too. It’s hard to stop too much noise if we really want them all speaking.

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