PEOPLE I MEET By Simon Lawrence BACK TO SCHOOL Simon meets David Witherspoon
It was a bright autumn Monday morning, David Witherspoon was teaching thirty-two children in his Classroom at a local Primary School near to where I live on the South Coast.
This Monday like so many others I’ve experienced was not extraordinary; just another morning in rural Sussex. I was sitting rather uncomfortably at the back of the classroom, at a small desk specifically designed for the ten-year-olds filling the room; just watching and listening. An ordinary day, in a perfectly normal English Primary School.
Witherspoon was taking the class through some math’s exercises. He set them a multiplication sum, and then the children worked out the answer, and so did I.
´Why did you put the decimal point there?’ Witherspoon asked as he walked past one of the children, and the ten-year-old said, ´because it belongs there Mr Witherspoon.’ Cool answer, I thought.
The majority of adults if they are not teachers or help out at school in other ways, do rarely see inside a school classroom while it’s in session. We are more used to getting our view from a newspaper or the evening news. But they tend only to report on the negatives, like vandalism and problems with kids unable to read properly. School life becomes a blur when we add all that passes in and out of our consciousness each day. Which is precisely why this morning spent inside Witherspoon’s classroom was proving to be so interesting to me.
It was quite improbable that news would be made here today; there was no conflict, no violence. And yet what was going on was incredibility important, as in thousands of other classrooms around the UK at this very moment, children were being formed into what they will become when they eventually become the next generation of grown-up British citizens.
I watched David Witherspoon with the children. Compared with the pay expected in business and industry, teachers are paid ludicrously low wages, but as I watched Witherspoon going from desk to desk, I was reminded that his job and the job of every school teacher around the country is so much more important than many of the occupations the rest of us do in the name of commerce, or any trade, even writing as in my case!
He stopped to help a girl find the meaning of a word in her textbook. He explained to a boy why the multiplication he had just completed was wrong. He bent over a desk to answer a question from someone else; not because they had asked, but because he could see they needed help.
It would be very easy not to care. Usually, there is no-one looking over the teacher's shoulder, and in a primary school especially, the people they tutor every day are too young to really know if they’re doing a good job or a bad one on their behalf; they have no frame of reference. They trust them.
It’s often said that a child’s character is shaped at home, but it seems to me that children spend so many hours in school, the classroom experience becomes central to their lives. A bad home environment can damage a child forever, and an indifferent school environment can bring results every bit as ominous. That one thought makes the British Educational System an awesomely powerful machine; both negatively and positively.
So what can a child pick up in a positive classroom environment? Well certainly that progress is one of life’s essentials; if you stay in the same place you were yesterday, you will never develop. Also, it’s important to be curious, to ask questions. It’s equally necessary to make an effort to be accurate, not slapdash, or to not care if you are getting things wrong or you don’t fully understand.
Those attitudes are almost as important as the specific information David Witherspoon was teaching. When you are a ten-year-old, if your teacher lets you know that he or she cares that you are learning, and cares that your reading has improved, cares that you are trying your best to master complicated mathematical ideas… then you are going to be a ten-year-old who stands a much better chance of becoming a successful and happy adult.
That’s what I was thinking in Witherspoon’s classroom and also how parents blindly turn their children over to strangers who will have such a monumental effect on their lives. Even the most concerned parent can have little control over what goes on in the classroom and yet that’s where much of what the man or women that child will grow to become is determined.
It’s an enormous responsibility teachers have… We expect them to be there, and we give our children over to them five days a week, then off we go to our own daily lives… until they come home again for their tea. ‘How did it go darling?’ We might ask as they fork something into their mouths. That may in many cases be the full extent of our questioning.
So I sat there, right at the back of the room of the local Junior School until lunchtime, in a miniature desk, straddling it like I would my bike… my legs sticking out at an uncomfortable angle into the isle. David Witherspoon then announced it was free reading time, so the children reached into their desks and pulled out their books. They sat silently in their little grey chairs and opened their books to the page they had stopped at.
David Witherspoon stood at the front of the class next to the whiteboard, he looked out at the thirty-two children, and then he looked at me sitting behind my tiny wooden desk; he smiled a half smile, then went over to Millie in the front row to help with a particularly tricky word.
David Witherspoon must be a proud man, and I felt very pleased for him too.