There's so much to do and so little time


As a new school year starts, Tom Moggach, a teacher in an inner-city primary, is anxious about his classroom role.

Just the thought of the new school year sends a jolt of adrenaline through my veins. When my new class arrives at 9 o'clock on that first Monday, my life will speed up, and parents will breathe a sigh of relief. My days will hurry by in a blur of lessons, meetings, playground duties and cups of tea left to go cold.

Don't get me wrong. I love teaching and work in an excellent inner-city primary. I enjoy the relentless momentum of school life. But writing in the glorious, languid luxury of a summer holiday, I find myself full of questions. If the school year passes as a blur for the teacher, what's it like for the children? How much learning has really embedded in their brains, and how much has drained away in our dash through the curriculum?

I cover the learning objectives and get good academic results, but at what cost to other aspects of the children's development? As teachers, we learn to go fast, but I'm not at all sure that I've learnt when to go slow. When the school bell rings and the parents leave their children, I'm already checking my watch. It's a joy to see the children chatting away happily, but we need to crack on.

Our literacy hour starts at 9.10, and before that I need to take the register, explain our timetable, and choose monitors for the lunch boxes, fruit, pencils and book corner. Abdul, five, is desperate to tell us what happened to him last night, but I put him off. I check my watch. Ten o'clock, and time to wrap up the lesson; otherwise we won't get through science before break.

I gather up the stories that the children are writing independently at their tables. A handful are desperate to keep going, but I tell them to stop. If I let them continue, they'll miss the introduction to our lesson about "pushes and pulls". I'm on playground duty. Various children tug at my sleeve to tell me jokes, show me R'n'B dances, or talk about something that has upset them. I do my best to listen, but I can't give them all the attention they need. The bell rings and we line up for maths.

The class settles down on the carpet. Children ask to demonstrate the pushes and pulls that they used during playtime. I am torn – do I give over five minutes to revisiting this concept? If I do, how will I fit in all the maths? To compromise, I choose two children to act out pushing each other on the swings, but then start the lesson. The other children are left frustrated that they were not chosen, and a girl asks when she can finish writing her story.

Geography comes straight after lunch. The children get very excited when they hear a police helicopter and jump up to look. I give them a minute to watch before refocusing their attention on the lesson. Then assembly, playtime, story time, but we don't manage the story - there were too many pieces of paper to hand out, book bags to distribute, and the parents are waiting impatiently outside.

Reflecting on a typical day like this, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that I'm going too fast. What was it that Abdul wanted to tell me? Did the children understand that maths lesson? Shouldn't we have talked about that helicopter? I should have thought of some questions that made them link the experience to their science work. Did the children go home feeling satisfied and happy?

I realise that this description of my teaching day doesn't reflect well on me. I'm sure many other teachers are more able to handle all these competing demands. But the education system makes it very difficult. It's all but impossible to give 30 children all the attention they need and that you'd love to give them.

"Personalised learning" is the latest political mantra: make the learning fit the child by using individual targets, individual learning plans to suit different learning styles, teaching that is pitched to allow every child to succeed. I managed it once last year. By this I mean there was one lesson in which all 30 children were being challenged at exactly the right level. The headteacher warned me that he would observe a maths lesson. I planned in minute detail, prepared specific questions that I would ask each child, made piles of resources and six differentiated worksheets.

I briefed support staff on their roles beforehand, and even learnt a few words of Bengali to explain key concepts. It took me three hours of preparation. I know what each child needs, but I teach about 20 lessons a week. Training college taught me to deliver a perfectly timed literacy hour from a ready-made lesson plan. I was told off for spending an extra three minutes sharing our book with the class, but I was never taught the importance of slowing down. Only now am I learning that there are moments when my teaching must be guided by the children's needs and events in the classroom, not a plan on a piece of paper. I am learning to follow my instincts and identify these moments.

Government policy states that I must teach the children to read the time. When I look at my class turning the big hands on 30 plastic clocks, I now realise the more profound challenge is developing the children's ability to decide how best to use the time they have.