This week I sat down with B and spent 30 minutes working on his spellings homework. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever tried to do, for all sorts of reasons.
Foremost in those reasons is the fact that, as a teacher with 16 years experience under his belt, I ought to be good at helping him learn. But it was the most painful, frustrating, disheartening of experiences. My ability as a teacher counted for nothing when faced with the insurmountable task of getting my boy to learn and write words such as ‘these’, ‘make’, ‘went’ and ‘theme’. My wife had devised a colour coded system of cards with the letters and sounds of the words written on them. She was heading out, so asked me to sit down with B and help him go through them. I admit I didn’t pay much attention to her instructions on how best to use them. ‘I’m a teacher’, I rather arrogantly thought, ‘I know what I’m doing’. It turns out I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
Getting B to focus for long enough to learn, then write down a spelling, was like pulling teeth. The slightest thing distracted him, he was more interested in forming nonsense words and spent a great deal of time moving and fidgeting. It didn’t help that from the other room could be heard the sound of the tv, which his brother was watching (it was the film Rio- this week’s obsession. A good film, the first few times. Less so by about the twentieth). B also licked himself lots. The kids at my secondary school do not tend to lick themselves. This was more than just difficult, it was upsetting. I realised that, as a teacher, I was an utter failure when it came to my son. How do his teachers and T.A cope?
We did eventually begin to make some progress, though not before B had realised he could use the letters to make ‘BMW’. Car makes are a special interest/obsession of his lately, so this little diversion sent us careering off task for a while as he looked for ‘VW’, ‘MG’ and, rather ambitiously, ‘MITSUBISHI’. Finally, after what seemed like forever, he reached the part where he had to write out each word. Then his pen ran out. Then the replacement was a different colour ink, which he did not like. I had a headache.
The final part of the homework involved coming up with sentences using the various words he had been learning. For this activity, I resorted to supplying him with a bowl of Maltesers. Not ideal, I know, but he suddenly became far less fidgety and more focussed, as if an additional sensory need, that had stopped him being able to work, was being met. I’ve made a mental note of this for the future. He may end up fat and toothless, but by god he’ll be able to spell.
We even started to develop further discussion about the sentences. The first discussion involved the use of the word ‘theme’. B’s sentence was, “we went to the theme park but it was closed so we had to come home and I was upset and we haven’t been back.” This actually happened. I thought it had been forgotten about. When asked to use the word ‘our’ he said, “Our skin is pink.” “Well done” I said, adding “Do you anyone with a different colour skin?” “Yes. Brown.” he replied, but struggled to tell me anyone he knew. I tried a different tactic: “Do you know any singers with brown skin?”
“No son, Adele has pink skin. Anyone else?”
“Michael Jackson?” (I swear I’m not making this up) “
Close enough son, close enough. Shall we go and watch Rio?”
I know when I’m beaten.
I used to think I was a good teacher. My students get good results, my lessons are well-managed, varied and sometimes even well planned. I think my students enjoy their learning. Teaching teenagers is not easy, but I can do it. Please don’t take this as arrogance: I’ve been doing it for sixteen years, so I ought to know what I’m doing by now. But when it comes to a Year One student, or more specifically, my autistic Year One son, then it is a different matter entirely.
As a result of our homework efforts, I have a new-found respect for his Year One teacher (and his T.A). Clearly, they have a challenge on their hands. The problem remains, as it always will, that B does not fit neatly into the demands and expectations of mainstream school. I accept that a special school is not the place for him, and that mainstream school, with appropriate additional support, is probably the best option. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
We were dreading Year One at school. My son’s reception year had its share of ups and downs, highs and lows but was deemed a success in hindsight. The further we get from his first Reception year, the more I have come to realise the progress he made. I’ve also come to appreciate more the work done by his Reception teacher and T.A. It felt like we all had quite a journey through a turbulent period in B’s life. They did a good job, under the circumstances. But Year One has a much more demanding, structured curriculum, as we learnt when our eldest son moved up from Reception. He found the transition quite demanding, although ultimately did very well. We knew, though, that it would be a different matter when it came to B.
We’ve had a tantrum about going to school pretty much every day of term. It didn’t help that, quite early on in the term, B had a day off ‘sick’ (he’d been sick over the weekend but by Monday was fine and could really have gone in). Recently-retired Grandad came to the rescue and spent what sounds like a fun packed day with him. This gave B the clear message that, by being poorly, he got to stay away from school and spend the day in the park. Mornings have been hell ever since.
In school, B has had a couple of bad days recently. Usually some trigger at the start of the day threw things off kilter and pretty much put paid to anything constructive being done. Perfect timing then, for another parent’s evening.
As I sat opposite his teacher, I was reminded of the fact that this is not a school that specialises in educating high functioning autistic children, and that his teacher is no expert either. A year ago I may have taken issue with this and pushed for greater support. The truth is though, that the school are generally doing what they can. His teacher looked like she needed a break. I empathised.
I was also at the school the previous week, attending an event in which the teachers explained how literacy and numeracy are taught in school. They went over the way in which phonics and sound blends are used, and the methods children use to understand mathematics (I could follow the literacy, but since when was maths so complicated?). I couldn’t help but wonder, as I sat there, how B would cope with learning these things. Academically, he would have no problems at all (his reading level is off the scale) but so much of the learning involves communication, interaction and concentration. These are the skills that are less well-developed in him, but are a crucial part of how we learn. I tried to imagine him sat there interpreting instructions, feeling comfortable and settled and balanced enough to apply himself to the task. It’s hard to imagine. Perhaps his teachers do have the skills that, as a parent/teacher, I lacked. After all, I’ve only been his dad for five years. I’m a novice, really.
More successful at helping my child learn is his music teacher, Karen. Several weeks in, and B is still having weekly music lessons. In the average thirty minute lesson, B is probably ‘on task’ for about five to seven minutes. The rest of the time his attention wanders back and forth, dictated not by the teacher but by his own random agenda of interest. He fidgets, he procrastinates and he ignores Karen. And then, suddenly, from seemingly nowhere, he will focus. And when he does, he has the ability to amaze. Suddenly, his fingers will find the keys and he will play, from start to finish, the melody he has been learning. Something just clicks, and what seemed almost pointless suddenly seems worthwhile. What seemed to bounce off him seems instead to have been internalised, understood and retained.
And then he goes back to trying to hang upside down on the stool.
What we all need to do, is learn how my son learns best. I fear that too often in school, children are expected to fit into the way the teacher wants them to learn. Bespoke learning is difficult to deliver to a class of 30 students. In my own classroom, as much as I try to differentiate the work for students, they are still expected to conform to a standard accepted method of learning (not least because the curriculum dictates it). But children don’t learn in the same way, do they?
My son does not fit the mould of the model student. He’s far more interesting than that. A challenge perhaps, but no less worthy of the effort to work out how he best works. I read something by a parent this week that rang true. They said they had learnt more from their child than they had been able to teach them. I recognise this feeling. This is not just about being a good teacher, it’s about being a good learner too. Just like my son, I’m learning to learn.