The entire class faced me, with every pupil smiling from ear to ear. They had just done something brilliant and they knew it. I beamed back at them and laughed. Ben* stood next to me facing the class; he was clapping, smiling and wriggling in that excited way some children with autism do. Moments before he had had his head in his hands and was close to tears, but his classmates had transformed his despair and I couldn’t have been prouder of them.
We had been a sitting test. It was a particularly pointless test given that I knew the exam paper was going to be scrapped next year, but it had to be done to compare our results with other schools. As everyone beavered away in silence, I could hear one voice in the corner growing more frustrated. ‘Ggghh’ – and then the sound of a pencil hitting the table.
It was Ben. I asked what was wrong, but I already knew the answer. Global development delay and autism were a potent mix: he struggled with anything more advanced than early years work and expressing his upset wasn’t easy for him, so sitting a test that required quite advanced KS2 skills was a tough ask.
‘Ggghh,’ he said again, this time head in hands. ‘I’m too different. I can’t do it. I’m too different.’
My heart sank.
‘Sorry I can’t. I just don’t get this. I’m just too different.’
My heart broke. I had known this class for two years – I had taken them in my training and NQT year, and I very much thought of them as my class. In all that time not once had Ben said anything like this – he had always just been part of the group and, if he had expressed himself in a different way, no one thought anything of it. He was always cheerful, always happy to have a go and be involved. But here he was – perhaps for the first time – feeling that he was different and that it was preventing him from doing something.
I was suddenly quite angry. Sod the test. I stood up and turned to the rest of the class to get their attention. ‘Ben just told me that he can’t do the test because he is too different,’ I said. ‘Stand up if you are different.’
The sound of scraping chairs filled the room. Every single child stood up and faced me smiling. Ben stood by me and started smiling.
‘I don’t have any tonsils’ came a random piece of information from one pupil at the back. ‘Everyone’s different!’ someone else shouted out.
‘Exactly!’ I pounced on that statement. ‘So yes Ben, you are different but so is everyone else. Now,’ I said, turning back to the class. ‘Do we think Ben can finish this test?’
‘Yes!’ came the reply.
‘Should he give up just because he is different?’
‘No!’ came the very loud reply.
‘Excellent. Right let’s get on with it then.’
They all sat down and I took Ben back to his seat. He tackled the test smiling all the way and, when we got to the end, I told him how very proud I was of him. When I marked them at the end of the day I didn’t put my usual 0 in his total score box, I put a one. He’d got one question right. It was a start.
Sometimes as a teacher I feel that I teach despite the system. I feel as though children are meant to be rigid and conform and all the while it is the teacher’s job to hammer out all other traits.
But that’s also the brilliant thing about teaching – we find ways around it. We write poetry outside in the summer to provide ‘inspiration’. We ‘explore the properties of a range of materials’ by building toys made from junk and then playing with them. We ‘immerse the children in their topic’ by getting them to dress up as medieval knights and fight the teacher. And sometimes we stop right in the middle of tests to make a boy feel better and let a class show their immense capacity for empathy, compassion and friendship. It is these moments that make me proud to teach.
* All names have been changed.
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