Image of a classroom desk with pencils, activity cards, and stapler

Lessons Learnt Returning to the Primary Classroom

Twenty two years ago I left primary school teaching.

I’d been teaching in adult education since then.

I was well connected with teachers and current education issues online. 

I was reading and thinking about curriculum and teaching practice along with the socio-cultural-political issues that are central to our students’ identities, communities, and day to day lives. 

BUT could I still cut it as a primary school teacher?

What would I have to offer after such a long time away?

Turns out, quite a bit but it’s taken nearly a year and whole lot of anxiety and stress to come to this realisation.

Over that time I’ve been trying to find the space for me (and my students) to breathe.

Trying to fit within existing structures and requirements.

Trying to meet the demands of my role…

And pushing beyond such – to build a socially considerate, questioning and deep thinking community.

In this post, I will highlight the key educators, blogs/sites, podcasts that have served to show me – that the primary classroom is definitely where I want to be right now. 

First Steps

In making the huge decision to return to teaching, I contacted two educators for guidance and support. Their advice, suggestions and encouragement were spot-on. Thanks Jason Borton and Ray Boyd for always being there.

Reading and Listening and More Reading and Listening

Next I turned to my pretty extensive online community.

For literacy, it was educators who clearly love reading and writing, who know the importance of representation as well as the need to challenge the status quo. Mary Howard and the #G2Great twitter chat archives on the Literacy Lenses website were especially helpful in pointing me towards key writers and books.

Here’s who I’ve been reading:

Donalyn Miller, Tricia Ebarvia, Pernille Ripp, #ClearTheAir twitter chats and website.

Here’s what I’m building in my classroom as a result:

Maths

Maths hadn’t been a strong interest of mine so I was determined to change that. One of my friends Margarita Breed, a maths specialist, has been central to the significant shifts in my thinking and attitude towards Maths. 

Margarita suggested that I take an online short maths course run by Stanford University. The YouCubed course, ‘How to Learn Maths for Teachers‘, lead by Jo Boaler has shaped much of what I do in my maths classes today. 

Alongside this course, there are many educators online who’ve posted resources that have piqued my interest. I’ve then gone onto read about the principles informing their teaching. 

Two Maths podcasts have been especially helpful to my teaching practice:

Number sense routines have become an integral part of my maths classes. The following books have been especially useful in this regard:

My maths classes were becoming more focused on deep thinking, making connections, talking through our strategies and critical reflection – as a consequence of the maths specialists I had been learning from.

Through the two podcasts above I became aware of Harvard University’s Project Zero – Cultures of Thinking project.

The following two books provided the research, the principles, and additional thinking routines to build cultures of thinking in my classroom.

History

Australian history is a subject I’m especially keen to build my knowledge and skills in.

Our curriculum zeroes in on key historical events that have been devastating in terms of their wide-ranging impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Racism, land theft, the Frontier Wars, lack of recognition as people, The Stolen Generations, segregation, along with the activism that has fought colonial attitudes and laws and achieved improved rights  and conditions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

My teaching around the socio-cultural-political contexts of Australian history have been heavily influenced by:

  • IndigenousX online
  • Bruce Pascoe’s, Dark Emu which challenges the colonial deficit representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their  cultures and practices. Pascoe instead showcases the innovative farming, fishing, and land-care practices and trading systems.
    • His new book, Young Dark Emu is written for young people and I’m keen to make use of it. 
  • Henry Reynolds‘ Australian history books
  • Anita Heiss and Marcia Langton on Twitter

Assessment

I have been seeking to broaden my awareness of assessment practices  and teacher feedback given that summative assessment in the form of top-down tests are predominant in my area of Australia.

I’ve been reading and listening to Dylan Wiliam on formative assessment and giving feedback that helps students move forward in their learning.

Also check out: John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers and Visible Learning for Mathematics

Social Justice

A relief teacher in my classroom asked me, did you use to work in the Catholic primary system. “Yes,” I said, “how did you know?”

Oh just the types of activities you’re doing, the books you’re reading, you’re focused on justice.

I thought about this exchange later on. Whilst there were many issues that I had (and still have) with the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic education system, the focus on building community and being aware of and doing something about injustice, still drives me today. And something from outside my experience in Catholic ed, expanding our knowledge of difference, beyond what’s familiar, safe and comfortable. 

That’s why the following picture books have been central to our reading experiences in class this year.  

Photo of picture books I have read in class this year

And that’s why I love (and my students love), the following books:

Photos of 4 books for young people, Rebel Girls, Boys who dare to be different, High Fives to the Boys, and Stories for kids who dare to be different

I wrote about the powerful impact of these books in my Grade 4 class. That impact has continued in my Grade 6 class. 

The Learning Journey Continues

It’s been a rollercoaster of a year where I’ve often doubted myself and questioned my decision to return, and capacity to keep going given the workload.

Yet as I begin to make sense of the myriad of resources I’m engaging with, and tailor them to my students’ needs and interests; as I begin to realise that my experiences outside of primary teaching makes me a better teacher today; as I come to realise the enormous value of being connected online with a diverse group of educators, I know that I am enough, and that  I can definitely do this primary teaching gig again. Here’s to much more learning and changing along the way. 

Listen to My Podcast

Pushing the Edge logo

Check out my podcast, Pushing The Edge with Greg Curran, where I chat to educators and community leaders who are actively challenging systemic inequity and bigotry, along with silence and privilege.

They’re re-making their school environments, supporting and uplifting the voices and worlds of those students and communities who’ve been sidelined for far too long.

Here’s some of the guests from my last season.

Images of all guests in Season 5 of Pushing The Edge podcast - Standing up for our students in challenging times