The Sharp End: In a class of my own

Dave 'Mr' Waller joins a village school in Cornwall as a trepidatious teaching assistant.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The Sharp End has turned to safety scissors: I'm off to a primary school as teaching assistant, ready to have my trouser-leg tugged by the runny-nosed rabble. It's an 8am start, which means driving in the dark along Cornish B-roads. The rain coats the windscreen like mucus streaming over a kid's top lip.

I meet Mr Nicholls, a colossus to anyone whose eyes are less than four feet off the ground. In looks, he reminds me of a teacher at my own primary school who traumatised my mate daily with a barrage of tennis balls which left him cowering behind his desk. Bet you can't do that nowadays - one change that's probably for the best. Others aren't so good. The 'white noise' of officialdom frustrates Mr Nicholls: if he could spend as much time improving as a teacher as he does explaining to the government how he's doing so, it'd be far better. As it is, he says, he's putting in regular 12-hour shifts.

There are 60 children at the village school, and my class combines years two and three. Our six and seven-year-old charges trickle in. The first arrival is open-mouthed, his thick glasses leading him straight to the draughts set, which he sets up and plays entirely incorrectly. Soon, 15 children have hung up wet jackets and gathered for Mr Nicholls' register - in German. 'Wie gehts?' he enquires.

Before he and the team took over recently, basic literacy was a problem. But they've got everyone up to speed, and reports from parents have been glowing.

'I want to start learning,' pipes up one kid. Still, abilities are impossibly varied. One girl, M (I'm guarding identities here), can hold a mature conversation. Others, well ...

G walks over and stands in front of me, staring. He holds his leg and starts a cartoon hobble. Still staring, he zips and unzips his jacket, screeching. 'I've just eaten an orange as an experiment,' he says. Mr Nicholls whispers: 'He's the one that gets to go on the computer,' subtly highlighting his special status.

Duly installed as Mr Waller, I help a table of older kids with reading comprehension. They're highly capable - some of the time. Instead of reading, T has laid out a line of 'I need help' cards, stuck his pencil in his mouth, folded his arms, and is making his face go as red as it can. 'He always does this,' says M, wearily.

I help another group with spider diagrams. It's hard keeping tabs on what everyone's doing, as they're all at different stages. The draughts player wants to do it all day; meanwhile, his mate has made a propeller of his pencil and ruler and is trying to make the table take off.

Next, Mr Waller reads a chapter from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. There are pockets of chatter. Tough crowd. But I start my impressions of giants and have them in my palm. 'Look at his eyes,' laughs one. Briefly, I'm a comedy god.

Children this small need tons of short activities, which must take an age to plan. But for TAs it's just helping out and fire-fighting. Regular TA Mrs Charlesworth tells me she often has to mop up after a phantom wee-er. She's been a TA for 10 years but has no intention of moving up. Mr Nicholls is on £25k a year, which could go up to £32k. TAs are on £17k. Still, after work, a TA's life is his or her own again.

At break, a commotion on the climbing frame ends in tears. It's G again. He's demanding 'clearer rules about pushing'.

The bell goes as I take him awkwardly in to get a tissue, and we're back in class for a game testing our German colours. Get it wrong and you're on the floor. I'm first. 'Green.' What? I haven't thought about that for 17 years. 'You won't be alone for long, Mr Waller,' says M, looking down at me like a mother pitying her child.

For the rest of the morning, it's more group work, with pictograms and times tables. I help Mrs Charlesworth teach our friend G at the back. Mr Nicholls keeps praising her work - wisely: I wouldn't fancy handling all this on my own either.

The staffroom is all fruit and quiet conversation, not elbow patches and chain smoking. As I leave, the kids are tearing around the playground ahead of an afternoon learning where animals live. As Mr Nicholls knows, once that bell goes again, anything could happen.

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