I started school twice: an interview with Bridget Murray, teacher

Bridget Murray attended primary schools in the late 1970s in Middlesborough, Hertfordshire and Basingstoke, Hampshire (UK) where she also went to secondary school.  After a degree in Computer Science at Warwick University, Bridget took a PGCE at the Institute of Education and taught in primary schools in London and Kent.  In the past five years she has also been a school governor at a primary school in Surrey, where she now lives.  No longer a teacher, she is now an artist and writer.

Tell me about your first experience of school

I actually started school twice: the first time was at Wolviston Primary School in Teeside at the age of four and three quarters and the second was at The Grove Infant  School  in Harpenden. I started at the first school in September and stayed for  about two months before we moved house and I wasn’t able  to start at the second school until the following  January Term when I had actually turned five.

The Wolviston school was a very small village school with about  five classes . my classroom was  long and thin with one long wall looking out over the playground. As far as I can remember there was very little in the classroom other than sets of four wooden desks arranged with two children facing the other two. There were probably six of these sets of desks arranged in the classroom along the window side of room and two further ones on the other side of the room. I think the back of the room, furthest from the door was where there were storage cupboards but I rarely went down there because it was quite dark. The only toy that I remember was a box of unifix cubes which children tried to make into as long a line  as  possible.

I did not have a desk of my own but perched on the side of someone else’s desk which made me feel odd because there was no one else without a desk.  I realise now that this was probably because my father had asked if the school would take me a term earlier because my mother was about to have her fourth child and they were in the process of selling their house and moving  and the school was probably just baby sitting me but I don’t think my parents or I knew this, as far as I was concerned I was the same as everyone else.

I started school with my friend across the road and originally he was sharing my set of desks but he quickly moved to the next set of desks because he was making good progress. This gave me a short period with my own desk but this was short lived because a new pupil soon arrived. I was so pleased because there were no free desks so I thought he would have to perch on the end of the desk like I had done but instead they moved me back to perching on the desk whilst he was given my desk, obviously because I wasn’t really supposed to be there! This disappointment was compounded by the fact that my friend by this time was on the third set of tables and was obviously thriving academically and   he goaded me by telling me that I was still on the first table because I was stupid.  I think you only moved up to the next class once you had done the full circuit of the tables in the first class, my six year old brother was already in a Junior class because he had obviously progressed very quickly.

After assembly we all had to go to the toilet and this was a really social time where girls would tell stories to get another girl’s sympathy so that they would go into the toilet with them. I remember thinking  this was all a bit silly and at this school  I didn’t make friends with the girls and I hadn’t done so at my nursery school either, preferring  the company of boys. I am not sure if this was just because I was more used to them because I had brothers or whether I was intimidated by the bossy ones!

The only thing I remember about the work was copying some writing that I couldn’t read from the blackboard and the teacher coming and changing my handgrip from a fist to the correct one, but when we put the pen down I couldn’t remember how to hold correctly and reverted back to the fist. I don’t remember having a reading book or learning to read at all, possibly because of my temporary status but they did move me to the next table to do maths and I think they were surprised that I could cope with it.

There was a very small playground, possibly with a few games marked out in paint, but I have no recollection of this. I remember walking up and down the playground with my brother and his friends with our jumpers tied around our waist and our arms linked saying , “Anyone want to join our gang? No girls allowed, except one and we’ve got her”. There wasn’t a lot to do in the playground  and all I remember is helping my brother try to set fire to paper using a magnifying glass and crawling through the long grass with my one friend.

The assemblies and lunch were taken in another room with the whole school but I remember nothing about these.

My second school was completely different. I was in a bright modern classroom with lots of windows and light and all sorts of visual stimulation. Each classroom had its own toilets, cloakroom and shoe locker area with different little pictures for each child so that they could find their own pegs and lockers. We also had our own trays with the same picture on  in which to place our work. Incidentally,  we were late getting there on the first day and by the time I arrived they had run out of desks so I had to perch along the shallow cupboards running one length of the classroom, but fortunately a little boy who lived up my road had to perch there too. This was fortunately very short live and we were soon given a table space with the other new children. This time we had modern tables  and not the classic wooden ones and we had six children arranged around a group of tables very much like I have seen recently in schools.

My first maths lesson at this school consisted of a page in a book  with a grid drawn with all the numbers 1-10 in separate boxes and we had to fill in the correct number of dots. I did this task accurately so when my book came back to me after being marked there was a ‘sum’ on the next page with a number line written at the bottom of the page. No one else on my table had one of these and the teacher went around helping the children on my table with the grid because they were all still struggling with that. I spent ages looking at this sum and looking at the numbers at the bottom of the page but I had no idea what I was supposed to do with them.

I was too shy to ask for help so what I did was when the books were all placed in the centre of the room to be collected for marking I sneaked off and put my book in my tray. When I saw the books coming back the next day I just went to my locker and got mine again and spent the whole lesson with my upper body curled over my book so no one  could see what I was doing whilst I doodled on the pages. This must have gone on for quite some time because the other children perfected their number grids, did likewise with the ‘sums’ and then moved onto sum cards.

I  was really worried about what might happen when the teacher  found out that I was just doodling so I decided that I would wait until the new intake of children came and blame it on them, either that or I dreamed that is what I would do. Eventually a persistent little boy forcefully insisted on seeing what I was doing and then told the teacher. She wasn’t cross (probably embarrassed that this had gone on so long without her noticing) but she tore up the entire book  because every page was covered in squiggles. She then showed me how to do sums and I immediately understood and was fine.

Socially I felt very happy and made lots of friends mainly with  girls but also with a few quiet, gentle boys.

What was your favourite place in the school building?

My favourite place in the school building at Wolviston was the library.  I used to go there on my own at play time and there was one book where, according to the pictures, the story looked really interesting  and I wished that I could read it.

My favourite place at the Grove was probably the lovely outside environment.The play area outside each classroom was very open with little flower beds surrounded by paths and steps and there were two climbing  frames in one area just for the infants which were very popular I really enjoyed using them. There were also large concrete pipes  to crawl in the larger playground and little places to sit and talk. There must have been an area for football but I don’t remember that. I think they also brought out small equipment such as skipping ropes and bats and balls and occasionally old tires for us to play with. There was also a huge field  with trees at the side. When I moved into the Junior part of the school I again really liked the outdoor environment because there were all sorts of little areas  on different levels with flower beds etc. I especially liked the fire escape from our classroom where we used to slide down the banister when the dinner ladies weren’t looking.  There were lots of areas where you could go with a few friends and play quietly. I also absolutely loved playing hopscotch and we saved all our favourite stones for  this game in our desks.

I also liked the library which had lots of comfortable places to sit and lots of interesting books and was very light and airy.

Did you learn to read at school?

At the first school I didn’t have a reading book, but they may have been teaching me letters although I can’t remember this.  By the Christmas after I started at that school I could sort of recognise my name, although I got it muddled with my baby brother’s name on Christmas Day and started opening his presents because the first three letters were the same as my name, although I did think the word looked a bit different.

Did you feel safe and secure in your first schools?

In my first school I felt a bit lost and intimidated by the austere surroundings and the rules and  I didn’t feel that the other girls liked me and I was a bit unsure about them, although I was also critical of their social interactions with each other. However I accepted that this was school and was pleased to be there and probably preferred it to Nursery School because there was more structure. I think the teachers were fine but I didn’t build a relationship with them.

At my next school I quickly made friends and felt accepted and part of the culture and a this made me feel confident.  I liked the spacious clean classrooms with lots of light and attractive walls and furniture. But I didn’t have any real connection with the teachers and very rarely asked for help but my sense of belonging was with the whole school and the social setting. I loved the outdoor environment with all the different places that you could go and the climbing frames and concrete tunnels and I really enjoyed the imaginative games that I played with my friends and the social interaction and feeling of acceptance.

When you trained to be a primary teacher in the late 1980s, did you receive any instruction about classroom design?

The classroom layout was a big thing in my training (at the Institute of Education.  We were told to make a scale map of the classroom and all the different movable elements and move them around to make a space that you felt would enable the children to learn well. They were also very into having reading, maths and other areas with lots of stimulating and imaginative things for the children to do in these areas on their own outside timetabled activities. We were encouraged to make the home corner really stimulating and relevant to our current topic with lots of things to stimulate creative play.

Wall displays were also very important and weren’t just displaying the children’s work but were supposed to be interactive and educational.

How did you approach the design of your first classroom as a teacher?

When I started my first job I scrubbed the classroom and threw out 11 sack loads of broken equipment and toys and made cushion covers and curtains for the carpeted area and experimented with moving cupboards around using a scale diagram as we had been shown in order to make the classroom look inviting and work well for teaching. I am not sure that I actually asked if I was allowed to do this, but fortunately it went down well and made me very popular with the governors!

I noticed that having tables grouped together worked well for teacher-led activities and for art but when they were doing creative writing that didn’t require interaction with their friends they got very distracted by looking at the other children so I experimented with having dividers or having them facing walls for this type of work and that did work out better.

We had been encouraged to make the classroom equipment accessible to the children at all times, carefully labelled so that they could just go and get the things that they needed as and when they needed them. I think this was partly to free up preparation time for the teacher but also so that the children had ownership of the classroom. Although I did label everything carefully I found that with reception children it was easier to get out the things that they needed and control what they used but maybe this worked better with slightly older children. However  I did go to visit a Montessori Nursery where the 2 and 3 year olds were trained to go and get pencils and trays of toys as they desired and they did this very well, replacing everything carefully after use so maybe it can work fine with younger children.

Were all of the classrooms in the school set up like yours?

My classroom was very different – the other classrooms consisted of equipment and displays around the edge with all the desks concentrated in the centre either in large blocks with the children facing each other or in twos facing the blackboard. My classroom had divided areas and displays and equipment storage in the centre as well as around the edge – the children were far less exposed and had quiet little areas where they could hide away. In the other classes the teachers all sat at their desks which were prominently placed at the front of the classroom to one side of the blackboard, whereas mine was shoved into one corner and used for admin and I never sat at it whilst teaching, but I did have the reception/ lower year one class which is usually very different from further up the school.

My classroom was also less cluttered and all the equipment and drawers were labelled with large clear letters and pictures so that children could easily access things. The equipment and toys were kept clean and my classroom only had things in it that we were actually going to use. Other classrooms had the similar accumulated clutter from years of different teachers but the teachers obviously hadn’t spent two weeks of their summer holiday before starting scrubbing and throwing things out and transforming the environment. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to do this either had it not been stressed so heavily during my training.

My displays were generally wackier more interactive creations and I mounted all my pictures carefully and used a tiny discrete stapler whereas some of the other teachers didn’t mount pictures and stuck them up with drawing pins. Again these were all things that I had been encouraged to do on my course.

Did your own schooling influence your choices as a teacher?

When I was in year 2, my teacher was really creative.  When decimalisation happened she turned part of the classroom into a bank and made a huge green bus out of corrugated card which we helped to make. We had to go to the bank to get some money and then pay for our fare on the bus. I thought this was really fun and it made me want to do really imaginative fun things as a teacher – such as making an ice cream van and teaching maths by selling them ice creams with different menus for different abilities. I also turned the class rocking horse into a reindeer with a sleigh and turned the house into a home ready for Christmas because I would have found this magical as a child. I also liked making fun displays with the children’s work.

I also let children fly when they were learning to read because I hated having to wait to be heard and would loved to have been able to go much quicker through the reading scheme. I encouraged them to read at home every day because From my own experience I remember how frustrating it was not to be able to do this and I didn’t punish them if they forgot their book – but they rarely did.  I made sure I or someone else heard them read at least three times a week so they could move on if they were ready.

I found it hard to play at school because I was an imaginative child and needed plenty of time to develop my ideas.  I also liked my own toys, not some random and often broken ones. And I hated spending time making things and then having to break them up at the end of a session. As a teacher I had a table where construction  models could be kept and displayed for a few days and I allowed children to spread their play over several days if they had really got into things and would make sure the caretaker didn’t disturb things overnight. I also made sure there were ample supplies of good quality toys which I kept well labelled and in good condition.

I loved having freedom to use junk in creative ways at school but there rarely were sufficient things to do this with and it was often really directed. As a teacher I always had bounteous junk well sorted and in good condition which was always available in the afternoon if anyone fancied getting creative.

There were many times in my school days when teachers completely misunderstood my intentions and got cross with me or dismissed my ideas.  When I was six, in an effort to make music and movement lessons a bit more interesting, I decided to do all the actions for a Noah’s ark session in one place and really envision this ark that we were pretending to make. Unfortunately if the tape told us to run around and then stop – it was hard to ensure that this always coincided with me being in the place I had designated to make my ark so I had to make a quick dash across the room sometimes, which ended in me being sent out of the lesson because the teacher thought I was being naughty! As a teacher I always tried to distinguish genuine bad behaviour from behaviour that appeared bad just because the teacher didn’t know what was going on in the mind of the child.

What would your ideal school be like?

My ideal school wouldn’t be one school because different children thrive in different places. For instance, when I was training they were very keen on what was called ‘Child Centred Education’ where the room would be filled with stimulating areas and the children would go wherever they wanted (if there was space) and the teacher would draw alongside and seek to extend and develop the learning through what each individual child took an interest in. This would have really suited me as a child but would have been useless for my daughter who thrived in a conventional setting.

When I was ten, I went to St John’s Junior School in Basingstoke. This school was trialling a system where you were responsible for your own learning. At the start of the week everyone in your year group would go to one classroom where the teachers would tell you what they were going to be teaching that week. You had to do a certain number of maths, english, art and topic lessons each week but you could choose which classes you went to for these. It was therefore possible to completely avoid one teacher or group of children if you planned carefully. However, in reality you just went wherever your friends wanted to go. You had to get a signature from the teacher of the lessons that you chose to go to to show that you had attended and completed your work. This system was abandoned after a a year and a term because of lots of complaints from both teachers and parents.

At this school the children were allowed to move desks around if they wished – I found that I didn’t like sitting at group tables and was much happier sitting at a two person table facing the wall. Other children made use of dividers to create their space. The educational reputation of this school was not good, but in many ways my brother and I thrived there both educationally and socially because the freedom suited us. At my previous school I had spent most of my time scared of getting into trouble and I was very quiet and reserved and didn’t particularly enjoy learning, it was just something you had to do, whereas as this school I began to love learning and I voluntarily  did more work than was required including work at home which I had not been asked to do.  However, here are some ideas for ideal places and spaces in schools:

Light, airy and uncluttered places with lots of carefully planned visual stimulation.

Everything clean and in good working order.

A relaxed atmosphere where children can get up and move around when they want to rather than being required to be glued to their seats in rows of desks. I do understand that this could be very hard to manage.

Little private working booths which would be monitored by cctv and only children who worked well there would be allowed to use these. There could also be more private group work areas again monitored by cctv and only groups who worked well would be able to use these.

There could also be desks close to the teacher for those who didn’t work well in the other areas.

As the parent of a son who attended a special school from the age of 11, was there anything different about the way the school managed the environment in comparison with your daughter’s mainstream secondary school?

It was very uncluttered and everything was well labelled. The ceilings were designed to absorb noise rather than amplify it.

There was an amazing hi-tech science lab with a huge, thin aquarium built into the wall, dividing two classrooms, because they thought this would be calming. There was one huge bench, shaped like a fat comma, with the teacher on one side and the pupils on the other rather than lots of separate benches which meant that there was lots of space for the pupils and teacher to move around.  This made it easy to access equipment from the storage places because there wasn’t the usual clutter of desks and chairs to trip over. This was specially designed and thought out and other schools came in sometimes to make use of it.

They seemed to have really thought a lot about the environment but the actual classrooms were very like normal secondary schools with rows of desks facing the front but I think part of this was to make their school experience as much like a state school as possible so that they didn’t feel they were different or missing out. They also has quite serious behaviour issues and this type of environment may be easier to manage from that point of view.

At a local school for children with autism they had really beautiful environments which were spacious with little stations where children could work undistracted and there were areas with soft play and videos for them to go to when they were feeling stressed. There were displays and labels in writing and pictures but these were not too in your face so that they didn’t cause  sensory overload.






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