Molly Devlin is Assistant Head Teacher of Primary, Early Years Phase Leader and Reception Class Teacher at Ark Academy in Wembley. She started at the school in 2015 and has quickly progressed to a leadership role. Molly shares her philosophy for teaching early years children and her advice for those just starting out.
I wanted to be a teacher first and foremost because I need to know that I have an intrinsic purpose in life. I have to wake up and know from the get-go that I’m doing something of value that’s helping others. Teaching gives me that.
During my undergraduate degree at Bangor University I did a placement at a nursery and I fell in love with teaching Early Years. Rather than plugging gaps in a child’s knowledge you are able to deal with each child’s specific needs. At that age, the children are developing at an accelerated rate so you have the most impact as a teacher in the shortest space of time. We’re teaching them the fundamentals of literacy, numeracy and emotional intelligence. These are things that can really hold you back as an adult if they aren’t communicated effectively when you are a child. So, I chose to teach Early Years in particular because I believe that the younger the age that you teach, the more of a lasting effect you can have on shaping that child’s life.
As well as being a reception teacher, I’m also the Phase Lead for Early Years at Ark Academy, which means I develop and support the other members of staff and help to create the indoor and outdoor learning environments. With indoor learning environments, I’m always thinking of how we can enable the children to be independent learners. They need to be able to take responsibility for where they are, why and what they are doing. So, for example, if a child wants to do some painting, they should know where the drawer is with the brushes, paints and paper. They should know which areas are for painting and then they should wash their things and put them away independently before they move on to the next task. Outdoor areas, in contrast, should be places with reduced adult influence. Some children need greater access to outdoor learning environments where they can raise their voices, play freely, and be able to express themselves. It’s important that these spaces are given to them.
As Phase Lead, I also analyse phase data so that as a school we can make decisions based on concrete evidence about what the children need to better their development. At the end of last year, I was analysing the phase data for our early years children. We looked at 12 areas of development to ensure that the children have Good Learning Development. While our children were at or above the expectations for their age group for most of the 12 areas, we could see that they were slightly behind in understanding their feelings. This is such a crucial element to personal development, probably the most important element.
So we decided to introduce ‘feelings’ as a structured lesson, given as much weight in our teaching as literacy or numeracy. We teach the children about each feeling they might have and give them the language to express their emotions. One of the most important things to instil in them is that it’s absolutely ok to feel any emotion – to be upset, say, that the girl next to you took the truck you were playing with – but that how you respond to that emotion is your choice. This has led to far better impulse control and less conflict. The girl may be playing with your truck, which upsets you, but you don’t have to respond by hitting her! One of my proudest moments as a teacher was seeing the amazement on the faces of parents and carers as they watched a playground full of very young children playing together and handling their problems independently, with complete success.
At our school, over half the early years children come to us not speaking English as a first language. In many ways, this isn’t any different from a nursery class where English is everyone’s first language, because in a nursery class there might be a difference in age of 11 months between the oldest and youngest child. That amounts to a fifth of their lives, so development levels can vary a lot.
We use non-verbal prompts in the classroom, gestures that are based on Makaton sign language. Studies have shown that using non-verbal prompts helps all children to develop, even those with a very high level of English comprehension. So having mixed levels of English helps every child develop in the long run.
It’s also great having different nationalities and backgrounds in the classroom, because the children get to experience a whole range of cultures. Through the year we’ll celebrate Eid, Christmas, Hanukkah – a party for every event we can think of! I grew up in New Zealand in quite a single society, so I really see the value in these children having so many cultures and experiences in one place.
If I could give advice to any new teachers, I would say try hard, never give up and be humble enough to listen to the advice of others. Most importantly, there’s always time to be kind. Everyone – the parents, the other teachers, the children – are all trying their best and working towards the same goal. Teaching can be stressful and overwhelming, but when you realise everyone’s working towards the same goal you learn to be kind to one another.
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