Teachers have nothing to fear from working in the Foundation Stage, and much to gain, says Kevin McLaughlin…
As Frodo Baggins stood at the gates of Mordor, he possibly thought to himself, “What on Middle Earth have I let myself in for?” I too have experienced that Mordor moment – not while standing in the shadow of Mount Doom, but as I walked into the Reception classroom of my school back in September as its new teacher.
When I decided to join the EYFS team, some colleagues told me I was mad; others just looked perplexed. Why would I, an experienced Key Stage 2 teacher, put myself forward to teach in the Foundation Stage? Well, quite simply, I was intrigued with teaching and learning in the EYFS. I had already used some of its ideals within my own Year 5 classroom in previous years, so when the opportunity to be a Reception teacher came along it was too good to miss.
In June, I spent three days observing the children and teachers and teaching assistants. I immersed myself in the daily routine, and was soon in awe at how the staff could turn any situation into a learning opportunity. I wondered if I too could be as inspiring as they were; I would soon find out!
My first two weeks proved a gentle baptism; only a few children came in, and for no more than half a day at a time. Some were inquisitive and loud; others said nothing, while a few cried – a lot, usually in the mornings as they were left at the gate when the bell rang. I soon found that all settled in quite quickly once they got into the classroom, however.
There is much to learn, of course. The relationships you form at the very beginning are essential; you describe the class rules and then realise that most of the children haven’t listened as their attention has been on the hole in your shoe, or on the child who has curled up on the floor to go to sleep, or on the noise coming from the room next door that sounds a bit like a monster because that’s what another child tells everyone it is.
You soon discover how a four-year-old’s mind ticks when your well-planned lesson introduction is interrupted 15 times in the first 60 seconds. You begin to understand that their questions are far more important than your questions, particularly when you want to find out if they have learned what you have been teaching. You stifle laughs, but then realise that young children love to see their teacher laughing. You join in with them by getting down to their level, which means perching on chairs that are not meant for adults; you develop a method of sitting that yoga specialists would be envious of. The table you once coveted as your own becomes a breeding ground for crayoned drawings. You note with satisfaction that you have come into superpowers, and can prove to Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 staff that some teachers do indeed have eyes in the back of their heads – they just happen to be EYFS teachers!
I found my entire approach to teaching had to change if these young children were to learn. They gained knowledge by playing and talking, by running and falling, by dancing and singing, by lying down when you thought they should be sitting, by sticking their fingers to their books and smearing their friends’ faces with paint. Every moment becomes a learning opportunity; the day is filled with them and each becomes an integral part of your teaching.
What I found stifling in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 was the straitjacket forced upon us by the curriculum. What the EYFS gives you is freedom – to teach and for children to learn at their own pace. It’s an approach I would love to see schools consider for ages 4–11.
So don’t let the intimidating gates to the EYFS scare you. Welcome the change, because as you step through them into what is a world of wonder, you will become a better teacher for it.
Kevin Mclaughlin is a senior lecturer in primary education, and former primary school teacher. Follow him @kvnmcl