MTPT Blogger and Primary Teacher, Deniquè D describes how the time for a spot of gardening during maternity leave lead to reflections on school culture, student wellbeing and classroom environment.

One of the things I plan to do during my maternity leave is a bit of gardening. The last time I convinced myself that I was a good gardener was in lockdown. So now that I have some spare time in between nappy changes, feeds and school runs, I am planning on trying my dab hand at gardening again. I have also planned a declutter and deep clean of my apartment- baby step towards a much desired minimalist lifestyle. Truthfully, as I grow older I’ve come to appreciate the good that a clean environment has on my mental wellbeing. 

Spring always reminds me of cleanliness and new beginnings.  I was sat on my patio googling what veggies I could potentially grow from my trellises, reading about different types of plants and enjoying the mild spring air. Being the deep thinker that I am (combined with the fact that I was actually getting bored of reading about soil), my mind started to wander. I was reminded of that feeling that you get when you set up a new classroom at the start of the academic year. Like spring, everything is fresh and new or at least clean. The classroom, the halls, the walls, the display boards, all a blank canvas ready for you to create whatever type of learning environment you want! In the same way, spring allows us to start again, reset and recreate.

And then, in typical teacher fashion, my mind swerved right into planning mode and I started to think about how I wanted my classroom to look next year. As I now swiped through Pinterest looking at working walls and reading corners instead of tomato plants; I had a mini revelation! At least in my crazy brain it was a revelation. I realised that in many ways, gardening is just like teaching! Bear with me whilst I explain the logic behind my madness….

  • The gardeners are the teaching staff

People will often appreciate a beautiful garden, especially a public garden or a park such as Kew or Titsy place where we recently visited. But they rarely stop to think about the gardener who puts all the effort in behind the scenes to make it look good. Pruning, cutting, planting, cultivating the soil and growing the plants. Teachers are a bit like gardeners in the lives of our students. We graft hard. We are on the frontline and we invest so much into them. Planning, marking, differentiating and supporting their many academic, social and even emotional needs. It is a bit like how a gardener has to cultivate the soil. It is a work of heart and your soul needs to be in it to win it. There’s no point in gardening if you don’t want to see the flowers grow and there is no point in teaching if you don’t want see the students achieve. We of course don’t teach for the money, we partly teach for the reward. If I wanted to be filthy rich I would choose a different career- just being honest. Just like a gardener has to keep at it, laboriously cultivating the land, the good teachers have to cultivate those results out of their students. Sometimes digging deep to find what makes their students tick. What makes their brains spark and their imaginations run wild!

  • The seeds/ flowers are the students

My classroom is my garden and my students are my seeds. As a teacher, on a good day, I sometimes see the children I teach as little seeds. Other times, they could be classed as little  (fill in the blank)  but we’ll leave that for another day. Anyways, the beautiful seeds that have been planted in my garden are generally awesome! Fantastic kids, especially in September when they first arrive. It’s funny how they all look so sweet in September but by October you are literally pulling your hair out desperate for a half term. Nevertheless, each child is different and I love that about them. Some will come to me budding and ready to grow, typically your mid ability students. Some will be flourishing and blooming into plants already, perhaps your higher ability students. Others, need a little more nurture and support before they can bud, typically your lower ability students. Then you get those who grow differently altogether and move marvellously in their own right. Perhaps they are your gifted and talented or SEN students. Every seed is unique and each will require different amounts of water, sunlight to help them flower. In the same way each student will require support in different areas and at different levels to help them achieve. Like a gardener figures out his or her plants needs so does a teacher or leader identify the needs of the children in their classroom or school.

  • The soil is your school culture

What is your school culture like? Is it a place that allows students to flourish and grow? Is it a place that allows staff to grow up the career ladder? How does it feel to be in your school? How does it feel to be in your classroom? In case you haven’t noticed already my gardening vocabulary is basic and minimal because surprise, surprise, I am not a professional gardener. However, I did read something about soil which is too acidic or too alkaline can reduce the quality of produce grown. And it resonated with me. If a school has a toxic environment, it will definitely do more harm than good. Therefore, creating a healthy school environment and finding the right balance is key. Just as the soil ph level has to be balanced for plants to thrive, a school should have a balance between supporting the well-being of staff and students and having very high standards to achieve the best academic outcomes. I’ve always been into putting children’s wellbeing first because when something is out of balance it shows. It shows up in the students work and in their behaviour. It can also show up in staff’s behaviour too. For example, if senior leaders become dictators and strip away autonomy from class teachers, the teachers themselves may feel bitter and develop feelings of resentment. Yet, too little involvement from leadership and teachers may feel unsupported or that they lack guidance. Fortunately, I work in a great school, with the right balance and good leaders. In the classroom, again it’s about balance- how can you push a child enough to motivate him or her and develop independence but still ensure they are supported? How should you differentiate learning? How should you manage the behaviour of students in a way that is consistent and effective for everyone? These are the questions a good practitioner will ask themselves daily because, any which way you look at it, so many things need to be taken into consideration to make a healthy classroom or school environment.

A look towards the future:

I have always been an advocate for children’s wellbeing, so much so that it has become part of my core values as an educator and I am the mental health first aider in my school.  But I found it hard to give the type of support I wanted whilst being a full-time class teacher because there was always so much to do. Thankfully, my time on maternity leave has given me the space to pause and reflect and do some research on this topic. As well as CPD which has given me the confidence to return to school and implement positive changes that work alongside my role. Followed by an action plan accredited by the MTPT project, my hopes after returning from maternity leave is to do much more than ever before in this area because it is important. And just like having a healthy garden is crucial to the plants growth, having a healthy school environment is crucial to its student’s growth.

To achieve these results consistency & dedication is key. Focus on what’s in front of you- your own garden, your own classroom or school and your own budding seeds (students) who are relying on us educators to get them to grow. Maintain what is yours and watch the garden grow. Don’t compare your school, your class or your teaching style to anyone else’s. Have the patience and skill of a gardener, approach each term with the newness of spring sprinkled with a healthy dose of positivity, expectancy and hope.