FIRST-HAND: Confessions of a nursery school teacher

Little boys hit out, but little girls are nastier. Anne reveals how a class of four-year-olds can try her patience to the limit
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THIS IS NOT an easy job. The boys tend to be worse-behaved physically because they just hit out. Manolo came to us this year without a word of English - his first language is Spanish - and although he speaks perfectly well now I think he found it very frustrating and he can't get out of the habit of hitting.

He picked up a wooden block the other day and just swung it right at someone's head. We had to sit him in the thinking chair to consider what he had done, but we didn't phone his parents in the end.

The girls are nastier, though. No one is more horrid than a little girl. One in particular is a right little madam: she will always ruin someone's day by saying they look ugly or that everyone hates them. That is much harder to deal with because it's hard to know they are being naughty until someone is crying. Girls seem to have an innate understanding of how to socialise, of the accepted way to behave, and then they will use it to their advantage. Boys do more obvious things.

We have had to put the doctor's kit away because one little blond-haired boy kept examining people. Just the girls at first, but then anyone he could lay his hands on. Perhaps he is going to be a great obstetrician or something, but you just don't know. Still, at least that isn't violent. In the second week of term, one boy's mother came in and saw our pot of scissors."You'd better keep them away from him. He stabbed his father with a kitchen knife last week," she said.

Another little boy has a mother who thinks that he's gifted. He is quite bright, but I have seen gifted children and he is not one. She is very bohemian and laughs at things we take seriously. He is an only child and very spoilt, and his mother refuses to tell him off for it, but there's not a lot we can do.

The classroom gets pretty chaotic - there are two of us here for 25 children. We get in at 8.15 in the morning and leave around five. The room is set up for lots of activities, such as painting, reading, building and computing, with the playground just outside. It can be hard to supervise them all at once, especially if someone is being naughty. Yesterday was a nightmare because it was raining and we couldn't go outside, and one little boy, who is slightly autistic, makes moaning noises and sulks when he gets bored. He was aggravating the others and driving us all mad.

You have to be very understanding all the time, because we end up with all sorts of baggage from home which makes them behave as they do and we often have no idea of what is going on there. They say there will be one abused child per class. I once had a little girl who drew very sexually explicit pictures. Alarm bells rang immediately and we got the parents in, but we couldn't find anything. Years later it turned out we had been right and we felt we had failed her.

It can all be very difficult. You have so much to deal with in a classroom, and if the child is unhappy at home, there is nowhere really that you can go for extra help. In particular, people who have lots of agencies involved with their families seem to man- ipulate the social services so well, playing one off against the other so no one gets too close. In this job you find some parents have no interest whatsoever, and others intrude too much.

I've been a nursery school teacher for 20 years now, and in the past year or so I've heard more teachers than ever before saying they can't stand it and they have to get out. There is a lot of pressure on you to be cheerful all the time and if you are feeling down or ill you can easily snap - it does happen.

Although that teacher who taped up the little boy was extreme, I can understand it. You definitely have to be a certain sort of person to be able to cope. We are not allowed to hit them or punish them or anything like that and I have never wanted to, but you hear about it and the fact that she did it must mean that she was feeling very low indeed and didn't have enough support.

You fall in love with some of them, but they drive you insane. On days when I don't feel very well, they get to cry, scream, shout and hit each other. Sometimes I just want to join them. Interview by Anna Blundy