Some memories of school life which will be going into a book soon I hope!
|The Trials of an English Teacher!
Who but an English teacher could be mad enough to write about teaching? Yep, that’s me. It has been a cathartic experience; being able to say exactly what I thought instead of all the euphemisms I spend time writing on the end of year reports. How do you say that a girl’s enormous, cheap hoop earrings made enough noise to drown out the smacking of her chewing gum, despite both being forbidden in class? And what do you say to encourage a parent whose son has spent the entire year drawing gothic images in, on and throughout his exercise book; then assiduously counted every word in his mock exam essay - and noted it down the side so that he did 300 words and no more? He even stopped mid-sentence to achieve this, although that was the only thing he achieved. I still think he was a little autistic, although he would insist it was artistic, or anything else to get him out of work. This lad went on to do the very same thing in his exams for real, despite being told time and time again about the content rather than exact number of words being what the examiner would mark. Sure enough, he didn’t pass although I do not blame myself for his failure. He went on to the dizzy heights of selling cheap rock on during the season from a kiosk on the seafront so perhaps all he needed to be able to do was count assiduously.
When parents come in at Target Setting Day (an euphemism for ‘we will tell you what the government of the day says your child WILL get no matter what else is going on in their lives’) and ask what you really meant as they don’t understand the vocabulary you used, so it is almost better to write the plain truth in the first place…
‘Your child is the noisiest, rudest teenager it has ever been my misfortune to try to teach.’
‘If Blank put as much effort into her work as she does her social life during class time, she will pass her GCSE in English…’
‘Unfortunately, although Blank has been in my lessons all year, he chose to sit in the English exam for two hours but not write a word on his paper.’
I think I might be out of a job very fast.
So, those reports were an exercise in tact, diplomacy and simple language. Simple because my school is in one of the most deprived areas of the country; tact because if you upset the parents enough they are likely to come and threaten you with the law – ‘I know my rights’ - or remove their children to work in the local amusement arcade full time.
‘I never learnt to read or write and it’s done me no ‘arm, so what does he want with education?’
‘How about the fact you spend all winter in the pub whilst signing on as the seaside amusements in town shut at the end of September? He could get a full time job all year round…’
One favourite phrase for reports was the old chestnut ‘a lively member of the class’ which really means that it was difficult to shut the child up; oh to have the freedom to say that ‘this child has no concept of silence’. The hope that a parent understood this phrase was almost as wishful. As conceptualisation goes, it was one of my ideas which never got off the drawing board.
I absolutely love teaching. I am more than a bit of a schizophrenic, totally mad out of school, slightly madly bonkers in school, almost sober in meetings but always my own individual person. The pupils seem to relate to me as I am often seen on the beach in shorts and flip flops flying a stunt kite or taking moody landscapes and sunsets with a camera. My hair changes monthly, although always within the guidelines of acceptable colours and styles. I allow children into my world outside school, mindful that so many do not have the opportunities to learn about hobbies, pets, farm animals or even relationships. Children in a deprived area are often deprived in more than one sense of the word, with some of them never having been outside the town in their lifetime. Within the school environment my purple classroom is run with imagination, discipline, laughter and always respect. It has served me well for many years with dedication and lots of hard work which I hope will be remembered with affection rather than disrespect. Unfortunately good classroom teachers are often promoted to jobs with far too much data and paperwork but not enough time to do it in, or teach as they used to.
I personally fell into that management trap but regretted it bitterly after six years, so gave all the ambitions up which enabled me to step back and become my own person in a classroom again. Over the last five years there was been a gradual insidious encroachment of administrative tasks that means we spent much of our precious ‘non-contact’ time in school filling out forms about the children, what they have done and how they have done it. The other thing that still takes time and patience is preparing data to allow your school to continue receiving funds from the government of the day. Floor targets are the buzz-words now, better to be a qualified accountant than a teacher sometimes. If, as I am, you are fairly competent with a computer, the spread-sheets and tables are not too time-consuming once you have them set up; they can do most of the basic sorting for you. If, as I do, you have a colleague who takes your printed tables and painstakingly writes all the marks down in longhand into a mark book, it can be both frustrating and protracted for all concerned. If, as I do, you struggle to do look-up tables and formulae which will add this column to that column then take it all away from the sum of the previous three column’s average, don’t aspire to become anything above being a classroom teacher. If, as this current government do, everything you teach gets changed to make a political statement on a regular basis, realise that it makes teachers feel that they are constantly trying to play catch-up and that real education does not really matter. The only way you will survive is to be confident in what you do in the classroom.
Not that all computers or their programmes are useful, as I found out one very sunny June morning when I logged on at home at an impossibly early hour to print off some essential but simple worksheets needed for that day’s awkward class. My computer coughed, spluttered, wheezed like an old man and then completed the illusion by slowly emitting evil black smoke from every orifice. My grandfather used to smoke black shag tobacco which smelled similar; almost like reliving my childhood in the study at 5am… Hurriedly switching it off and opening the windows wide stopped the room from filling with smoke; the cat retreated fast coughing delicately; I unplugged everything to make doubly sure and went to work smelling vaguely of burning electrics. I had to do without the worksheets that day; the computer man delved into its innards some days later and produced a broken cooling fan and a hefty bill. Perhaps pen and paper is better in some circumstances, although we are supposed to be living in a paperless society… pity the poor trees.
Do any figures, data, worksheets or coughing computers make children better? I think not. Children will always be the same – malleable and nice until year 9 when the hormones kick in big style, then in year 11 realising that they only have eight months left to get some work done before the dreaded exams. It is the understanding of this and how to deal with it which makes a good teacher. I hope I come into that category…
Back to school after a bohemian summer. Back to being a teacher and some sort of sanity. Back to year 7…There they were. 28 shiny, well-scrubbed faces all looking expectantly at me. I was going to be a combination of Mother Superior and surrogate mother to these little darlings for the next academic year – and it was clear that they were going to need some tender nurturing.
The first thing I had to do was get them sitting on their chairs correctly, as they seemed to think that crossed legs and tipping them back was acceptable in ‘big school’. Then I had to get them talking to me. There were two girls who obviously had more confidence than the others, but once one had started it would take an earthquake to shut her up. The other was still in the ‘Why?’ stage, which was good as explanations of the school rules flowed thick and fast, prompted by her, but then became an irritation as she would not let me get to the end of anything without endless queries. I nick-named her ‘arm-on-a-spring’ which about says it all…
I had one boy who would not come into the room, let alone take his hooded coat off. After thirty minutes of alternate cajoling and threatening, I handed him over to another teacher who also nearly lost his temper as every request or suggestion was met with total non-compliance. And when I say total, I mean total – no word, eye contact, nor movement. So, I taught a complete lesson that first day with a small statue in a hooded jacket visible through my classroom door. He was so still that the other pupils forgot he was there and stopped looking to see what was happening. At the end of the lesson one small boy said ‘Ooh, is he still there?’ which started the necks craning again, by which time he had obviously been moved off somewhere as no sign of him was to be seen in the corridor. I later found it had taken a mentor, the Head and his mother over an hour to move him from my corridor to the front entrance ready to go home. He had been petrified with fright, poor lad. He did come back eventually, but never seemed to get over that first day at ‘Big School.’ Throughout his career at our school, any situation which he found upsetting would result in him either walking out or not coming into lessons, which was such a shame as he was by no means unable to do the work.
Back in the classroom, I tried the potty teacher act, which broke the ice a little, but one small boy with a mouth too wide for his face found me so funny that he had hysterics. He cried, held his stomach, and nearly fell off his chair. The rest of the class watched this display with growing amazement, and I had to switch to stern teacher mode to stop him before he was sick.
‘Whaddaya think he’s laughin’ at?’
‘I have no idea’
More hysteria from said child.
This reaction went on through every lesson for nearly a year until he was moved into another set for the sake of my sanity and his learning. I never did get to the bottom of his hysteria; no one knew why he found me so funny or was it frightening?
After a week, I wondered what all the fuss had been about; the different personalities were emerging and the possible trouble makers identified. This year they were a nice bunch bar three of the boys, who were waiting their opportunity – as I had them for English, Art and PSE, they were not going to try it on with me for a while.
The first term is always a honeymoon period with new pupils, they are keen, bottom of the school heap, and behaving themselves in an unfamiliar environment. The first target setting day, when you meet the parents is usually an eye opener though. It never fails to amaze me how old some people look even when they cannot be over 40; often it is obvious they are heavy smokers which completely kills any skin tone, but they just seem so worn down by life. They have so much respect for you and seem to think you can fix anything, including the behaviour exhibited at home. I wish ‘I had a magic wand to waft around some families so they could all get on with their lives and live happily; unfortunately it never seems to work out that way. The nice kids have good parents who uphold values in the home, the disadvantaged ones try hard and their kids are mainly OK, but the worst are the parents you never see…
I had one boy who has only managed half the attendance he should have. He is an asthmatic, but came to school without his inhalers, or the wrong one. He and I had very sensible conversations about managing his wheezes, and he tried hard – when I was around.
‘Robert, what can I do for you?’
‘Are you havin’ your lunch?’
‘It doesn’t matter, you can talk to me’
‘Well, I wondered whether you could talk to me dad about me puffer ‘cos it has run out again and I’m getting really wheezy?’
‘Of course I will, which number is the best one to catch him on this week?’
‘I dunno miss, he’s away and I’m staying with me Gramma’
‘Can she help?’
‘Dunno Miss, an’ she won’t answer the phone cos she don’t know you’
Teacher resists urge to hit head on wall…yet again.
Because of his poor attendance, he was not in any of the friendship groups that have grown up in the class, so he tried to bully his way into them, causing mayhem and ill feeling doing so. His father is a single parent, who never has his mobile phone on, doesn’t reply to letters, does not do target setting days and has now been summoned to the school to a panel of governors to talk about his son. I know it must be a big responsibility, but he seems to be ducking most of it by just leaving the school to sort out the problems, which we are not allowed to do, despite being in loco parentis while the lad is with us.
It is interesting seeing how Year 7 pupils evolve over their first year at secondary school. At first there is a lot of name calling and petty squabbling, but after a while, they grow into the ethos I try and instil into them and the feuds become few and far between, although when they do occur, they are usually much more serious. Like the lad who sent abusive text messages to a very sensible lass whose very sensible mother had the police involved in a flash – the boy is no longer at the school having been excluded permanently for a load of misdemeanours, of which this one was the first. He certainly had not raised his head over the parapet for the first two terms!
Taking them for some fill-in lessons of Art, I tried to find a subject that was fun and easy, gradually getting harder. So I turned to my favourite easy subject - fish. These started as shapes drawn by me that could be filled in with any pattern, but only two colours. We then went onto shades and tones, both in paint, crayon and pencil; finally we tried an aquarium of fish drawn by them in any shape or form, and decorated with any media they could find. We had fish collages of sweet wrappers, furry fish, sparkly fish, and made a giant fish tank on one wall of the room. It was interesting that it was the only display for a while that had not been picked at by years 10 or 11 by the time it came down, and it was not covered with a clear sheet of protective plastic. The fish went home with their owners, but whether one on its own was as aesthetically pleasing as a whole shoal on a wall remains to be seen.
English was also good fun, especially when I got to the poetry part. Teaching every form of poetic style from Acrostic to ballad got them all trying their own out. Great fun and amusement was had by some incredibly bad excuses poems about not having homework in on time, and the Japanese Haiku form elicited some very succinct offerings.
Yellow, red rust, dead
Flowers dying and high tides
Bare trees, rustling leaves
Pale winter skin
Pinkening like a rose
Stultifying, sweaty days
Drains the brain, maims
All logical thought.
Pets pant, find cold tiles
Flop and sleep
Dreaming of snow.
We studied ‘Holes’ by Louis Sachar, which is a book about a mythical American juvenile correction facility in the middle of a desert, where nothing is as it seems. They needed it reading to them and frequent stops for recaps on where the story had got so far, but the work we did from the book was outstanding for a year 7 class. We wrote obituaries, reports, letters, newspaper articles, persuasive brochures trying to sell it as a holiday destination - you name it, we did it. And they all had a great time. That is the sort of teaching I relish, when everyone is so involved they will even sit through the dinner bell to get to the cliff hanger end of a chapter. And then stopping you in the corridor the next day to try and get out of you what happens next…
‘Please tell us what happens after Stanley has crashed the truck, please, please…’
‘Well, if I told you, you would tell everyone else and there would be no surprise, would there?’
‘I won’t tell Miss. I won’t. Promise, honestly.’
‘Sorry Bethany, you will have to wait until next lesson.’
The film version wasn’t bad either and is a favourite ‘treat’ at the end of term for all year groups. As it has many cinematic changes, we play ‘Tell the Difference’ which is hugely funny as the main character is described in the book as being overweight – his first appearance in the film shows a curly-headed slim lad. Oh, the shouts and grumbles! It shows graphically how much better it is to read the original book before seeing what the film director makes of it. The best bit for me is when all the boys in the film tease each other and one does a very good impersonation of a chicken – the kids all try it up and down the corridors at break-times which made school sound like my back garden at feeding time.