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Thursday, November 25, 2004

Teacher, leave those kids alone: part one of a potentially limitless series 

So, as previously intimated, I've been doing the education thing for the past month and a bit. At first, every event was distinct and sharp in my my mind, but, as the days have passed into weeks, most of them have blurred into an indistinct mass divided into at school and at home. Which is not to say that I haven't enjoyed it as it has been a largely good experience, it's just that only the exceptionally hilarious, sad or maddening events loom large in my memory. I'm lucky to be working with some exceptionally talented and committed staff, and the school environment is good too. I don't recognise any of the 'problem school' issues, beloved of tabloid editors across the land, in this school and I know that it is equally true for the permanant staff as well. In the mornings, I usually arrive before 8.30 which leaves me a good twenty minutes or so to bond with my colleagues in the highlight of the morning, the The Daily Mail Game. The DMG could be considered to be analogous with the USMC's 'hoo-rah' team talk, used to fire men for battle, and it works like this: A teacher's name is selected from a rota each day and that teacher then has to buy a copy of the Mail. In the staffroom they shut their eyes and open it at a random page. They then open their eyes and read whatever is on that page. Such is the mind-numbing stupidity of the Daily Mail's content that we cannot help but be enthused to got out and achieve miracles of educational performance, lest the children in our care leave school so mentally stunted that their only realistic career choice is to work as a journalist for the Mail. If you ever wish to see true failures of educational achievement and guidance then look not at kids hanging around on the streets, but at people who really should know better switching off their analytical functions and unquestioningly accepting the piffle peddled by newspapers like the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail Game has proved so successful that we're thinking of marketing it as a family game next Christmas, and we all fully expect to be millionaires by this time next year, Rodders.

Sadly, it's not all fun and games; I have to do actual work as well. For the first couple of weeks this was mainly just job shadowing and getting the measure of the kids, and doing a fair bit of marking. I know that in future years the system will surely crush me , but for now I actually enjoy marking. Dad's at college doing computer science and he loves the programming element: it seems that we take comfort in repetitive tasks. Doing these sorts of tasks is really in my best interest as it means that my assigned teacher, Mr Bird, can get on with his job and I therefore get to observe a good professional interacting with his classes on an almost full time basis. I also take an active role in class by helping the kids as and when they require it and lately I've taught a couple of lessons to allow me plenty of practise before my tutor from uni comes to assess my progress. A couple of times, they've even left me alone with different groups of pupils to see how I cope with the all-important discipline issues. The fools. So far, though, it's all been going swimingly. Mr Bird, who I work with the most, although I float into the other social science classes fairly regular, is also the school's Depute Head and it's rare to find a member of a schoo's senior management team with any significant teaching responsbilities. He is, however, very gifted and it is obvious that the quality of teaching would suffer if he weren't able to combine the roles successfully. The downside is that he's frequently called to attend no-notice meetings or take interminable phone calls that take him away from class. Although I wasn't too impressed at first, it's worked to my advantage in that I'm now used to and confident enough with the regular students that work continues and discipline is maintained when he's off dealing with the Bigger Picture - the Head, she deals with the Really Big Picture, and consequently has no teaching role whatsoever, which just confirms my theory that school's would benefit from a business management type to deal with the financial side of things to allow the professional teaching staff to get on with things. But I digress.

Success has a funny way of working against you, and my capicity to deal with classroom travails came back to bite me. A week or so back, I, the innocent almost graduate, was sent into Here Be Dragons territory having been asked (i.e told) to cover a 'please take.' This term denotes notes that are passed, such as in the manner with which Blind Pew dispensed the Black Spot, to un-busy teachers asking them to cover for an absent colleague: 'Please take class X @ 10am.' Wily staff will do deals with colleagues, Satan, anyone to avoid an unfamiliar or 'bad' class with a gusto that would impress Machiavelli. Of course, sloth plays a part as well. I was in our classroom marking some essays on electoral reform in Britain in the 1850s - fascinating stuff, you should read up on it - when one of the admin staff walked in and left a note on the desk. Mr Bird saunters back in and tells me that he has a meeting right after lunch to discuss decentralising departmental funding...my eyes glaze over, drool forms at the corners of my mouth as I slowly nod my head and I vaguely realise that he's reading the note..."Oh, can you do this for me?" Do what, I ask, instantly aware to the myriad of possible dangers consigned in a secretary's note. "Mr Green" isn't in today and I've been asked to cover his Higher Computing class, but I can't because of this meeting. I think you'd be up to it though; you can handle it can't you?" He's a decent man, and I honestly think he has confidence in my abilities and that I was indeed up to the task, but knowing that didn't prevent men from wanting to thump him. The luch bell rings and we go and have eat our lunches, which is the traditional protocol at lunchtime. My fate becomes common knowledge among the teachers. You'll be fine, they reassure me. An art teacher who seems like he was was and old man when ENIAC was a boy seems certain that all young people know everything there is to know about technology. "Yes," I tell him, "my glasses are the source of all my powers." What I don't tell him is that I got a D for Higher Computing. The bell ends, signaling the end of lunch.

Showtime

I don't know this class, I don't know this subject; the kids are already in and sat down by the time I get to the classroom. They're doing programming. I feel like telling them that they really want my dad, that this is his bag. I can, at a push, remember how to do a basic loop program, but I'm much more comfortable naming the divisions that fought at Stalingrand and their commanders. I scan the class and recognise a couple of kids from other classes that I've worked with and thankfully they are both good students. One of them is a girl of 17 who is so kind and decent that, to quote a description of one of my own school's prefects, 'so nice that she makes Mother Theresa look like Imelda Marcos.' One pupil asks - deliberately or not, I don't know - a particularly awkward question. Teaching an unknown class can be like a totalitarian state: if you are slow to put restive backs to the wall, then pretty soon you can expect to find yourself facing the firing squad. When you have a good working relationship with students, they'll tolerate weakness or mistakes without complaint, but plenty of others will use it to their advantage. Getting caught out is the easiest way to lose control, but I'm already reacting. I ask the class to offer their knowledge to enlighten their classmate, and there's a pause. It lengthens. Then Mother Theresa's hand shoots up and she reels off an answer that I should be paying attention to, but can't hear such is the volume of my internal cheering. They get on with their project work, coping by themselves and mostly helping each other out. They only ask me basic questions which are covered in sufficient detail in Mr Green's lesson plan. It seems as if they've let me have Round One. They are restless, however, chattering goes on around the room and it increases throughout the second half of the lesson. One boy in particular seems to be talking more than most, but this is just because he has a rather distinctive voice which stands out from the general buzz. Usually, I'd be inclined to let this go because it's not as if he's causing serious problems or disruption, but I'm on the edge still and he's getting to me. I specifically tell him to quiten down and get on with his work, which is silly as it personalises the issue and can lead to escalating tension between teacher and beligerent pupil. I know all this, and I know it's a mistake, I know that he feels aggrieved for being singled out for what is essentially a group transgression but I'm young and inexperienced, he won't shut up and I'm the one with the power.

"That's enough." My tone hardens: "I mean it." Definatly, he ignores me and talks at an ever-increasing volume until he really is disrupting the class. I have to take action. I leave the sanctuary of the desk knowing that I've contributed to this confrontation but I don't know how to step back. The class is arranged in parallel rows of tables, with two sitting side-by-side at each. PCs line three of the walls. I stand opposite him and place my palms on the desk, leaning down to make eye contact and I turn on The Stare that I've been perfecting for most of the last decade. I tell him in no uncertain terms that unless he shuts up right now then I will bring down the full weight of the IT department, the school, the law, God, right down on his head. He's got the message, he knows that I'm The Man in this situation, but he can't help himself and starts to protest. Although I've saved face and the class can finish its hour in peace, I'm hyped up, unable to stop myself and almost snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As I utter the words "stand up when you speak to me," I know that I've fallen into a trap, that I've committed a stupid unforced error. As he stands, I realise the gravity of my errror; it's not so much a person going from a sitting to standing position, more the construction of the Tower of Babel happening right before my eyes.

He's simply the biggest sixteen year old I've ever seen, more than a head taller than me and with the build to match. He's huge, and I can't believe that I've failed to notice his sheer size before now; you can hear me swallowing as my adam's apple moves in my throat. He's standing in front of me, copying my stance, and he's the one looking down for eye contact

"Right, I've stood up. what now?" There is an audible intake of breath as the class prepare for the inevitable fireworks, they know that neither of us can back away now; somebody has to die. My forebrain is utterly paralysed, shocked by the sheer mass of teenaged manchild before me. I'm doomed. The discs spin, three cherries line up and the machine starts spewing coins as my tongue engages, speaking seemingly from far, far away and saying in a voice that I can hardly recognise.

"What happens is that I just told you to stand up, making you look like an idiot in front of everyone, and you did it. Now I'm telling you to sit down, be quiet and let everyone get on with their work and you're going to do it now. He sits down without a word, deflated, seemingly stunned at the loss of his position. Afterwards, I'm back with one of our own first year classes, trying to figure out where The Speech came from. Mr Bird asks me how I got on with the please take.

"Fine," I say. I smile. "No problems."