I Am A Weapon of Mass Instruction
Chapter 3: Being a teacher is weird.
Being a teacher is weird, but it’s hard to describe exactly how or why it’s weird. You’re in a job that you think is vital and you love doing it, but you also dread every single September and Monday morning.
You know that children are the future and it’s your responsibility that they’re armed with the knowledge to shape it into a better thing that want we have now. But you’re also 100% convinced that children are completely evil, lazy, and ignorant and you’re terrified that these are the people who are going to be in charge of the on/off switch of the respirator you’ll be plugged into when you’re in your old age.
You know that you’re a strong, intelligent, capable adult, but a lot of the time you feel like the most useless person alive as you can’t even make an 11 year old grasp a straightforward piece of knowledge. You believe passionately with every fibre of your being that education is possibly the most important aspect of civilised society, but also think that it is a toxic, crippled system that isn’t actually preparing anyone for the future.
It’s a job full of contradictions, and you’re well aware that when you talk to people about it, it just sounds a little pathetic. But I’ll try and explain as best I can.
I fell into teaching; it hadn’t really been part of The Plan, despite announcing at the wise age of 15 that that was what I wanted to do. Graphic design had always been the goal, although it took me a little while to get there. I eventually did my degree in Graphic Design, passed and was unleashed on an unsuspecting design industry: a creative tour de force - everyone was to bow before me as I made design history.
That’s what pretty much passes through every design graduate’s head when they leave University - there must be a subliminal (in some cases, not so subliminal) course in boosting the ego to megalomaniac levels as part of the degree course. What most design graduates don’t realise is that they’ve been thrown into a very big pond, they are a tiny appetising fish, and the pond is full of starving sharks. It’s not a revelation to say that the design industry is competitive, but I - like most graduates - expected to walk into a really cool job that allowed me to do really cool stuff all the time and would continue my development as a Really Cool designer.
I made it very clear to any of my students who wanted to pursue a design career that they were entering a very competitive industry, because they needed to know what they were getting in to. Universities pump out design graduates every year and there simply aren’t enough jobs for them all, and that was the world I stepped into.
To make things harder, I was basically starting from scratch. I’d done my graphics degree in Australia, and I’d done freelance and studio work while I was there. I had some contacts in the industry and even a studio that was interested in taking me on. But I wanted to work in London - because isn’t that what cool people do? - so I headed back home and started to look for work. It took a while.
What was wrong with these people? Didn’t they see I was bloody amazing? They’d be fools not to hire me! Now, I know that some people look for a very long time to find any work, the right job is hard to get let alone finding your dream job, and on reflection, job-hunting for four months is not a long time at all, but it certainly felt like it. A colleague of mine’s daughter looked for design work for almost 18 months after graduating, and she was - is - a brilliant, hardworking designer. There comes a point when you take what you can get.
Eventually I got a response, and off I trundled to Reading for an interview, still blindingly optimistic (and clueless). I was offered the job! Hurrah! So wheels were put in motion and I moved to Reading.
I didn’t last long.
What I didn’t realise at the time (but learned very quickly) is that University hadn’t taught me a lot of what I needed to know and I was nowhere near as good as I thought I was. The work was also repetitive and dull. Now, I know that you have to stick it out and work your way up to be able to get to the cool jobs, but none of the designers at this studio did cool jobs - our clients weren’t that interested in cool graphic design, and neither were our bosses.
It was a huge reality check, and one that I tried to make sure my students didn’t find as rough as I did. I became a bit unsatisfied with the job. Then I became a bit unhappy. Then I became a lot unhappy, to the extent that I felt sick every morning as I walked to work. I may not be the fastest on the uptake sometimes but even I knew that things had to change, so I resigned, and headed back to Cornwall to look for other design work.
Fast forward a year. I’d used up all my savings applying for design work and gotten nowhere. It came to the point that I was out of cash and had to get a job - any job - in order to have some money coming in, thus began my rewarding career in retail assistant managing. It was while working in the grocery store in one of the local holiday parks that a friend of the family cut out an advert from the West Briton and passed it on to me.
‘Teacher Training at Truro College’
What did I have to lose? I’d been vaguely interested in teaching once hadn’t I? It couldn’t be any worse than what I was doing now… and so began my wonderful journey in education.
It was really a continuation of my journey in education. It might be the rose-tinted glasses speaking here, but I’d always liked learning, always liked school, so this seemed like the natural progression. I will not go so far to say that my school days had been perfect or all happy - children are horrible creatures who all ascribe to the Law of the Jungle and who know that it’s not about the survival of the fittest, but the survival of the survivors - but I liked school.
Again, this may be the latent autism in me, but I liked the structure, the organisation, the division of the day into nice little chunks; I’d now be experiencing that again just from a slightly different perspective.
Sadly, the teacher training course that I applied for didn’t train for Art, which would have been my choice of subject to teach, so I had to go for Design & Technology instead, which very handily included graphics as part of its remit. Graphics hadn’t really existed as a subject when I was at school, so I was happy that it now had its own place in Secondary education.
And you know what? It turned out that I was pretty good at this teaching business. I knew my subject, I didn’t have any more or less issues with the kids than the others on the course, and the essays I managed to get out of the way in good time and get decent marks for to boot. We all figured out very quickly that part of the course, and part of being a teacher, was being organised. You had to be very comfortable with files, arch-lever files, file dividers, plastic wallets and have an intimate relationship with your planner or diary. If you didn’t drown in the paperwork, you’d already passed half the course.
Soon enough it was time for us to start looking for work, and it’s with no small amount of smugness that I can tell you that out of the eight of us training to be D&T teachers that year, I was the first to get a job; not only that, but it was the first one I had applied for as well. Yes, it was in Kent, but I’ve never had a problem with moving out of Cornwall for work.
The course continued and then finished. I passed and then headed up to Kent, and despite thinking that this was only ever going to be for the short term, I ended up staying for 12 years. Positions for graphics teaching jobs aren’t all that common and are even rarer in Cornwall. In the years of my being a teacher, I never saw one come up in Cornwall, and only four other general D&T jobs advertised, so I just stayed in Kent - better the devil you know, right?
Even while I was still training, it became increasingly clear that being a teacher was going to be strange. I remembered the the teachers I’d had at school, and never really thought very much
about them. There were the annoying ones that had to be endured, like Miss Grumpycow the Art teacher. There were the scary ones who you didn’t want to cross, like Mr Carter the RE teacher and Mr Matley-Jones the Deputy Head. There were the really nice ones, the ones that got the best from you like Mrs Davis who on a whim decided to take us to Russia as we were studying the Bolsheviks. That the Iron Curtain hadn’t yet fallen was a trivial matter, and so a bunch of Cornish kids went to Communist Russia.
Obviously, being a cool designer type, I wanted to be a cool teacher, but I figured out very quickly that if I was going to be a teacher, I wasn’t going to be me. Teaching is all about acting.
Acting as if you’re in control. Acting as if you know everything. Putting on an Oscar-worthy performance of being calm when you’re really not, or on many an occasion acting as if I were
really, really angry. It’s all an act, but while putting on that act you’re watching and listening
a class full of kids to make sure they’re doing what they should be doing, while simultaneously thinking about the numerous things that you really should be doing if you were going to keep
your head above water. It’s a strange job because you’re never, ever finished, and you’re all too aware that you’ll never be finished.
Putting on a show every hour for five hours a day can be quite tiring, and I always felt that as soon as I walked through the doors at school in the morning I started the act, and I didn’t stop that act until I walked out of them at the end of the day. Sometimes not even then, as thoughts of school were often swirling around my head on the drive home, at home in the evening and as I tried to
It was an act that was very, very hard to escape from, and sometimes it was even harder to remember that it was just an act, and that there was an actual, real person putting on that act.
It’s a strange thing to be yourself, but not you for most of the day, day in day out.
One of the things you’ll hear again and again about teaching is that it’s all about the kids, and that you need to have a good relationship with them for them to achieve their best. This is true to a certain extent, but there are definite limits to that relationship.
One of the things you’re told when training, and that you will hear again and again once you’re
in the job is that you can be friendly with the students, but not friends. With most students, this
is really easy as you can’t wait to see the back of them after an hour’s lesson, but there are a few that you do genuinely like and get on with really well.
There’s always that awareness of the student/teacher dynamic though, and despite how well you get on, that’s as far as it goes.
It wasn’t so long ago that a teacher and student from some school in England ran away together
to France because they were - allegedly - madly and deeply in love. In our department office we didn’t really get this. There were mutters of,
“… friendly not friends” and a continuing discussion of how, given how rife gossip was at our school and how everyone was in everyone else’s business, how something like that could ever be kept secret.
Naturally, this progressed to a thought-provoking game of If You Were To Run Away With A Student, Who Would You Pick? Thought provoking in that it completely stumped us. Yes, we had students we liked, got on with and who you could have a laugh with, but to run away with them? I’d rather stab myself in the eyes!
None of us could think of a student that would be even vaguely acceptable to run away with.
To be honest, we couldn’t even think of a member of staff who we wanted to run away with
either, so it wasn’t a very long-running game.
I may have changed the rules of the game somewhat by declaring that I would be prepared to
run away with a certain student, if only to be able to have the chance of pushing him off the ferry halfway across the Channel. This got everyone’s attention, and soon we had a good list of students we’d be running away with so we could quietly give them a shove overboard. It passed the time on
a rainy lunchtime.
The ‘Friendly But Not Friends’ thing was sometimes tricky to manage as there wasn’t one definite line in the sand, it was a fluid, shifting thing. It depended on who the student was and whether they needed more TLC because of what was going on at home; on whether you were especially grumpy that day or in a forgiving mood. There were times when I jumped down a student’s throat and put the fear of god into them for a fairly innocuous comment, but let it pass by or even laughed when another student said the same thing. It was just part of the rich tapestry that was working in a school.
You never really knew what each day or even each lesson was going to bring, and a class that you usually worked well with and didn’t have a problem with could quickly become disastrous for no apparent reason. In theory everyone knew where we stood with each other, but that could change on a daily basis.
As I’ve said, Lamarah came and chatted to me a lot, but there were days, weeks or months when she didn’t. As much as I liked her, we weren’t friends, and it wasn’t part of the deal for me to seek her out for a chat. We were there for the kids, but they were not there for us.
Despite what you or I may think, kids aren’t stupid, and there have been times when I’ve been genuinely upset at school and struggled to hide it and students have asked me if I was okay,
and all you can say in that situation is,
“Yes, I’m fine.” even when it’s clear that you’re not and just walk away.
Add onto this the strange phenomenon of Social Media. Some students get a real kick out of knowing what your first name is, and I vaguely remember feeling slightly scandalised myself
at finding out that one my own teacher’s name was Mark.
Similarly, some students made a real effort to track staff down on social media and to almost collect them as ‘friends’ on a certain Book of the Face. Anyone with half a brain could see that it probably wasn't the best for students to see your every action and online rant, but there were some teachers who did click that Accept Friend Request button.
It wasn’t too long after social media had appeared and made itself comfortable in everyone’s lives that teachers began to get advice and directives about it, one of which was about being ‘friends’ with current students - it just wasn’t the done thing. Considering the stories you heard about colleagues having vicious online arguments about other staff, this was a sensible measure,
and really was fairly obvious. Friendly but not friends.
One of the teachers who started at the school in Kent on the same day as I did, but who had already been teaching for a few years, had a tactic to cement and reinforce the student/teacher relationship: he would be as shouty and loud as he could for at least a year, and then he’d never have behaviour issues again. Extreme, perhaps, but it certainly worked.
This is almost a logical progression from an oft-used teaching strategy that you hear when you’re training: Don’t Smile Until Christmas. Sometimes you’d even hear Don’t Smile Until Easter. The theory here being that it was much, much easier to start off being stricter, less lenient and certainly less fun with a class than to start off light-hearted, joking and aiming to be the friendliest teacher
in the world and then try and claw back control of a class when it went pear-shaped. Better to
get control as quickly as possible and maintain it and then start to be more lenient.
I hadn’t consciously used the shouty tactic myself, but I was quite loud in my first few years on the job. As a consequence, I had a certain reputation at school, even in the last few years when I didn’t shout very much at all. But the students, somehow, all knew that I could be very loud, and wanted to avoid that at all costs. It didn’t hurt that I demonstrated this talent as part of one of the early lessons in Year 7, and that was the teacher/student boundary neatly established. This follows
on from the ‘Friendly But Not Friends’ concept, and was often said in the next breath: We Are
Not Here To Be Liked.
While the annoying, poorly-behaved kids often stuck in your memory more strongly, the
majority of the students worked hard and weren’t a problem. While it was the ideal that you
liked your students and worked well with them, and that they liked you in return, it was not necessary for them to like you (or you like them) in order to get the job done.
We’ve all had to deal with students that were rude, arrogant, lazy or just plain out to be as disruptive as possible. It’s in these situations that the line is very much drawn and where you
as the teacher have to do what it takes, be it to try and get the student back on side, which is
hard work but not impossible, but - sadly - more likely to involve setting detentions (which are boring and a waste of time for everyone involved.
What teacher hasn’t uttered the line, ‘Well I don’t want to be wasting my break/lunch time either!’ when a stroppy student complains about losing their free time?), or getting your Head of Department or even Senior Management involved.
It’s these situations where you’re likely reply to the student,
“I’m not here to be liked!” when they declare that they don’t like you, as if that’s the most important thing in the world. To a teenager, it possibly is, but as adults we know better. Except that you do want to be liked. It validates you and tells you that you’re one of the Good Guys. No one really wants to be one of the Bad Guys and be disliked because of it - that’s a very lonely road, and
while it’s true that you’re not there to be liked, it makes things so much easier if you are.
So you’re stuck in this limbo of being in a job where you’re not there to be liked, but you secretly
do want to be liked. I’ve known a couple of teachers in my time who were really blatant about wanting to be liked by their students. At Christmas it’s really nice to get a Christmas card from
a student, but these teachers would just outright ask for them, just so that they could brag in
the office or in the staffroom about just how many cards they’d received and how well liked they must be. My ego isn’t the strongest of things any more, but in comparison to theirs it must be forged of steel.
As a wise man once said,
“With great power comes great responsibility”, and there are times when this was certainly true when I was teaching. Part of the ‘friendly but not friends’ aspect to the job was connected to our role as safeguarding the welfare of the students. It was something that we all knew: if a student
was talking to you and mentioned something that warranted passing on, you did. Even if the student asked, begged or pleaded for you not to say anything to anyone, it was your responsibility to pass it on, as not doing so could possibly be damaging to the student.
We even had to make it clear to students that we would pass information on if we thought we had to. Yet another strange aspect to being a teacher - being put in the role of confidant, but because you had to tell the student that you had to pass anything on, possibly stopping them confiding to you something that you could help them with.
Luckily you’re not put in this position very often, and hearing various students whinge and complain about their boyfriends, girlfriends or staff members that they hated only put you in the position of being a friendly ear and nothing more. But there were times when you heard things you had no choice but to act on.
A colleague of mine told me in my first year that she had once asked a student why he wasn’t wearing any socks, to hear that,
“It’s Tommy’s turn to wear them today.” something which was heartbreaking to hear and which
she had to pass onto the safeguarding team.
My own experience of this, of knowing with absolute certainty of my power and responsibility
as a teacher came about half way through my teaching career. You may have heard of or even watched a film called The Freedom Writers. It’s about a newly qualified American teacher who takes over a low-ability and very challenging group who she turns around and with who she builds an amazing rapport with.
One of her strategies is to tell her students that they have to write something every day - whatever they want, but they had to write. If they wanted her to read what they’d written, they put it on
a specific shelf, otherwise the books remained private. I really liked this idea and decided to use
it with my tutor group at the time - they were somewhat loud and bouncy, and if I’m honest, this tactic was a way to try and get them to be quiet, as well as improving their Literacy skills. We had the same deal - they could write whatever they wanted, and if they wanted me to read it, they put
it on my desk, if not, straight in a cupboard at the back of the room.
After some initial (and continuing in some cases) whinging, it worked quite well. There were some books that I never saw, but there were some of the students who handed their books in regularly,
if not every day. Some of the writing was funny, some was serious - so much so that I had trouble deciding if it was fact or fiction. I even had to ask a particular student if she was writing a diary or fiction, and was very relieved to hear that it was fiction. I’ve found through experience that it’s the quietest, meekest students who come out with the darkest stuff when asked to write.
Another student had written about being touched by their grandmother’s boyfriend. In this case
I didn’t ask the student anything, but took it straight to one of our Child Protection officers. Things progressed without me from that point, but it’s one of those situations that I wished I had never
had to deal with but was glad that it had come to light somehow.
The police became involved, an arrest was made and the person involved prosecuted. The student was given therapy, and throughout the whole process was cheerful and positive - we both knew that words were not being said and certain masks were being worn, but the situation was being dealt with. The student and I never really talked about it, and I didn’t really expect to, but we did once, and I was told that the student’s mother wanted to thank me for starting the whole process off.
I sometimes think what would have happened if I hadn’t been annoyed with the group and hadn’t given them the writing task, or if the student hadn’t written about that situation, or hadn’t had the courage to hand the book in. I can’t claim to have been instrumental in this situation, but I know
I played a part, and that my small action has had an incalculable impact on the life of a young person. It’s these small things that we do as teachers that don’t really have anything to do with
the actual teaching side of the job that often have the greatest consequences.
One of the weird things about being a teacher is how you can influence someone. Now I know
that this might seem like a strange thing to say considering what we do - isn’t it the very nature
of our jobs to influence people, to get them to learn, grow and change?
The strange thing about it though, at least for me (and this might say more about me than teachers in general), is that you rarely see the impact you have, and certainly for me I severely doubted that
I ever had an impact on anyone. I suppose lots of adults see young people learning and making the mistakes they did despite giving them all the guidance they need in order to avoid those mistakes altogether.
I tried to avoid telling students,
“When I was your age >insert wise statement here<.” as I knew it just sounded far too patronising
and wouldn’t get the student involved to listen or act. Sometimes, as painful as it was to watch,
they just had to make those mistakes and learn from them.
On of the best things about being a teacher was being a tutor - you got to know some students really well and while you still taught them it was in a different way than teaching a class your
chosen subject. I remember my first tutor group really well, and even though I had a handful
of tutor groups in my career that had some truly remarkable people in them, I have a genuine fondness for that first group perhaps because I learned just as much as they did while I worked with them.
At our school you received a tutor group when they were Year 7 and you stayed with them for
five years until they left in Year 11. After the REAL programme started up, you got your group
in Year 8 instead. Sadly, I only stayed with this first group for three years, and even then not the whole, original group. The school introduced the idea of vertical tutor groups after a year or so
of me being there, so instead of a group of the same age, different ages would be mixed together, with the aim of the younger students getting to know the older ones and building a stronger sense of community.
This meant that groups had to be split up as the new students took the place of some of the
older ones. Added to this, I had taken on a new role that year and I was now one of three Team Leaders - I wasn’t a Head of Year as we were looking after a mix of three year groups.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing as we all know, and with it I can see that I was completely inexperienced for the job. It was tough and demanding, and that was on top of the tough and demanding role of being a teacher. I did well enough, but not well enough for my liking, and I
had my first real experience of what stress can do to a person. All three of us were new to the job, although Sandra was an experienced teacher and had been a deputy Head of Year for some time. Graeme was only a few years ahead of me in terms of being a teacher, but he too had worked as
a deputy Head of Year, so I was the real novice.
It was much harder work than any of us had anticipated and we all had issues to the extent that there came a point where something had to give, and sadly for each of us, it was our tutor groups. We simply couldn’t do what we needed to do and do a good job of being a tutor as well, so our groups were split up and distributed to each of our team of tutors.
While this gave us a bit of breathing room, it also meant the end of what remained of my original group. This did not mean to say that I stopped keeping an eye on them, and I suspect that I am
like many teachers in that once a student was part of my tutor group they were always a part of
a group I looked after.
There were certain members of that group that stick out more than others, but I recently found
a picture of us all, me in my first year of teaching and them in Year 7, all of us looking slightly shell shocked, and I attached names to faces that I hadn’t seen in seven years.
There was Hannah, a slight sweet girl who I would use as an example to many other students over the years. Hannah was a good person, but didn’t like that fact, and she slowly went off the rails, thinking that it would get her what she wanted. What she did want was anyone’s guess, but I hope that she learned that there is nothing wrong with being a good, nice person; I suspect that it was
a hard-earned lesson.
There was Steve, just a solid, likeable guy who was never going to rock the world and had accepted that. He was always cheerful in a certain acerbic kind of way, but he was one of those students who would occasionally come and chat to me when he was in Year 10 and 11.
Then there was George, who had had a cup of tea with the Head on his first day. George was and
is a remarkable young man. There had been an incident when they were still in Year 7 or 8 when I’d had to tell a couple of the lads off, George included, with the result of several of them crying (I think I’ve already mentioned that I could, when needed, act very, very angry when I needed to, and this was still in my loud phase).
I’ve made my fair share of students cry over the years, including an 18 year old, and even a student at Disneyland (obviously not the happiest place on earth at that particular moment), but making George cry was one of the times that made me wish that I had gone another route.
Like the others in the group after they had been split up, I kept an eye on George, and knowing what I know now, I suspect he kept an eye on me. We chatted, but as he made his way through the school, less and less. He hadn’t chosen Graphics as his exam subject for D&T so I didn’t even get to see him in class.
He did pretty well in his GCSEs and stayed on with us for 6th Form, and it was here that the
practice of ‘keeping an eye’ on students bore fruit. George had been going through some changes as he grew up, but he was still a really lovely, grounded guy, so when he turned up in the D&T corridor one day it was a little out of the blue - he hadn’t taken the subject as one of his A Levels
so he had no real excuse to be there, but when he asked if we could have a chat, it was with
a certain amount of happiness on my part as we hadn’t chatted in a good while.
I’m many things, but picking up on certain clues about people and their emotions is not one of them. Perhaps I should have been forewarned buy the request to chat, as nothing ever really stopped any of the kids chatting to us if they really wanted to; perhaps I thought it was just
George being the considerate and polite young man I knew him to be.
It soon became clear though - even to one as slow on the uptake as me - that George was upset about something, so I took him into one of the classrooms; as it was break time it was empty and would give him a bit of privacy.
If I’d felt bad seeing George cry when he was in Year 7, seeing him break down and sob in front of me when he was in Year 13 was much, much worse. For a moment I had no idea what to do, and here is where being a teacher is weird.
Sometimes you can’t do anything, and in that situation, all I could do was listen. One of my strategies with students when they were upset, or angry or confused was often to just talk to
them, trying to get the message in by repetition, but here all I could do was listen.
At first I thought that something catastrophic or dangerous had happened, but it was a situation outside of school that George didn’t know how to handle. He continued to cry and there was nothing that I could do - a Resistant Materials workshop is not really set up to be an emotionally comforting place. I do remember one of the things I said to him though,
“If I could give you a hug, I would.”
It’s one of those things about being a teacher, and I think particularly being a male teacher, that
in a situation like this, when some physical contact would possibly have given comfort and support, I felt I couldn’t do it because touching students Just Wasn’t Done. It wasn’t because I thought George would get the wrong impression, or that I thought he would report me for being inappropriate, it was just because teachers had to avoid any suggestion of being inappropriate, even in a situation that warranted it, with a student I knew very well and who had come to me for support.
Sometimes, being a teacher was really difficult because the choices you had were really limited
and put you in a situation where you knew you couldn’t help as much as you could.
As it happened, I wasn't teaching the next lesson, so I was able to walk with George to the Head
of 6th Form’s office. The Head of 6th Form was a wonderful lady called Mrs Facey and just because of who she was was infinitely more understanding and comforting than I was. We listened to George and - I hope - helped him.
George is one of the handful of ex students I’m still in contact with after he left us, and although
we haven’t talked in a while, I still keep an eye on him, often with absolute wonder and jealousy,
a example being this week when his status on his Facebook feed showed him having tea at a
certain well-known seven star hotel in Dubai.
In one conversation we had, a few years after he’d left school, he brought up the incident in
Year 7 where he’d cried, and I apologised for it, and he said something that I had never thought
in a million years.
He told me that he’d cried, and had been as upset as he’d been because he viewed me as a
mentor and he’d thought he’d let me down. It had never occurred to me that I was a mentor
(told you I could be slow on the uptake), and that I could influence anyone like that.
It was a startling concept, and one that I’ve thought of on and off during my career. The idea
of having a mentor is not a new thing, but I’ve realised that for myself, being assigned a mentor rarely works - you have to find a mentor that suits you and your needs.
I can very thankfully say that I’ve had more than my fair share of mentors over the years, and it
was a relationship that developed naturally (special thanks should go here to: Nic, Julie, Thackery, and Justin), so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to me that the students would fined their mentors in the same way.
It was during the same conversation that George asked me the somewhat dreaded question,
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
Thinking I knew what was coming I told him that he could ask but I might not reply. What he
did ask me was not what I was expecting at all, blew me out of the water somewhat and showed that sometimes the tables can be turned and teachers become students and vice versa.
“Are you happy?” was what George asked me.
I won’t detail the conversation that followed as it isn’t really important, because what is important
is this: we think that being a teacher is a one-way flow from us to our students. We rarely think that they have just as strong a relationship with us, or that they teach us just as much as we try to teach them.
Many teachers will acknowledge that part of the job is to never stop learning, but we sometimes don’t think where some of the lessons come from, and that some of those lessons are all the more powerful because they come our students. Being a teacher may be weird, but rarely dull and more often than not a humbling experience.
The last point I’d like to make here flows on from George, in particular the time when he was
upset and I couldn’t hug him. You didn’t touch the students, that was the unwritten rule, and
one that sometimes didn’t seem unwritten at all but more like carved in ten foot letters in stone.
It’s one of the more regular things that stroppy students will come out with,
“Don’t touch me!” or, “You can’t touch me!” when there’s nothing written anywhere to say that
we can’t and in some situations there is no other option.
I’ve done a little bit of training on restraint techniques and how to handle student in physical situations, but I would never call myself an expert. The few times that I had to deal with students fighting I somehow just got in there and hauled them apart as quickly as possible.
But just as the students think that we can’t touch them, they also know that they cannot touch us, and physical contact - outside of the scrum/potential riot/zoo that is the corridors and canteen at break and lunch where teachers were just as likely to get jostled as the rest of the student population - was rare.
The one time that was the exception was this year, the year that I left teaching, and shows that sometimes students just don’t give you a choice.
It was the day that the Year 11s had decided was their final day. It wasn’t, as they hadn’t been given study leave, they still had exams to come in for and a fair few of them still had classes they had
to attend, but they had decided that this was their official last day and so shirts were being signed, as well as the obligatory badly-drawn and worryingly anatomically incorrect breasts and penises.
I wasn’t especially close to this year group, so I’d escaped signing a lot of shirts. One that I had signed though was Lamarah’s, and what else could I put on her shirt but a paraphrasing of what
she had said to me five years previously,
“It was your will to learn, I was just here to guide you.” When she craned her neck to read what
I had written, failed spectacularly and gotten one of her friends to read it out to her, she promptly burst into tears, told me off for making her cry and ran off.
I wasn’t all that surprised when she came and found me later in the day, but I wasn’t prepared
for the hug she launched into as she said thank you. Lamarah was ending her time with us just
as she’d started, with enthusiasm, energy and a style all her own, and showed that sometimes
the adults in schools had no say or control over what happened in them at all, and sometimes
that was a good thing.