I Am A Weapon of Mass Instruction
Chapter 2: Touché, sir.
It’s one of those strange coincidences that you hear the same comment again and again from
a variety of people. Or perhaps it’s just that people are essentially people and aren’t that different
to each other, no matter how much of an individual they would like to think they are.
When I was a wee lad in Year 7, so long ago that they called it First Year, we were the acknowledged lowest of the low in the school food chain, and we knew this because it was made very clear to us very quickly indeed.
We couldn’t walk down a corridor for more than a few metres or so without being tripped up by
any loitering older student, and you soon developed the reflexes of a cat to protect your tie or you ran the risk of being Peanutted at any opportunity. (Being Peanutted means having someone grab your tie and give the knot a good hard yank so that it contracted to the size of the aforementioned peanut, made the knot extremely difficult to undo and almost strangled you as an added bonus.
I’ve known kids who had to cut themselves out of an overly-tight peanut tie.)
Such was the threat, menace and danger of Peanutting that when the school where I worked
was changing its uniform back to a more traditional shirt and tie combo from polo shirts and sweatshirts that the decision was made to go with clip on ties instead of normal ones because
of Peanutting. Health & Safety has a lot to answer for…
If you managed to get yourself through the school day unscathed, the journey home was another ordeal. I lived in the countryside and travelled a few miles each day into school in the nearest town. Looking back on it now, packing 60 rabid and starved hyena into an enclosed space may have been a wiser move. I remember vicious arguments over who was allowed to sit where. Kids had worked their way up to the prime seats and the End Of Times was going to come before they’d let a snivelling First Year anywhere near them. I know this because I had more than my fair share
of arguments, both attacking and defending over seating arrangements.
Sometimes the cool seats were at the back of the top deck, sometimes downstairs, but you knew your place in the hierarchy. One of the things we heard from the older students was how overly-bold we were,
“We’d never dare talk to a Fifth Year when we were your age!” they’d accuse with appropriate amounts of scorn and derision for our temerity.
You know how, as a teenager, you would roll your eyes and want the earth to open up and
erase your existence because of some crushingly embarrassing things uttered by your parents? Remember vowing to never be as uncool and as clueless as them? Remember that sinking feeling when, a decade or so later, something comes out of your mouth that was word for word and in
the exact tone that your Dad would use, and the feeling of giving in and recognising that we’re
all essentially the same? That happens again and again at school.
What did I care if these clearly over the hill Fifth years were moaning that the hip, cool, cutting
edge youth of today wanted to sit where he wanted to sit? They were clearly past their prime.
Fast forward six years…
Now at 6th Form on the other side of town, my friends and I sometimes had to walk to the bus station in town to get the bus home. Often enough there would be a couple of younger students from our old school on the bus as well, and we would acknowledge their presence in a dignified, benevolent manner that befitted our position as elder statesmen. What we expected was that
these kids would know their place, be seen and not heard, possibly bow deferentially to us,
doffing imaginary caps in the process.
My goodness they were gobby little urchins! Thinking back now, one of them in particular, a boy called Sam, was especially irritating. I’m not sure that he ever shut up, despite being told, bluntly to ‘Shut up!’. From my perspective as a thoroughly trained and experienced educational professional,
I can guess that he might have been suffering from ADHD. Either that or he’d eaten a bucketload of sugar before getting on the bus.
I can distinctly recall the time when, our dignity, benevolence and patience in tattered shreds,
I uttered the forbidden phrase,
“When I was a First Year, I’d never have even dared to talk to a Sixth Former!”, indignation ringing through every syllable. My friends Tasha and Sophie heartily agreed, but even this patrician censure didn’t have the effect we intended, and I’m sure Sam just wriggled in glee and continued to be as annoying as ever.
Again, fast forward a decade or so… I remember the tutor group I had in my NQT year (my first proper year of flying solo as a teacher) with genuine fondness, and I’m still in touch with a couple
of them. They were the usual mixed bunch, but I was young(ish) and full of enthusiasm and I looked forward to seeing them every day for our half-hour sessions. My new friend Miss T worked part time in the Art department, and she often came into our sessions to help out. We did PSHE sessions (Personal Social and Health Education), and I also read to them, nominating students each time to write up on the whiteboard any word that they didn’t know so we could go over them and work on their vocabulary. It was great.
The very first day we were together we had the standard get-to-know-you activities organised, as well as a task that forced the kids out and about the school to get to know their way around. They had a small list of things that they had to find out and they could ask anyone they came across to get the answers.
Two of my group, George and Adam, came back a little later than the rest of the group, and I assumed that they’d gotten a bit lost - the school was a bit rambling, consisting of a number
of separate buildings split over two sites divided by a public pathway. However, their radiating confidence seemed to suggest something else for the delay.
When I asked them where they’d been, they blithely told me that they’d spent most of the session
in the Headteacher’s office - my blood started to drain from my body on hearing this - first day on the job and already two of my group had had a good telling off from the Head and they didn’t even seem bothered about it!
“He gave us a cup of tea and we had a good chat!” they continued (at a loud enough volume to be heard by the rest of the class), smugness now radiating from them because they’d not only had the brains to go right to the top to get what they needed, but had had a sit down and a cup of tea doing it!
To say that I was gobsmacked was a slight understatement. In my day, the Headteacher had been
a mystical, rarely-seen figure. You were extra careful when walking past his office, just in case (it didn’t hurt that Mr Carter, the fantastically grumpy and shouty RE teacher had his room right next door just to spice things up). Even as a trainee teacher I’d had to book an appointment in with the Head of my second placement school to ask if it was okay to put her as a reference on my job applications. But these two had just wandered up to their Headteacher and had grand old time!
To give them their due, this wasn’t just down to sheer boldness on their part. Our Head, Mr G, was not your typical Headteacher. When I’d arrived for my interview, he’d also been interviewing for the Head of Languages, so there were four of us in the office waiting for the day to start. I’d driven up from Cornwall the day before, and was extra nervous as this was the first interview for a teaching post I’d been to - I hadn’t even finished my training at this point.
Knowing from my paperwork that I was from Cornwall, Mr G proudly told me that he was also from Cornwall and we promptly had a conversation about pasties; he completely ignored the Languages candidates. Pasty conversation over, we were all ushered out to our prospective departments for the obligatory tour and interview proper. I didn’t see Mr G again until I started at the school in September, my actual interview being conducted by the Deputy Head.
Mr G was forward-thinking and innovative. He regularly schmoozed with Microsoft and brought
a lot of ideas, technology and cash to the school. His door was famously always open, and he
was always ready to hear new ideas. I only found that out as my time at the school went on though, so even though Adam and George’s cup of tea and a chat was entirely in character for Mr G, it came as a bit of a surprise at the time.
These were a new breed of student that I hadn’t really come across before: bold, confident and assured. I’d grown up and trained in Cornwall, where the kids were pretty laid-back and chilled. During the whole year of my teacher training, I had had to raise my voice to a single student on
one occasion. A good stare was generally enough to get the message across and get the students back on track.
Not so in Kent, where my new school was. The kids here were very talkative and it took me a
good while to figure out that they pretty much said anything and everything that was on their
minds at the time. Quite often it was apparent that they generally didn’t even pay attention to
what they were saying as they would completely deny uttering what they’d just said and which
you were now challenging them on - either that or they were compulsive liars.
I soon learned that a good stare was totally useless here, as it just meant that you weren’t talking
so that meant the kids could carry on talking themselves. I never thought that I would have to
figure out how to use my voice as much as I did - which sounds a bit stupid I suppose, but I still maintain that the voice is one of the strongest and most flexible of tools a teacher had. Amazingly, we hadn’t even had training on how to use our voices in our training, and over the 12 years of
my career, I only ever had one voice-training session and that was because a few of the staff
had requested it.
I found out pretty quickly just how loud I could be, and so did the kids, but this was a verbal culture and would remain so.
Perhaps I got used to the noise level. Perhaps my ability to selectively hear/tune out certain things developed to superhuman levels, but it seemed that the kids just got bolder and bolder, and every so often, the older students would mutter,
“The Year 7’s are so annoying! We were never like that!”
The last time I heard a variation on this was not too long ago as I was walking down the corridor with Lamarah, semi-listening to her rant about how rubbish revision was. As I’ve already said, Lamarah was bright and bubbly, but she was also very, very talkative. It was as we were walking past some piercingly-loud Year 7’s that even she came out with,
“We were never that loud!” It comes to something when one of the chattiest students I’d ever
met would make this observation, and proves that some things never change. Also: Pot, kettle?
So it was into this culture of noise that I developed as a teacher. In my second year of being a
REAL teacher, I started to announce (loudly, as I was competing with talkative kids) that I was now convinced that the Year 7’s were actually addicted to noise, and couldn’t function without it. You’d see them in the corridors and in the playgrounds at break, the majority of them plugged into their phones or mp3 players AND talking to their mates at the same time.
The students always asked if they could listen to music in class, something that I didn’t mind
too much as a lot of the time we were working on design projects that were individual work.
I never had a problem with the music in class, but I guess it didn’t look too good to have a class
full of students with headphones in and we were told as a staff that this was no longer allowed.
Not a huge problem as I could just plug my laptop into my whiteboard and pipe music through
I always thought it was part of my responsibility to educate their musical tastes as well as their sense of design. I even got a positive nod of the head from one of the deputy head teachers
once when I was playing Rumours to a class - you can’t beat the classics. You could actually see
how uncomfortable it made the students to actually have to stop talking and focus on their work.
I must have repeated my opinion on noise levels quite a lot as for Christmas one of the lads in the class mocked up a copy of ‘Noise Addiction For Dummies’ for me as a present.
Some of the students were undeniably hard work - challenging behaviour, lack of motivation, poor attitude and attendance all took their toll, both on them and you as a teacher. The other side of the coin were the students who were quiet, hard working and who took direction with their work. There were also the students - and I don’t know if this was peculiar to our school, or me, or this is just how kids are these days - who were more interested in having a chat than actually producing some work.
Enter Matt, Jack, Liam, Elliott, Gary, Alex, Nick, Alice, Helen, Harry, Harry, Arlo and Charlotte.
I’d intended to only include Matt here, but as the mists of time parted, I remembered more
and more of the students in that particular class. (I keep adding more names to the list as I remember more incidents from the class!)
I think we can all agree that kids are, to be generous, bonkers. If we’re completely honest, they’re downright insane - it must be all the hormones. In fact, that was often the conversation I had with parents on Parents Evenings when discussing the odd behaviour of various students through the years. Both and I and the slightly defeated parents would chalk up the behaviour as A Rush Of Hormones To The Head, and could only hope that things would settle down eventually.
This particular class of Graphics students, who I remember as eternally being in Year 10, were particularly bonkers. Not in a nasty way, and neither were they particularly loud, but it seems, especially as I think about it now, that in almost every class something stupid was said.
At our school all the students did Design & Technology in Years 7 and 8 to give them a taste of the different disciplines. We didn’t see them for a huge amount of time, perhaps six to eight weeks with two lessons a week before they rotated to another teacher and subject. Towards the end of Year 8 the students would take their Options - they’d choose which subjects they would be taking as exam courses.
All the students had to take a D&T subject, which was good because it really promoted a subject that I’m passionate about, but it also meant that a lot of kids had to take a subject that they honestly didn’t have too much interest in. They often chose the subject they simply liked the
most on the basis of 32 lessons (sometimes not even that - if they were at the end of the rotation schedule, they might only have done your subject once in Year 7 before choosing what they would study for the next three years), or what they perceived as the easiest subject.
Food Technology was often the victim of this - the kids all thought that all they’d be doing was cooking for three years, when actually Food Technology was possibly the hardest of the subjects due to all the science and nutrition they had to cover. Not surprisingly, some students simply
chose to take the same course as their friends, despite being told by all the teachers that this
was not the best idea in the world.
Many was the time that we D&T teachers had to deal with various Year 9, 10 and 11’s whinging,
“I didn’t want to do this subject anyway!” to which we responded with the unreasonably logical,
“Then why did you pick it?”
“This subject doesn’t matter!” which would produce a heartfelt argument designed to convince the student that it did matter, or the logical point that it was a fairly easy subject and every grade they could get made things easier for them, or a barely contained rant that they had no choice in the matter and that they should just get on with it, dependent on the student involved and how tired and grumpy you were.
A personal favourite was a sudden announcement, usually in Year 10, well into coursework,
but sometimes even in Year 11, of,
“I don’t like this subject,” the implication being that this was entirely your fault. “I want to change to Food.” Just this year, a notoriously lazy Year 11 student who had really poor attendance asked me in April, when there were just weeks left before the exam season started,
“Is it too late to switch to Graphics?”
“What, after two and a half years of the exam course gone and the exams coming up?” I asked with only a slight trace of sarcasm.
“Yeah.” Is it possible to verbally slouch? This student managed it quite well.
Biting back several choice, if curt and possibly inappropriate replies, I came out with,
“Probably Jordan, yes. Sorry about that.” I thought that the apology and trace of sorrow in my voice was a nice touch.
So Matt et al had all chosen to take Graphics, and it was my job to guide and push and drag
them through the GCSE course and to make sure they all achieved a C grade.
Some of them I will admit were genuinely talented in the subject, to the extent that I used their design work for years afterwards as examples on Open Days of what our students produced.
Of particular note was Sophie, a talented girl who worked hard, but to whom graphics seem to come quite easily. I’d also taught her brother James a few years previously, and if anything, he had been even more naturally talented. I can still see a logo he produced and it’s still slick and assured,
a really confident piece of design - teenagers weren’t supposed to be this good were they?
There was Tom, who was a really hard worker and who I’m sure only ever spoke a handful of
words over the three years. Liam, a bit of a class clown but who produced a couple of pieces
that even now I think are really fresh and dynamic.
Then there were some of the others, and some of the things they came out with. Matt, a nice
lad who was somewhat unsure of himself and hid it admirably with a good sense of humour,
is one of the prime culprits and contributors to content in this book. A typical example:
Matt: Sir, is Mr T a super hero?
Matt: But he has a cool mode of transport.
Me: It’s a van.
Matt: It’s still cool!
Me: No, that doesn’t make him a hero - Mr Howard used to have a van.
(a fantastically grumpy teacher at our school, who was plainly not cool or a super hero, unless
he had an amazingly convincing secret identity)
Matt: He has a mohawk as well!
Me: Ben Coleworth in Year 8 has a mohawk - does that make him a hero?
Matt: [excited that he was clearly winning the argument] Yes!
Me: No, it doesn’t.
Matt: Mr T’s a hero!
Me: No, he’s not.
Matt: James Bond’s a hero.
Me: No, he’s a secret agent.
(side note: Matt should have known better than to try and get one over on me on the subject of super heroes. It was well known that I was a super hero and comic book geek fan - I knew my stuff!)
Matt: That’s a super hero - he has a special costume!
Me: That’s called a tuxedo. If I wore a tuxedo, would that make me a hero?
Matt: [intrigued at the possibility of having a hero in the room] Maybe…
Me: No, it wouldn’t. Although, how do you know I’m not already a secret agent?
Matt: [now very excited at the possibility of having a real life secret agent in front of him] Do you have a license to kill?
Where did these ideas come from? The fact that we were discussing Mr T in the mid-2000’s was
odd in itself, as it was almost a certainty hat these kids had never even seen that televisual classic The A-Team.
Sometimes it was cultural references like these that really hit you in the gut as a reminder of how old (and obviously outdated and decrepit) you were, or at least felt. Not so long ago I was talking
to a class about promotional graphics and trying to establish the links between products. As an example I was talking about movies and their graphics, and their associated products.
Perhaps I should have stuck to dvds, but in a nostalgic haze I may have wandered off slightly and whittered on about video tapes. A tentative hand was raised - a novelty in itself as it was a near constant battle to stop the students just calling out whatever they wanted to - and the question
“Sir, what’s a video tape?”
I felt about a thousand years old, and all I could do was exchange a sorrowful look with the LSA
I had in with me, communicating neatly in one glance that the passage of time was indeed unstoppable and cruel, but that kids really did have it far too easy these days. Did they ever have
to master degree-level electronics to try and set the time AND set up a recording in advance on
a vhs player? Did they have to sit poised by the stereo, ready to hit the play and record buttons
at the right time to tape the Top 40? Did they buggery. Playlists have nothing on the satisfaction
of making your own mix tape.
There were two Harrys in that class, one big and one not so big. The not so big Harry’s name
was actually Michael, but he hated it and preferred to go by his middle name. When I first
came across him in the class Harry was, like a lot of our students, very unsure of himself, and
this manifested itself in a tenseness that was almost visible, and a reluctance to get much down
on paper. This was very common at our school, all across the Design & Technology subjects. 99.9% of the students were raving perfectionists, and whatever they did had to be correct first time around or they just weren’t interested.
As any artist, designer, scientist or inventor will tell you, this isn’t really how the world works. A
lot of mistakes have to be made until you hit gold. The kids hadn’t figured this out yet, and it took
a lot of hard work and patience on our part to get them to try again and again and again.
We had all encountered students, when generating ideas, who would sketch out one thing and announce,
“I know what I’m doing”
At which point you’d peer over their shoulder, see the one, vague sketch and say,
“No you don’t, you’ve only got one idea. I need to see more.”
“I know what I’m doing”
“But you could have more ideas if you carried on going”
“I know what I’m doing”
“Your first idea’s generally not your best, why don’t you carry on, you could think of something
“I know what I’m doing”
… and it would go on and on.
The problem was not that the kids were confident and did know what they were doing, but that they were so scared of things going wrong that they wouldn’t even try to do more. They were often more prepared to fail for having done nothing or very little than potentially fail by possibly getting
Harry was a little like this to start with, and he didn’t realise just how good he was. It took a
meeting with his dad at a Parents Evening to actually get him to realise that graphics, as important as I would like to consider it, wasn’t a matter of life or death, and that he should just chill out. After that, he relaxed a bit and came into his own.
It has been said on one or two occasions that I might possibly see the world in a somewhat simplified, black and white way. I would argue that as a teacher, we generally didn’t have time
to take the long, soft and fluffy way around and that getting to the point was more important.
It has been pointed out by several people knowledgeable in all things Special Educational Needs that this might be a sign of autism. Let me tell you something: we once had some training on autism, and were shown a list of symptoms. Every single man in the room was nodding along
to that list and not an insignificant amount of the ladies too, so either the teaching industry attracts people on the autistic spectrum or there are a hell of a lot more autistic people out there than you think.
I can be somewhat… blunt when it comes to giving feedback on design work, but I see this as getting to the point, and not pandering to the ego of the students. I was always told when I was
a student that we criticised the work, not the person. It wasn’t uncommon for me to call work that the students had done ‘hideous’ and demand that they change it. This might sound harsh, and
I guess it is, but everyone knew that it wasn’t directed at them personally, and that I expected
more of them.
In the last few years of working at the school in Kent I was responsible for producing promotional graphics for the school, and as a consequence worked closely with the Headteacher, who would often produce the roughs that I would then go on to refine. On the day that I and other colleagues left, and the obligatory speeches made, the Head mentioned my creativity and the products that we’d worked on. He was just lucky that I’d never told him that his work was hideous - see, even
I know that sometimes discretion is the better part of valour.
On one ordinary day, I was doing my usual circuit of the room checking up on what everyone
was doing when I happened to look over Sophie’s shoulder. Now everyone has their off days,
or just isn’t inspired, or is just too close to a design idea to see that it’s not working, even someone as good as Sophie (I’d fallen victim to this myself more than once, the best example being at University when I was working on my major final year project. I stared a spelling mistake that
was plastered all over my monitor for about six weeks without noticing it because I was too
close and involved with the design. Luckily I spotted it before I printed the final version out!).
“That’s a horrible font” I helpfully pointed out. You’d expect a response of sadness, disappointment, perhaps even tears because the horrible teacher had been mean and blunt to a student…
“It’s cute!” Sophie protested, defending her work. “It’s got hearts on it!” As if this addition to the
said horrible font would make it any better.
“No, it’s just hideous” I said, giving her a subtle hint that it wasn’t working. At this point, Harry,
who was sitting next to Sophie leaned over, gave her work a critical look and came out with,
“I’d rather punch myself in the face than look at it” delivered in a perfect, deadpan tone. Despite
the careful, considerate input from two colleagues, it took a bit more convincing to get Sophie
to change her design, but eventually she did, and Harry had provided me with a line that I would use in the years to come when trying to convince students to see things my way.
In the Year 11 for that graphics group we had a new addition to the class. Sometimes, despite it being too late to sensibly change groups, we did move students, especially if they were causing sufficient hassle or grief to the teacher or students in the group that not moving them was clearly the wrong thing to do. So it was that I inherited Brad.
Brad was a big guy, loud and confident. As I hadn’t been teaching him for a few years, and had
last seen him in Year 8, I didn’t know much about him other than that he was a bit of a lad and sometimes got in trouble for it. Not the best addition to a class, but I didn’t have much choice in
the matter, so it was somewhat guardedly that I welcomed him to the class. It was going to take
a lot of work and effort on both our parts if Brad was going to achieve anything this late in the
day, and I was expecting to have a fight on my hands.
Which just goes to show how wrong you can be because Brad turned out to be lovely. Still loud
and perhaps overly confident, and definitely a lad who was sometimes a trouble magnet, but he worked hard and was actually very good at graphics despite not having done it for a few years.
The first piece of work he did was really good, and he took to the course like a lost design duck
to calm, placid graphics waters. He and Harry were friends and they usually sat together, but
their work was very different, and they benefitted and supported each other because of it.
You certainly knew when Brad was in the room because he seemed to lack an internal volume control, and most of what he said I could hear from the other side of the room. Add to this his choice language - I was convinced that he had Tourette’s Syndrome - to which he would just laugh
at me when I came out and asked him whether he did or not.
On one day,
“DIE YOU SLUT!!” was blasted from one end of the room to the other.
At this stage, Brad had been in the class for some time, and we both knew how each other worked. All I did was turn around, cough pointedly to get his attention and raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry Sir, my bad.” he said in a meek tone, and everyone got on with their work. Sometimes it’s
that easy. There wouldn’t have been much point in giving him a right telling off for his language, volume, or that he wasn't working, that was just how he was, and there wasn't any malice in him,
he was just that kind of guy. That he’d apologised immediately showed that he knew what he’d
done wasn’t right, so no need to go over the top. Blunt I may be, and possibly sometimes see
the world in black and white, but there were were different cases of black and white.
The other Harry in the class was usually teamed up with Arlo, and they were the professional comedy duo of the group. I’d taught both of Arlo’s brothers, Isaac (now an up and coming musician - claim to fame!) and Jay, and considered his parents two of the loveliest people I’d ever had the pleasure to meet.
It wasn’t so much what Harry and Arlo said that earns them their brief place here, but what they did. They were clever idiots, in that if they put any amount of effort into their work, they’d be quite good, but they are more interested in being idiots to put the effort in.
I’m not the tallest guy in the world, something which a fair few of the students seemed to notice and make comment on,
“Sir! I’m taller than you!” was not an uncommon statement I’d hear, and I was never sure whether
it was meant with pride at their own stature, or an insult to provoke me into a famed Mr Austin rant. My standard reply was always,
“That’s not very hard, I am quite short.” which generally confused them. Remember - God only made a few perfect men. He made the rest of them tall and gave them hair.
Because of being on the short side, Harry in particular thought it hilarious to perch various items from the room on the top of the whiteboard as it was clearly out of my reach. That I completely ignored him while he did this, and just left them up there (as long as it was a random item that
I didn’t need, I didn’t care too much) only spurred him on somewhat and soon there was a small collection of items happily up there. Item safely put out of my reach, Harry would generally get on with his work. He never seemed to figure out either that all I’d have to do to get them down would be to stand on the tall stool I kept by the board.
Another of their favourite activities was to write their names on the board, but underneath one
of the posters I had on there, so that they were cunningly hidden and stay up longer. They were both big guys, and weren't the most inconspicuous of wanna-be graffiti artists, so I generally saw them doing it. Again, they never did seem to figure out that I really didn’t care all that much that they did what they did, and that it was easier and quicker to let them get on with it so they’d get back to their work, and for me to rub it off later. They’d get particularly excited if their names managed to stay up - but completely hidden - from one lesson to the next. It’s the small things
that get us through life I suppose.
Touching on delicate ground, I would like to point out that I often thought that our school was the gayest school I’d ever worked in. Now, before everyone complains and starts writing angry letters about how intolerant I am, perhaps I should explain.
When I was at school, unless you were going out with someone - and sometimes not even then -
I don’t remember any of us being particularly physical with each other. Hands weren’t held, arms weren't thrown over shoulders, and you never saw someone hug someone else. The best I remember is that I got to stand close to the one girlfriend I remember having had the courage or blind luck to have had when I was at school. Was it because we were British and that sort of thing just wasn’t done? Were we all completely repressed? I have no idea, that’s just the way it was.
The school where I worked though, hands were always being held. You could barely start a class without half a dozen students hugging each other with declarations of love as if they were setting out on a perilous and unprepared journey to the Arctic. Like the verbal nature of the kids, I never really understood the need for it all, but that probably says more about me than it does them.
The boys were just as bad - they couldn’t keep their hands off each other, and were completely unabashed about it. Again, this would never have happened when I was at school. So when I say that I thought our school was fairly gay, it was based on the evidence before me, and not meant
in a derogatory way at all. If anything, I was continually surprised and heartened at how accepting our students were.
The kids that came out at school never really got any hassle about it, and neither did the several transgender students we had in the last few years I worked there. The most troubling thing that
a student ever asked me about one of the trans kids was a confused question about what pronoun and name should he call the student in question. Not anything hateful, or a declaration that it was wrong, just worry that he didn’t want to upset the person by getting something wrong.
My belief was not dislodged when the lads in my graphics class came out with his kind of thing:
Matt: [to a passing member of the English department] Miss, I like your cardie
Miss Harper: Are you being sarcastic?
Matt: No, it suits you
Liam: [proudly] Matt’s going to be Gok Wan when he grows up
Matt: [immediately and with a little heat] No!
I’m going to be Alan Carr. Jack’s going to be Gok Wan.
Honestly, when they came out with stuff like this, and they were practically arguing over which
gay icon they were going to be, what else was I going to think?
Trying to get the students to work was sometimes more than just and uphill struggle, and to be honest, there were lessons and days when my motivation was somewhat low as well. One of the things that I would always say to students at the end of term, just before putting on a film and to justify doing so but also as a genuine learning point was,
“It’s important to know when to work and when not to work.”
But the fact remained that we were there to work, and that sometimes we just had to get on with it. It was at these times when you had to ask, tell, remind, reinforce, redirect, cajole, argue, or just trick the students into getting on with it.
When Arlo was somewhat distracted, it often took a Challenge for him complete for him to get
back on track. Usually these challenges involved food or drink, usually with hilarious results for
all. I remember fondly the Can I Fit This Whole Packet Of Sweets In My Mouth challenge - a cunning combination of getting him back to work and getting him to temporarily to shut up. Also of note was the I Bet I Can Chug This Whole Can Of Coke In 30 Seconds challenge, with the hidden bonus of watching him squirm as I refused to let him go to the toilet approximately 20 minutes later when the cola hit his bladder.
Other students just needed a slow drip of constant reminders. Charlotte was one of the students in the class who had also been in my tutor group at one point, so we knew each other quite well. Initially a quiet girl in Year 7, she had grown and developed a lot, and by Year 10 was bright and bubbly, if somewhat distracted.
Charlotte was another of those students who I saw great potential but whose lack of confidence seemed to hold her back. Like many in that class though, we worked well together and she produced work that I put out year after year in order to show off to prospective parents and students. I will admit though, and I’m sure that Charlotte would agree, that it took a lot of hard
work to get to that stage.
When I was at my second placement during my teacher training, I was observing the Head of Department take a lesson, during which he was constantly calling on and naming one student in particular. It’s an old chestnut of teacher training and behaviour management that when you’re establishing yourself a tactic is to pick on one student in particular, with the aim of showing the whole class that you weren’t to be messed with while making the rest of the class glad that you weren’t focusing on them.
The Head of Department seemed to be using the tactic with this class - not that he really needed
to use it as he’d been at the school for some years, was an older guy and had excellent behaviour management.
After the class he made a point of talking to me about him calling on that student, and explained that it wasn’t because it was because he was singling him out (which it looked like) but because that student was diagnosed with quite strong ADHD and by using his name he was able to refocus the student and keep him on task.
Charlotte didn’t need a name call every minute or so to keep her on track, but she did need the odd reminder to keep her going, but like many of my students could swerve off in unexpected directions at the drop of a hat.
In one particular lesson she must have been unusually distracted and/or annoying, asking me lots of irrelevant questions for me to reply with:
Me: I won’t if you don’t stop badgering me
Charlotte: [clearly confused and her mental train in danger of being derailed] Badgering?
Me: Yes, badgering
Charlotte: Isn’t that like dogging?
Me: [puts head in hands]
Sometimes all you can do is walk away and let them get on with it, and learn from their own mistakes.
There were other times when it took all my cunning, accumulated years of experience and
training to get a student to focus:
Matt: I am!
Me: No, you’re talking to me.
Matt: That’s work
Me: No it’s not. Work!
Matt: [looking at another student and sensing a case-winning precedent] He’s not working…
Me: that’s because he’s not doing his coursework this year
Matt: [disappointed] Oh.
[senses another opportunity to Get Out Of Working] Can I not do my coursework? I want to
Me: [employs Vulcan-level logic] Why don’t you improve it now?
Matt: [sensing defeat at the hands of a Master] Touché, Sir.