Chapter 7: You're supposed to be helping me!
One of the things I learned while teaching (we were encouraged to be ‘reflective practitioners’ and ‘Life Long Learners’ so that we could be better at inspiring our students) was the ability to spot the difference between what the students said and what they actually meant.
Some of this was simply being on a mental wavelength that was similar enough to what the kids were operating on so that you got what they were saying, despite the interference of youth and confusion.
“Sir, doesn’t messing with a luigi board mess with your head?” asked on of my tutor group one day.
I knew what he meant to say, and a brief and entertaining vision of a board game that transformed you into a moustachioed Italian man barely made me hesitate before answering.
“I think you mean ouija board…”
Another tutor time provided this gem:
“How do you know a tiger’s a tiger?” I asked, obviously hoping to be flooded with answers about stripes and orange. Sadly, without pause to breathe or apparently think, the answer that I got was,
“‘Cos of it’s spots!” announced Laura, a generally switched on girl in Year 9 at the time. Close, but no cigar, but at least she was in the general area of pattern. We both knew that she knew what a tiger looked like, but something got a little bit lost on the way from brain to mouth.
We can all be forgiven these small mistakes though, as they happen to everyone. I’ve noticed that as I get older, along with my disappearing sense of direction, my spelling is getting worse and worse. It was not uncommon for me to spell things wrong on the board and for the kids to point out that that was not in fact how it was done.
At the start of my career I would probably have been quite embarrassed about this loss of face, but I lost that fear relatively quickly. My usual response to a spelling mistake or a missing letter would be a muttered (or not even muttered),
“Looks like I’ve lost my ability to spell today!” before correcting the mistake and moving swiftly on. One or two of the cheekier kids might make fun of me - briefly. They never knew when my mood might turn - but generally I think the kids appreciated seeing that teachers could make mistakes and move on from them without having a complete mental breakdown. School was where you
were supposed to make mistakes after all.
Part of my ability to understand what the students actually meant to say allowed me to spot the kids lying. This wasn’t as finely a honed technique though because it just wasn’t needed.
Not to say that the kids didn’t lie, they did it all the time, but they were so bad at it you could spot it a mile away.
I often noted that the students at our school were the worst liars on the planet. They were
rubbish at it. A lot of the time I suspected they weren’t even trying very hard because they were
that bad at it.
“Hey! Language!” I’d bark at a typical student after they typically swore at an inappropriate moment.
“I didn’t say anything.” would be a standard response. If they were aiming for a slightly more sympathetic response from me, they might manage to look the tiniest bit guilty, acknowledging that they had in fact done something they shouldn’t.
“Yes you did! I just heard you.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did. I was standing right behind you when you swore.”
“No I didn’t.”
I could never quite figure out whether the students were playing up on my obvious advanced age and associated mental decline, trying to convince me that I’d made the entire episode up, or if they were just so used to denying everything, that this was an automatic reflex for them.
If a ‘discussion’ like this happened, it was generally better to finish it quickly and move on as the student would continue to swear blind and offer their firstborn child as proof that they hadn’t done exactly what you’d just seen and heard them do.
There was one incident like this recently where I was quite prepared to have a full-blown argument with a student because I knew that I had given her multiple copies of a resource she needed for
the current project we were doing. That she claimed that she hadn’t received any copies was just infuriating, because she’d made me go to the office to make yet another copy for her the previous lesson.
This project centred around the students working with some text they had selected, and I had given them four weeks of warnings that they would need some text otherwise I’d be giving them some to work with. I knew that some of them wouldn’t be bothered to find their own text and so had prepared some in advance.
So when this student claimed that I hadn’t provided her with any text which only highlighted the fact that she hadn’t bothered to find her own, a fair bit of my tact and diplomacy left the building. Sometimes I will back down with a student, because it isn’t worth the time and effort, or calming them down to get your point across later is a better strategy, but with this student I’d had enough. She was lazy, frequently late and her attitude just stank.
It generally took quite a lot for me to ring home to parents, partly because I preferred to sort things out at school and in as low-key a way as possible, and partly because there were so many other things to do during the day that I only remembered that I was supposed to call a parent as I was driving through the country lanes on my way home in the evening.
With this student though, I was straight on the phone to her mother. Ringing parents is always a bit nerve-wracking because you’re never quite sure what you’ll get. Would they be supportive? Would they be annoyed? Would they be belligerent? I’ve had all of those responses and more when speaking to parents.
One especially enlightening conversation was with the parent of one of my tutor group whose behaviour was deteriorating rapidly. I’d spoken to the student’s mother several times before, and we got on well, she was a nice lady and very supportive of the school. In this conversation we were talking about Danielle’s very poor language.
“I know Mr Austin, it’s really not on, she does know better than to use that sort of language.” This is what every teacher wanted to hear - supportive parents who were a little bit mortified that their little darling was being a bit of a monster. A little, murmured voice on the line distracted both me and the student’s mum.
“Danielle, will you shut the f**k up?! I’m talking to Mr Austin!” shrieked the mother. “Sorry about that Mr Austin” came the once more sweet lady I’d been talking to, “I really don’t know where she picks up that sort of language.”
Not a drop of irony. Not a trace of comprehension. There wasn’t much else I could say, so I delicately and rapidly ended that phone call with a promise to keep an eye on the student.
Back to the student who was swearing blind that I hadn’t given her any resources. I’d spoken to her mother a few times before as this student had briefly been part of one of my tutor groups a few years before. I thought I’d always gotten on fairly well with her mother, so wasn’t all that worried about calling home.
I can’t adequately describe the level of anxiety I got when I needed to call home, or got a message from a parent to call them. My instant reaction was always that I had done something wrong, or that that they wanted to criticise me for something that I had or hadn’t done. A complete waste of time and emotional energy, but that’s how I felt nonetheless, and it was always a relief to realise that I was worrying over nothing.
It’s even more heartening to call home to discuss a student and to hear that they are causing just as many issues at home - you heave a huge sigh of relief that it’s not just you who apparently couldn’t handle the behaviour of one young person, and so it was with this student.
Actually, it sounded like I was getting the watered down version of her poor behaviour and I was reminded, not for the first time, that we only got to see the smallest glimpse of our students and what was going on with them.
I remember a session of Behaviour Management training that I took part in during my first year of teaching. The behaviour specialist introduced us to the student we’d be looking at, ‘Billy’, who was a 2 litre bottle of cola.
“Billy woke up late and missed the bus” he said, giving the bottle a couple of shakes.
“Billy was late for his first lesson and got told off.” another couple of shakes.
“Billy was grumpy because of the telling off,” shake “Billy had forgotten his homework for his next lesson,” shakeshake “Billy hadn’t had any breakfast and didn’t have any money to buy some food
at break” shakeshakeshake. “Billy turns up to your lesson. Open the bottle.”
This is a fantastic example of some of the kids that we had to deal with - you never know what will set them off, and sometimes the most innocent and well-meaning comment from you could make
a student explode. The same, it has to be mentioned, could be said for the teachers. We had bad days too, and it wasn’t unheard of for teachers to explode because their fuse hand been cut shorter and shorter throughout the day.
I generally told my classes if I was in a bad mood as I only thought it fair to warn them in advance and if they wanted to muck about after that it was their choice. Sometimes I added on the caveat that as I was being grumpy it was their job to make sure I was cheered up by the end of the lesson, and a lot of time if I said that I was.
As annoying and irritating as the students could be at times, they were also caring and sensitive. Generally if I warned a class that I was in a bad mood (or sometimes just ill and feeling a bit rubbish), I’d tell them that my bad mood was not their fault, and I wanted to warn them because
I didn’t want then to get the rough edge (and the loud edge) of my tongue just because I was
More than a few times, particularly with the older classes who knew me well, the kids would ask me what was wrong and who had annoyed me. Most of the time I’d just respond that it was work, or something at home and move on quickly, but the students seemed to appreciate that I was being honest (if not open) with them.
They especially liked it if I told them that one of the younger year groups had annoyed me the previous lesson, as this gave them the opportunity to grumble about the sad decline of the youth today themselves. Never underestimate the degree of distaste a teenager will heap on someone younger, more ignorant and infinitely less cool than they are.
This worked both ways though, with the younger years shaking their heads sadly at the folly of those who were allegedly older, wiser and cooler than they were.
“Sir, have you seen the girls in Year 10?! You can scrape their make up off with a shovel!” declared Lauren, one of my tutor group in her innocent days of Year 8. The irony was not lost on me, but was certainly lost on her a year later when her own make up was so thick she could barely crack a smile when I reminded her what she’d said not so long ago.
The main thrust of this chapter though is not really about funny slips of the tongue or our kids being the worst liars on the planet. It’s about those students who said one thing but meant something else completely.
It could be dedicated to many students I taught over the years, but special mention goes out to Tyler, Alfie and Luke. All three of these students had the ability to do well in my class, in fact they had the ability to do really well, but all three of them were so lazy, so determined not to work, so dead set not to try that only one of them - barely - made it to the end of the course they had been entered into. All three at one point or another had also uttered the words “You’re supposed to be helping me!” when in fact they meant something else entirely.
I’d taught Luke in Year 7 in my Maths class when I was in the REAL department. Even in Year 7 Luke was not the most focused of students and was much more interested in chatting and having a laugh, to the extent that even in this low-ability Maths group (the only Maths level I was entrusted with as it was basic enough that I couldn’t mess it up) he was at the bottom end of the group not through lack of ability but simply through lack of work. We can’t give a grade to work that we can’t see. It got so bad that Luke’s official class nickname from me was Lazy Boy, something which he
was actually quite proud of.
Luke’s main purpose around the school was apparently to have as many of the girls fawning over him as possible, and to give him credit, he was very good at achieving this goal. He was generally seen with at least three around him, if not more, and the other lads in the year group did a pretty poor job of hiding their annoyance at this.
Although I saw Luke around school, I didn’t teach him again until Year 9. I’d moved back to the Design & Technology department by this time, and despite having to take over a couple of Product Design classes from a colleague who had left the school (something that I wasn’t looking forward to as she’d warned me that one of those classes was frankly ‘dangerous’ and I was just a bit rubbish at Product Design), I got to take the new Year 9 Graphics class. As I’ve already mentioned, these students had chosen to take Graphics for their exam course, so you could assume that they had
at least a passing interest in the subject.
This was a larger group than usual, which might sound like a teacher whinging about how difficult the job is, but one or two more students in a class really did make a difference to how a class behaved and what you could do with them.
Our subject-based professional association said that D&T classes should have a maximum of 20 students in them, which would have been lovely, but was rarely the case, especially in the last few years when I was teaching. This class had 24 students in it, not completely unmanageable, but there was a little bit more pressure on me because of it. One of those students was Luke, and his attitude hadn’t really changed much in the intervening years, and if you talked to some of the staff members, it sounded as if it had gotten worse.
One of the issues with Luke was that he had some physical needs. I think that he was very conscious of these needs, especially in comparison to some of his friends. That he had the girls wrapped around his little finger was possibly to show that what he lacked in some areas he more than made up for it in others.
It also explained his prickly attitude at times, as well as his very sharp wit - he was, and still is - a very funny young man. It wasn’t surprising that Luke was in Graphics - it wasn't that it was easier than the other D&T subject areas, but it was probably the safest. My room was big and open and did not have the abundance of machinery that the other workshops did. About the most dangerous thing that we did was possibly use scalpels to trim some paper or card, or perhaps if a student wanted to use some spray paint on a piece of work.
The Resistant Materials workshops on the other hand were chock-full of tools and equipment
that just screamed ‘Painful Injury Waiting To Happen’. Luckily accidents were really rather rare, although a member of my penultimate tutor group did manage to set a piece of equipment on
fire - totally by accident - which resulted in me refusing to use the workshop as my tutor room
after I had ordered the group out of the room and managed to extinguish the fire and it’s billowing clouds of black smoke.
Thank goodness it didn’t set off the fire alarm, which would have necessitated evacuating the whole school down to the basketball courts as I would never have lived it down. Thinking about it, it was
a bit of a worry that a genuine fire with lots of smoke didn’t set them off. They went off all the time because of the steam from the canteen dishwashers, or a little bit of cooking-related smoke in the Food Tech room.
The only other accident that I can remember is when one of the students managed to drill a small hole in his hand when using the pillar drill. My colleague who was taking the class was beside himself with worry at this, not because a student had been hurt, but because that student was
the Headmaster’s son. All the Head had to say on the matter was,
“Well, he is a bit uncoordinated.” with a trace of both humour and resignation in his voice but not
a drop of Headmasterly anger.
Luke’s physical needs meant that Graphics was probably the safest option for him, and he had in fact chosen Graphics, so it wasn’t as if we were sidelining him.
As I’ve mentioned, that some of the students chose our D&T specialism was not evidence that they actually had any interest in the subject, and it seemed that Luke was one of these students. This was irritating to me for a couple of reasons - it was a big class and I couldn’t really waste my time focusing on trying to convince one stubborn and disinterested student that he really should be working and making an effort. The other reason was one that I said to many students: he really could have achieved well in Graphics, if only he put the effort in.
Right from the start, Luke took a lot of verbal prodding and nudging to get him and keep him even vaguely on track. Usually I see how things go with a class for a while before speaking to my Head of Department or anyone else who might be able to help me. This time though, I remember speaking to my HOD quite early on, expressing my concerns not only that Luke wasn’t working that hard, but that he was also taking up a lot of my time in trying to get him to work.
I didn’t talk to my HOD expecting any help with this, it was me getting my growing frustration
off my chest - we both knew that teachers came across students like this from time to time,
and sometimes all we could do was grit our teeth and get on with it.
However, by speaking with my HOD, who at this time was Thackery, a 1000% lovely guy who I had learned a lot from and had worked with for almost a decade, the conversation was noted. It was the start of what could be a lengthy process of starting to monitor a student and perhaps implementing more formal strategies over a longer term.
In some situations, such as when a couple of the kids had a fight, or one of them swore at a teacher, the resulting action in a school could be very swift and efficient indeed. However, there were other situations where all anyone could do was go by the book and take things step by step -
I had taken the first step by talking to Thackery about Luke.
Because of his needs, Luke was already allocated an LSA to support him in some of his classes. Talking to Thackery and mentioning my concerns allowed him to speak to the Special Needs coordinator, and some of Luke’s LSA time was put into my class - the ball had started to roll.
Kate began to come to some of my classes to help Luke. I’d worked with Kate in REAL, and we worked well together because while we both got on well with the students, they all knew that there would come a point - generally sooner rather than later - when we would stop being soft and fluffy and work would have to be done.
That Kate managed to get some work out of Luke should tell you how good she is, and that sometimes a student digs their heels in so far with one adult, but giving them a chance to work with someone else allows them to become unstuck with minimal loss of face, so it appeared the plan was working.
It just didn't work for all that long. Soon enough, Luke was displaying his old attitude and even refusing to work with or for Kate.
I have always been of the opinion that if a student works hard and gets a good grade as a result, they deserve that reward, but conversely, if a student really doesn’t want to work, and I and others have done everything we can to offer help that they turn down, then they will earn that failure themselves.
It was getting to that point with Luke. Both Kate and I were reaching the end of our tethers and there was little else we could do. It even got to the point that Luke was so stubborn and disruptive in his refusal to do work that another of the students in the class very quietly but very, very frustratedly said to me after another episode of the Luke Show that,
“He’s destroying this class.”
A very perceptive and accurate observation that I could do nothing but agree with. That comment has stuck in my mind ever since and it made me see some students in a certain light - some of them did destroy a whole class through their behaviour.
The situation had been building with Luke for a while. We were all under pressure to get the students to perform at their maximum, and the pressure from Senior Teachers and the government would only continue to grow stronger in the following years.
He’d been sent out, talked to and sent back in, lesson after lesson. He’d been challenged on his behaviour. He’d been moved within the room. He’d been asked to stay behind after class to have a conversation about his behaviour and effort. He’d been sent out of the class to work by himself outside our office so that he didn’t have an audience to play up to. He’d been sent out and put in Thackery’s class - the reasoning being that as Head of Department, Thackery would be better equipped to deal with any uncooperative students.
Pretty much every adult that dealt with Luke in this time came away more frustrated, and it’s one of those situations where you’re guiltily relieved that everyone is frustrated because it means it’s not just you who is unable to deal with one student.
I’d discussed the possibility of him changing D&T subjects - something we did reluctantly but was an option if a student really wasn’t fitting into the class they were in. None of the D&T team was enthused and a themes of ‘lazy’, ‘behaviour issues’ and even ‘unsafe’ started to form.
I even took Luke from class to class one lesson to highlight that he had annoyed and alienated a lot of the staff in the recent years, and now that he was asking a big favour of them, very few of them were prepared to work with him because he had not done them any favours in the past.
I think he was frankly shocked when one of the team, when asked if she was prepared to have him in her class replied with a blunt,
“No. He didn’t work in it last year, so why would he work in it now?” It was being made clear to Luke that he had made his bed and he was now lying in it in an increasingly uncomfortable way.
It came to a head in one lesson that wasn’t really any different from any other; we’d recently started a new project, and we were still in the early stages of it where I wanted the students to do a bit of visual research and get their ideas down in their sketchbooks. I didn’t want neat, I didn’t want perfect, I just wanted as many ideas as possible, and we’d worry about working up the best of
It was a task that I expected every single one of my students to be able to manage, from the Year 7s right through to my A Level students in Year 13. You would have thought that I’d asked Luke to reproduce the Mona Lisa in the hour-long lesson.
He whinged, he whined. He said he couldn't do it, and all through this all I could do was repeat, in as many different ways as I could what I wanted him to do. I tried to steer him in a direction where he would get some (obvious) ideas, but ideas nonetheless, but it all fell on deaf ears.
“I can’t do it!” he’d declare, which I, he and every other person in the class knew was complete rubbish because he'd done work like this before. All I could do was try and coax him into getting something down on paper.
“I can’t do it!” was the increasingly boring refrain.
“You can. You might not be doing it as well as you’d like, but I’m not interested in perfect today.”
“I can’t do it!”
“Yes, you can.”
“You’re supposed to be helping me!”
There it was. The phrase that said one thing but which meant something else entirely.
I knew Luke’s abilities - as did he - well enough to know that he could complete this task satisfactorily, if not extremely well with a bit of effort. I might be stubborn and have high expectations of both myself and the students, but I would never give the students a task that they couldn’t complete (unless, of course, not being able to do the task was the whole point), so both Luke and I knew that there was no reason for him to not do this.
He was just being lazy, and what he was now trying to do was guilt-trip me into doing his work for him. He clearly didn’t know me very well because that is something that would never work on me.
“I am helping you - I’ve given you a structure to work with, I’ve given you time to work, I’ve given you all the chance to use the internet to look for reference images, and I’ve given you some direction in what you could do.” This might have been said in a calm but firm tone, but you’d better believe that at least some of what I said was done through clenched teeth.
“That’s not help!” came the ungrateful response.
“I’m afraid that’s all the help you’re going to get - your ideas have to come from you, otherwise it’s my work.”
“You’re a teacher! You’re supposed to teach and help me!”
This was rapidly heading in a direction that I did not want to go in, but given Luke’s behaviour over the last term, this had been the destination all along. What Luke meant to say was,
“I’m playing up on my physical needs, I can’t be bothered to do this work, so I’ll just try and guilt trip and effectively bully you into doing my work for me while I kick back and have a laugh.”
I honestly don’t know if he expected me to crumble and to do his work for him, but I think we both knew that his strategy wasn’t working.
“I am teaching you Luke. I’m teaching you that you have to work. I have helped you, now you have to use that help yourself.” I said and turned to walk away.
“That’s not help!” he spat back, scorn heaped generously in his tone.
“That’s all the help I can give you Luke” I said over my shoulder, which still wasn’t what he wanted to hear from me.
Luke only lasted a few more lessons in my class before he was removed. The evidence had all
been documented, and it was clear that he was not cooperating with anything we did to try and support him.
As frustrating, annoying, headache-inducing, and plain irritating as someone like Luke could be, it was never with a sense of achievement that you said goodbye to them, there was always a feeling that you had let them down and that there was something else we could have tried. What we would never have done however, was Luke’s work for him.
One of the words that I truly came to hate in the last few years of my teaching career was ‘Intervention’, and it too said one thing but meant another entirely.
Intervention became one of the buzzwords thrown around by the Senior Team and was increasingly picked up by the Middle Managers like our Heads of Department. On the surface, Intervention gave a nice, tidy name to what we all did normally and had been doing for years: doing what it took to get the students to be able to perform their best in their exam subjects.
It might mean targeted homework tasks, or specific revision leading into the exam. It might be that you offered extra sessions at break or lunch in order to go over a topic you knew some of the students were struggling with. If you didn’t teach after school, you might put on a longer session in that time.
Increasingly, it also included additional sessions during the holidays - a time in which neither staff or students wanted to come into school, but was a response to subtle and in some cases not so subtle pressure to provide them so that the students could meet their targets. It also came to mean PLCs - Personalised Learning Checklists, a tick-list of what the students should have in their coursework folders, and something I was never really fond of.
It got to the point in D&T - and in other subjects too I’m sure - where we provided the students with so many lists, schedules, targets, goals and a template for their coursework that they only had to do the bare minimum of work themselves. It was increasingly getting to the point where we were doing more work on the coursework folders than the kids actually did in them themselves.
We only half-joked that soon it would be quicker, easier, less painful, and more importantly would secure us the results the school needed, for us to just do all the coursework folders ourselves.
Intervention actually meant: Do What It Takes To Get The Results, and: We Can’t Fit In Everything We Need To Do In The Curriculum Time We Have. It was always a sore point in the D&T team that while it was undeniably a good thing that all the students had to take our subject as it really promoted designing and making, and that we were classed as a Core Subject along with English, Maths and Science, we only had half the time allocated to us compared to the Core Subjects - but we were still expected to achieve the same high targets as those subjects.
Intervention went from something generous and extra a teacher might voluntarily put on in their own time, to something that was a requirement for all staff taking exam groups, and something that we had to document to prove that we were doing it.
It was in this increasingly high-pressure environment of data-driven targets (targets that changed from year to year and left me confused, sceptical and apathetic about their source) and Intervention that I had my final two Year 11 exam groups, and in one of them I had Alfie.
Like many students over the years, there was no reason why Alfie shouldn’t and couldn't have achieved well in my class, apart from the fact that he was far more interested in chatting and not actually doing very much work at all. While not as bad as Luke, he was along very similar lines, and in short order I’d tried out all the usual strategies with very little impact as a result.
Where Luke’s parents had not been terribly supportive, Alfie's parents seemed to have more influence over him, and for a time after talking to them on the phone and at one Parents Evening, Alfie seemed to be a bit more focused. The problem came, again and again, with deadlines.
I got the students to do a lot of their work on the computers in my room, and I was lucky in that there were enough computers for each of them. Working on the computer was quicker for most of them, and and allowed them to work more cleanly and professionally than if they had had to produce everything by hand. Although the kids didn’t have access to a colour printer, I did, and we had a nifty piece of software that allowed them to use the school network to send me their files so that I could print their work out in colour for them.
Deadline lessons were always a bit stressful, and I wouldn't really have expected anything less as it wasn’t so long ago that I’d been a design student battling with printers on deadline days myself. A lot of the time on a deadline day I would be stuck at my desk, downloading work and printing it, calling out,
“That’s sent!” to whoever’s work it was. We’d worked together long enough that they knew that this meant they had to go to the office to pick up their work from our printer.
Once they had it, they could stick it in their A3 sketchbooks and be ready to drop their work in the Hand In Zone - an area on one of the tables that I’d designated. I’d long ago decided not to go searching for student work when it came to marking completed projects, and the students all knew that if it wasn’t in the Hand In Zone, it wouldn’t be marked. Alfie's problem was that he rarely finished enough work to hand in, and what he did do he just didn’t bother to send to me to print. As a result, his sketchbook was somewhat lacking evidence when it came to the final hand in and mark.
This class more than any other had been on the receiving end of more Intervention than any other. They’d had extra time in which to work, they’d had extra sessions arranged from them on Fridays after school in which they could complete their coursework. They’d had checklists, they’d had all their names on the board and how much they had left to do for each unit and Assessment Objective tracked and monitored.
They all knew what their target grades were and could see the progress they were making towards that each half term. Their mark sheets highlighted which Assessment Objectives they’d hit and which ones they hadn’t and I’d written copious feedback on what they needed to do to get the ones they were missing. Data had been analysed each term and underperforming students highlighted and individual plans for them put into place.
Letter after letter had gone out to the group as a whole, and then to individual students, the last set highlighting exactly what each student had left to do in order to get a passing grade in the course. Phone calls home had been made to remind parents that targets weren’t being met and extra sessions hadn’t been attended; and every single one of these Interventions - plus any possible future Interventions to come - had to be logged, assessed in terms of their success and reported back to Middle and Senior Management.
It was exhausting, and in all but a few rare cases, it was a waste of time, and only served to put more pressure on the staff. It was a case where a comment from an Ofsted inspector who had observed one of my lessons a few years before became relevant,
“You seem to be working very hard indeed,” >insert pregnant pause here< “But the students don’t seem to be working anywhere near as hard.”
Alfie wasn't working hard, and from what I heard on the grapevine he wasn’t really working all that hard for anyone, not just for me.
Because of the course my students were taking, they had no exam to sit, so while exams for other subjects were going on, my lot were still finishing up on their coursework.
Our Year 11s didn't officially have study leave, and if they needed to attend lessons, they should turn up - that they didn’t and they slipped away one by one surprised no one, and meant that more phone calls and letters were needed to remind them that if they didn’t turn up, some of their grades were in doubt.
Alfie, not to my surprise, but also to the relief of my shredded nerves, was one of those that drifted away, so it was a surprise when he turned up at our office right at the end of term, when we had rolled-over the timetable and the Year 11 classes had finished.
“What do I need to do for my Graphics?” was his opening line - no friendly ‘hello’, just straight to business.
“Done a lot of work about nine months ago, not been an idiot and met your deadlines?” was what
I wanted to say, but kept firmly in my head. What I actually said was,
“You’ve had a couple of letters breaking down what you need to do for each unit, and you’ve had the last few weeks without lessons in which to do the work.” Possibly not the softest and fluffiest
of answers, I’ll admit, but it was nearing the end of term and my last day of teaching, so hopefully
I could be forgiven if I wasn't quite as supportive as I could have been.
“I didn't get any letters.” came the sullen reply.
“They were sent,” the implication being that once they'd been sent, they ceased to be my problem.
“You’ve still had time to come in and work. The marks need to go off to the exam board tomorrow, so you’re cutting it fine.” That I'd already marked all the sketchbooks twice, done all the official paperwork for the exam board and everything was in an envelope ready to go was information
Alfie did not need to know.
“You’re supposed to be helping me!” followed by the sight of his back as he stormed dramatically away was his helpful and enthusiastic reply, completely ignoring the fact that I had helped him all that I could, and that crazy as it seemed, he might actually have to put some effort into his work himself.
The last student to be mentioned here is Tyler, and he's another example of a student who had the ability and potential to succeed, but simply wasn’t willing to put in the effort to do so.
Tyler had scraped through Year 11 Graphics, mostly it has to be said because the course we chose for them to take was so ridiculously easy a student could have sneezed in the direction of their coursework and have passed.
This was just another symptom of the pressure teachers were under to get the grades to make their schools look good in the national league tables - courses were chosen not because our students would be challenged and do well in them, but because they offered the best chance for the largest number of our students to get that magic C grade.
So Tyler had passed, and despite not working all that hard, turned up in the A Level class the following September. It was another quirk of education at the time that bums on seats (and the funding we subsequently received for those students) was more important than having students who could actually cope with the work at A Level.
Tyler should not have been in the class - not because of lack of ability, because he could produce some lovely work, but because he was so incredibly lazy that he rarely produced much work at all. The same strategies were tried and and the same conversations were had, this time perhaps more bluntly because it was thought that the older students shouldn’t need their hands holding as much, but to no effect.
There was no change in Tyler's behaviour or productivity, and as a result he 'achieved' a U for his Year 12 work - Ungraded. This came as a surprise to no one. What was a bit of a surprise was when his mother asked me to set up a meeting for us to discuss Tyler.
I duly set the meeting up, and in it we had a frank, if brief, discussion of Tyler's future in Graphics - namely that I didn't see that he had one. There was no way that he was going to pass and be able
to move on to Year 13, and I was not willing to entertain a repeat of his performance from this year again if he wanted to retake Year 12.
What surprised me was that his mother literally begged me to reconsider, and that she would promise to do what it took to get him back on the course. Even Tyler kept his mouth shut for
once and nodded along in agreement.
I was tempted to just say no - I had more than enough evidence to support my decision - and they could both see that I wasn’t completely convinced, but at the end of the day I’m just a big old softy.
I gave Tyler a bargain: if he completed a project that I would set him the next day (I was betting on the fact that he wouldn't even turn up the following day and that would allow me to back out of
the deal), and completed it fully - research, ideas generation and development, final piece and an evaluation, all to A Level standard, and if he completed this work within the deliberately short deadline I had set, he’d be in for next year.
Both Tyler and his mother gratefully accepted this offer, and I was surprised when he turned up
the next day to receive the brief. I was even more surprised when, right on time he handed in a
full, if a bit short and rushed, project on deadline day. It was actually a fairly good response to the project too, and I hoped it proved to Tyler that he’d had it in him all along. It actually made me glad that he'd be coming back to retake.
I probably shouldn't have been all that surprised when, a few weeks into the following September, Tyler was well and truly into his old ways, and was giving every excuse under the sun for his lack
of work other than the one we both knew was true: he just wasn't making the effort.
“I work slowly! That’s just how I work!” don’t really come to much when you have deadlines to meet, especially not when I had more than ample evidence that such working practises hadn’t worked for him in the past, and that I also had evidence that he could work quickly - and well - when he felt like it.
Tyler didn't seem to get that he would have to put consistent effort into his work in order to succeed, and it was all the more frustrating because we could both see the results of his efforts were really rather good. For his part, Tyler made more and more excuses, and it came to the point, after several conversations with me, my Head of Department and even the Head of 6th Form where it was suggested to him that our 6th Form was not the place for him, and that perhaps his energies were better spent on something he was more interested in.
Tyler too had uttered the fateful,
"You're supposed to be helping me!” which I probably responded to with something curt and to the point. What he didn’t realise, or want to accept was that there came a point when he had to help himself.
While the majority of our students take what we give them and learn from it, there are sadly a minority who seem determined to ignore it, and have to learn the hard way, without any help.