Saturday, May 04, 2013

Michael Gove could never do this

This is inspiring stuff, but in spite of all those Hollywood films about teachers who win over their delinquent classes, you need more than just the constitution of an ox and the determination of a Miss Pierson to be a good teacher with kids who test you to extremes.

I started teaching in an under-funded, under-resourced secondary modern school in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, in what would later be known as a social priority area. I'd spent the summer desperately looking for a job after gaining my PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Education) at Exeter University, after four years at art college and a year being seriously ill. I should have been suspicious about what awaited me when I was offered the job without an interview, and without even seeing the school, which turned out to be an old Victorian brick-built building with a Boys' entrance and a Girls' entrance, surrounded by a playground and old-fashioned outdoor toilet blocks. The first year was the only one that was co-educational. They planned to co-educate from the bottom up.

I was based in an art room. Soon after I started, I found a science teacher in the room opposite beating a boy with the tube off a bunsen burner. When I reported him for not using appropriate punishment or writing it in the punishment book (this was when physical punishment was still legal), the acting headteacher, a weary man waiting for retirement, said that the kids would make mincemeat of me when they realised that I wouldn't hit them. I was a member of an organisation opposed to physical punishment.

One boy, aged 11, used to flinch when I raised my arm. He was deliberately provocative. One day he asked, "Miss, why won't you hit me?" and I asked if it would make him behave better, and he said, "No." I said that there'd be no point then, would there? He used to wear the same clothes, every day, every week. He was one of several kids who came to my place at weekends, where they learned to cook and painted murals on our yard wall. My housemate got hold of some clothes for him, and suggested that we deliberately spilled a cup of tea over him, as an excuse to put his clothes in the washing machine and give him some new ones. So we did. I never heard from his mother about this. He became devoted to me, and would rush to defend me if any of the other kids was rude. He was just one of the kids whose backgrounds were terrible. One girl witnessed her father stab her mother to death. Another girl was locked in her room every day after school by her stepmother, until I found out about it and she was taken into care. They could all have done with a champion like Rita Pierson. I was newly qualified, totally out of my depth, with no professional or personal report, and I cracked up under the strain. I left after a year for an easier job. It wasn't that much easier, but there was less beating.

After a few years, during which time I did other jobs, I went back to teaching. I worked in the Oxford area for a while, as a supply teacher, before applying for work in Suffolk, to be near my family. Again, I was offered a job without an interview, without seeing the school, and should have known what to expect. It wasn't as bad as the school in Grimsby, but my head of department had been off sick for months with a "stress-related illness". My contract was for a term. I was offered a permanent job after Christmas, but turned it down. The colleague I'd worked closely with, who was in her probationary year, quit when I did, and never went back to teaching. She now runs a successful pottery.

I did more supply teaching after that. I'd learned a survival strategy by this time. Supply teachers will often find themselves covering for the teachers who are in the most stressful jobs. I can draw, and I used to bribe badly-behaved kids to behave with the prospect of a portrait to take home to mum at the end of the day. It worked a treat. I was frequently asked to work in the special needs department of an Ipswich school, where the head of department was fussy about which supply teachers he'd allow into his classrooms. Some of them were older people whose attitude towards the kids with multiple problems was unhelpful. They didn't like or understand children from the sort of deprived background that they knew nothing about, and the kids responded negatively to their crude discipline. My friend the head of department said that some of them could reverse a term's development with a few ill-chosen words. One day, I was sent to supervise two classrooms with a stationery cupboard in between, so I could hear what was going on in one while I was in the other, until another supply teacher arrived. Things were reasonably calm, with everyone settled, when a child came from the next room
to tell me that a strange man had arrived. I found a nervous-looking man in a suit with a briefcase. He didn't look like a teacher but it turned out he was. I told him what the children were supposed to be doing, and gave him a quick explanation of what to expect from some of the more challenging kids - a boy who became violent at the slightest provocation, so it was best to avoid confrontation, and a girl who had mild learning difficulties and struggled to remember anything for more than a few minutes, despite her best efforts, and so on. He showed little interest and waved me away. I'd been dismissed. Within five minutes, all hell broke loose next door. He'd yelled at the boy with the hair trigger, who'd thrown a chair at the window, and the girl who struggled to cope was in tears, after being told she was shamming. It turned out that the new supply teacher had just completed his training, it was his first day as a teacher after quitting an office job, and he'd imagined that he'd be a born educator. Oh, how wrong he was.

ME was prevalent among teachers and schoolkids, and I'd been covering for someone who had it. Not long afterwards, I was diagnosed with ME too. That was 27 years ago. You have to be fit to teach, especially in schools like the ones I've worked in. Every time I hear some idiot going on about how teachers have a cushy life, with long school holidays and all, I wish that he or she could see what it's really like at the chalkface. Michael Gove wouldn't last five minutes.

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