I’ve learnt my lesson

29 February 2004
The Observer
link to original

Joan ushered me into her office. She grabbed me by the arms and told me to stand still. I looked at her in astonishment. Who was this woman? Why was she touching me in such a mumsy fashion?

‘So they’ve picked you, have they?’ she said, narrowing her eyes at me. I guessed she was in her mid-forties. She was dressed in a smart, woollen suit and had the bustling manner of a secretary who organised absolutely everything.

‘I guess so. Looks like a nice school,’ I replied. I was feeling pretty good about myself because not only had I just got my hair cut – after a four-year hiatus – but the new haircut, a freshly ironed Paisley shirt and jeans and a confident interview had got me my first permanent teaching job.

I had flourished while studying English at Sussex University because this radical university had nurtured my revolutionary spirit, encouraged me to read William Blake and John Milton and had allowed me space to smoke dandelion cigarettes and discuss changing the world. But the trouble was that the rest of the world wasn’t like Sussex. It was mean and cruel and capitalist. I knew that I wouldn’t get far declaiming Blake in darkened, coughing basement flats and attempting to write agitprop plays. I knew that I had to get a job.

Teaching English was the only thing that remotely appealed. I would be able to teach Blake to working-class kids and liberate them from their mind-forged manacles.

Joan harrumphed. ‘So you think that this school looks good, do you? Wait until you start teaching here,’ she said in a half-kidding, half-serious way.

To be honest, I hadn’t expected the Peter Truss Secondary School in London’s East End to appear quite so pleasant. I had applied for a post teaching English and English as a second language at the school because I wanted to continue the work I had done as a student teacher in Coventry saving the country’s working classes. I wanted to enjoy that feeling of being really needed that I had found so energising at Coventry. I wanted to surf the crashing waves of poverty and social deprivation and land on the shore laughing.

So my new life as a teacher began. I would have breakfast at the school at about 7.30am and prepare for the day ahead. I would go up to my form room at about 8am, where I would continue with my marking and preparation. Gradually, I would watch the 13- and 14-year-old members of my form trickle into the room. Word quickly got round that I was usually in my room from 8am and I soon discovered that there were quite a few kids who were only too anxious to get out of the house. Usually, most of the form were in the room before 8.30am; actual registration would start at 8.45am. But it was clear that the pupils liked the sanctuary of the form room; they could get help from me with their homework or could sit and chatter away with their friends in warmth and comfort. I got the pupils to put their own displays in the room, so that by the end of the Christmas term it was a real home from home.

I would then register the form and ask them to get on with silent reading before lessons began at 9am. This enabled me to deal with individual problems. My form had quite a few of those. There was Shahana, whose home I had already visited before she joined the school, where she lived with her mentally ill father among the cockroaches. She had severe learning difficulties and often stank of her terrible flat; kids sitting next to her would complain about the smell. She could barely read and write and I tried to help her with her reading when I could.

There was Grace, who was very able but intent upon winding up every one of her teachers with her cheekiness and constant interruptions. There was Nabil who had no stomach and had a colostomy bag and wore nappies. The class had to be told about his medical condition and asked to be patient if there was a funny smell. The kids were surprisingly understanding. He also had learning difficulties and had the writing abilities of a six-year-old.

There was Bashir, whose family kept moving from B&B to B&B; he spoke very little English despite having been in the country since he was four. His former primary school marked him out as being a very disruptive and disturbed pupil who had only been there for six months. There were no records further back than that.

And there was Hassan, whose brothers had just left the school to become fully involved in the East End Bengali gangs; he looked like he might go the same way if we weren’t careful. He and his sidekick, Fatih, were forever getting into fights or cussing someone or other. They were serious bullies.

My youth and enthusiasm carried me through but life was not without its difficulties. I was, you see, without knowing, well on my way to becoming a controlaholic.

Symptoms of Controlaholism

a) Being obsessed by noise levels. Checking noise levels like a meteorologist takes the temperature.

b) Having a tendency to say ‘sssh’ a lot under one’s breath. Oh my God, how many teachers do I know that seem to ‘shush’ almost spontaneously when confronted with a group of noisy children? It’s like Tourette’s syndrome with shushing. I know because I am still guilty of this.

c) Being a stickler for tiny details. This is how a real controlaholic gets his kicks: making sure that the date is written in the ‘correct’ fashion, shouting at children for not underlining titles, getting worked up about margins and so forth is very effective. The controlaholic may not be that interested in the quality of a child’s work – usually he/she is too busy controlling to do that – but presentation is an area where a maximum degree of control can be exerted.

d) Feeling a warm glow of pleasure when a class is beavering away in silence.

e) Feeling distinctly agitated if there is too much talking, whether or not it is related to the work.

I think I became a controlaholic because I had caught glimpses of success; there had been times, for example, when I had been sufficiently on top of really difficult classes to have been able to read to them for 40 minutes with them listening in silence. It sounds pathetic that I should have been pleased with myself for this but given the context of the classes I was working with, it was a major victory. There were days now when I was able to talk without being interrupted at the beginning of lessons. Sometimes, I could even get the children to work in silence.

In order to do this with challenging classes, a teacher has to be obsessive about maintaining order.

My growing controlaholism led to my getting very impatient with pupils who were threatening to disrupt my ‘perfectly ordered’ classrooms. The odd kid who was chattering quietly as I was reading was a major source of annoyance. In my second year at Truss, I took on 9K, a difficult class which I managed to keep under ‘control’. I read a lot of class readers with them and they sat and listened. It didn’t matter that much to me whether they were all understanding that much; what mattered was that I was reading what was on the syllabus and I was reading it quickly with them. In fact, I decided to read a fantastic number of books with 9K: The Friends by Rosa Guy, Across the Barricades by Joan Lingard, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.

These are a lot of books for any class to get through in a term but considering that most of the children had reading ages of seven-year-olds or below, it was phenomenal – or so I thought.

I determined that I was going to punish any little runt who threatened to stop my unstoppable train of reading. However, I was aware that although the pupils appeared to be listening, they might not be. I was conscious that little notes were being passed around the room as I read, that bags were being removed from under desks and shifted around the class. I decided to crush this behaviour out of all existence.

One day, I caught a kid who was about to pass someone else’s bag under the table. I grabbed him by the arm while continuing to read to the class, pulled him to the front of the classroom, opened the door and threw him out into the corridor. I didn’t say anything about it but ploughed on with my reading.

The bag-passing stopped after that, but it gave me a fatal sense of security. It made me think that this sort of silent, physical action was not only all right – it was positively beneficial. I started doing it a little more often; grabbing boys by the arms when they were misbehaving – often for quite trivial things – and showing them who was boss.

Because I was increasingly within the loop of staffroom gossip, I learnt that some teachers were committing far worse sins than I was. I never actually hit any children, but there were a few pedagogues whose chosen method of control was cuffing children on the back of the head.

This was how their teachers had treated them, how their parents had treated them; it had worked with them and it worked at Truss. Very few kids actually complained. They knew their parents wouldn’t be understanding and probably would do far worse.

But there was one incident that led to my never ever touching a child again.

I arranged for my form to perform an edited version of Macbeth in a whole school assembly. I spent ages preparing it: going through the script and rehearsing with the whole class. On the day of the performance, my lead actor decided that he wasn’t going to do the show because he didn’t want to rehearse in the lunch hour and he didn’t like the actor who was playing Lady Macbeth. This really irritated me and I said that he was being unreasonable. He had to play Macbeth; we had spent ages practising the play, the whole school was talking about seeing it and even the headmistress would be in attendance – and she rarely ventured out of her office.

Malik, my Macbeth, shook his head vehemently. The whole class was listening and watching to see who would win this battle. I had never had such resistance from anyone in my form before and felt as though my authority with the class was at stake and my status as a competent teacher was under attack. If the play didn’t go ahead, it would look like I had no control over my form, which I had boasted about having such a grip over.

So I decided to do the trusty ‘grabbing the arm’ trick. Malik was a little boy and was sitting at the front of the class. I can still see him now; his snubby little nose was stuck right up in the air and he was shaking his head in the most aggravating manner possible. So I took his arms, lifted him out of his chair and put him back again. ‘You will be Macbeth, I can assure you of that, Malik,’ I said.

I knew that I had stepped way over the mark as soon as I put Malik down. The class gasped. I had never manhandled any of my form before; only older, more hardened boys who just took such treatment for granted. Malik screamed back at me that he was never going to play Macbeth and that he was going to tell on me.

‘I’m going to make a complaint,’ he shouted as he rushed out of the room as fast as his little legs could carry him.

There were broader problems for the school. When it was announced by the head that we were going to be inspected by the local authority the following term, I hoped the inspectors would find out about the teachers who were failing in their duties to teach the kids. I felt powerless myself to do anything about it. All the other teachers knew who the main offenders were but no one made a formal complaint. In many schools with more empowered kids and more attentive parents, these teachers would unquestionably have lost their jobs, but at our school they survived – for the time being.

‘The school has been chosen because we need to investigate how we might raise levels of achievement here,’ the head said. In plain English, this really meant the inspectors were going to look at why the results in the school were totally rubbish. One of the other teachers slapped his fist into his palm and said: ‘Why don’t we tell them we’re like Millwall: we’re rubbish but we’re hard!’

This provoked laughter. The only person who didn’t join in was Brenda Klein, an elderly English teacher. She was a very bitter woman who hated teaching in the school and couldn’t wait to get out; she was regarded as a ‘nutter’ by the rest of the staff because she wouldn’t stop complaining. There was nothing she didn’t moan about. Top of her list were: the total stupidity of the kids, the appallingness of their behaviour, the subsidence of her house, her terrible insurance company which wouldn’t pay up for her house to be fixed, the male chauvinism of the English department and so on.

She was actually very nice to me. She would lend me novels that she particularly recommended. They were nearly all about disillusioned teachers who hated their jobs. I was quite surprised by how many she was able to produce; they were all hardbacks and out of print.

She clicked her tongue at the now very familiar Millwall comment. ‘I suppose this is the sophisticated response that we can expect from this department,’ she said.

‘I hope they bloody well say that the school is a pit, a pit the like of which Edgar Allen Poe never wrote about. A pit where the pendulum swings and swings above your head and creeps closer and closer until you can feel the very breath of it beside your skin and you know it is going to kill you – but it never does!’

Brenda giggled hysterically as she finished her monologue. She suffered from obsessive-compulsive talking disorder. There are always a few in every school who suffer from this lamentable condition. These are teachers who talk endlessly at their classes, never listen to anything anyone says, and then do exactly the same with other members of staff.

She had cornered me in the corridor just outside the meeting room and wouldn’t stop giving her pessimistic banter. The staff were waiting to go in and listen to the inspector’s final report. It was Judgment Day and Brenda wanted all of us to be damned. This wasn’t the general wish of most of the staff but there were a few, a desperately disillusioned few, who delighted in the thought that the whole shithouse might go up in flames…

· Characters in I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here! are composites. The name of the school has been changed. All the incidents are based on real events. Francis Gilbert now teaches at another London comprehensive.

Truths from the blackboard jungle

School cupboards
The school cupboard is a very peculiar thing. The mind boggles at all that goes on in school cupboards during any given day. They are the only truly private places in schools except for toilet cubicles and because of this, they are the venues for the most interesting activities: one-to-one tuition, whispering gossips, illicit drug-taking, rapidly snatched copulations, quiet sobs and hard-won bars of chocolate.

Appearance and reality
Most schools that are poorly run are obsessed with keeping up appearances and positively discourage their staff from telling the truth about what is going on in their lessons. Staff who say that they are having difficulties are ridiculed or made to feel inadequate and basically told to put up or shut up. Truss was a relatively honest school; most staff were willing to tell the truth about their classes.

The sordid truth about photocopiers
Waiting for the photocopier is probably a teacher’s main occupation outside the classroom. Once you finally get on the photocopier, brutal and Machiavellian tactics are employed to get you off it. It starts with little huffings and puffings, then continues with impatient tappings, followed by: ‘How long are you going to be? Do you know I’ve got a lesson to go to right now?’ or: ‘Why are you always on the photocopier? Don’t you prepare your lessons properly?’ or: ‘The Head has told me that you must stop this right now. This is urgent.’

Teacher-school co-dependency
You may wonder why the staff didn’t cheer up at the thought of the source of their misery being closed down, but that would be to misunderstand the nature of many teachers’ relationships with schools. Teachers become very attached to their institutional pain; its ghastliness is their main topic of conversation, its meagre wage is their means of living, its timetable the structure of their lives. It is the hateful drug which is simultaneously destroying and sustaining them.

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