Off The Page — Know Your Place

29 August 2007

The first rule: look the part. This was my first mistake I made as a student teacher. I walked into my first ever lesson with my hair down to my waist, unwashed for three years, and expected to be taken seriously.

No one listened to a word a word I said.

Second rule: don’t pick on the toughest pupil in the class. My second mistake in that very same lesson. I confronted a snarling fifteen-year-old who was thumping his neighbour with his fists. I shouted at him to get on with his work, and he turned around and said to me, ‘F— off sir, I’m having a kip here.’ The class exploded into laughter. I was humiliated, I retreated away and wanted to die. But later, I did reflect, that he’d called me ‘sir’. The seeds of respect were actually there, albeit in a very inchoate form.

This is the third rule: pay very close attention to names. Listen to what the pupils call you, and make sure you know your pupils’ names as soon as you can. My third mistake: I trusted my pupils to tell me their own names.

After I passed my teacher training year, I got my hair cut and washed, and got a job in a comprehensive in Tower Hamlets. My naughtiest class swapped around their identities, and fell around laughing whenever I asked someone to get on with the work. The situation got so bad one lesson that a riot erupted and they pushed all the furniture out of the room and began to smoke in front of me. The riot had its origins in the fact that I didn’t know their names.

Fourth rule: true respect has to be earned. The days have long gone in any school when a teacher can automatically expect to be respected.

Teachers who are control freaks, nit-pickers, weirdos, psychos, lazy, ignorant, and immature quickly get found out and have a pretty hard time. Teachers who are none of these things still have a hard time, but by and large most pupils will co-operate with varying degrees of willingness if they can see that their teacher knows his stuff, has prepared his lessons, marks the work and turns up regularly

Fifth rule: wear a smiling but bullet-proof mask. When I’m most effective I half-imagine that I am a liberal vicar who beams broadly as he invites his congregation to sit down and listen to his sermons. It’s an act, I’m not religious at all, but my slightly clownish demeanour helps put a psychic barrier between me and my pupils, the caricature helps to define my role in a humorous way and helps give the impression that it’s all a bit of fun.

Moreover, when pupils sneer and laugh at me, they’re not attacking me, they’re attacking the parson, who has toasted crumpets, cups of tea and

the Scriptures on his side.

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