A guide to this blog

I’m Deputy Headteacher at Michaela, a school in London. I write about teaching, research, curriculum and assessment, teacher training, leadership and the education system. puzzle MICHAELA:

Here’s what I think would improve teaching:

BEHAVIOUR

TEACHING

COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY

  SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY

CURRICULUM

ASSESSMENT

TRAINING

LEADERSHIP

EDUCATION SYSTEM

Posted in System | 4 Comments

It’s your time you’re wasting

This book, by Frank Chalk, is about his experiences of teaching in a difficult school in England, and the consequences of low standards for some of our worst-off children in the country.

FrankChalk.png

“All these stories are true. Writing them was born out of my frustration, even despair, at seeing the majority of those who’ve passed through my classroom let down, day in, day out. A major cause of our problems is that so much bad behaviour is simply swept under the carpet and ignored. It lets down kids who start life with little chance in the first place.

“The litter left lying inside and outside the school has to be seen to be believed. Crisp packets, sweet wrappers, empty fizzy drink cans, bits of food from the canteen and empty plastic bottles are everywhere. Many teachers are afraid to ask a pupil to pick rubbish up. To do so is to invite indignation, even anger. ‘F* ck off!’ is a typical response.

 

Lunch

“I put up daily with the chaos, disorder and ear-splitting racket that is lunch time at St Jude’s. The canteen is a complete mess; the floor is a mushy carpet of bits of food and drink and the odd recognisable item like a squashed sausage roll. Every table is covered in mess and piles of unreturned trays. The noise is deafening, as crockery and cutlery spills hither and thither. It really is complete and utter anarchy. There’s a heaving, pushing, jostling semi-queue. Pupils swig brightly-coloured drinks, making them completely hyper in the afternoon. I am doing nothing more than crowd control. ‘F* ck off, Chalk, yer w* nker!’ someone shouts.

 

The Head can walk straight past groups of fighting pupils and carry on a conversation whilst torrents of foul abuse are being shouted from all directions. The school always reminds me a bit of the Titanic, with the SMT sipping champagne in their room, assuring each other that all is going splendidly, whilst we sail straight towards an enormous iceberg. Far too many incidents are simply brushed under the carpet, as it is much easier to hold meetings and presentations rather than support those teachers below them who are trying to improve discipline. The phrase ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ was used of mulish generals in charge of British troops during World War I, but it applies equally to modern teaching. The lack of ability of those in charge to get a grip is one of the major problems in the state education system.

 

Lessons

After lunch, Year 9 have dosed themselves up with sugary snacks and fizzy drinks at lunchtime. They ignore my seating plan and sit together at the back. They are used to getting their own way, fighting over seats and enjoying the mayhem caused by not being made to sit in a fixed place each lesson. Five of them eventually do as they’re told. Unfortunately, I can’t shift Darren, the sixth reprobate. I’ve tried telling him quietly and I’ve tried telling him firmly. Both attempts have failed. He is now holding on to his desk, theatrically, and hysterically shouting, ‘Help! Rape!’ at the top of his voice. It is immensely frustrating, all of this. Actually, it’s more than frustrating: it’s heartbreaking. About a dozen of this class are behaving now; they have got their worksheets from the front and started them, following the instructions I’ve written on the board. I keep my voice calm, even though inside I am seething. I have seen this situation many times before and it annoys me greatly.

I quietly tell him that I will be making a phone call home.

‘Do you think I care?’ he screams back. ‘Phone me mother! I couldn’t give a f* ck.’

That last bit is said with a mocking smirk.

Dishing out the pens has taken another ten minutes, so 20 minutes gone.

Then, all of a sudden, the atmosphere is shattered by a screech. It’s Cherelle, and she’s furious with Spencer; she’s attempting to pull his hair out and cursing him in industrial terms. Now, Cherelle storms out, a handful of Spencer’s hair in her fist.

‘Come on, Darren, we’re going to sit at the front,’ I announce, removing his coat from the back of his chair. He grabs for it and furiously attempts to wrench it free, but there is a loud tearing sound. I am left holding one arm while Ashley tumbles back and falls to the ground holding the rest of it. Darren is now absolutely livid.

‘You f* cking tosser!’ he yells with rage. ‘I’m gonna get me Dad and he’ll batter you!’ He storms out of the room. ‘My dad’s gonna batter you!’ This is a phrase I must have heard a hundred times during my career.

Wayne, walks in (ridiculously late) with dog mess on his shoe. Because he is such a fool, he proceeds to wipe the shoe on another boy’s trousers. It’s a revolting thing to do, but the reaction is bizarre: the other boy immediately starts screaming (he is, after all, only 15) and running around like the proverbial headless chicken. Now the offending material is on his bag, on the stool he was sitting on, on his neighbour’s bag, on her chair, the work bench and so on. Half the class are join in with the screaming. It is utter chaos.

When the clock on the wall indicates that there are only ten minutes of the lesson left, everyone starts putting coats on and closing books. ‘Oi! Get back to work. We will pack up two minutes before the end of the lesson.’ There is uproar. They always pack up ten minutes before. Bearing in mind each lesson is 50 minutes long, and that the first and the final 10 minutes are wasted, this is depressing in the extreme. ‘The clock is slow.’ It isn’t. ‘We need at least ten minutes!’ At least half of them have already started to put their arms through their coat sleeves surreptitiously. I go round and take their books (asking them to pass them to the front is like asking for book-throwing mayhem). Every exercise book is covered with graffiti. Then the bell goes. I reckon we did fifteen minutes useful work out of a one-hour lesson. Five or six kids destroyed the lesson for all the others.

Those kids will destroy every lesson this week, this term and this school year, for the simple reason that they enjoy doing so and there is nothing to stop them. It’s no exaggeration to say that we are allowing them to destroy the lives of their fellow pupils. I end another school day bubbling with frustration and impotent rage. It’s been a day, once again, marked by a total absence of discipline and, as a result, effective teaching. If you work in one of these schools, you will know that such scenes are a daily occurrence.

 

Maths

In Maths, many of our pupils cannot do even the simplest sum. Some cannot do the simplest sum even with the aid of a calculator: for example, you will ask the question ‘What is 9 x 7?’ They will type it in wrongly as ‘9 x 77’ and claim that the answer is 693. They have no idea of the relative size of numbers and do not sense instinctively that this cannot be right. Instead, they accept whatever the display says.

 

Writing

Pupils’ writing is often absolute gibberish. Half are unable to read, write or spell properly when they leave. They cannot punctuate or structure a sentence. The country’s biggest exam board has reported that pupils use ‘text-speak’ like ‘m8’ [for ‘mate’], ‘u’ [for ‘you’] and ‘2’ [for ‘too’ or ‘to’] in GCSE papers which are also littered with swearing and slang contractions such as ‘gonna’, ‘wanna’ and ‘shoulda’. Apart from all the spelling mistakes and lack of punctuation – many a story is one, long two-page sentence – it simply doesn’t mean anything. The story jumps around from one thought to another without any continuity. This boy is 15 but his effort is worse than that which a decent nine-year-old could produce. It contains many of the usual horrors. ‘Dose’ instead of ’does’. ‘Is’nt’ instead of ‘isn’t’. ‘Their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’ all hopelessly intermingled. 12,000 hours of full-time education and we have not even managed to teach him to write. There’s something very sad about the waste of so many years of potential learning.

 

Behaviour

Our main problem is the behaviour of our children. When our pupils arrive at the age of eleven, their attention span is often very short. Many, perhaps most, are unable to sit still and keep quiet for more than a few seconds at a time when these are the basic prerequisites, surely, of successful learning. When we try to introduce them to the concept of listening, it is a whole new skill to learn. This may sound unbelievable but it is absolutely true. Many straightforward tasks become impossible. They cannot listen to a set of instructions or tackle a problem that has more than one stage. Instead of persevering with a question, if the answer is not obvious, they will immediately shout out ‘I don’t geddit!’ or ‘Can’t do it!’ Many of the children swear loudly throughout a lesson, partly to shock, partly because they hear these words so often that they have no idea that there is anything wrong with them and partly because they have never been taught any self-control. They react instinctively, by shouting or striking out at the source of an irritation.

 

Truancy is rife. In 2005, figures from Truancy Watch showed that 50,000 children skip school each day. We have a school uniform which the pupils are supposed to wear, but a visitor would be hard-pressed to say what it is. The Deputy Head in Charge of Discipline is reluctant to enforce it as he thinks it’s a good idea to allow the pupils to ‘express themselves in a way that reflects their different outlooks and cultures.’ Vandalism and graffiti have become commonplace. Simple things such as arriving for lessons on time, bringing a pen with you and doing your homework have become unimportant. Our pupils are late for school, time and time again, without any real punishment. As we so often do, we are taking the easy option but selling them short: punctuality is so important in the workplace and our touchy-feely slackness will count against them in a few short years.

Kids misbehave simply because it is more fun than behaving and, in many cases, there is nothing stopping them. After 12 years of full-time education, costing £72,000, we are not turning out youngsters who understand how to behave, who can listen to and follow instructions, who are basically literate and numerate and who are punctual, the entry-level requirements for 80% of the jobs on offer in this country.

Lewis is in Year 9. He has set off the fire alarm at least twice and openly boasts of the windows he has broken in the school. His vandalism runs into thousands of pounds. The behavioural problems take up so much time that there isn’t much left for actual teaching. Lessons are constantly disrupted by groups of kids arriving late for no real reason, not to mention the hordes of ne’er-do-wells who skip lessons and roam the school in packs, looking for trouble. For well-behaved pupils, who actually want to learn but who sit there quietly being ignored, with their hands up, their life-chances ebb away.

 

To bribe or to discipline?

In the staffroom, Miss Wade is giving the new student teacher some pearls of advice. She is telling her how to get a pupil to move if they do not want to. This is a fairly classic problem in the classroom. ‘You should always try to avoid a confrontation,’ she babbles. ‘So what I do is I move someone else at the same time so they don’t think that you are just picking on them, or I say something like ‘if you move, I’ll let you use the coloured pens.’ The business of negotiating with the kids, or bribing them. We’re told to change our ways of teaching to suit the kids. Shouldn’t it be the other way round?

 

Mr Blunt is a brilliant teacher. Mr Blunt is tall, strongly-built and exudes an air of authority like few others can. A no-nonsense disciplinarian, he has taught here for the last twelve years. He has a vast knowledge and interest in his subject, which is history. He is aware of everything that is going on in the classroom and exerts control constantly but effortlessly. He has zero tolerance for every form of poor behaviour and relentlessly pursues miscreants. He tries constantly to open the kids’ minds to how much better they can become.

 

Assault

Every day, around the UK, teachers are getting assaulted; I’ve been threatened myself and plenty of my colleagues have been attacked. Miss Keebles’ tyres were slashed while her car was left in the school car park overnight. Several teachers have been assaulted at St Jude’s, as they have at many schools.. Often these cases go unreported. In 2006, one pupil slapped a teacher and carried out the attack while another filmed it on his mobile phone. Last year, there were twelve assaults on teachers in four months. One boy, who injured a woman by barging her into a door and then threatened to kill her, was suspended for 15 days and then let back in. The level of violence in our schools is frightening, both in its frequency and its severity, and is getting worse on both counts. Jade, a 12-year-old; was attacked by another girl with a cigarette lighter. Her face was badly burned. Shanni was slashed across the face by another 12-year-old girl, who used the blade from a pencil sharpener in the attack. Shanni will probably be scarred for life. Natasha, aged 15, was attacked with a pair of scissors.

 

As I walk across the playground to the main doors, a small boy – I think it is Kyle from Year 9, but I can’t be sure, shouts ‘Chalk, you f* cking w* nker!’ before dodging round a corner, cackling.

 

I have left the world of education, and I’m not going back. The constant, low-level lapping of the waves, the rising tide of disillusionment, finally brought me to the realisation that I was wasting my time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in System | 6 Comments

To Miss With Love: Summer Term, & OFSTED

In the final blogpost of a three-part abridgement series (first here and second here), Ofsted inspect Katharine’s school. A fight occurs during the inspection…

TMWL

Summer Term

Monday 28 April

Ms Desperate, Furious’s foster mother, marches into my office and sits down with him. Ms Desperate looks as if she might cry. ‘What are we going to do?’ I’ve asked her to come in because of another incident. Furious and Beautiful had a shouting match at lunch on Friday last week and then he went to the nearest door and kicked in the window.

I address Furious first. ‘Well, there’s the cost of the window, Furious. Ms Desperate is going to have to pay for it.’ No response. My tone becomes less even. ‘Furious! Are you listening to me? Did you hear what I said? Ms Desperate is now going to have to spend her hard-earned money on a window which you broke deliberately!’ A reluctant apology. ‘You’re hanging on to your place here by a thread.’

Ms Desperate clasps her hands together. ‘Please, Ms Snuffleupagus, I don’t know what to do. He’s so rude to me at home, he’s so bad at school, he’s completely out of control.’

 

Wednesday 30 April

‘Yo, Miss,’ shouts Munchkin from one of the chairs outside the office. ‘I’ve been kicked out of geography.’ He doesn’t seem too put out by it.

 

Friday 2 May

As I walk through the playground with Dreamer and Dopey by my side, I see Fifty deliberately knock Polish over. ‘Hey, Fifty! What are you doing? Could you give me your diary, please?’ I want to note down in his diary what I’ve just seen.

Fifty is distressed. All the kids have diaries to write their homework in and for teachers to write notes to parents. I suppose his mother must regularly check his diary. He holds his hands up as if I’m holding a gun to his head. He moves towards me. ‘Nah, Miss, please, Miss, I didn’t do nuffink. Please, Miss. Please, Miss.’

As he approaches, Dopey and Dreamer step forward and stand in front of him before he reaches me. ‘Hey!’ yells Dreamer. ‘What’cha think ya doing?’

‘Yeah!’ Dopey makes a couple of fists and shows off his muscles. ‘Don’t you put your grubby hands on her!’

I look at my new bodyguards and laugh. ‘Come on, boys! We need to get to the office!’ Ah… sometimes these kids just make my day.

 

Wednesday 7 May

Surrounded by our best students, not necessarily the brightest, but the most loyal, the most interested in making something of themselves, the most driven, I ask them what they think is the number-one thing that would make them happier at school. There are about fifteen of them on the school council, boys and girls.

‘Would you learn more if you had “better” teachers?’ I ask. ‘Or what if you had bigger classrooms? Better textbooks? Better food at lunchtime? What about smaller classes, would that help? Perhaps learning would improve if we used computers more? What if we played more games in lessons? Perhaps if we set you more homework?’

Adorable leans forward. ‘No, Miss, none of that stuff is important. Well, I mean, it’s important, but we’d learn so much more if everyone in the class just listened to the teacher.’

‘Ah, so the behaviour of other students in your lessons is the thing that stops you the most from learning?’ All the children around me nod vehemently. They say nothing at all. ‘That’s interesting. I’m guessing that you find that pretty irritating, do you? I mean, you must get very annoyed that there are these other students who are preventing the teacher from teaching and you from learning, right?’ Again, they nod in unison, as if I had pushed an electronic button that makes their heads suddenly bop up and down. ‘So what could we do to make school better for you?’

Let Down pulls his chair up. ‘Make them stop talking, Miss, stop them interrupting, make them listen to the teacher.’ I guess he’s remembering his five years of madness before he got to the sixth form, when his development was so stunted that he is now no longer a possible Oxbridge candidate. The stitches in his head from the hammer incident have more or less disappeared now. We never did find out who did it.

I look around at these keen, eager-to-learn children, who are staring at me, their eyes wide open, wanting me to fix it for them, wanting so badly to simply go to school and learn, and a feeling of depression sweeps over me. All these poor kids want to do is to go to school and learn without disruption. If they went to school in India or Jamaica, they wouldn’t have this problem.

 

Wednesday 18 June

Mr Goodheart takes centre stage for briefing. “Ofsted will be with us tomorrow. The school will be open tonight until 9 p.m. to allow you the opportunity to prepare as much as is necessary. I know we’ll all give it our best shot. Good luck!’

 

Thursday 19 June

I worked till midnight last night. I’m exhausted already and we haven’t even begun. I was making PowerPoint after PowerPoint for my lessons. I was cutting out bits of paper and stuffing them in envelopes to create interesting ‘sort activities’. That took an age. And I have a full six-period day today. My God. How will I ever survive?

 

Friday 20 June

It’s the second day of the two-day inspection. The staff room, before school, is explosive and packed. People are still printing and photocopying like there is no tomorrow.

‘Were you seen?’
‘Nah.’
‘Were you seen?’
‘Yeah, she was in for twenty minutes.’ ‘Really? Mine only stayed for ten.’ ‘Was their feedback any good?’ ‘No. An ex-art teacher watching my maths lesson. It was ridiculous.’ Most of us were in school until nine last night. I’m so tired I can barely see straight. I haven’t been seen.

‘They gave me a 3,’ Ms Sensible says. ‘The grade is based on a solitary 15 minutes out of a lifetime of lessons.’

‘And not only that, but judging you by nonsense criteria!’

‘I have a full day today. Have to get out there. Maybe they’ll drop by again. Who knows?’ She turns around to go.

‘Good luck! Remember to include some group work,’ I call after her. As I do, I think about the absurdity of this system. How can it be that those teachers who are the most inspirational, the most dedicated, the most admired by both staff and students, get given a 3? Teachers, not lessons, are what make a school what it is.

 

Cavalier makes his way into the school. He’s wearing his uniform. He looks just like any other boy. As he’s been excluded, he isn’t allowed to be on the school premises, but no one realises that he’s there.

There I am in the playground towards the end of lunch, about to head towards my lesson, when I spot Cavalier by the bins. ‘Cavalier?’ I move towards him. ‘Cavalier? Is that you?’ I squint as the sun hits my eyes. The boy pulls a hood over his head and runs behind the school. So I walk speedily after him. He’s much faster than me and quickly disappears. Was it Cavalier? Or was I imagining things? Confused, but relieved – we don’t want any nonsense happening today with those inspectors still here – I wander back to the side playground, where I was before.

I’m on my way, the playground still out of sight, when suddenly kids start screaming: ‘Fight! Fight!’ As I turn the corner, I catch sight of Cavalier, standing over Furious. Blows are going every which way – except that the blows are coming more from Cavalier, and Furious is on the ground, blocking Cavalier’s fists. Cavalier has a bottle in his hand. There is blood everywhere. Cavalier throws his arm into the air, bottle in hand.

‘No!’ I shout, as I run towards them. ‘Cavalier! No!’
Down comes his arm. I leap as far as I can towards them, trying to grab Cavalier’s arm. I miss. Down comes the bottle, breaking across Furious’s head.

‘You wanna fuck with me? Chaa!’ Cavalier is proud, grinning, blood all over his teeth and face. I fall to the side.

Mr Sporty appears and grabs hold of Cavalier, who allows him- self to be hauled up. The damage is done. Furious is down for the count. Cavalier is satisfied.

‘The inspectors,’ I whisper to Mr Sporty. ‘The inspectors!’

Mr Sporty nods. ‘I’ll get him to the office. I’ll call the police and an ambulance.’ He winks. ‘They’re in room 7 deliberating. Hopefully, they won’t notice.’

I’m practically hysterical, throwing myself next to Furious, who is covered in blood. The broken bottle lies by his side. I can feel the tears build up in my eyes.

Oh my God. If the inspectors see this, we’re dead.

Furious slightly opens his eyes and looks at me through tears and blood. He tries to get up. ‘Where is he?’ he growls. ‘Where the fuck is he?’

I push him back to the ground. ‘He’s gone. Just lie down. Let’s wait for the ambulance.’

I grab hold of Furious’s bloodied hand and squeeze it tight. He looks at me from the ground and, for a moment, I think I see a glimmer of gratitude in his eyes, and that makes me squeeze his hand just that little bit more.

 

Saturday 21 June

I didn’t get seen by the inspectors. All that work, all that time . . .

 

Monday 23 June

I’m standing in the head’s office, just before the briefing. The entire school is wondering what Ofsted’s verdict was.

Mr Goodheart looks up. ‘Thanks for popping in, Snuffy. I wanted to thank you for everything you did on Friday with the Furious–Cavalier incident.’

‘That’s OK, Sir. I was so worried about the inspectors. Was everything OK in the end?’

‘Thanks to you, the inspectors didn’t see any of what happened.’

‘Oh, thank goodness. But what about our grading? Did we make it?’

‘Well, I was going to break the news to you all together at the briefing . . .’

‘Of course.’

‘But I don’t suppose it’ll make any difference if I tell you now. What’s done is done.’

My heart sinks. ‘Oh. I see.’
‘Yes.’ There’s a twinkle in his eye. ‘We did it.’
‘What?’
‘A 2. We managed to retain our “good”.’
I clap my hands together. ‘Oh thank God for that!’
Mr Goodheart smiles. ‘Yes, we even got “good with some outstanding features”. Not bad at all. The official report will arrive in the next few days, of course, but for now, we at least know where we stand.’

I can’t keep still. ‘That’s fantastic, Sir. That’s brilliant. Everyone will be so pleased.’ And then a thought stops me. ‘And Cavalier and Furious? I know Furious is still in hospital, right? He’s sent me a few texts saying he’s OK, but nothing more.’

‘Yes. He’s lost a few teeth, and the gash on his head from the bottle is pretty bad. Looks like he’ll be in the hospital for about a week.’ He cups his chin in his hand. ‘As for Cavalier . . . the police are dealing with him. I think Furious’s parents may press charges.’

 

Tuesday 24 June

Munchkin is always in trouble these days: always sent out of lessons for disruption, always pushing other children around, always getting into fights.

 

Saturday 28 June

Hadenough comes round. ‘I’ve finally done it. I’m out, and this time I’m not going back. That 3 from the Ofsted inspector was the last straw. My girlfriend wants to move out of London. Maybe I’ll get a teaching job out of London somewhere. Or maybe I’ll just quit teaching altogether. In the meantime, I can just do supply. You never talk about leaving. You’re insane. All you want is to work in a difficult inner-city school. What’s wrong with you anyway? Eh?’

 

Wednesday 9 July

I’m holding the whole of my Year 8 class in at lunch for a ten-minute detention.

I use the time to try and talk some sense into them. I explain that the more they chat, the more they fall behind. I try to make them see the bigger picture by mentioning other classes and drawing the school up into a kind of race, saying that they are now ten minutes behind everyone else. They listen but, ultimately, they don’t really care.

‘You don’t understand what you’re competing with. You don’t know what the kids are like at other schools,’ I say. ‘You’ve never been inside Wineaton, for example. You don’t know what their lessons are like, how everyone is quiet all the time so the teacher is able to plan and manages to teach so much more. You don’t know how much they get done every lesson and how hard their homework is. You only have each other to compare yourselves to.’

Fifty scowls. ‘Ha! Homework! Why would we want homework that’s hard?’

‘Because hard work makes you into successes. You want to keep your doors open. You want to keep on succeeding so that, as you pass each step, more and more doors open for you. You don’t want your decisions to close doors, you want to get to university.’

Cent’s eyes open wide. ‘So where’d you go then, Miss? To university?’

‘I went to Oxford.’ Adorable smiles. ‘Miss was clever at school.’

I point my index finger at them. ‘But that’s the point! I was no more clever than any of you. It’s just that I worked hard. I didn’t talk when I was told to be silent and I did the best that I could. So I kept doors open for my future.’

Munchkin winces. ‘Yo, Miss, that makes no sense. If your doors were open, then why you teaching us?’

I sigh, dropping my arms down by my side. ‘Why do you kids always say that to me when I tell you where I went to university? Why don’t you get that I want to work here? I chose this job.’

The entire class looks confused. Cent frowns. ‘But who would want to teach here?’

My eyes nearly pop out of my head. ‘I do!’
 The class is buzzing with excitement. Imagine that. Miss chose to be here.

 

Thursday 17 July

I feel like I’ve been in a boxing ring. I jump through Ofsted hoops just like everyone else. I stuff my lessons full of games and cut them up into tiny pieces so that the kids don’t have to develop any kind of concentration span. I couldn’t help Furious – and look at Cavalier. I should have seen that coming. I should have been able to stop it. What about Stoic? What about Munchkin? What about Seething? And what about the students who we’ve helped go to Oxford? We’re still losing the battle.

 

Thursday 24 July

‘OK, you lot, last lesson before the summer holidays!’
 My Year 8s cheer. I ask them all what their plans are for the summer. They explain to me that they don’t have any. They aren’t going anywhere, they aren’t doing anything. They’re going to spend the summer watching TV and playing on their PSPs.

‘Remember how I went to China last year? Well, this is what one of the girls at the school I visited in China gave to me.’ I hold up a letter. And then I read it aloud to them:

 

To Miss, with love:

‘Nothing is impossible if you put your heart into it.’ I hope to visit England some day. I am a girl who has a dream, and she will work hard for that dream. She never gives up until the dream comes true.

A Chinese girl

I read them the letter and they listen in absolute silence. It’s amazing how still they are. When I finish, Cent lets out a gasp. ‘Wow, Miss, they really want to work hard in China, don’t they?’

‘Rah!’ They all laugh. ‘Glad we don’t live there!’

‘Oh, for goodness’ sake!’ I burst into laughter and pretend to throw the letter at them. ‘What are you like! Aargghhh! Try to pick up a book this summer,’ I shout.

‘Rah!’

I have to laugh too. They’re so funny. I do love them. ‘See you in September then, everyone. Have a good summer!’

‘Yeah! You too Miss, man! You too!’

 

***

 

No one hears the voices of my children. No one listens to my colleagues when they shout about the shocking behaviour, the dumbing-down or the chaotic leadership of our education system.

 

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To Miss with Love: Spring Term

What is the behaviour like in many of the schools rated ‘good’ by Ofsted? Katharine’s book ‘To Miss With Love’ exposed chaotic disruption of lessons and bullying of vulnerable pupils. This is the second in a series of three posts (the first is here) republishing extracts online;

 TMWL

Spring Term

Monday 6 January

On the bus on the way to school, four girls, twelve or thirteen, board. The black bus driver in his fifties tells them to get off because they don’t have travel cards. They jeer, shouting insult after insult at him, gesticulating aggressively. The bus driver shouts back: ‘What is wrong with you? Why do you behave like this?’ His Caribbean accent shakes with anger. ‘I feel nothing but shame when I look at you, you know!’

 

Wednesday 8 January

Mr Goodheart has brought in a behaviour expert. She observes me with 9.5, a class prone to swearing, fighting or jumping out of the ground-floor window with other teachers. Afterwards, in my office, I ask: ‘So, tell me. You saw a normal lesson: too much chat, reluctance. What do I need to do differently?’

‘I saw you telling them off for not doing their homework. Why set homework? I shouldn’t worry about homework with this class: just don’t set it. Instead, why don’t you have games throughout the lesson? They need to have incentives to learn. If they won’t learn under the methods we use to teach them, then we must change the way we teach to accommodate the way they learn. As they have short attention spans, give them gold stars, praise – and chocolate makes a good prize.’ But I want them learning for learning’s sake! I refuse to bribe the kids.

 

Wednesday 22 January

I’m observing, Mr Bushytail, a new teacher, with my Year 8 class. They look like they’re possessed by demons, chatting away, laughing, pushing each other, banging the desks. Only a few are quietly waiting, waiting for him to take control of the class. They wait. I wait. We all wait. But the control never comes. The groupwork gives them the chance to chat about everything and anything except the work they’re meant to be doing. Then Bushytail puts them in teams. It’s chaos: the kids are screaming. No learning is taking place whatsoever.

 

Thursday 23 January

I storm down the corridor and run into Munchkin, who’s sitting outside his Maths lesson. ‘Munchkin! Sent out again?’ He’s silent. ‘Munckin, what’s going on with you?’ But he just looks at the ground, saying nothing.

 

Tuesday 28 January

I organise a trip to the cinema to see the film Coach Carter. It should explain to the kids why we teachers insist on having high standards, that we do it because we care, not because we hate them. Once at the cinema, we have to try hard to keep them in their seats. We have to stop them from hitting each other., throwing popcorn, yelling. Within minutes, a fight has broken out. With the help of other teachers, we separate them and isolate them. I return inside to the darkness. Suddenly, Seething us headed right for me. She shoves me out of the way and shouts, ‘You’re a freaking crackhead!’All I can do is write an incident report: the unruly behaviour, the fights, the swearing, the shoving of a teacher, the disrespect.

Wednesday 29 January

Mr Goodheart decides not to punish anyone for their behaviour on the trip. He says it’s best to draw a line under it and move on.

 

Friday 14 February

My year 8s are misbehaving, so I pause, as I often do, and explain to them that we are wasting learning time. ‘You misbehave, and we fall behind. Don’t you get it?’ I raise my voice, exasperated. ‘You have no idea what others are learning and achieving in other schools. The competition is fierce out there!’

 

Monday 24 February

Seething and Deranged start arguing. Kids gather round, laughing, shouting, cheering them on. ‘‘Tramp!’ ‘Bitch!’ ‘Yeah! yeah! Yeah!’ screams the mob. I try to separate them, try pulling them apart, try pushing them apart, but nothing works. They are ripping each other’s hair, grabbing each other’s throats, whacking each other and me too as they bit each other. They other children are yelling like jackals, Furious the loudest. Other teachers arrive to disperse the girls, and then the mob. My bag, wallet, cards have fallen out … but my phone? Where’s my phone? It cannot be found. My favourite phone ever, and it’s gone.

 

Wednesday 26 February

In a lesson with my Year 8s I somehow get talking about how yesterday I had no phone and no internet. The class lets out a gasp of horror: ‘No internet?’ ‘No telly?’ ‘But Miss, what did you do?’ Their mouths are open. ‘No internet? Can you imagine? What do you do? What can you do?’ The room is buzzing.’ Just go to sleep,’ yells Munchkin. ‘Yeah, sleep: that’s all there is left.’

‘Right! I want everyone’s attention! No internet, no TV, what can you do instead?’

‘Go shopping’

‘Go Nando’s’

‘Or the cinema’

Eventually, someone says, ‘you could read, Miss.’

No one takes any notice of this idea. No one mentions homework. Why would they?

 

Saturday 1 March

Two hundred children went on a trip out of London for activities like archery recently. After scenes of chaos and disobedience, twenty had to be sent home. The trip cost thousands. Ten kids didn’t even bother to show up, even though their places had already been paid.

 

Monday 10 March

I’m on duty outside school when I notice Excluded. He was asked to leave the school permanently a year ago because of a terrible track record of constant disruption, bullying and aggression towards teachers and pupils.

‘Excluded,’ I call.

‘What? What you doing, man? I ain’t done nothing!’ His manner is aggressive, snarling like a fox cornered by dogs. ‘What you doing coming up to me like some kind of policeman?’

I ask him what he’s up to these days, and where he is now.

‘Nowhere, man.’ Excluded spits on the side of the road.

‘Nowhere? You must be somewhere?’

‘Yeah, well, you know, I go centre.’ He means the Pupil Referral Unit. And yes, I guess that means he doesn’t go anywhere at all. He struts off down the streets, kicking the pavement in anger.

 

Wednesday 12 March

Stoic is eating alone in the canteen.

‘Hi Stoic. You know, I’ve been thinking about how extraordinary you are, how hard-working. So what’s made you like this?’

‘Miss, when I was in Year 8, I turned and looked at the others in my year and noticed they were always misbehaving and getting into trouble. To be considered cool you had to be bad.’ He shakes his head. ‘So I decided there and then to go without friends and to work hard instead.’ I look around the canteen and note how the others are taking no notice of Stoic. I think of the resolve and strength of character it must take for a thirteen year old to go without friends in return for future success. If this is what it takes to succeed, it is any wonder that so few of them don’t?

 

Thursday 13 March

Knock, knock. ‘Miss, can we have a word?’

‘Of course. Have a seat, girls.’

One starts to cry. ‘I just can’t stand It any more, Miss, It isn’t fair. They shout and scream at the teacher all the time and I can’t hear myself think!’ she sobs. The other pupils are so loud and cause so much havoc that no one can learn.’

‘We’re worried about exams. We’re really trying, Miss. But the others are always laughing, shouting and taking the piss. The teacher just waits until they stop. But that takes forever. Sometimes teachers shout and get into arguments. And we aren’t learning anything!’ She lets out a deep breath. ‘It’s not fair. I wanna get my GCSEs. I wanna have choice, like you said.’

‘Have you spoken to Miss about it?’

‘Yes’ she shouts. ‘I’ve asked if I can work in the library but she says it ain’t allowed. We have our GCSE exams in, like, a minute, and they don’t care!’

What am I meant to do? How can I tell these girls to make the effort and then, when they come to me for help, say there is nothing I can do?

 

Monday 24 March

I turn up at another history lesson to remove Munchkin, who is being so badly behaved that he has been sent out. He storms down the corridor in front of me. “It wasn’t me. She’s always blaming me, man.”

“That isn’t what I want to hear, Munchkin. What is going on with you these days? You used to be so well behaved and nowadays you’re behaving badly across the school. You think we don’t see what’s going on? Fifty and Cent are not boys you should be hanging around with.”

“It wasn’t me, man. She just hates me, yuh know.”

“I’m talking about the bigger picture. You do know they’re a bad influence on you, yes? And you do know that you come to school to learn? So what do we need to do to help you learn better?”

“Nah, Miss, I just can’t be bothered.”

‘OK, well, what do you want to do when you’re older?’

‘I wanna be a footballer.’

 

Monday 21 March

I speak to the head about the advertisements for science teachers, and there is not a single application. By that, he doesn’t mean a single good application. He means, there isn’t anyone applying at all. Some science departments in London are made up entirely of supply teachers.

 

Thursday 3 April

Beautiful walks into my office with her long black hair swishing behind her and sits down. He father follows behind, a small Pakistani man, and shakes my hand. ‘Morning, Sir, good to see you again. Please have a seat. So what is it you would like to discuss this morning?’

Beautiful’s father, Mr Serious, lets out a sigh. ‘Well, Ms Snuffleupagus, I am very worried about history.’

‘Miss, it’s like I said. I can’t learn in history. And my dad wants to know what we can do about it.’

‘I know, and Sir, it is very good of you to come in. You know that we’re trying our best to support Beautiful’s class.’

‘I know, Miss, but our class is so bad.’

Her father looks at me, his eyes filled with hope. ‘As her form tutor, is there something you can do?’

‘Now, look, beautiful, you can’t let this beat you. In life, sometimes you hit obstacles. But you don’t let them get you down. You figure out a way to beat them. ’

‘But, Miss, I try to get on and do my own thing. I sit at the front. I ask the teacher for extra work. I get it marked outside of class. But I have to teach myself this stuff at home ’cause the teacher can’t teach. And it’s so hard.’ Tears start to fall down Beautiful’s face.

Her father mumbles, ‘It wasn’t like this in my day.’

I try to reassure her. ‘Now, now, Beautiful, no crying now . . . that means you’ve given up. And we never give up in the face of an obstacle, now do we? We don’t let them beat us!’ Beautiful blinks through her tears and smiles. ‘What did Martin Luther King do, huh? He had a big obstacle to overcome, didn’t he? What did he do?’

Beautiful wipes her face. ‘He didn’t give up, Miss.’

‘That’s right. And when you go for college interviews, and job interviews later, they’ll always ask you that magic question: “What are you like when faced with a difficult situation?”, and you, Beautiful, will be able to talk of this time in your life, when you didn’t let this obstacle get you down.’

Beautiful grins. ‘Yes, Miss. Yes, Miss. You’re right, Miss. I’ll just work harder.’

Mr Serious sends his daughter to school to learn, not to survive classroom chaos. I wonder how it is he hasn’t got angry at our inability to simply provide a school where the teachers can teach and the children can learn.

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To Miss With Love: Autumn Term

 Katharine had been teaching in inner-city schools for over a decade when she wrote ‘To Miss With Love’. Groupwork and games were required in lessons; bullying and fights were prevalent. In one incident, a stone is thrown at a teacher; in another, a weapon is brought into school for a fight. The book sparked intense controversy and a national debate about disruption and underachievement in English schools. These problems have not disappeared. Republishing extracts online, in a series of three posts (Autumn, Spring and Summer Terms), reveals the unintended consequences of permissive behaviour systems, even in schools rated ‘good’ by Ofsted.

“I teach because I love children and I want to improve their lives at school. So many of us, though, cannot see the problems ingrained in our education system. The majority of children across England are in schools like the one in this book, where fights happen every day – and some are in schools that are far worse.”

Katharine Birbalsingh

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Monday 26 August

I do love coming in on exam results day. Nothing quite like watching your kids succeed and seeing their faces shine with delight! And this year, our school got 57% A*-C grades, which is up from last year, so we’re happy. That’s about average for England, so we’re figure we’re doing pretty well, and we get graded ‘good’ by Ofsted.

 

Monday 2 September

Staff gather in the dining hall, excited to be back, at our first meeting of the year. The Head begins: ‘OFSTED. They’ll be coming this year. The only question is: when?’ There is absolute silence. A good report from OFSTED is crucial if we are to remain considered to be a good school. Parents fight to get their children a place here. Some six to eight children apply for each place. But a bad OFSTED report could ruin all that…

 

Autumn Term

 

Wednesday 4 September

Some teachers are in at 7am every day, and most of us won’t get out until 6pm, dragging a pile of books home with us. Mr Hadenough, one of our Maths teachers, grabs my arm. He’s 28 and has been teaching here three years. ‘Same old nightmare last night. I was with 8.4 and they were going crazy. I just couldn’t get them to stop. A few of them jumped out the window, and then a fight broke out and I couldn’t pull them apart… I just hope I get a good night’s sleep tonight. Maybe I’ll take some sleeping pills.’ I think about the countless teachers I’ve known over the years who have had trouble sleeping. What are we? War veterans?

 

Thursday 12 September

It’s the end of the day. Mr Hadenough is walking past. He’s a good guy and a good teacher. I notice he’s got a nasty bruise on his head. I stop him and ask him what happened.

‘You know Furious?’ Furious has a different pattern in his hair every week. He disrupts lessons, regularly gets into fights, and aged fifteen is on the brink of permanent exclusion. ‘He threw a stone at me today.’ I remember the one-on-one chat I had with Furious last year, telling him to stop his dreadful behaviour, asking him whether he wanted to end up in a PRU – Pupil Referral Unit – where children go when they have been excluded from mainstream education. It was clear to me then, as it is clear to me now, that what he needs is strict discipline. As it is, Furious won’t be punished at all. What does this say to him – and all the other children?

 

Monday 23 September

Monday morning, and Munchkin, a little Year 8 boy with squidgy cheeks, in in tears, holding his glasses in his hands. I approach him: ‘Hey, Munchkin. You OK? What happened?’

He wipes his face and points to a bunch of Year 10s on the other side of the playground. ‘They took my lunch money.’

‘Who did?’

Tears stream down Munchkin’s face. ‘I don’t know. There was a whole lot of them. They surrounded me. And then my money was gone.’

I squeeze his shoulder. ‘You sure you don’t have any idea who it could be?’ Munchkin shakes his head.

 

Monday 30 September

Monday briefing, where the head gives the staff what they need to survive the week. ‘Morning!’ Mr Goodhart beams. ‘Lots on this week, as normal. I’d like to remind everyone about what Ofsted will be looking for. We simply cannot have a situation where teachers are teaching and pupils are listening.’ I sit up in my chair, not entirely sure I’ve heard correctly. ‘Groupwork, games, fun in lessons. Have a very productive week!’ We cannot have teachers teaching and children listening. That’s our motto.

 

Tuesday 1 October

Two girls rush part me in lunchbreak. One grabs the other’s hair and punches her. Thumps are flying. They are steaming with anger. Without thinking, I leap between them. But punches keep being thrown over and around me as I get tangled up, flailing back and forth, stumbling, lurching. A crowd of kids gathers quickly, watching, shouting, egging on the girls. Their best friends are screaming. All I can hear is screeching and howling: ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’

‘Stop! Stop!’ I hear from the sidelines. Cavalier raises his voice. ‘Stop, man! You’re hitting Miss. You gotta stop, man!’ Finally, another teacher comes to my rescue and we pull the girls apart.

 

Friday 4 October

Furious sits down on a chair in my office. His foster parents sit next to him. Mr Inevitable points at Furious. ‘He’s got himself in trouble again, hasn’t he?’ ‘Yes, he was involved in a fight last week. And then there was the incident with Mr Hadenough with the stone, which was just appalling.’

Furious jumps up. ‘It wasn’t me, man! What are you accusing me for?’ He pulls his face into a grimace, staring at me.

‘Furious’ report shows rudeness, truancy, fighting and defiance at school.’

‘Oh my Lord,’ Ms Desperate cries out. ‘What this boy is doing to me! What are we going to do?’

I suggest various ways of disciplining the boy at home. His mother is nearly in tears, at her wit’s end.

 

Tuesday 8 October

I’m in the canteen when Munchkin comes up to me. ‘They took my phone Miss,’ he gulps, ‘They took it.’

‘Who took your phone?’

Munchkin shakes his head. ‘I dunno. It just went. I had my bag over there. It’s gone.’

We search his bag. No phone. I ask kids sitting around the table. Did they see anything? Does anyone know anything? No one knows a thing. Or no one will admit to knowing.

‘Miss’ Munchkin swallows hard, trying not to let the tears out again – ‘I got that phone for my birthday last week.’

We have nothing to go on. Little Munchkin is waiting for me, waiting for some good news, waiting for me to tell him I can fix it, I can get his phone back. I shake my head. His face drops, bottom lip sticking out. And the tears began to trickle down his cheeks.

 

Wednesday 23 October

Broom shouted at me to get a life when he threw me out of school at 7.30 tonight. Back at home, it’s 10pm and I’ve been working since 7.30am, working non-stop for over fourteen hours.

 

Friday 25 October

I pass Stoic, a tall Guyanese boy in Year 13. He’s been at the school since Year 7 and will go to University next year. The teachers love him. ‘Morning, Stoic.’

He looks up, smiling. ‘Morning, Miss.‘

He’s reading a newspaper. He leaps up to hold a door open for me and stands to the side. ‘Well, thank you sir!’ I beam. How lovely. How wonderful that we still manage to have pupils like Stoic.

 

Monday 4 November

A pupil has just been hauled out of his lesson for shouting ‘Idiot’ in his teacher’s face. Mr Hadenough approaches. ‘That class is completely out of control. The worst two were removed. But that still left six of them all shouting at me from different directions.’ He is shaking. I ask him if he is OK. Tears start to well up in his eyes. ‘They wouldn’t stop. I might as well have been invisible.’ The fire alarm goes off. Kids pour out of classrooms, some running, swarming everywhere, laughing and screaming. They love it when the fire alarm gets pulled. We have no idea who set it off.

 

Monday 18 November

A bunch of Year 11 girls is doubled up in hysterics. Stoic appears at my door. He is fiercely proud and polite, and is top of every top set. ‘I’m sorry to have disturbed you Miss,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry about the noise. Well, it was me those girls were laughing at.’ Astonishing. He’s apologising for being laughed at. Well, that’s Stoic for you.

‘I tripped as I was going down the stairs. So they laughed. You know how it is, Miss.’

‘Stoic, what makes you the way you are?’

‘I don’t know Miss. I just want to do well.’

‘OK, but why do you want to do well?’

‘I don’t know Miss.’ Stoic searches for an answer.

‘Is it your parents? Do they insist you do well?

Stoic thinks about it. ‘I suppose so, Miss.’

‘You think they’re silly, don’t you?’ I smile wryly.

‘No, Miss, I don’t. I used to try to tell them to listen to the teachers and do their work, but now…’ Stoic looks defeated. ‘Well, now I just get on with my work and ignore them.’

‘Don’t you mind them laughing at you?’ I probe.

‘No. They can do what they like.’

‘You stay the way you are, OK Stoic? There’s nothing better in life than being different. How’s the Oxford application going? If anyone deserves a place there, then it’s you.’

‘Thanks, Miss.’

 

Monday 25 November

‘Fight!’ scream some of the kids in my class. ‘Fight!’ Everyone jumps up and runs to the window. It’s Furious and Cavalier. They’re surrounded by what looks like a pack of wolves, eager for blood, but who are in fact children. As I instinctively run towards the middle of the fight, I see blood. Cavalier’s forehead is pouring with it. Blood is shooting out from his forehead in every direction. My heart is racing. Furious is still swinging punches. I trip and fall backwards, my hands covered in blood. ‘Walk him away,’ I yell. ‘That way!’ I turn. ‘Go and get me another teacher. Now!’ the kids gawp at me, ‘I said now!’ I’m bellowing, my voice cracking. One scampers to the main building. With Cavalier still in my grasp, I turn to some of the others: ‘Find me the weapon.’ Then I march Cavalier to the office. As we walk, the blood gushes down his forehead. I hand him over. I then rush back to my abandoned class, still shaking from the ordeal. ‘Miss was right in the middle of the action! Rah! Miss is hard, man!’ Still shaking on the inside, I say: ‘Remember: don’t mess with me. I’m as hard as nails.’

 

Monday 9 December

The weapon was a metal bar. It wasn’t Furious who brought it in. It was Cavalier. He brought it in to protect himself against Furious, and his injury was caused by his own metal bar. Perhaps they will never to return to school – the boy who brought in the metal bar to defend himself, and the boy who inspired such fear in him that he did so. What about the other kids? He can’t be bringing a weapon into school…

 

Tuesday 10 December

I’m walking along the corridor when I see Munchkin standing outside his Science class. I raise my eyebrows. ‘You been sent out, Munchkin?’ He bows his head. ‘I saw you outside your technology lesson the other day as well. Why are you suddenly getting kicked out of your lessons?’ His eyes are fixed firmly on the floor.

 

Thursday 12 December

We thought for sure Stoic would get in. If he doesn’t, who does? ‘He was number seven. They took six. They said his essays were the best they have ever seen from a state school student. The best! What does that mean? He’s the best but we won’t have him?’ The best the tutors had ever seen from a state-school applicant. From a state school applicant. The words reverberate around my head. What are they teaching in the private schools? I guess they aren’t chasing loads of bad behaviour. I guess they’re actually teaching for entire lessons. I guess they plan for what makes for good learning, not games and fun. I guess they simply live in a different world.

 

Friday 20 December

I open some Christmas cards. One is from Stoic.

Dear Miss, I just want to say thanks. I would not have got an A* if it wasn’t for you. To have such an inspirational teacher around makes coming to school worthwhile. From Stoic.

 

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I’m a teacher, get me out of here

 

Francis Gilbert describes his experiences of being a new teacher in a tough school with vivid candour. He agreed to let me share some extracts from the book, which is well worth reading.

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In a primary school I visited in my first year of teaching, children were pulling each other’s hair, tipping water on the floor, scribbling on each other’s faces and prodding each other with tongs.

In the secondary school I went to next, a boy was openly smoking in front of his teacher. He offered me a cigarette.

One teacher I observed, Jesse, seemed exhausted. He encouraged pupils to make their own films, discuss controversial topics and do anything but sit down and read and write. It was hard work, made even harder because the pupils knew he was a soft touch: they ate sweets in his lesson, swore regularly, had fights and verbal slanging matches.

My first ever lesson was with Jesse’s GCSE English class, and there was a play to read. ‘Now then,’ I said, ‘Could we have quiet, please? Could you put your hand up if you want to read?’ Everyone started shouting that they wanted a role, and then when I said they had a part they refused to take it. After ten minutes of trying to allocate roles, no one had a part. The kids were laughing and jeering at me. Sweat was beginning to seep through my shirt. I eventually got the play started, but the faltering voices were drowned out by the other kids who were still chatting very loudly. Daryl Jones was pushing and shoving the boy next to him. He shoved him so hard that his friend fell off his seat. He grinned as I approached and put his head on the desk with his eyes closed. ‘You have to follow’ I said in an angry voice. ‘Oh, f*ck off sir,’ said Jones, ‘I’m just trying to have a kip here.’ The class exploded in laughter. He had humiliated me, and there was nothing I could do.

 

In September, my life as a teacher in inner-city London began. After one appalling lesson with 9A, I was confused and anxious. I had 9A again that day and was none the wiser about how to teach them. I felt I only had myself to blame. I should know how to teach, I should know how to get them to behave…

‘Yer mum is a c**k-sucking whore who takes it up the bum’

‘Yer mum is a c**k-sucking bandit whore who takes it up the bum and more

‘Yer mum is a wh*re’

‘Sir, sir, Bulus just cussed my mum!’

‘He started it!’

Apart from this, my worksheet seemed to have done the trick: 9A was very noisy but nearly everyone was attempting to write the fill-in-the-gaps exercise.

 

A typical afternoon teaching 9A, who I’d been teaching for months now, looks like this. They are jostling against the corridor wall, prodding each other, guffawing and shouting as they wait to come into the room. One of the girls winks at me: ‘anyone tell you you’ve got a nice arse sir?’ She winks at me again. I pretend I haven’t heard. Wahid notes, ‘You got red eyes sir. Very red eyes! Anything the matter with you? You sick? You’re not infected are you?’ Others join in, ‘Red eyes! Red eyes!’ For some reason, since I started at Truss, I have suffered from red eyes. This isn’t from drinking, or form conjunctivitis; it is a Truss-related condition that neither I nor my doctor can get to the bottom of.

‘Now, 9A, I need you to listen. Could you listen please? Sharif, please could you stop hitting Bilal with your book. Your book is for reading. Jafar, don’t flick! I said no elastic bands! And stop tapping Fotik! Stop it! NOW!’ They start laughing at my explosion. Charlene snarls when I tell her to get on with the work, that it’s boring and she isn’t going to do anything. There is a tussle developing between Bulus and Mohibur. Bulus is having fun ripping off the cover of his book, rolling it into a cone and whacking Mohibur over the head with it. ‘You’re going to have to pay for that book,’ I say, realising that I wont being able to carry out this threat. Bulus shrugs and keeps hitting Mohibur. When the bell goes, the pupils suddenly disappear before I can set them imaginary homework. Homework does not happen at this school except in policy documents.

My observation feedback is this: ‘You need to do more groupwork. Their learning is far too passive at the moment.’

Another lesson began. ‘Right, now, quiet, and let’s get on with some work!’ I shouted. There were laughs. Hakim snorted and produced a pack of cigarettes. ‘If you light that I’ll have to send you out on call,’ I said. Despair and panic shot through every limb of my body. On call at Truss was a hassle and a shambles: the teacher had to log the incident in a book, and the senior team were never in attendance. Hakim lit the cigarette. The whole class jumped up and started running around the room. Then they began to move the furniture out of the room. I shouted at the top of my voice for them to stop, but it was useless. Desks, chairs and textbooks ricocheted into the corridor. ‘Want a drag?’ Hakim grinned at me.

I felt humiliated, angry and guilty. The guilt was the worst because I felt as though the whole incident was my fault. I felt so ashamed, I felt like I would never teach again.

 

I went to observe another English teacher. Sean Carson’s class was an oasis of calm and quiet. Sean was a disciplinarian. The riotous behaviour of the same students didn’t happen in his class. He never did any groupwork. In his view, the kids would just muck around. Pupils were either reading or writing. Amid the turbulence of inner-city London, he had built a world of peace. How did he do it? He had clocked up twenty years of teaching experience.

The thought of 9A last thing on a Friday filled me with dread. Yumin was forever jumping up and down and found it impossible to sit in his seat. Bilal asked me awkward questions about my private life: ‘have you ever had sex, sir? When did you last do it?’ Shadi told tales about gang fights and drug-running. I never got a grip on the class during that first year.

Slowly, there were days 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. Little notes, though, were still being passed around the room.

In a nearby classroom, there were scenes of malign pandemonium, the behaviour malicious and angry. The kids were throwing things at the boards, turning over tables, sweeping Bunsen burners off tables, smashing test tubes and fighting each other.

I wanted to move on.

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Experiences of a new teacher

This is one new teacher’s account of her first year as a newly qualified teacher in a tough school.

I teach at an inner-city secondary school, where sixty percent of students receive free school meals. Eight million was spent doing up the building, and the new rules said: no chewing gum. Soon, the brand new tables had layers of Wrigley’s and Juicy Fruit stuck to their undersides.

In my first lesson of my first year, a fight broke out between two students. They went for each other’s hair and throats. The whole class were out of their seats, crowding around the two girls. Senior management arrived to remove them from the lesson. In my first year of teaching I did not have a life during term time: I sat up til ten marking students’ work and planning the following day’s lessons.

The first morning back in my NQT year, eighty or so teachers gathered in the echoing dining hall, where Cecelia, the principal, welcomed us, announced the GCSE results, and congratulated us on the rise in attainment: 58% of students had got five or more GCSEs at grades between C and A*. The national average that year was 64%. Only 32%– about 60 students out of 200 or so achieved a C or above in English and Maths.

I knew the Year 10s were going to be a difficult group. They had been at this school longer than I had, which made me think that they know things I don’t. They were intimidating teenagers, predicted Es and Ds in their GCSEs.

One minute into the lesson, and the seating plan has fallen apart. ‘Miss, I don’t want to sit there. I can’t sit with her.’ They’re adamant, forceful: ‘No, I don’t care, I’m not sitting there!’ The students eye me up, arms folded, with a look of outright disdain. I distribute a poem, a stanza to each table. Chaos descends. All the five groups I am not with raise their voices in pandemonium. A few quieter students are attempting the task, but the loud majority make it difficult to hear anything. Every few minutes I strain to raise my voice above theirs and tell them to settle and quieten down, which they do, for a few seconds. Several separate conversations are going on while groups are trying to share their observations. I turn to the girls talking to each other and ask them to stop, explaining that it is rude to speak over other people. They turn back to each other and finish their conversation. Jamie is eating crisps. Group work was an unmitigated disaster. As the door closes behind them, they burst into loud laughter.

No gum is one rule: all lessons must have a learning objective is another, to tell students what skill to be developing. The other rule about lessons is they must be divided into three parts: a fun starter, main activity, and a plenary where students reflect.

‘Adalia, gum in the bin. Chantelle, why haven’t you started?’

‘Miss, can I borrow a pen?’

My box of biros, full at the beginning of term, had already evaporated. Half the Year 10 class needed a pen each lesson. I always forgot to collect them in, so would have to scrabble around on the floor to gather any that the students had been kind enough to leave with me. Scrambling around on the floor also gave me a chance to collect the wrappers and crisp packets they’d dropped once they’d finished surreptitiously eating the contents. I root around on my desk and find a pen for Chantelle.

Chantelle raises her hand.

‘Miss,’ she giggles, ‘have you seen what someone’s written here?’ She points at the desk. I look and see that someone has etched into the desk with a compass: ‘Your mum is a c**t.’ Shocked and annoyed, I instruct her: ‘Don’t tell the others.’

My energy was waning – there was a pile of unmarked homework in the tray on my desk, and I already felt ready for another week off. The Year 10 class didn’t go in for waiting quietly with their arms folded for me to give them an instruction. I had to bamboozle them with Powerpoint presentations and clips of film and music, instructions and tasks and performances. In terms of the pecking order within my class, there were several positions above mine. By being so purely unpredictable and unbothered by the rules, they made me dread each lesson, not knowing what their mood would be.

At the end of a lesson, I looked at the bin. It was overflowing with crisp packets. Drained of energy, I got on to the floor and started picking up the litter that hadn’t made it to the bin.

At home, I settled down for some marking. I noted it was taking me five minutes to mark each student’s work and therefore I would be finishing at ten. But then at 8.30 something strange happened: every muscle in my body hurt, and I suddenly had to crawl to bed, unable to do anything more.

At six o’clock on Wednesday morning I called in sick. I sat down morosely at my laptop to email in cover work, thinking how the poor cover teacher would be so abused by my classes. The students would trash the room. A supply teacher is a school providing students with a human sacrifice…

On my return, I braced myself. Lots of sheets of A4 lined paper were strewn about the place. Some students had obviously managed to write their names at the tops of their piece of paper, but not got any further. I removed the crisp packets stuffed into the cupboard at the back of the room. A pile of incident reports were on my desk:

“Folashade was drinking flavoured fizzy water in class. I asked her to put it away. She refused. I asked her again and she refused again, angrily. She charged at me, and had to be restrained by her classmates.”

“Erez came into class and immediately would not follow instructions or do anything co-operatively. She was given two warnings for refusing to take off her coat and take her bag off the desk. ‘What? What’s my bag doing to you? Is my bag hurting you?’ I tried to send her out of the classroom but she refused to go.”

I heard a piercing scream next door. I ran to the classroom, imagining a fight had broken out, but it was just a drama lesson. ‘It’s ok, they’re just doing drama next door.’ Everyone looked miserable. ‘Why are they always having fun?’ Princess stamped her foot. ‘Please could you take out a pen,’ I said. Rude, aggressive, and undermining, one pupil snarled: ‘Don’t start on me – I’m not in the mood.’ The same confrontation day in, day out.

The glory days with my Year 7s seemed to be drawing to a close. They were in their second term at the school and, after carefully observing the years above them, had started adopting some of their bad habits. They had grown loud. And the louder they grew, the less I enjoyed being in the classroom with them. They’d completely lost interest in hearing anything the rest of the class might have to say.

Day to day I could feel I was falling down a never-ending spiral of tiredness. So much of the time teaching the Year 11s I wanted to shake them and say, ‘Stop wasting time. You don’t know what you’re missing out on. Why won’t you do something about it?’ When your students fail to see something, it naturally feels like a failing on your part. Why wasn’t I a good enough teacher to make them work harder? How did Julia do it? Her students were orderly: she narrowed her eyes at them and they fell into silence. Why would they follow other people’s instructions but not mine?

The Year 7s were always at their worst on a Wednesday afternoon. They had history in the previous lesson, which was taught across the hallway by a long-term supply teacher. His door was closed, and so was mine, and the hallway lay between, and yet I could still hear them rioting in his room. As they surged from his class to mine, I braced myself. The class spent the hour not listening to me or each other. My voice was hoarse. I had no energy. I cannot keep them quiet, I thought: I have lost the will. I can’t do it. I can’t make them listen. Controlling disruptive behaviour was sapping my energy, and I felt, once again, I was having to fight my students in order to teach them. By half-term I was lying in bed with a temperature.

One lesson I asked my class to stay behind for a few minutes during break time – they’d easily wasted more time than that in the lesson. I had to ask: ‘Can you sit down, please, Becky – you’re wasting everyone’s break time.’ ‘That’s f**king extra,’ she shouted. ‘F**king shit. F**k you.’ She left, kicking her chair out of the way.

I rang her mum. I filled in the forms: the incident report and the record of the phone conversation with her mother. I passed the report to senior management, so that they could record what action they’d taken. The forms were returned to me. I stapled five copies of the phone record to five copies of the incident report and then spent five minutes in the staffroom finding the pigeonholes to post the copies to everyone involved in Becky’s care. Students rarely attended detentions, and then what? More phone calls home; more paperwork. I remembered that in my first year I’d tried to hold Becky back on a Friday for a detention. I’d gone down to the school gate to make sure she didn’t slip away. She saw me and ran for it. I called home, and then sat down and wrote another report on what had happened. My frustrations were increased tenfold by the feeling that there were no real consequences at my disposal for misbehaviour. Nothing ever seemed to really come of all this paperwork. There was no feeling that, as a teacher, I was being supported. It made me angry, but there was nothing I could do about it.

The Year 7s in particular seemed to be growing more and more challenging by the day. The students who had come up from primary school so well trained and able to listen to each other politely, had all turned into mini-volcanoes, spewing out noise. I tried to cut down on all evening activities, to preserve energy. God, I thought, I can’t imagine working where I am and also having children.

When I asked students about their lives at school, I heard experiences of being bullied on buses, bullied in the playground, mayhem, fights and disruption. Several students had attacked another outside of school.

With only two weeks to go before the holidays, I plodded through the lessons. The Year 7s were completely exhausting. Becky just sat graffitiing her exercise book. Mahima shredded her worksheet into small squares, which then fluttered down on to the floor. If I stuck to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule, most of them would be out within the first few minutes of the lesson, if indeed they managed to make it into the classroom. ‘Good, I didn’t want to be in this stupid classroom anyway,’ many an evicted student uttered.

Teaching groups of thirty rowdy, disaffected teenagers with my lack of experience meant I couldn’t get enough control. But I also felt it was because the students were not schooled in the work ethic that they needed to make real progress. And every evening, hordes of cleaners tried to scrape gum out from between the grooves of the carpets in the classroom.

One lesson, I tried dazzling them with activities: freeze-frames, drama, improvisation, matching exercises, picking up the pace of the lessons in groups of four so that there was no time for the girls to start discussing their latest plans for hair extensions. Lessons had never been this fun!

Afterwards, out in the corridor, I heard shouting. I ran out and saw two of my students – a new girl and another – trying to rip hair from each other’s heads. I bellowed ‘What on earth do you two think you are doing? Rose, go and get on-call please . . . Everyone else to break.’ Adrenalin flew through my veins, and I deposited the two by this time hysterically crying girls in different classrooms. I felt a bit responsible. Had the chaotic lesson added to their agitation?

The next lesson, ‘Miss . . . why are the lessons back like this again?’ Folashade asked. ‘Like what?’ I asked. ‘Boring,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, Folashade, but we have to do some writing at some point.’

I returned home from school crying three evenings in a row. I was feeling trampled. The end of a lesson didn’t feel as though a stampede of elephants had run me down in the way it had in my first year, but the effort was still draining: the full timetable, an after-school club, the planning, the marking, the meetings and department responsibilities. Encounters with unfamiliar students still left me feeling battered and bruised. In a school of one thousand, there are a lot of students you don’t know and who don’t know you. It irritated me that, even if I did take the time to write up confrontations, nothing would come of it. I felt the school did not demand that students showed respect to the staff, and teachers had to pick and choose their battles. I worried that a large handful of my students would be fired if they ever managed to secure a job, because they wouldn’t see any problem in speaking to their employers in the way they addressed their teachers. I felt exasperation at the endless disruptive behaviour. I just couldn’t summon up the energy to be on top of my classes.

I still felt like I’d been run over at the end of each day. It was time to move on.

HandsUp

 

 

 

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Year 8 on Macbeth

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These are some paragraphs of Year 8 pupils writing about ‘Macbeth’, on the witches, Lady Macbeth, and an essay conclusion comparing Macbeth to the play they studied in Year 7, ‘Julius Caesar’.

Snapping and sharing pupil paragraphs is a good opportunity for us to reflect on what is working well about our English teaching and what we want to help pupils improve.

 

Strengths: Vocabulary and Connections

One strength of pupils in English at Michaela is the vocabulary we have developed in them. Pupils are using ambitious words like ‘eponymous’, ‘pejorative’, ‘despotic’, ‘ambivalent’, ‘susceptible’, ‘diabolical’ ‘paradoxical’, ‘contradictory’ ‘asymmetric’, ‘tyrannical’, ‘protagonist’, ‘conspiracy’ and ‘patriarchy’, and largely using them accurately. They are using technical vocabulary, such as ‘soliloquy’, ‘antithesis’, ‘pathetic fallacy’ and ‘chiasmus’, and largely using it accurately. Sometimes, though, they are misspelled, as in ‘purnicious’, and sometimes, they make mistakes, such as seeing an oxymoron where none exists!

Pupils are beginning to make some striking connections between, for instance, the context and the play: for instance, on the regicidal 1605 Gunpowder Plot, or James I’s 1603 accession and his belief that he was descended from Banquo. Contextual connections are a real strength of our knowledge-led approach to the curriculum. They annotate and improve their own paragraphs, as you can see in green and blue pen.

 

Improvements: Le Mot Juste, and Perceptive Insight

At this stage, I find pupils struggle to find ‘le mot juste’. One has written: ‘This emphasises the witches’ cloudy, disturbed and tempestuous mindset, bleeding into Macbeth’s mindset.’ I’m not sure ‘cloudy’ is the best adjective this pupil could have chosen! Another has written in a contrast between Macbeth and Caesar: ‘we cannot make these characters equal, however, because Caesar was a victim of conspiracy and assassination, Macbeth was part of conspiracies and murders.’ I find the phrasing of ‘make these characters equal’ a little clumsy, and the sentence is missing a ‘whereas’. Articulate, sophisticated syntax is an area for improvement.

Increasingly, what I’d like to improve about our teaching is this: sharing concrete examples of perceptive insight – moments in their analysis that make the reader of the essay see the play in a different light. I will try to do so in another blogpost.

By the time our pupils finish Year 9, they will have studied five Shakespeare plays. Year 10 begins with a synoptic Shakespeare unit where they compare villains and stagecraft, themes and plots from Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, before they start on The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, for their GCSE course. By then, their intertextual connections, comparisons and contrasts should be increasingly insightful. It is an exciting prospect!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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