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.